To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room - a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o'clock struck, when she wakened of herself 'as sure as clockwork', and left the household very little peace afterwards. It was a June morning, and early as it was, the room was full of sunny warmth and light.
On the drawers opposite to the little white dimity bed in which Molly Gibson lay, was a primitive kind of bonnet-stand on which was hung a bonnet, carefully covered over from any chance of dust, with a large cotton handkerchief, of so heavy and serviceable a texture that if the thing underneath it had been a flimsy fabric of gauze and lace and flowers, it would have been altogether 'scromfished' (again to quote from Betty's vocabulary). But the bonnet was made of solid straw, and its only trimming was a plain white ribbon put over the crown, and forming the strings. Still, there was a neat little quilling inside, every plait of which Molly knew, for had she not made it herself the evening before, with infinite pains? and was there not a little blue bow in this quilling, the very first bit of such finery Molly had ever had the prospect of wearing?
Six o'clock now! the pleasant, brisk ringing of the church bells told that; calling every one to their daily work, as they had done for hundreds of years. Up jumped Molly, and ran with her bare little feet across the room, and lifted off the handkerchief and saw once again the bonnet; the pledge of the gay bright day to come. Then to the window, and after some tugging she opened the casement, and let in the sweet morning air. The dew was already off the flowers in the garden below, but still rising from the long hay-grass in the meadows directly beyond. At one side lay the little town of Hollingford, into a street of which Mr. Gibson's front door opened; and delicate columns, and little puffs of smoke were already beginning to rise from many a cottage chimney where some housewife was already up, and preparing breakfast for the bread-winner of the family.
Molly Gibson saw all this, but all she thought about it was, 'Oh! it will be a fine day! I was afraid it never, never would come; or that, if it ever came, it would be a rainy day!' Five-and-forty years ago, children's pleasures in a country town were very simple, and Molly had lived for twelve long years without the occurrence of any event so great as that which was now impending. Poor child! it is true that she had lost her mother, which was a jar to the whole tenour of her life; but that was hardly an event in the sense referred to; and besides, she had been too young to be conscious of it at the time. The pleasure she was looking forward to to-day was her first share in a kind of annual festival in Hollingford.
The little straggling town faded away into country on one side close to the entrance-lodge of a great park, where lived my Lord and Lady Cumnor 'the earl' and 'the countess', as they were always called by the inhabitants of the town; where a very pretty amount of feudal feeling still lingered, and showed itself in a number of simple ways, droll enough to look back upon, but serious matters of importance at the time. It was before the passing of the Reform Bill, but a good deal of liberal talk took place occasionally between two or three of the more enlightened freeholders living in Hollingford; and there was a great Tory family in the county who, from time to time, came forward and contested the election with the rival Whig family of Cumnor. One would have thought that the above-mentioned liberal-talking inhabitants would have, at least, admitted the possibility of their voting for the Hely-Harrison, and thus trying to vindicate their independence But no such thing. 'The earl' was lord of the manor, and owner of much of the land on which Hollingford was built; he and his household were fed, and doctored, and, to a certain measure, clothed by the good people of the town; their fathers' grandfathers had always voted for the eldest son of Cumnor Towers, and following in the ancestral track every man-jack in the place gave his vote to the liege lord, totally irrespective of such chimeras as political opinion.
This was no unusual instance of the influence of the great landowners over humbler neighbours in those days before railways, and it was well for a place where the powerful family, who thus overshadowed it, were of so respectable a character as the Cumnors. They expected to be submitted to, and obeyed; the simple worship of the townspeople was accepted by the earl and countess as a right; and they would have stood still in amazement, and with a horrid memory of the French sansculottes who were the bugbears of their youth, had any inhabitant of Hollingford ventured to set his will or opinions in opposition to those of the earl. But, yielded all that obeisance, they did a good deal for the town, and were generally condescending, and often thoughtful and kind in their treatment of their vassals. Lord Cumnor was a forbearing landlord; putting his steward a little on one side sometimes, and taking the reins into his own hands now and then, much to the annoyance of the agent, who was, in fact, too rich and independent to care greatly for preserving a post where his decisions might any day be overturned by my lord's taking a fancy to go 'pottering' (as the agent irreverently expressed it in the sanctuary of his own home), which, being interpreted, meant that occasionally the earl asked his own questions of his own tenants, and used his own eyes and ears in the management of the smaller details of his property. But his tenants liked my lord all the better for this habit of his. Lord Cumnor had certainly a little time for gossip, which he contrived to combine with the failing of personal intervention between the old land-steward and the tenantry. But, then, the countess made up by her unapproachable dignity for this weakness of the earl's. Once a year she was condescending. She and the ladies, her daughters, had set up a school; not a school after the manner of schools now-a-days, where far better intellectual teaching is given to the boys and girls of labourers and workpeople than often falls to the lot of their betters in worldly estate; but a school of the kind we should call 'industrial', where girls are taught to sew beautifully, to be capital housemaids, and pretty fair cooks, and, above all, to dress neatly in a kind of charity uniform devised by the ladies of Cumnor Towers; - white caps, white tippets, check aprons, blue gowns, and ready curtseys, and 'please, ma'ams', being de rigueur.
Now, as the countess was absent from the Towers for a considerable part of the year, she was glad to enlist the sympathy of the Hollingford ladies in this school, with a view to obtaining their aid as visitors during the many months that she and her daughters were away. And the various unoccupied gentlewomen of the town responded to the call of their liege lady, and gave her their service as required; and along with it, a great deal of whispered and fussy admiration. 'How good of the countess! So like the dear countess - always thinking of others!' and so on; while it was always supposed that no strangers had seen Hollingford properly, unless they had been taken to the countess's school, and been duly impressed by the neat little pupils, and the still neater needlework there to be inspected. In return, there was a day of honour set apart every summer, when with much gracious and stately hospitality, Lady Cumnor and her daughters received all the school visitors at the Towers, the great family mansion standing in aristocratic seclusion in the centre of the large park, of which one of the lodges was close to the little town. The order of this annual festivity was this. About ten o'clock one of the Towers' carriages rolled through the lodge, and drove to different houses, wherein dwelt a woman to be honoured; picking them up by ones or twos, till the loaded carriage drove back again through the ready portals, bowled along the smooth tree-shaded road, and deposited its covey of smartly-dressed ladies on the great flight of steps leading to the ponderous doors of Cumnor Towers. Back again to the town; another picking up of womankind in their best clothes, and another return, and so on till the whole party were assembled either in the house or in the really beautiful gardens. After the proper amount of exhibition on the one part, and admiration on the other, had been done, there was a collation for the visitors, and some more display and admiration of the treasures inside the house. Towards four o'clock, coffee was brought round; and this was a signal of the approaching carriage that was to take them back to their own homes; whither they returned with the happy consciousness of a well-spent day, but with some fatigue at the long-continued exertion of behaving their best, and talking on stilts for so many hours. Nor were Lady Cumnor and her daughters free from something of the same self-approbation, and something, too, of the same fatigue; the fatigue that always follows on conscious efforts to behave as will best please the society you are in.
For the first time in her life, Molly Gibson was to be included among the guests at the Towers. She was much too young to be a visitor at the school, so it was not on that account that she was to go; but it had so happened that one day when Lord Cumnor was on a 'pottering' expedition, he had met Mr. Gibson, the doctor of the neighbourhood, coming out of the farm-house my lord was entering; and having some small question to ask the surgeon (Lord Cumnor seldom passed any one of his acquaintance without asking a question of some sort - not always attending to the answer; it was his mode of conversation), he accompanied Mr. Gibson to the out-building, to a ring in the wall of which the surgeon's horse was fastened. Molly was there too, sitting square and quiet on her rough little pony, waiting for her father. Her grave eyes opened large and wide at the close neighbourhood and evident advance of 'the earl'; for to her little imagination the grey-haired, red-faced, somewhat clumsy man, was a cross between an archangel and a king.
'Your daughter, eh, Gibson? - nice little girl, how old? Pony wants grooming though,' patting it as he talked. 'What's your name, my dear? He's sadly behindhand with his rent, as I was saying, but if he's really ill, I must see after Sheepshanks, who is a hardish man of business. What's his complaint? You'll come to our school-scrimmage on Thursday, little girl - what's-your-name? Mind you send her, or bring her, Gibson; and just give a word to your groom, for I'm sure that pony wasn't singed last year, now, was he? Don't forget Thursday, little girl - what's your name? - it's a promise between us, is it not?' And off the earl trotted, attracted by the sight of the farmer's eldest son on the other side of the yard.
Mr. Gibson mounted, and he and Molly rode off. They did not speak for some time. Then she said, 'May I go, papa?' in rather an anxious little tone of voice.
'Where, my dear?' said he, wakening up out of his own professional thoughts.
'To the Towers - on Thursday, you know. That gentleman' (she was shy of calling him by his title) 'asked me.'
'Would you like it, my dear? It has always seemed to me rather a tiresome piece of gaiety - rather a tiring day, I mean - beginning so early - and the heat, and all that.'
'Oh, papa!' said Molly reproachfully.
'You'd like to go then, would you?'
'Yes if I may! - He asked me, you know. Don't you think I may? - he asked me twice over.'
'Well! we'll see - yes! I think we can manage it, if you wish it so much, Molly.'
Then they were silent again. By-and-by, Molly said:
'Please, papa - I do wish to go - but I don't care about it.'
'That's rather a puzzling speech. But I suppose you mean you don't care to go, if it will be any trouble to get you there. I can easily manage it, however, so you may consider it settled. You'll want a white frock, remember; you'd better tell Betty you're going, and she'll see after making you tidy.'
Now, there were two or three things to be done by Mr. Gibson, before he could feel quite comfortable about Molly's going to the festival at the Towers, and each of them involved a little trouble on his part. But he was very willing to gratify his little girl; so the next day he rode over to the Towers, ostensibly to visit some sick housemaid, but, in reality, to throw himself in my lady's way, and get her to ratify Lord Cumnor's invitation to Molly. He chose his time, with a little natural diplomacy; which, indeed, he had often to exercise in his intercourse with the great family. He rode into the stable-yard about twelve o'clock, a little before luncheon-time, and yet after the worry of opening the post-bag and discussing its contents was over. After he had put up his horse, he went in by the back-way to the house; the 'House' on this side, the 'Towers' at the front. He saw his patient, gave his directions to the housekeeper, and then went out, with a rare wild-flower in his hand, to find one of the ladies Tranmere in the garden, where, according to his hope and calculation, he came upon Lady Cumnor too - now talking to her daughter about the contents of an open letter which she held in her hand, now directing a gardener about certain bedding-out plants.
'I was calling to see Nanny, and I took the opportunity of bringing Lady Agnes the plant I was telling her about as growing on Cumnor Moss.'
'Thank you so much, Mr. Gibson. Mamma, look! this is the Drosera rotundifolia I have been wanting so long.'
'Ah! yes; very pretty I daresay, only I am no botanist. Nanny is better, I hope? We can't have any one laid up next week, for the house will be quite full of people - and here are the Danbys waiting to offer themselves as well. One comes down for a fortnight of quiet, at Whitsuntide, and leaves half one's establishment in town, and as soon as people know of our being here, we get letters without end, longing for a breath of country air, or saying how lovely the Towers must look in spring; and I must own, Lord Cumnor is a great deal to blame for it all, for as soon as ever we are down here, he rides about to all the neighbours, and invites them to come over and spend a few days.'
'We shall go back to town on Friday the 18th,' said Lady Agnes, in a consolatory tone.
'Ah, yes! as soon as we have got over the school visitors' affair. But it is a week to that happy day.'
'By the way!' said Mr. Gibson, availing himself of the good opening thus presented, 'I met my lord at the Cross-trees Farm yesterday, and he was kind enough to ask my little daughter, who was with me, to be one of the party here on Thursday; it would give the lassie great pleasure, I believe.' He paused for Lady Cumnor to speak.
'Oh, well! if my lord asked her, I suppose she must come, but I wish he was not so amazingly hospitable! Not but what the little girl will be quite welcome; only, you see, he met a younger Miss Browning the other day, of whose existence I had never heard.'
'She visits at the school, mamma,' said Lady Agnes.
'Well, perhaps she does; I never said she did not. I knew there was one visitor of the name of Browning; I never knew there were two, but, of course, as soon as Lord Cumnor heard there was another, he must needs ask her; so the carriage will have to go backwards and forwards four times now to fetch them all. So your daughter can come quite easily, Mr. Gibson, and I shall be very glad to see her for your sake. She can sit bodkin with the Brownings, I suppose? You'll arrange it all with them; and mind you get Nanny well up to her work next week.'
Just as Mr. Gibson was going away, Lady Cumnor called after him, 'Oh! by-the-bye, Clare is here; you remember Clare, don't you? She was a patient of yours, long ago.'
'Clare!' he repeated, in a bewildered tone.
'Don't you recollect her? Miss Clare, our old governess,' said Lady Agnes. 'About twelve or fourteen years ago, before Lady Cuxhaven was married.'
'Oh, yes!' said he. 'Miss Clare, who had the scarlet fever here; a very pretty delicate girl. But I thought she was married!'
'Yes!' said Lady Cumnor. 'She was a silly little thing, and did not know when she was well off; we were all very fond of her, I'm sure. She went and married a poor curate, and became a stupid Mrs. Kirkpatrick; but we always kept on calling her 'Clare.' And now he's dead, and left her a widow, and she is staying here; and we are racking our brains to find out some way of helping her to a livelihood without parting her from her child. She's somewhere about the grounds, if you like to renew your acquaintance with her.'
'Thank you, my lady. I'm afraid I cannot stop to-day. I have a long round to go; I've stayed here too long as it is, I'm afraid.'
Long as his ride had been that day, he called on the Miss Brownings in the evening, to arrange about Molly's accompanying them to the Towers. They were tall handsome women, past their first youth, and inclined to be extremely complaisant to the widowed doctor.
'Eh dear! Mr. Gibson, but we shall he delighted to have her with us. You should never have thought of asking us such a thing,' said Miss Browning the elder.
'I'm sure I'm hardly sleeping at nights for thinking of it,' said Miss Phoebe. 'You know I've never been there before. Sister has many a time; but somehow, though my name has been down on the visitors' list these three years, the countess has never named me in her note; and you know I could not push myself into notice, and go to such a grand place without being asked; how could I?'
'I told Phoebe last year,' said her sister, 'that I was sure it was only inadvertence, as one may call it, on the part of the countess, and that her ladyship would be as hurt as any one when she didn't see Phoebe among the school visitors; but Phoebe has got a delicate mind, you see Mr. Gibson, and for all I could say she wouldn't go, but stopped here at home; and it spoilt all my pleasure all that day, I do assure you, to think of Phoebe's face, as I saw it over the window-blinds, as I rode away; her eyes were full of tears, if you'll believe me.'
'I had a good cry alter you was gone, Sally,' said Miss Phoebe; 'but for all that, I think I was right in stopping away from where I was not asked. Don't you, Mr. Gibson?'
'Certainly,' said he. 'And you see you are going this year; and last year it rained.'
'Yes! I remember! I set myself to tidy my drawers, to string myself up, as it were; and I was so taken up with what I was about that I was quite startled when I heard the rain beating against the window-panes. 'Goodness me!' said I to myself, 'whatever will become of sister's white satin shoes, if she has to walk about on soppy grass after such rain as this?' for, you see, I thought a deal about her having a pair of smart shoes; and this year she has gone and got me a white satin pair just as smart as hers, for a surprise.'
'Molly will know she's to put on her best clothes,' said Miss Browning. 'We could perhaps lend her a few beads, or artificials, if she wants them.'
'Molly must go in a clean white frock,' said Mr. Gibson, rather hastily; for he did not admire the Miss Brownings' taste in dress, and was unwilling to have his child decked up according to their fancy; he esteemed his old servant Betty's as the more correct, because the more simple. Miss Browning had just a shade of annoyance in her tone as she drew herself up, and said, 'Oh! very well. It's quite right, I'm sure.' But Miss Phoebe said, 'Molly will look very nice in whatever she puts on, that's certain.'
At ten o'clock on the eventful Thursday the Towers' carriage began its work. Molly was ready long before it made its first appearance, although it had been settled that she and the Miss Brownings were not to go until the last, or fourth, time of its coming. Her face had been soaped, scrubbed, and shone brilliantly clean; her frills, her frock, her ribbons were all snow-white. She had on a black mode cloak that had been her mother's; it was trimmed round with rich lace, and looked quaint and old-fashioned on the child. For the first time in her life she wore kid gloves; hitherto she had only had cotton ones. Her gloves were far too large for the little dimpled fingers, but as Betty had told her they were to last her for years, it was all very well. She trembled many a time, and almost turned faint once with the long expectation of the morning. Berry might say what she liked about a watched pot never boiling; Molly never ceased to watch the approach through the winding street, and after two hours the carriage came for her at last. She had to sit very forward to avoid crushing the Miss Brownings' new dresses; and yet not too forward, for fear of incommoding fat Mrs Goodenough and her niece, who occupied the front seat of the carriage; so that altogether the fact of sitting down at all was rather doubtful, and to add to her discomfort, Molly felt herself to be very conspicuously placed in the centre of the carriage, a mark for all the observation of Hollingford. It was far too much of a gala day for the work of the little town to go forward with its usual regularity. Maid-servants gazed out of upper windows; shopkeepers' wives stood on the doorsteps; cottagers ran out, with babies in their arms; and little children, too young to know how to behave respectfully at the sight of an earl's carriage, huzzaed merrily as it bowled along. The woman at the lodge held the gate open, and dropped a low curtsey to the liveries. And now they were in the Park; and now they were in sight of the Towers, and silence fell upon the carriage-full of ladies, only broken by one faint remark from Mrs Goodenough's niece, a stranger to the town, as they drew up before the double semicircle flight of steps which led to the door of the mansion.
'They call that a perron, I believe, don't they?' she asked. But the only answer she obtained was a simultaneous 'hush.' It was very awful, as Molly thought, and she half wished herself at home again. But she lost all consciousness of herself by-and-by when the party strolled out into the beautiful grounds, the like of which she had never even imagined. Green velvet lawns, bathed in sunshine, stretched away on every side into the finely wooded park; if there were divisions and ha-has between the soft sunny sweeps of grass, and the dark gloom of the forest-trees beyond, Molly did not see them; and the melting away of exquisite cultivation into the wilderness had an inexplicable charm to her. Near the house there were walls and fences; but they were covered with climbing roses, and rare honeysuckles and other creepers just bursting into bloom, There were flower-beds, too, scarlet, crimson, blue, orange; masses of blossom lying on the greensward. Molly held Miss Browning's hand very tight as they loitered about in company with several other ladies, and marshalled by a daughter of the Towers, who seemed half amused at the voluble admiration showered down upon every possible thing and place. Molly said nothing, as became her age and position, but every now and then she relieved her full heart by drawing a deep breath, almost like a sigh. Presently they came to the long glittering range of greenhouses and hothouses, and an attendant gardener was there to admit the party. Molly did not care for this half so much as for the flowers in the open air; but Lady Agnes had a more scientific taste, she expatiated on the rarity of this, and the mode of cultivation required by that plant, till Molly began to feel very tired, and then very faint. She was too shy to speak for some time; but at length, afraid of making a greater sensation if she began to cry, or if she fell against the stands of precious flowers, she caught at Miss Browning's hand, and gasped out, -
'May I go back, out into the garden? I can't breathe here!'
'Oh, yes, to be sure, love. I dare say it's hard understanding for you, love; but it's very fine and instructive, and a deal of Latin in it too.'
She turned hastily round not to lose another word of Lady Agnes' lecture on orchids, and Molly turned back and passed out of the heated atmosphere. She felt better in the fresh air; and unobserved, and at liberty, went from one lovely spot to another, now in the open park, now in some shut-in flower-garden, where the song of the birds, and the drip of the central fountain, were the only sounds, and the tree-tops made an enclosing circle in the blue June sky; she went along without more thought as to her whereabouts than a butterfly has, as it skims from flower to flower, till at length she grew very weary, and wished to return to the house, but did not know how, and felt afraid of encountering all the strangers who would be there, unprotected by either of the Miss Brownings. The hot sun told upon her head, and it began to ache. She saw a great wide-spreading cedar-tree upon a burst of lawn towards which she was advancing, and the black repose beneath its branches lured her thither. There was a rustic seat in the shadow, and weary Molly sate down there, and presently fell asleep.
She was startled from her slumbers after a time, and jumped to her feet. Two ladies were standing by her, talking about her. They were perfect strangers to her, and with a vague conviction that she had done something wrong, and also because she was worn-out with hunger, fatigue, and the morning's excitement, she began to cry.
'Poor little woman! She has lost herself; she belongs to some of the people from Hollingford, I have no doubt,' said the oldest-looking of the two ladies; she who appeared to be about forty, although she did not really number more than thirty years. She was plain-featured, and had rather a severe expression on her face; her dress was as rich as any morning dress could be; her voice deep and unmodulated, - what in a lower rank of life would have been called gruff; but that was not a word to apply to Lady Cuxhaven, the eldest daughter of the earl and countess. The other lady looked much younger, but she was in fact some years the elder; at first sight Molly thought she was the most beautiful person she had ever seen, and she was certainly a very lovely woman. Her voice, too, was soft and plaintive, as she replied to Lady Cuxhaven, -
'Poor little darling! she is overcome by the heat, I have no doubt - such a heavy straw bonnet, too. Let me untie it for you, my dear.'
Molly now found voice to say, - 'I am Molly Gibson, please. I came here with the Miss Brownings;' for her great fear was that she should be taken for an unauthorized intruder.
'The Miss Brownings?' said Lady Cuxhaven to her companion, as if inquiringly.
'I think they were the two tall large young women that Lady Agnes was taking about.'
'Oh, I dare say. I saw she had a number of people in tow;' then looking again at Molly, she said, 'Have you had anything to cat, child, since you came? You look a very white little thing; or is it the heat?'
'I have had nothing to eat,' said Molly, rather piteously; for, indeed, before she fell asleep she had been very hungry.
The two ladies spoke to each other in a low voice; then the elder said in a voice of authority, which, indeed, she had always used in speaking to the other, 'Sit still here, my dear; we are going to the house, and Clare shall bring you something to eat before you try to walk back; it must be a quarter of a mile at least.' So they went away, and Molly sate upright, waiting for the promised messenger. She did not know who Clare might be, and she did not care much for food now; but she felt as if she could not walk without some help. At length she saw the pretty lady coming back, followed by a footman with a small tray.
'Look how kind Lady Cuxhaven is,' said she who was called Clare. 'She chose out this little lunch herself; and now you must try and eat it, and you'll be quite right when you've had some food, darling - You need not stop, Edwards; I will bring the tray back with me.'
There was some bread, and some cold chicken, and some jelly, and a glass of wine, and a bottle of sparkling water, and a bunch of grapes; Molly put out her trembling little hand for the water; but she was too faint to hold it. Clare put it to her mouth, and she took a long draught and was refreshed. But she could not eat; she tried, but she could not; her headache was too bad. Clare looked bewildered. 'Take some grapes, they will be the best for you; you must try and eat something, or I don't know how I shall get you to the house.'
'My head aches so,' said Molly, lifting her heavy eyes wistfully.
'Oh, dear, how tiresome!' said Clare, still in her sweet gentle voice, not at all as if she was angry, only expressing an obvious truth. Molly felt very guilty and very unhappy. Clare went on, with a shade of asperity in her tone: 'You see, I don't know what to do with you here if you don't eat enough to enable you to walk home. And I've been out for these three hours trapesing about the grounds till I'm as tired as can be, and missed my lunch and all.' Then, as if a new idea had struck her, she said, - 'You lie back in that seat for a few minutes, and try to eat the bunch of grapes, and I'll wait for you, and just be eating a mouthful meanwhile. You are sure you don't want this chicken?'
Molly did as she was bid, and leant back, picking languidly at the grapes, and watching the good appetite with which the lady ate up the chicken and jelly, and drank the glass of wine. She was so pretty and so graceful in her deep mourning, that even her hurry in eating, as if she was afraid of some one coming to surprise her in the act, did not keep her little observer from admiring her in all she did.
'And now, darling, are you ready to go?' said she, when she had eaten up everything on the tray. 'Oh, come; you have nearly finished your grapes; that's a good girl. Now, if you will come with me to the side entrance, I will take you up to my own room, and you shall lie down on the bed for an hour or two; and if you have a good nap your headache will be quite gone.'
So they set off, Clare carrying the empty tray, rather to Molly's shame; but the child had enough work to drag herself along, and was afraid of offering to do anything more. The 'side entrance' was a flight of steps leading up from a private flower-garden into a private matted hall, or ante-room, out of which many doors opened, and in which were deposited the light garden-tools and the bows and arrows of the young ladies of the house. Lady Cuxhaven must have seen their approach, for she met them in this hall as soon as they came in.
'How is she now?' she asked; then glancing at the plates and glasses, she added, 'Come, I think there can't be much amiss! You're a good old Clare, but you should have let one of the men fetch that tray in; life in such weather as this is trouble enough of itself.'
Molly could not help wishing that her pretty companion would have told Lady Cuxhaven that she herself had helped to finish up the ample luncheon; but no such idea seemed to come into her mind. She only said, - 'Poor dear! she is not quite the thing yet; has got a headache, she says. I am going to put her down on my bed, to see if she can get a little sleep.'
Molly saw Lady Cuxhaven say something in a half-laughing manner to 'Clare,' as she passed her; and the child could not keep from tormenting herself by fancying that the words spoken sounded wonderfully like 'Over-eaten herself, I suspect.' However, she felt too poorly to worry herself long; the little white bed in the cool and pretty room had too many attractions for her aching head. The muslin curtains flapped softly from time to time in the scented air that came through the open windows. Clare covered her up with a light shawl, and darkened the room. As she was going away Molly roused herself to say, 'Please, ma'am, don't let them go away without me. Please ask somebody to waken me if I go to sleep. I am to go back with the Miss Brownings.'
'Don't trouble yourself about it, dear; I'll take care,' said Clare, turning round at the door, and kissing her hand to little anxious Molly. And then she went away, and thought no more about it. The carriages came round at half-past four, hurried a little by Lady Cumnor, who had suddenly become tired of the business of entertaining, and annoyed at the repetition of indiscriminating admiration.
'Why not have both carriages out, mamma, and get rid of them all at once?' said Lady Cuxhaven. 'This going by instalments is the most tiresome thing that could be imagined.' So at last there had been a great hurry and an unmethodical way of packing off every one at once. Miss Browning had gone in the chariot (or 'chawyot,' as Lady Cumnor called it; - it rhymed to her daughter, Lady Hawyot - or Harriet, as the name was spelt in the Peerage), and Miss Phoebe had been speeded along with several other guests, away in a great roomy family conveyance, of the kind which we should now call an 'omnibus.' Each thought that Molly Gibson was with the other, and the truth was, that she lay fast asleep on Mrs Kirkpatrick's bed - Mrs Kirkpatrick nee Clare.
The housemaids came in to arrange the room. Their talking aroused Molly, who sate up on the bed, and tried to push back the hair from her hot forehead, and to remember where she was. She dropped down on her feet by the side of the bed, to the astonishment of the women, and said, - 'Please, how soon are we going away?'
'Bless us and save us! who'd ha' thought of any one being in the bed? Are you one of the Hollingford ladies, my dear? They are all gone this hour or more!'
'Oh, dear, what shall I do? That lady they call Clare promised to waken me in time. Papa will so wonder where I am, and I don't know what Betty will say.'
The child began to cry, and the housemaids looked at each other in some dismay and much sympathy. Just then, they heard Mrs Kirkpatrick's step along the passages, approaching. She was singing some little Italian air in a low musical voice, coming to her bedroom to dress for dinner. One housemaid said to the other, with a knowing look, 'Best leave it to her;' and they passed on to their work in the other rooms.
Mrs Kirkpatrick opened the door, and stood aghast at the sight of Molly.
'Why, I quite forgot you!' she said at length. 'Nay, don't cry; you'll make yourself not fit to be seen. Of course I must take the consequences of your over-sleeping yourself, and if I can't manage to get you back to Hollingford to-night, you shall sleep with me, and we'll do our best to send you home to-morrow morning.'
'But papa!' sobbed out Molly. 'He always wants me to make tea for him; and I have no night-things.'
'Well, don't go and make a piece of work about what can't be helped now. I'll lend you night-things, and your papa must do without your making tea for him to-night. And another time don't over-sleep yourself in a strange house; you may not always find yourself among such hospitable people as they are here. Why now, if you don't cry and make a figure of yourself, I'll ask if you may come in to dessert with Master Smythe and the little ladies. You shall go into the nursery, and have some tea with them; and then you must come back here and brush your hair and make yourself tidy. I think it is a very fine thing for you to be stopping in such a grand house as this; many a little girl would like nothing better.'
During this speech she was arranging her toilette for dinner - taking off her black morning gown; putting on her dressing-gown; shaking her long soft auburn hair over her shoulders, and glancing about the room in search of various articles of her dress, - a running flow of easy talk came babbling out all the time.
'I have a little girl of my own, dear! I don't know what she would not give to be staying here at Lord Cumnor's with me; but, instead of that, she has to spend her holidays at school; and yet you are looking as miserable as can be at the thought of stopping for just one night. I really have been as busy as can be with those tiresome - those good ladies, I mean, from Hollingford - and one can't think of everything at a time.'
Molly - only child as she was - had stopped her tears at the mention of that little girl of Mrs Kirkpatrick's, and now she ventured to say, -
'Are you married, ma'am; I thought she called you Clare?'
In high good humour Mrs Kirkpatrick made reply: - 'I don't look as if I was married, do I? Every one is surprised. And yet I have been a widow for seven months now: and not a grey hair on my head, though Lady Cuxhaven, who is younger than I, has ever so many.'
'Why do they call you "Clare"?' continued Molly, finding her so affable and communicative.
'Because I lived with them when I was Miss Clare. It is a pretty name, isn't it? I married a Mr Kirkpatrick; he was only a curate, poor fellow; but he was of a very good family, and if three of his relations had died without children I should have been a baronet's wife. But Providence did not see fit to permit it; and we must always resign ourselves to what is decreed. Two of his cousins married, and had large families; and poor dear Kirkpatrick died, leaving me a widow.'
'But you have a little girl?' asked Molly.
'Yes; darling Cynthia! I wish you could see her; she is my only comfort now. If I have time I will show you her picture when we come up to bed; but I must go now. It does not do to keep Lady Cumnor waiting a moment, and she asked me to be down early, to help with some of the people in the house. Now I shall ring this bell, and when the housemaid comes, ask her to take you into the nursery, and to tell Lady Cuxhaven's nurse who you are. And then you'll have tea with the little ladies, and come in with them to dessert. There! I'm sorry you've overslept yourself, and are left here; but give me a kiss, and don't cry - you really are rather a pretty child, though you've not got Cynthia's colouring! Oh, Nanny, would you be so very kind as to take this young lady - (what's your name, my dear? Gibson?), - Miss Gibson, to Mrs Dyson, in the nursery, and ask her to allow her to drink tea with the young ladies there; and to send her in with them to dessert. I'll explain it all to my lady.'
Nanny's face brightened out of its gloom when she heard the name Gibson; and, having ascertained from Molly that she was 'the doctor's' child, she showed more willingness to comply with Mrs Kirkpatrick's request than was usual with her.
Molly was an obliging girl, and fond of children; so, as long as she was in the nursery, she got on pretty well, being obedient to the wishes of the supreme power, and even very useful to Mrs Dyson, by playing at bricks, and thus keeping a little one quiet while its brothers and sisters were being arrayed in gay attire, - lace and muslin, and velvet, and brilliant broad ribbons.
'Now, miss,' said Mrs Dyson, when her own especial charge were all ready, 'what can I do for you? You have not got another frock here, have you?' No, indeed, she had not; nor if she had had one, would it have been of a smarter nature than her present thick white dimity. So she could only wash her face and hands, and submit to the nurse's brushing and perfuming her hair. She thought she would rather have stayed in the park all night long, and slept under the beautiful quiet cedar, than have to undergo the unknown ordeal of 'going down to dessert,' which was evidently regarded both by children and nurses as the event of the day. At length there was a summons from a footman, and Mrs Dyson, in a rustling silk gown, marshalled her convoy, and set sail for the dining-room door.
There was a large party of gentlemen and ladies sitting round the decked table, in the brilliantly lighted room. Each dainty little child ran up to its mother, or aunt, or particular friend; but Molly had no one to go to.
'Who is that tall girl in the thick white frock? Not one of the children of the house, I think?'
The lady addressed put up her glass, gazed at Molly, and dropped it in an instant. 'A French girl, I should imagine. I know Lady Cuxhaven was inquiring for one to bring up with her little girls, that they might get a good accent early. Poor little woman, she looks wild and strange!' And the speaker, who sate next to Lord Cumnor, made a little sign to Molly to come to her; Molly crept up to her as to the first shelter; but when the lady began talking to her in French, she blushed violently, and said, in a very low voice, -
'I don't understand French. I'm only Molly Gibson, ma'am.'
'Molly Gibson!' said the lady, out loud; as if that was not much of an explanation.
Lord Cumnor caught the words and the tone.
'Oh, ho!' said he. 'Are you the little girl who has been sleeping in my bed?'
He imitated the deep voice of the fabulous bear, who asks this question of the little child in the story; but Molly had never read the 'Three Bears,' and fancied that his anger was real; she trembled a little, and drew nearer to the kind lady who had beckoned her as to a refuge. Lord Cumnor was very fond of getting hold of what he fancied was a joke, and working his idea threadbare; so all the time the ladies were in the room he kept on his running fire at Molly, alluding to the Sleeping Beauty, the Seven Sleepers, and any other famous sleeper that came into his head. He had no idea of the misery his jokes were to the sensitive girl, who already thought herself a miserable sinner, for having slept on, when she ought to have been awake. If Molly had been in the habit of putting two and two together, she might have found an excuse for herself, by remembering that Mrs Kirkpatrick had promised faithfully to awaken her in time; but all the girl thought of was, how little they wanted her in this grand house; how she must seem like a careless intruder who had no business there. Once or twice she wondered where her father was, and whether he was missing her; but the thought of the familiar happiness of home brought such a choking in her throat, that she felt she must not give way to it, for fear of bursting out crying; and she had instinct enough to feel that, as she was left at the Towers, the less trouble she gave, the more she kept herself out of observation, the better.
She followed the ladies out of the dining-room, almost hoping that no one would see her. But that was impossible, and she immediately became the subject of conversation between the awful Lady Cumnor and her kind neighbour at dinner.
'Do you know, I thought this young lady was French when I first saw her? she has got the black hair and eyelashes, and grey eyes, and colourless complexion which one meets with in some parts of France, and I knew Lady Cuxhaven was trying to find a well-educated girl who would be a pleasant companion to her children.'
'No!' said Lady Cumnor, looking very stern, as Molly thought. 'She is the daughter of our medical man at Hollingford; she came with the school visitors this morning, and she was overcome by the heat and fell asleep in Clare's room, and somehow managed to oversleep herself, and did not waken up till all the carriages were gone. We will send her home to-morrow morning, but for to-night she must stay here, and Clare is kind enough to say she may sleep with her.'
There was an implied blame running through this speech, that Molly felt like needle-points all over her. Lady Cuxhaven came up at this moment. Her tone was as deep, her manner of speaking as abrupt and authoritative, as her mother's, but Molly felt the kinder nature underneath.
'How are you now, my dear? You look better than you did under the cedar-tree. So you're to stop here to-night? Clare, don't you think we could find some of those books of engravings that would interest Miss Gibson.'
Mrs Kirkpatrick came gliding up to the place where Molly stood; and began petting her with pretty words and actions, while Lady Cuxhaven turned over heavy volumes in search of one that might interest the girl.
'Poor darling! I saw you come into the dining-room, looking so shy; and I wanted you to come near me, but I could not make a sign to you, because Lord Cuxhaven was speaking to me at the time, telling me about his travels. Ah, here is a nice book - Lodge's Portraits; now I'll sit by you and tell you who they all are, and all about them. Don't trouble yourself any more, dear Lady Cuxhaven; I'll take charge of her; pray leave her to me!'
Molly grew hotter and hotter as these last words met her car. If they would only leave her alone, and not labour at being kind to her; would 'not trouble themselves' about her! These words of Mrs Kirkpatrick's seemed to quench the gratitude she was feeling to Lady Cuxhaven for looking for something to amuse her. But, of course, it was a trouble, and she ought never to have been there.
By-and-by, Mrs Kirkpatrick was called away to accompany Lady Agnes' song; and then Molly really had a few minutes' enjoyment. She could look round the room, unobserved, and, sure, never was any place out of a king's house so grand and magnificent. Large mirrors, velvet curtains, pictures in their gilded frames, a multitude of dazzling lights decorated the vast saloon, and the floor was studded with groups of ladies and gentlemen, all dressed in gorgeous attire. Suddenly Molly bethought her of the children whom she had accompanied into the dining-room, and to whose ranks she had appeared to belong, - where were they? Gone to bed an hour before, at some quiet signal from their mother. Molly wondered if she might go, too - if she could ever find her way back to the haven of Mrs Kirkpatrick's bedroom. But she was at some distance from the door; a long way from Mrs Kirkpatrick, to whom she felt herself to belong more than to any one else. Far, too, from Lady Cuxhaven, and the terrible Lady Cumnor, and her jocose and good-natured lord. So Molly sate on, turning over pictures which she did not see; her heart growing heavier and heavier in the desolation of all this grandeur. Presently a footman entered the room, and after a moment's looking about him, he went up to Mrs Kirkpatrick, where she sate at the piano, the centre of the musical portion of the company, ready to accompany any singer, and smiling pleasantly as she willingly acceded to all requests. She came now towards Molly, in her corner, and said to her, -
'Do you know, darling, your papa has come for you, and brought your pony for you to ride home; so I shall lose my little bedfellow, for I suppose you must go.'
Go! was there a question of it in Molly's mind, as she stood up quivering, sparkling, almost crying out loud. She was brought to her senses, though, by Mrs Kirkpatrick's next words,
'You must go and wish Lady Cumnor good-night, you know, my dear, and thank her ladyship for her kindness to you, She is there, near that statue, talking to Mr Courtenay.'
Yes! she was there - forty feet away - a hundred miles away! All that blank space had to be crossed; and then a speech to be made!
'Must I go?' asked Molly, in the most pitiful and pleading voice possible.
'Yes; make haste about it; there is nothing so formidable in it, is there?' replied Mrs Kirkpatrick, in a sharper voice than before, aware that they were wanting her at the piano, and anxious to get the business in hand done as soon as possible.
Molly stood still for a minute, then, looking up, she said, softly, -
'Would you mind coming with me, please?'
'No! not I!' said Mrs Kirkpatrick, seeing that her compliance was likely to be the most speedy way of getting through the affair; so she took Molly's hand, and, on the way, in passing the group at the piano, she said, smiling, in her pretty genteel manner, -
'Our little friend here is shy and modest, and wants me to accompany her to Lady Cumnor to wish good-night; her father has come for her, and she is going away.'
Molly did not know how it was afterwards, but she pulled her hand out of Mrs Kirkpatrick's on hearing these words, and going a step or two in advance came up to Lady Cumnor, grand in purple velvet, and dropping a curtsey, almost after the fashion of the school-children, she said, -
'My lady, papa is come, and I am going away; and, my lady, I wish you good-night, and thank you for your kindness. Your ladyship's kindness, I mean,' she said, correcting herself as she remembered Miss Browning's particular instructions as to the etiquette to be observed to earls and countesses, and their honourable progeny, as they were given this morning on the road to the Towers.
She got out of the saloon somehow; she believed afterwards, on thinking about it, that she had never bidden good-by to Lady Cuxhaven, or Mrs Kirkpatrick, or 'all the rest of them,' as she irreverently styled them in her thoughts.
Mr Gibson was in the housekeeper's room, when Molly ran in, rather to the stately Mrs Brown's discomfiture. She threw her arms round her father's neck. 'Oh, papa, papa, papa! I am so glad you have come;' and then she burst out crying, stroking his face almost hysterically as if to make sure he was there.
'Why, what a noodle you are, Molly! Did you think I was going to give up my little girl to live at the Towers all the rest of her life? You make as much work about my coming for you, as if you thought I had. Make haste now, and get on your bonnet. Mrs Brown, may I ask you for a shawl, or a plaid, or a wrap of some kind to pin about her for a petticoat?'
He did not mention that he had come home from a long round not half an hour before, a round from which he had returned dinnerless and hungry; but, on finding that Molly had not returned from the Towers, he had ridden his tired horse round by Miss Brownings', and found them in self-reproachful, helpless dismay. He would not wait to listen to their tearful apologies; he galloped home, had a fresh horse and Molly's pony saddled, and though Berry called after him with a riding-skirt for the child, when he was not ten yards from his own stable-door, he had refused to turn back for it, but gone off, as Dick the stableman said, 'muttering to himself awful.'
Mrs Brown had her bottle of wine out, and her plate of cake, before Molly came back from her long expedition to Mrs Kirkpatrick's room, 'pretty nigh on to a quarter of a mile off,' as the housekeeper informed the impatient father, as he waited for his child to come down arrayed in her morning's finery with the gloss of newness worn off. Mr Gibson was a favourite in all the Towers' household, as family doctors generally are; bringing hopes of relief at times of anxiety and distress; and Mrs Brown, who was subject to gout, especially delighted in petting him whenever he would allow her. She even went out into the stable-yard to pin Molly up in the shawl, as she sate upon the rough-coated pony, and hazarded the somewhat safe conjecture, -
'I dare say she'll be happier at home, Mr Gibson,' as they rode away.
Once out into the park Molly struck her pony, and urged him on as hard as he would go, Mr Gibson called out at last, -
'Molly! we're coming to the rabbit-holes; it's not safe to go at such a pace. Stop.' And as she drew rein he rode up alongside of her.
'We're getting into the shadow of the trees, and it's not safe riding fast here.'
'Oh! papa, I never was so glad in all my life. I felt like a lighted candle when they're putting the extinguisher on it.'
'Did you? How d'ye know what the candle feels?'
'Oh, I don't know, but I did.' And again, after a pause, she said, - 'Oh, I am so glad to be here! It is so pleasant riding here in the open free, fresh air, crushing out such a good smell from the dewy grass. Papa! are you there? I can't see you.'
He rode close up alongside of her: he was not sure but what she might be afraid of riding in the dark shadows, so he laid his hand upon hers.
'Oh! I am so glad to feel you,' squeezing his hand hard. 'Papa, I should like to get a chain like Ponto's,' just as long as your longest round, and then I could fasten us two to each end of it, and when I wanted you I could pull, and if you did not want to come, you could pull back again; but I should know you knew I wanted you, and we could never lose each other.'
'I'm rather lost in that plan of yours; the details, as you state them, are a little puzzling; but if I make them out rightly, I am to go about the country, like the donkeys on the common, with a clog fastened to my hind leg.'
'I don't mind your calling me a clog, if only we were fastened together.'
'But I do mind your calling me a donkey,' he replied.
'I never did. At least I did not mean to. But it is such a comfort to know that I may be as rude as I like.'
'Is that what you've learnt from the grand company you've been keeping to-day? I expected to find you so polite and ceremonious, that I read a few chapters of Sir Charles Grandison, in order to bring myself up to concert pitch.'
'Oh, I do hope I shall never be a lord or a lady.'
'Well, to comfort you, I'll tell you this. I am sure you'll never be a lord; and I think the chances are a thousand to one against your ever being the other, in the sense in which you mean.'
'I should lose myself every time I had to fetch my bonnet, or else get tired of long passages and great staircases long before I could go out walking.'
'But you'd have your lady's-maid, you know.'
'Do you know, papa, I think lady's-maids are worse than ladies. I should not mind being a housekeeper so much.'
'No! the jam-cupboards and dessert would lie very conveniently to one's hand,' replied her father, meditatively. 'But Mrs Brown tells me that the thought of the dinners often keeps her from sleeping; there's that anxiety to be taken into consideration. Still, in every condition of life there are heavy cares and responsibilities.'
'Well! I suppose so,' said Molly, gravely. 'I know Betty says I wear her life out with the green stains I get in my frocks from sitting in the cherry-tree.'
'And Miss Browning said she had fretted herself into a headache with thinking how they had left you behind. I am afraid you'll be as bad as a bill of fare to them to-night. How did it all happen, goosey?'
'Oh, I went by myself to see the gardens; they are so beautiful! and I lost myself, and sate down to rest under a great tree; and Lady Cuxhaven and that Mrs Kirkpatrick came; and Mrs Kirkpatrick brought me some lunch, and then put me to sleep on her bed, - and I thought she would waken me in time, and she did not; and so they'd all gone away; and when they planned for me to stop till to-morrow, I didn't like saying how very, very much I wanted to go home, - but I kept thinking how you would wonder where I was.'
'Then it was rather a dismal day of pleasure, goosey, eh?'
'Not in the morning. I shall never forget the morning in that garden. But I was never so unhappy in all my life, as I have been all this long afternoon.'
Mr Gibson thought it his duty to ride round by the Towers, and pay a visit of apology and thanks to the family, before they left for London. He found them all on the wing, and no one was sufficiently at liberty to listen to his grateful civilities but Mrs Kirkpatrick, who, although she was to accompany Lady Cuxhaven, and pay a visit to her former pupil, made leisure enough to receive Mr Gibson, on behalf of the family; and assured him of her faithful remembrance of his great professional attention to her in former days in the most winning manner.
Sixteen years before this time, all Hollingford had been disturbed to its foundations by the intelligence that Mr Hall, the skilful doctor, who had attended them all their days, was going to take a partner. It was no use reasoning to them on the subject; so Mr Browning the vicar, Mr Sheepshanks (Lord Cumnor's agent), and Mr Hall himself, the masculine reasoners of the little society, left off the attempt, feeling that the Che sara sara would prove more silencing to the murmurs than many arguments. Mr Hall had told his faithful patients that, even with the strongest spectacles, his sight was not to be depended upon; and they might have found out for themselves that his hearing was very defective, although, on this point, he obstinately adhered to his own opinion, and was frequently heard to regret the carelessness of people's communication nowadays, 'like writing on blotting-paper, all the words running into each other,' he would say. And more than once Mr Hall had had attacks of a suspicious nature, - 'rheumatism' he used to call them; but he prescribed for himself as if they had been gout, - which had prevented his immediate attention to imperative summonses. But, blind and deaf, and rheumatic as he might be, he was still Mr Hall, the doctor who could heal all their ailments - unless they died meanwhile - and he had no right to speak of growing old, and taking a partner.
He went very steadily to work all the same; advertising in medical journals, reading testimonials, sifting character and qualifications; and just when the elderly maiden ladies of Hollingford thought that they had convinced their contemporary that he was as young as ever, he startled them by bringing his new partner, Mr Gibson, to call upon them, and began 'slyly,' as these ladies said, to introduce him into practice. And 'who was this Mr Gibson?' they asked, and echo might answer the question, if she liked, for no one else did. No one ever in all his life knew anything more of his antecedents than the Hollingford people might have found out the first day they saw him: that he was tall, grave, rather handsome than otherwise; thin enough to be called 'a very genteel figure,' in those days, before muscular Christianity had come into vogue; speaking with a slight Scotch accent; and, as one good lady observed, 'so very trite in his conversation,' by which she meant sarcastic. As to his birth, parentage, and education, - the favourite conjecture of Hollingford society was, that he was the illegitimate son of a Scotch duke, by a Frenchwoman; and the grounds for this conjecture were these: - He spoke with a Scotch accent; therefore, he must be Scotch. He had a very genteel appearance, an elegant figure, and was apt - so his ill-wishers said - to give himself airs. Therefore, his father must have been some person of quality; and, that granted, nothing was easier than to run this supposition up all the notes of the scale of the peerage, - baronet, baron, viscount, earl, marquis, duke. Higher they dared not go, though one old lady, acquainted with English history, hazarded the remark, that 'she believed that one or two of the Stuarts - hem - had not always been, - ahem - quite correct in their - conduct; and she fancied such - ahem - things ran in families.' But, in popular opinion, Mr Gibson's father always remained a duke; nothing more.
Then his mother must have been a Frenchwoman, because his hair was so black; and he was so sallow; and because he had been in Paris. All this might be true, or might not; nobody ever knew, or found out anything more about him than what Mr Hall told them, namely, that his professional qualifications were as high as his moral character, and that both were far above the average, as Mr Hall had taken pains to ascertain before introducing him to his patients. The popularity of this world is as transient as its glory, as Mr Hall found out before the first year of his partnership was over. He had plenty of leisure left to him now to nurse his gout and cherish his eyesight. The younger doctor had carried the day; nearly every one sent for Mr Gibson now; even at the great houses - even at the Towers, that greatest of all, where Mr Hall had introduced his new partner with fear and trembling, with untold anxiety as to his behaviour, and the impression he might make on my lord the Earl, and MY lady the Countess. Mr Gibson was received at the end of a twelvemonth with as much welcome respect for his professional skill as Mr Hall himself had ever been. Nay - and this was a little too much for even the kind old doctor's good temper - Mr Gibson had even been invited once to dinner at the Towers, to dine with the great Sir Astley, the head of the profession! To be sure, Mr Hall had been asked as well; but he was laid up just then with his gout (since he had had a partner the rheumatism had been allowed to develop itself, and he had not been able to go. Poor Mr Hall never quite got over this mortification; after it he allowed himself to become dim of sight and hard of hearing, and kept pretty closely to the house during the two winters that remained of his life. He sent for an orphan grand-niece to keep him company in his old age; he, the woman-contemning old bachelor, became thankful for the cheerful presence of the pretty, bonny Mary Preston, who was good and sensible, and nothing more. She formed a close friendship with the daughters of the vicar, Mr Browning, and Mr Gibson found time to become very intimate with all three. Hollingford speculated much on which young lady would become Mrs Gibson, and was rather sorry when the talk about possibilities, and the gossip about probabilities with regard to the handsome young surgeon's marriage, ended in the most natural manner in the world, by his marrying his predecessor's niece. The two Miss Brownings showed no signs of going into a consumption on the occasion, although their looks and manners were carefully watched. On the contrary, they were rather boisterously merry at the wedding, and poor Mrs Gibson it was that died of consumption, four or five years after her marriage - three years after the death of her great-uncle, and when her only child, Molly, was just three years old.
Mr Gibson did not speak much about the grief at the loss of his wife, which it is to be supposed that he felt. Indeed, he avoided all demonstration of sympathy, and got up hastily and left the room when Miss Phoebe Browning first saw him after his loss, and burst into an uncontrollable flood of tears, which threatened to end in hysterics. Miss Browning afterwards said she never could forgive him for his hard-heartedness on that occasion; but a fortnight afterwards she came to very high words with old Mrs Goodenough, for gasping out her doubts whether Mr Gibson was a man of deep feeling; judging by the narrowness of his crape hat-band, which ought to have covered his hat, whereas there was at least three inches of beaver to be seen. And, in spite of it all, Miss Browning and Miss Phoebe considered themselves as Mr Gibson's most intimate friends, in right of their regard for his dead wife, and would fain have taken a quasi-motherly interest in his little girl, had she not been guarded by a watchful dragon in the shape of Betty, her nurse, who was jealous of any interference between her and her charge; and especially resentful and disagreeable towards all those ladies who, by suitable age, rank, or propinquity, she thought capable of 'casting sheep's eyes at master.'
Several years before the opening of this story, Mr Gibson's position seemed settled for life, both socially and professionally. He was a widower, and likely to remain so; his domestic affections were centred on little Molly, but even to her, in their most private moments, he did not give way to much expression of his feelings; his most caressing appellation for her was 'Goosey,' and he took a pleasure in bewildering her infant mind with his badinage. He had rather a contempt for demonstrative people, arising from his medical insight into the consequences to health of uncontrolled feeling. He deceived himself into believing that still his reason was lord of all, because he had never fallen into the habit of expression on any other than purely intellectual subjects. Molly, however, had her own intuitions to guide her. Though her papa laughed at her, quizzed her, joked at her, in a way which the Miss Brownings called 'really cruel' to each other when they were quite alone, Molly took her little griefs and pleasures, and poured them into her papa's ears, sooner even than into Betty's, that kind-hearted termagant. The child grew to understand her father well, and the two had the most delightful intercourse together - half banter, half seriousness, but altogether confidential friendship. Mr Gibson kept three servants; Betty, a cook, and a girl who was supposed to be housemaid, but who was under both the elder two, and had a pretty life of it in consequence. Three servants would not have been required if it had not been Mr Gibson's habit, as it had been Mr Hall's before him, to take two 'pupils,' as they were called in the genteel language of Hollingford, (apprentices,' as they were in fact - being bound by indentures, and paying a handsome premium' to learn their business. They lived in the house, and occupied an uncomfortable, ambiguous, or, as Miss Browning called it with some truth, 'amphibious' position. They had their meals with Mr Gibson and Molly, and were felt to be terribly in the way; Mr Gibson not being a man who could make conversation, and hating the duty of talking under restraint. Yet something within him made him wince, as if his duties were not rightly performed, when, as the cloth was drawn, the two awkward lads rose up with joyful alacrity, gave him a nod, which was to be interpreted as a bow, knocked against each other in their endeavours to get out of the dining-room quickly; and then might be heard dashing along a passage which led to the surgery, choking with half-suppressed laughter. Yet the annoyance he felt at this dull sense of imperfectly fulfilled duties only made his sarcasms on their inefficiency, or stupidity, or ill manners, more bitter than before.
Beyond direct professional instruction, he did not know what to do with the succession of pairs of young men, whose mission seemed to be to plague their master consciously, and to plague him unconsciously. Once or twice Mr Gibson had declined taking a fresh pupil, in the hopes of shaking himself free from the incubus, but his reputation as a clever surgeon had spread so rapidly that fees which he had thought prohibitory, were willingly paid, in order that the young man might make a start in life, with the prestige of having been a pupil of Gibson of Hollingford. But as Molly grew to be a little girl instead of a child, when she was about eight years old, her father perceived the awkwardness of her having her breakfasts and dinners so often alone with the pupils, without his uncertain presence. To do away with this evil, more than for the actual instruction she could give, he engaged a respectable woman, the daughter of a shopkeeper in the town, who had left a destitute family, to come every morning before breakfast, and to stay with Molly till he came home at night; or, if he was detained, until the child's bedtime.
'Now, Miss Eyre,' said he, summing up his instructions the day before she entered upon her office, 'remember this: you are to make good tea for the young men, and see that they have their meals comfortably, and - you are five-and-thirty, I think you said? - try and make them talk, - rationally, I am afraid is beyond your or anybody's power; but make them talk without stammering or giggling. Don't teach Molly too much: she must sew, and read, and write, and do her sums; but I want to keep her a child, and if I find more learning desirable for her, I'll see about giving it to her myself. After all, I am not sure that reading or writing is necessary. Many a good woman gets married with only a cross instead of her name; it's rather a diluting of mother-wit, to my fancy; but, however we must yield to the prejudices of society, Miss Eyre, and so you may teach the child to read.'
Miss Eyre listened in silence, perplexed but determined to be obedient to the directions of the doctor, whose kindness she and her family had good cause to know. She made strong tea; she helped the young men liberally in Mr Gibson's absence, as well as in his presence, and she found the way to unloosen their tongues, whenever their master was away, by talking to them on trivial subjects in her pleasant homely way. She taught Molly to read and write, but tried honestly to keep her back in every other branch of education. It was only by fighting and struggling hard, that bit by bit Molly persuaded her father to let her have French and drawing lessons. He was always afraid of her becoming too much educated, though he need not have been alarmed; the masters who visited such small country towns as Hollingford forty years ago, were no such great proficients in their arts. Once a week she joined a dancing class in the assembly-room at the principal inn in the town: the 'George;' and, being daunted by her father in every intellectual attempt, she read every book that came in her way, almost with as much delight as if it had been forbidden. For his station in life, Mr Gibson had an unusually good library; the medical portion of it was inaccessible to Molly, being kept in the surgery, but every other book she had either read, or tried to read. Her summer place of study was that seat in the cherry-tree, where she got the green stains on her frock, that have already been mentioned as likely to wear Betty's life out. In spite of this 'hidden worm i' th' bud,' Betty was to all appearance strong, alert, and flourishing. She was the one crook in Miss Eyre's lot, who was otherwise so happy in having met with a suitable well-paid employment just when she needed it most. But Betty, though agreeing in theory with her master when he told her of the necessity of having a governess for his little daughter, was vehemently opposed to any division of her authority and influence over the child who had been her charge, her plague, and her delight ever since Mrs Gibson's death. She took up her position as censor of all Miss Eyre's sayings and doings from the very first, and did not for a moment condescend to conceal her disapprobation. In her heart, she could not help respecting the patience and painstaking of the good lady, - for a 'lady' Miss Eyre was in the best sense of the word, though in Hollingford she only took rank as a shopkeeper's daughter. Yet Berry buzzed about her with the teasing pertinacity of a gnat, always ready to find fault, if not to bite. Miss Eyre's only defence came from the quarter whence it might least have been expected - from her pupil; on whose fancied behalf, as an oppressed little personage, Betty always based her attacks. But very early in the day Molly perceived their injustice, and soon afterwards she began to respect Miss Eyre for her silent endurance of what evidently gave her far more pain than Betty imagined. Mr Gibson had been a friend in need to her family, so Miss Eyre restrained her complaints, sooner than annoy him. And she had her reward. Betty would offer Molly all sorts of small temptations to neglect Miss Eyre's wishes; Molly steadily resisted, and plodded away at her task of sewing or her difficult sum. Betty made cumbrous jokes at Miss Eyre's expense. Molly looked up with the utmost gravity, as if requesting the explanation of an unintelligible speech; and there is nothing so quenching to a wag as to be asked to translate his jest into plain matter-of-fact English, and to show wherein the point lies. Occasionally Berry lost her temper entirely, and spoke impertinently to Miss Eyre; but when this had been done in Molly's presence, the girl flew out into such a violent passion of words in defence of her silent trembling governess, that even Berry herself was daunted, though she chose to take the child's anger as a good joke, and tried to persuade Miss Eyre herself to join in her amusement.
'Bless the child! one would think I was a hungry pussy-cat, and she a hen-sparrow, with her wings all fluttering, and her little eyes aflame, and her beak ready to peck me just because I happened to look near her nest. Nay, child! if thou lik'st to be stifled in a nasty close room, learning things as is of no earthly good when they is learnt, instead o' riding on Job Donkin's hay-cart, it's thy look-out, not mine. She's a little vixen, isn't she?' smiling at Miss Eyre, as she finished her speech. But the poor governess saw no humour in the affair; the comparison of Molly to a hen-sparrow was lost upon her. She was sensitive and conscientious, and knew, from home experience, the evils of an ungovernable temper. So she began to reprove Molly for giving way to her passion, and the child thought it hard to be blamed for what she considered her just anger against Betty. But, after all, these were the small grievances of a very happy childhood,
Molly grew up among these quiet people in calm monotony of life, without any greater event than that which has been recorded, - the being left behind at the Towers, until she was nearly seventeen. She had become a visitor at the school, but she had never gone again to the annual festival at the great house; it was easy to find some excuse for keeping away, and the recollection of that day was not a pleasant one on the whole, though she often thought how much she should like to see the gardens again.
Lady Agnes was married; there was only Lady Harriet remaining at home; Lord Hollingford, the eldest son, had lost his wife, and was a good deal more at the Towers since he had become a widower. He was a tall ungainly man, considered to be as proud as his mother, the countess; but, in fact, he was only shy, and slow at making commonplace speeches. He did not know what to say to people whose daily habits and interests were not the same as his; he would have been very thankful for a handbook of small-talk, and would have learnt off his sentences with good-humoured diligence. He often envied the fluency of his garrulous father, who delighted in talking to everybody, and was perfectly unconscious of the incoherence of his conversation. But, owing to his constitutional reserve and shyness, Lord Hollingford was not a popular man, although his kindness of heart was very great, his simplicity of character extreme, and his scientific acquirements considerable enough to entitle him to much reputation in the European republic of learned men. In this respect Hollingford was proud of him. The inhabitants knew that the great, grave, clumsy heir to its fealty was highly esteemed for his wisdom; and that he had made one or two discoveries, though in what direction they were not quite sure. But it was safe to point him out to strangers visiting the little town, as 'That's Lord Hollingford - the famous Lord Hollingford, you know; you must have heard of him, he is so scientific.' If the strangers knew his name, they also knew his claims to fame; if they did not, ten to one but they would make as if they did, and so conceal not only their own ignorance, but that of their companions, is to the exact nature of the sources of his reputation.
He was left a widower, with two or three boys. They were at a public school; so that their companionship could make the house in which he had passed his married life but little of a home to him, and he consequently spent much of his time at the Towers; where his mother was proud of him, and his father very fond, but ever so little afraid of him. His friends were always welcomed by Lord and Lady Cumnor; the former, indeed, was in the habit of welcoming everybody everywhere; but it was a proof of Lady Cumnor's real affection for her distinguished son, that she allowed him to ask what she called 'all sorts of people' to the Towers. 'All sorts of people' meant really those who were distinguished for science and learning, without regard to rank; and, it must be confessed, without much regard to polished manners likewise.
Mr Hall, Mr Gibson's predecessor, had always been received with friendly condescension by my lady, who had found him established as the family medical man, when first she came to the Towers on her marriage; but she never thought of interfering with his custom of taking his meals, if he needed refreshment, in the housekeeper's room, not with the housekeeper, bien entendu. The comfortable, clever, stout, and red-faced doctor would very much have preferred this, even if he had had the choice given him (which he never had) of taking his 'snack,' as he called it, with my lord and my lady, in the grand dining-room. Of course, if some great surgical gun (like Sir Astley) was brought down from London to bear on the family's health, it was due to him, as well as to the local medical attendant, to ask Mr Hall to dinner, in a formal and ceremonious manner, on which occasions Mr Hall buried his chin in voluminous folds of white muslin, put on his black knee-breeches, with bunches of ribbon at the sides, his silk stockings and buckled shoes, and otherwise made himself excessively uncomfortable in his attire, and went forth in state in a post-chaise from the 'George,' consoling himself in the private corner of his heart for the discomfort he was enduring with the idea of how well it would sound the next day in the ears of the squires whom he was in the habit of attending. 'Yesterday at dinner the earl said,' or 'the countess remarked,' or 'I was surprised to hear when I was dining at the Towers yesterday.' But somehow things had changed since Mr Gibson had become 'the doctor' par excellence at Hollingford. The Miss Brownings thought that it was because he had such an elegant figure, and 'such a distinguished manner;' Mrs Goodenough, 'because of his aristocratic connections' - 'the son of a Scotch duke, my dear, never mind on which side of the blanket' - but the fact was certain; although he might frequently ask Mrs Brown to give him something to eat in the housekeeper's room - he had no time for all the fuss and ceremony of luncheon with my lady - he was always welcome to the grandest circle of visitors in the house. He might lunch with a duke any day that he chose; given that a duke was forthcoming at the Towers. His accent was Scotch, not provincial. He had not an ounce of superfluous flesh on his bones; and leanness goes a great way to gentility. His complexion was sallow, and his hair black; in those days, the decade after the conclusion of the great continental war, to be sallow and black-a-vised was of itself a distinction;' he was not jovial (as my lord remarked with a sigh, but it was my lady who endorsed the invitations), sparing of his words, intelligent, and slightly sarcastic. Therefore he was perfectly presentable.
His Scotch blood (for that he was of Scotch descent there could be no manner of doubt) gave him just the kind of thistly dignity which made every one feel that they must treat him with respect; so on that head he was assured. The grandeur of being an invited guest to dinner at the Towers from time to time, gave him but little pleasure for many years, but it was a form to be gone through in the way of his profession, without any idea of social gratification.
But when Lord Hollingford returned to make the Towers his home, affairs were altered. Mr Gibson really heard and learnt things that interested him seriously, and that gave a fresh flavour to his reading. From time to time he met the leaders of the scientific world; odd-looking, simple-hearted men, very much in earnest about their own particular subjects, and not having much to say on any other. Mr Gibson found himself capable of appreciating such persons, and also perceived that they valued his appreciation, as it was honestly and intelligently given. Indeed, by-and-by, he began to send contributions of his own to the more scientific of the medical journals, and thus partly in receiving, partly in giving out information and accurate thought, a new zest was added to his life. There was not much intercourse between Lord Hollingford and himself; the one was too silent and shy, the other too busy, to seek each other's society with the perseverance required to do away with the social distinction of rank that prevented their frequent meetings. But each was thoroughly pleased to come into contact with the other. Each could rely on the other's respect and sympathy with a security unknown to many who call themselves friends; and this was a source of happiness to both; to Mr Gibson the most so, of course; for his range of intelligent and cultivated society was the smaller. Indeed, there was no one equal to himself among the men with whom he associated, and this he had felt as a depressing influence, although he had never recognized the cause of his depression. There was Mr Ashton, the vicar, who had succeeded Mr Browning, a thoroughly good and kind-hearted man, but one without an original thought in him; whose habitual courtesy and indolent mind led him to agree to every opinion, not palpably heterodox, and to utter platitudes in the most gentlemanly manner. Mr Gibson had once or twice amused himself, by leading the vicar on in his agreeable admissions of arguments 'as perfectly convincing,' and of statements as 'curious but undoubted,' till he had planted the poor clergyman in a bog of heretical bewilderment. But then Mr Ashton's pain and suffering at suddenly finding out into what a theological predicament he had been brought, his real self-reproach at his previous admissions, were so great that Mr Gibson lost all sense of fun, and hastened back to the Thirty-nine Articles with all the good-will in life, as the only means of soothing the vicar's conscience. On any other subject, except that of orthodoxy, Mr Gibson could lead him any lengths; but then his ignorance on most of them prevented bland acquiescence from arriving at any results which could startle him. He had some private fortune, and was not married, and lived the life of an indolent and refined bachelor; but though he himself was no very active visitor among his poorer parishioners, he was always willing to relieve their wants in the most liberal, and, considering his habits, occasionally in the most self-denying manner, whenever Mr Gibson, or any one else, made them clearly known to him. 'Use my purse as freely as if it was your own, Gibson,' he was wont to say. 'I'm such a bad one at going about and making talk to poor folk - I dare say I don't do enough in that way - but I am most willing to give you anything for any one you may consider in want.'
'Thank you; I come upon you pretty often, I believe, and make very little scruple about it; but if you'll allow me to suggest, it is, that you should not try to make talk when you go into the cottages; but just talk.'
'I don't see the difference,' said the vicar, a little querulously; 'but I dare say there is a difference, and I have no doubt what you say is quite true. I should not make talk, but talk; and as both are equally difficult to me, you must let me purchase the privilege of silence by this ten-pound note.'
'Thank you. It is not so satisfactory to me; and, I should think, not to yourself. But probably the Joneses and Greens will prefer it.'
Mr Ashton would look with plaintive inquiry into Mr Gibson's face after some such speech, as if asking if a sarcasm was intended. On the whole they went on in the most amicable way; only beyond the gregarious feeling common to most men, they had very little actual pleasure in each other's society. Perhaps the man of all others to whom Mr Gibson took the most kindly - at least, until Lord Hollingford came into the neighbourhood - was a certain Squire Hamley. He and his ancestors had been called squire as long back as local tradition extended. But there was many a greater landowner in the county, for Squire Hamley's estate was not more than eight hundred acres or so. But his family had been in possession of it long before the Earls of Cumnor had been heard of; before the Hely-Harrisons had bought Coldstone Park; no one in Hollingford knew the time when the Hamleys had not lived at Hamley. 'Ever since the Heptarchy,' said the vicar. 'Nay,' said Miss Browning, 'I have heard that there were Hamleys of Hamley before the Romans.' The vicar was preparing a polite assent, when Mrs Goodenough came in with a still more startling assertion. 'I have always heerd,' said she, with all the slow authority of an oldest inhabitant, 'that there was Hamleys of Hamley afore the time of the pagans.' Mr Ashton could only bow, and say, 'Possibly, very possibly, madam.' But he said it in so courteous a manner that Mrs Goodenough looked round in a gratified manner, as much as to say, 'The Church confirms my words; who now will dare dispute them?' At any rate, the Hamleys were a very old family, if not aborigines. They had not increased their estate for centuries; they had held their own, if even with an effort, and had not sold a rood of it for the last hundred years or so. But they were not an adventurous race. They never traded, or speculated, or tried agricultural improvements of any kind. They had no capital in any bank; nor what perhaps would have been more in character, hoards of gold in any stocking. Their mode of life was simple, and more like that of yeomen than squires. Indeed Squire Hamley, by continuing the primitive manners and customs of his forefathers, the squires of the eighteenth century, did live more as a yeoman, when such a class existed, than as a squire of this generation. There was a dignity in this quiet conservatism that gained him an immense amount of respect both from high and low; and he might have visited at every house in the county had he so chosen. But he was very indifferent to the charms of society; and perhaps this was owing to the fact that the squire, Roger Hamley, who at present lived and reigned at Hamley, had not received so good an education as he ought to have done. His father, Squire Stephen, had been plucked at Oxford, and, with stubborn pride, he had refused to go up again. Nay, more! he had sworn a great oath, as men did in those days, that none of his children to come should ever know either university by becoming a member of it. He had only one child, the present squire, and he was brought up according to his father's word; he was sent to a petty provincial school, where he saw much that he hated, and then turned loose upon the estate as its heir. Such a bringing up did not do him all the harm that might have been anticipated. He was imperfectly educated, and ignorant on many points; but he was aware of his deficiency, and regretted it in theory. He was awkward and ungainly in society, and so kept out of it as much as possible; and he was obstinate, violent-tempered, and dictatorial in his own immediate circle. On the other side, he was generous, and true as steel; the very soul of honour in fact. He had so much natural shrewdness, that his conversation was always worth listening to, although he was apt to start by assuming entirely false premisses, which he considered as incontrovertible as if they had been mathematically proved; but, given the correctness of his premisses, nobody could bring more natural wit and sense to bear upon the arguments based upon them.
He had married a delicate fine London lady; it was one of those perplexing marriages of which one cannot understand the reasons. Yet they were very happy, though possibly Mrs Hamley would not have sunk into the condition of a chronic invalid, if her husband had cared a little more for her various tastes, or allowed her the companionship of those who did. After his marriage he was wont to say he had got all that was worth having out of that crowd of houses they called London. It was a compliment to his wife which he repeated until the year of her death; it charmed her at first, it pleased her up to the last time of her hearing it; but, for all that, she used sometimes to wish that he would recognize the fact that there might still be something worth hearing and seeing in the great city. But he never went there again, and though he did not prohibit her going, yet he showed so little sympathy with her when she came back full of what she had done on her visit that she ceased caring to go. Not but what he was kind and willing in giving his consent, and in furnishing her amply with money. 'There, there, my little woman, take that! Dress yourself up as fine as any on 'em, and buy what you like, for the credit of Hamley of Hamley; and go to the park and the play, and show off with the best on 'em. I shall be glad to see thee back again, I know; but have thy fling while thou art about it.' Then when she came back it was, 'Well, well, it has pleased thee, I suppose, so that's all right. But the very talking about it tires me, I know, and I can't think how you have stood it all. Come out and see how pretty the flowers are looking in the south garden. I've made them sow all the seeds you like; and I went over to Hollingford nursery to buy the cuttings of the plants you admired last year. A breath of fresh air will clear my brain after listening to all this talk about the whirl of London, which is like to have turned me giddy.'
Mrs Hamley was a great reader, and had considerable literary taste. She was gentle and sentimental; tender and good. She gave up her visits to London; she gave up her sociable pleasure in the company of her fellows in education and position. Her husband, owing to the deficiencies of his early years, disliked associating with those to whom he ought to have been an equal; he was too proud to mingle with his inferiors. He loved his wife all the more dearly for her sacrifices for him; but, deprived of all her strong interests, she sank into ill-health; nothing definite; only she never was well. Perhaps if she had had a daughter it would have been better for her; but her two children were boys, and their father, anxious to give them the advantages of which he himself had suffered the deprivation, sent the lads very early to a preparatory school. They were to go on to Rugby and Cambridge; the idea of Oxford was hereditarily distasteful in the Hamley family. Osborne, the eldest - so called after his mother's maiden name - was full of tastes, and had some talent. His appearance had all the grace and refinement of his mother's. He was sweet-tempered and affectionate, almost as demonstrative as a girl. He did well at school, carrying away many prizes; and was, in a word, the pride and delight of both father and mother; the confidential friend of the latter, in default of any other. Roger was two years younger than Osborne; clumsy and heavily built, like his father; his face was square, and the expression grave, and rather immobile. He was good, but dull, his schoolmasters said. He won no prizes, but brought home a favourable report of his conduct. When he caressed his mother, she used laughingly to allude to the fable of the lap-dog and the donkey; so thereafter he left off all personal demonstration of affection. It was a great question as to whether he was to follow his brother to college after he left Rugby. Mrs Hamley thought it would be rather a throwing away of money, as he was so little likely to distinguish himself in intellectual pursuits; anything practical - such as a civil engineer - would be more the line of life for him. She thought that it would be too mortifying for him to go to the same college and university as his brother, who was sure to distinguish himself - and, to be repeatedly plucked, to come away wooden-spoon at last. But his father persevered doggedly, as was his wont, in his intention of giving both his sons the same education; they should both have the advantages of which he had been deprived. If Roger did not do well at Cambridge it would be his own fault. If his father did not send him thither, some day or other he might be regretting the omission, as Squire Roger had done himself for many a year. So Roger followed his brother Osborne to Trinity,' and Mrs Hamley was again left alone, after the year of indecision as to Roger's destination, which had been brought on by her urgency. She had not been able for many years to walk beyond her garden; the greater part of her life was spent on a sofa, wheeled to the window in summer, to the fireside in winter. The room which she inhabited was large and pleasant; four tall windows looked out upon a lawn dotted over with flower-beds, and melting away into a small wood, in the centre of which there was a pond, filled with water-lilies. About this unseen pond in the deep shade Mrs Hamley had written many a pretty four-versed poem since she lay on her sofa, alternately reading and composing poetry. She had a small table by her side on which there were the newest works of poetry and fiction; a pencil and blotting-book, with loose sheets of blank paper; a vase of flowers always of her husband's gathering; winter and summer, she had a sweet fresh nosegay every day. Her maid brought her a draught of medicine every three hours, with a glass of clear water and a biscuit; her husband came to her as often as his love for the open air and his labours out-of-doors permitted; but the event of her day, when her boys were absent, was Mr Gibson's frequent professional visits.
He knew there was real secret harm going on all this time that people spoke of her as a merely fanciful invalid; and that one or two accused him of humouring her fancies. But he only smiled at such accusations. He felt that his visits were a real pleasure and lightening of her growing and indescribable discomfort; he knew that Squire Hamley would have been only too glad if he had come every day; and he was conscious that by careful watching of her symptoms he might mitigate her bodily pain. Besides all these reasons, he took great pleasure in the squire's society. Mr Gibson enjoyed the other's unreasonableness; his quaintness; his strong conservatism in religion, politics, and morals. Mrs Hamley tried sometimes to apologize for, or to soften away, opinions which she fancied were offensive to the doctor, or contradictions which she thought too abrupt; but at such times her husband would lay his great hand almost caressingly on Mr Gibson's shoulder, and soothe his wife's anxiety, by saying, 'Let us alone, little woman. We understand each other, don't we, doctor? Why, bless your life, he gives me better than he gets many a time; only, you see, he sugars it over, and says a sharp thing, and pretends it's all civility and humility; but I can tell when he's giving me a pill.'
One of Mrs Hamley's often-expressed wishes had been, that Molly might come and pay her a visit. Mr Gibson always refused this request of hers, though he could hardly have given his reasons for these refusals. He did not want to lose the companionship of his child, in fact; but he put it to himself in quite a different way. He thought her lessons and her regular course of employment would be interrupted. The life in Mrs Hamley's heated and scented room would not be good for the girl; Osborne and Roger Hamley would be at home, and he did not wish Molly to be thrown too exclusively upon them for young society; or they would not be at home, and it would be rather dull and depressing for his girl to be all the day long with a nervous invalid.
But at length the day came when Mr Gibson rode over, and volunteered a visit from Molly; an offer which Mrs Hamley received with the 'open arms of her heart,' as she expressed it; and of which the duration was unspecified. And the cause for this change in Mr Gibson's wishes was as follows: - It has been mentioned that he took pupils, rather against his inclination, it is true; but there they were, a Mr Wynne and Mr Coxe, 'the young gentlemen,' as they were called in the household; 'Mr Gibson's young gentlemen,' as they were termed in the town. Mr Wynne was the elder, the more experienced one, who could occasionally take his master's place, and who gained experience by visiting the poor, and the 'chronic cases.' Mr Gibson used to talk over his practice with Mr Wynne, and try and elicit his opinions in the vain hope that, some day or another, Mr Wynne might start an original thought. The young man was cautious and slow; he would never do any harm by his rashness, but at the same time he would always be a little behind his day. Still Mr Gibson remembered that he had had far worse 'young gentlemen' to deal with; and was content with, if not thankful for, such an elder pupil as Mr Wynne. Mr Coxe was a boy of nineteen or so, with brilliant red hair, and a tolerably red face, of both of which he was very conscious and much ashamed. He was the son of an Indian officer, an old acquaintance of Mr Gibson's. Major Coxe was at some unpronounceable station in the Punjaub, at the present time; but the year before he had been in England, and had repeatedly expressed his great satisfaction at having placed his only child as a pupil to his old friend, and had in fact almost charged Mr Gibson with the guardianship as well as the instruction of his boy, giving him many injunctions which he thought were special in this case; but which Mr Gibson with a touch of annoyance assured the major were always attended to in every case, with every pupil. But when the poor major ventured to beg that his boy might be considered as one of the family, and that he might spend his evenings in the drawing-room instead of the surgery, Mr Gibson turned upon him with a direct refusal.
'He must live like the others. I can't have the pestle and mortar carried into the drawing-room, and the place smelling of aloes.'
'Must my boy make pills himself, then?' asked the major, ruefully.
'To be sure. The youngest apprentice always does. It's not hard work. He'll have the comfort of thinking he won't have to swallow them himself. And he'll have the run of the pomfret cakes, and the conserve of hips, and on Sundays he shall have a taste of tamarinds to reward him for his weekly labour at pill-making.'
Major Coxe was not quite sure whether Mr Gibson was not laughing at him in his sleeve; but things were so far arranged, and the real advantages were so great that he thought it was best to take no notice, but even to submit to the indignity of pill-making. He was consoled for all these rubs by Mr Gibson's manner at last when the supreme moment of final parting arrived. The doctor did not say much; but there was something of real sympathy in his manner that spoke straight to the father's heart, and an implied 'you have trusted me with your boy, and I have accepted the trust in full,' in each of the last few words.
Mr Gibson knew his business and human nature too well to distinguish young Coxe by any overt marks of favouritism; but he could not help showing the lad occasionally that he regarded him with especial interest as the son of a friend. Besides this claim upon his regard, there was something about the young man himself that pleased Mr Gibson. He was rash and impulsive, apt to speak, hitting the nail on the head sometimes with unconscious cleverness, at other times making gross and startling blunders. Mr Gibson used to tell him that his motto would always be 'kill or cure,' and to this Mr Coxe once made answer that he thought it was the best motto a doctor could have; for if he could not cure the patient, it was surely best to get him out of his misery quietly, and at once. Mr Wynne looked up in surprise, and observed that he should be afraid that such putting out of misery might be looked upon as homicide by some people. Mr Gibson said in a dry tone, that for his part he should not mind the imputation of homicide, but that it would not do to make away with profitable patients in so speedy a manner; and that he thought that as long as they were willing and able to pay two-and-sixpence for the doctor's visit, it was his duty to keep them alive; of course, when they became paupers the case was different. Mr Wynne pondered over this speech; Mr Coxe only laughed. At last Mr Wynne said, -
'But you go every morning, sir, before breakfast to see old Nancy Grant, and you've ordered her this medicine, sir, which is about the most costly in Corbyn's bill?'
'Have you not found out how difficult it is for men to live up to their precepts? You've a great deal to learn yet, Mr Wynne!' said Mr Gibson, leaving the surgery as he spoke.
'I never can make the governor out,' said Mr Wynne, in a tone of utter despair. 'What are you laughing at, Coxey?'
'Oh! I'm thinking how blest you are in having parents who have instilled moral principles into your youthful bosom. You'd go and be poisoning all the paupers off, if you hadn't been told that murder was a crime by your mother; you'd be thinking you were doing as you were bid, and quote old Gibson's words when you came to be tried. "Please, my lord judge, they were not able to pay for my visits, and so I followed the rules of the profession as taught me by Mr Gibson, the great surgeon at Hollingford, and poisoned the paupers." '
'I can't bear that scoffing way of his.'
'And I like it. If it wasn't for the governor's fun, and the tamarinds, and something else that I know of, I would run off to India. I hate stifling rooms, and sick people, and the smell of drugs, and the stink of pills on my hands; - faugh!'
One day, for some reason or other, Mr Gibson came home unexpectedly. He was crossing the hall, having come in by the garden-door - the garden communicated with the stable-yard, where he had left his horse - when the kitchen door opened, and the girl who was underling in the establishment, came quickly into the hall with a note in her hand, and made as if she was taking it upstairs; but on seeing her master she gave a little start, and turned back as if to hide herself in the kitchen. If she had not made this movement, so conscious of guilt, Mr Gibson, who was anything but suspicious, would never have taken any notice of her. As it was, he stepped quickly forwards, opened the kitchen door, and called out, 'Bethia' so sharply that she could not delay coming forwards.
'Give me that note,' he said. She hesitated a little.
'It's for Miss Molly,' she stammered out.
'Give it to me!' he repeated more quietly than before. She looked as if she would cry; but still she kept the note tight held behind her back.
'He said as I was to give it into her own hands; and I promised as I would, faithful.'
'Cook, go and find Miss Molly. Tell her to come here at once.'
He fixed Bethia with his eyes. It was of no use trying to escape: she might have thrown it into the fire, but she had not presence of mind enough. She stood immovable, only her eyes looked any way rather than encounter her master's steady gaze. 'Molly, my dear!'
'Papa! I did not know you were at home,' said innocent, wondering Molly.
'Bethia, keep your word. Here is Miss Molly; give her the note.'
'Indeed, Miss, I couldn't help it!'
Molly took the note, but before she could open it, her father said, - 'That's all, my dear; you need not read it. Give it to me. Tell those who sent you, Bethia, that all letters for Miss Molly must pass through my hands. Now be off with you, goosey, and go back to where you came from.'
'Papa, I shall make you tell me who my correspondent is.'
'We'll see about that, by-and-by.'
She went a little reluctantly, with ungratified curiosity, upstairs to Miss Eyre, who was still her daily companion, if not her governess. He turned into the empty dining-room, shut the door, broke the seal of the note, and began to read it. It was a flaming love-letter from Mr Coxe; who professed himself unable to go on seeing her day after day without speaking to her of the passion she had inspired - an 'eternal passion,' he called it; on reading which Mr Gibson laughed a little. Would she not look kindly at him? would she not think of him whose only thought was of her? and so on, with a very proper admixture of violent compliments to her beauty. She was fair, not pale; her eyes were loadstars, her dimples marks of Cupid's finger, &c.
Mr Gibson finished reading it; and began to think about it in his own mind. 'Who would have thought the lad had been so poetical; but, to be sure, there's a "Shakespeare" in the surgery library: I'll take it away and put "Johnson's Dictionary" instead. One comfort is the conviction of her perfect innocence - ignorance, I should rather say - for it is easy to see it's the first "confession of his love," as he calls it. But it's an awful worry - to begin with lovers so early. Why, she's only just seventeen, - not seventeen, indeed, till July; not for six weeks yet. Sixteen and three-quarters! Why, she's quite a baby. To be sure - poor Jeanie was not so old, and how I did love her! (Mrs Gibson's name was Mary, so he must have been referring to someone else.) Then his thoughts wandered back to other days, though he still held the open note in his hand. By-and-by his eyes fell upon it again, and his mind came back to bear upon the present time. 'I'll not be hard upon him. I'll give him a hint; he is quite sharp enough to take it. Poor laddie! if I send him away, which would be the wisest course, I do believe, he's got no home to go to.'
After a little more consideration in the same strain, Mr Gibson went and sat down at the writing-table and wrote the following formula: -
('That "master" will touch him to the quick,' said Mr Gibson to himself as he wrote the word.)
Mr Gibson smiled a little sadly as he re-read his words. 'Poor Jeanie,' he said aloud. And then he chose out an envelope, enclosed the fervid love-letter, and the above prescription; sealed it with his own sharply-cut seal-ring, R. G., in Old-English letters, and then paused over the address.
'He'll not like Master Coxe outside; no need to put him to unnecessary shame.' So the direction on the envelope was -
Then Mr Gibson applied himself to the professional business which had brought him home so opportunely and unexpectedly, and afterwards he went back through the garden to the stables; and just as he had mounted his horse, he said to the stable-man, - 'Oh! by the way, here's a letter for Mr Coxe. Don't send it through the women; take it round yourself to the surgery-door, and do it at once.'
The slight smile upon his face, as he rode out of the gates, died away as soon as he found himself in the solitude of the lanes. He slackened his speed, and began to think. It was very awkward, he considered, to have a motherless girl growing up into womanhood in the same house with two young men, even if she only met them at meal-times; and all the intercourse they had with each other was merely the utterance of such words as, 'May I help you to potatoes?' or, as Mr Wynne would persevere in saying, 'May I assist you to potatoes?' - a form of speech which grated daily more and more upon Mr Gibson's cars. Yet Mr Coxe, the offender in this affair which had just occurred, had to remain for three years more as a pupil in Mr Gibson's family. He should be the very last of the race. Still there were three years to be got over; and if this stupid passionate calf-love of his lasted, what was to be done? Sooner or later Molly would become aware of it. The contingencies of the affair were so excessively disagreeable to contemplate, that Mr Gibson determined to dismiss the subject from his mind by a good strong effort. He put his horse to a gallop, and found that the violent shaking over the lanes - paved as they were with round stones, which had been dislocated by the wear and tear of a hundred years - was the very best thing for the spirits, if not for the bones. He made a long round that afternoon, and came back to his home imagining that the worst was over, and that Mr Coxe would have taken the hint conveyed in the prescription. All that would be needed was to find a safe place for the unfortunate Bethia, who had displayed such a daring aptitude for intrigue. But Mr Gibson reckoned without his host. It was the habit of the young men to come in to tea with the family in the dining-room, to swallow two cups, munch their bread or toast, and then disappear. This night Mr Gibson watched their countenances furtively from under his long eye-lashes, while he tried against his wont to keep up a degage manner, and a brisk conversation on general subjects. He saw that Mr Wynne was on the point of breaking out into laughter, and that red-haired, red-faced Mr Coxe was redder and fiercer than ever, while his whole aspect and ways betrayed indignation and anger.
'He will have it, will he?' thought Mr Gibson to himself; and he girded up his loins for the battle. He did not follow Molly and Miss Eyre into the drawing-room as he usually did. He remained where he was, pretending to read the newspaper, while Bethia, her face swelled up with crying, and with an aggrieved and offended aspect, removed the tea-things. Not five minutes after the room was cleared, came the expected tap at the door. 'May I speak to you, sir?' said the invisible Mr Coxe, from outside.
'To be sure. Come in, Mr Coxe. I was rather wanting to talk to you about that bill of Corbyn's. Pray sit down.'
'It is about nothing of that kind, sir, that I wanted - that I wished - No, thank you - I would rather not sit down.' He, accordingly, stood in offended dignity. 'It is about that letter, sir - that letter with the insulting prescription, sir.'
'Insulting prescription! I am surprised at such a word being applied to any prescription of mine - though, to be sure, patients are sometimes offended at being told the nature of their illnesses; and, I dare say, they may take offence at the medicines which their cases require.'
'I did not ask you to prescribe for me.'
'Oh, ho! Then you were the Master Coxe who sent the note through Bethia! Let me tell you it has cost her her place, and was a very silly letter into the bargain.'
'It was not the conduct of a gentleman, sir, to intercept it, and to open it, and to read words never addressed to you, sir.'
'No!' said Mr Gibson, with a slight twinkle in his eye and a curl on his lips, not unnoticed by the indignant Mr Coxe. 'I believe I was once considered tolerably good-looking, and I dare say I was as great a coxcomb as any one at twenty; but I don't think that even then I should quite have believed that all those pretty compliments were addressed to myself.'
'It was not the conductor a gentleman, sir,' repeated Mr Coxe, stammering over his words - he was going on to say something more, when Mr Gibson broke in.
'And let me tell you, young man,' replied Mr Gibson, with a sudden sternness in his voice, 'that what you have done is only excusable in consideration of your youth and extreme ignorance of what are considered the laws of domestic honour. I receive you into my house as a member of my family - you induce one of my servants - corrupting her with a bribe, I have no doubt - '
'Indeed, sir! I never gave her a penny.'
'Then you ought to have done. You should always pay those who do your dirty work.'
'Just now, sir, you called it corrupting with a bribe,' muttered Mr Coxe.
Mr Gibson took no notice of this speech, but went on, - 'Inducing one of my servants to risk her place, without offering her the slightest equivalent, by begging her to convey a letter clandestinely to my daughter - a mere child.'
'Miss Gibson, sir, is nearly seventeen! I heard you say so only the other day,' said Mr Coxe, aged twenty. Again Mr Gibson ignored the remark.
'A letter which you were unwilling to have seen by her father, who had tacitly trusted to your honour, by receiving you as an inmate of his house. Your father's son - I know Major Coxe well - ought to have come to me, and have said out openly, "Mr Gibson, I love - or I fancy that I love - your daughter; I do not think it right to conceal this from you, although unable to earn a penny; and with no prospect of an unassisted livelihood, even for myself, for several years, I shall not say a word about my feelings - or fancied feelings - to the very young lady herself." That is what your father's son ought to have said; if, indeed, a couple of grains of reticent silence would not have been better still.'
'And if I had said it, sir - perhaps I ought to have said it,' said poor Mr Coxe, in a hurry of anxiety, 'what would have been your answer? Would you have sanctioned my passion, sir?'
'I would have said, most probably - I will not be certain of my exact words in a suppositious case - that you were a young fool, but not a dishonourable young fool, and I should have told you not to let your thoughts run upon a calf-love until you had magnified it into a passion. And I dare say, to make up for the mortification I should have given you, I should have prescribed your joining the Hollingford Cricket Club, and set you at liberty as often as I could on the Saturday afternoons. As it is, I must write to your father's agent in London, and ask him to remove you out of my household, repaying the premium, of course, which will enable you to start afresh in some other doctor's surgery.'
'It will so grieve my father,' said Mr Coxe, startled into dismay, if not repentance.
'I see no other course open. It will give Major Coxe some trouble (I shall take care that he is at no extra expense), but what I think will grieve him the most is the betrayal of confidence; for I trusted you, Edward, like a son of my own!' There was something in Mr Gibson's voice when he spoke seriously, especially when he referred to any feeling of his own - he who so rarely betrayed what was passing in his heart - that was irresistible to most people: the change from joking and sarcasm to tender gravity.
Mr Coxe hung his head a little, and meditated.
'I do love Miss Gibson,' said he at length. 'Who could help it?'
'Mr Wynne, I hope!' said Mr Gibson.
'His heart is pre-engaged,' replied Mr Coxe. 'Mine was free as air till I saw her.'
'Would it tend to cure your - well! passion, we'll say - if she wore blue spectacles at meal-times? I observe you dwell much on the beauty of her eyes.'
'You are ridiculing my feelings, Mr Gibson. Do you forget that you yourself were young once?'
'Poor Jeanie' rose before Mr Gibson's eyes; and he felt a little rebuked.
'Come, Mr Coxe, let us see if we can't make a bargain,' said he, after a minute or so of silence. 'You have done a really wrong thing, and I hope you are convinced of it in your heart, or that you will be when the heat of this discussion is over, and you come to think a little about it. But I won't lose all respect for your father's son. If you will give me your word that, as long as you remain a member of my family - pupil, apprentice, what you will - you won't again try to disclose your passion - you see, I am careful to take your view of what I should call a mere fancy - by word or writing, looks or acts, in any manner whatever, to my daughter, or to talk about your feelings to any one else, you shall remain here. If you cannot give me your word, I must follow out the course I named, and write to your father's agent.'
Mr Coxe stood irresolute.
'Mr Wynne knows all I feel for Miss Gibson, sir. He and I have no secrets from each other.'
'Well, I suppose he must represent the reeds. You know the story of King Midas's barber, who found out that his royal master had the ears of an ass beneath his hyacinthine curls. So the barber, in default of a Mr Wynne, went to the reeds that grew on the shores of a neighbouring lake, and whispered to them, "King Midas has the ears of an ass." But he repeated it so often that the reeds learnt the words, and kept on saying them all the day long, till at the last the secret was no secret at all. If you keep on telling your tale to Mr Wynne, are you sure he won't repeat it in his turn?'
'If I pledge my word as a gentleman, sir, I pledge it for Mr Wynne as well.'
'I suppose I must run the risk. But remember how soon a young girl's name may be breathed upon, and sullied. Molly has no mother, and for that very reason she ought to move among you all, as unharmed as Una herself.'
'Mr Gibson, if you wish it, I'll swear it on the Bible,' cried the excitable young man.
'Nonsense. As if your word, if it's worth anything, was not enough! We'll shake hands upon it, if you like.'
Mr Coxe came forward eagerly, and almost squeezed Mr Gibson's ring into his finger.
As he was leaving the room, he said, a little uneasily, 'May I give Bethia a crown-piece?'
'No, indeed! Leave Bethia to me. I hope you won't say another word to her while she is here. I shall see that she gets a respectable place when she goes away.'
Then Mr Gibson rang for his horse, and went out on the last visits of the day. He used to reckon that he rode the world around in the course of the year. There were not many surgeons in the county who had so wide a range of practice as he; he went to lonely cottages on the borders of great commons; to farm-houses at the end of narrow country lanes that led to nowhere else, and were overshadowed by the elms and beeches overhead. He attended all the gentry within a circle of fifteen miles round Hollingford; and was the appointed doctor to the still greater families who went up to London very February - as the fashion then was - and returned to their acres in the early weeks of July. He was, of necessity, a great deal from home, and on this soft and pleasant summer evening he felt the absence as a great evil. He was startled into discovering that his little one was growing fast into a woman, and already the passive object of some of the strong interests that affect a woman's life; and he - her mother as well as her father - so much away that he could not guard her as he would have wished. The end of his cogitations was that ride to Hamley the next morning, when he proposed to allow his daughter to accept Mrs Hamley's last invitation - an invitation that had been declined at the time.
'You may quote against me the proverb, "He that will not when he may, when he will he shall have nay." And I shall have no reason to complain,' he had said.
But Mrs Hamley was only too much charmed with the prospect of having a young girl for a visitor; one whom it would not be a trouble to entertain; who might be sent out to ramble in the gardens, or told to read when the invalid was too much fatigued for conversation; and yet one whose youth and freshness would bring a charm, like a waft of sweet summer air, into her lonely shut-up life. Nothing could be pleasanter, and so Molly's visit to Hamley was easily settled.
'I only wish Osborne and Roger had been at home,' said Mrs Hamley, in her slow soft voice. 'She may find it dull being with old people, like the squire and me, from morning till night. When can she come? the darling - I am beginning to love her already!"
Mr Gibson was very glad in his heart that the young men of the house were out of the way; he did not want his little Molly to be passing from Scylla to Charybdis; and, as he afterwards scoffed at himself for thinking, he had got an idea that all young men were wolves in chase of his one ewe-lamb.
'She knows nothing of the pleasure in store for her,' he replied; 'and I am sure I don't know what feminine preparations she may think necessary, or how long they may take. You'll remember she is a little ignoramus, and has had no . . . no training in etiquette; our ways at home are rather rough for a girl, I'm afraid. But I know I could not send her into a kinder atmosphere than this.'
When the squire heard from his wife of Mr Gibson's proposal, he was as much pleased as she at the prospect of their youthful visitor; for he was a man of a hearty hospitality, when his pride did not interfere with its gratification; and he was delighted to think of his sick wife's having such an agreeable companion in her hours of loneliness. After a while he said, - 'It's as well the lads are at Cambridge; we might have been having a love-affair if they had been at home.'
'Well - and if we had?' asked his more romantic wife.
'It would not have done,' said the squire, decidedly. 'Osborne will have had a first-rate education - as good as any man in the county - he'll have this property, and he's a Hamley of Hamley; not a family in the shire is as old as we are, or settled on their ground so well. Osborne may marry where he likes. If Lord Hollingford had a daughter, Osborne would have been as good a match as she could have required. It would never do for him to fall in love with Gibson's daughter - I should not allow it. So it's as well he's out of the way.'
'Well! perhaps Osborne had better look higher.'
'"Perhaps!" I say he must.' The squire brought his hand down with a thump on the table, near him, which made his wife's heart beat hard for some minutes. 'And as for Roger,' he continued, unconscious of the flutter he had put her into, 'he'll have to make his own way, and earn his own bread; and, I'm afraid, he's not getting on very brilliantly at Cambridge. He must not think of falling in love for these ten years.'
'Unless he marries a fortune,' said Mrs Hamley, more by way of concealing her palpitation than anything else; for she was unworldly and romantic to a fault.
'No son of mine shall ever marry a wife who is richer than himself, with my good will,' said the squire again, with emphasis, but without a thump. 'I don't say but what if Roger is gaining five hundred a year by the time he's thirty, he shall not choose a wife with ten thousand pounds down; but I do say, if a boy of mine, with only two hundred a year - which is all Roger will have from us, and that not for a long time - goes and marries a woman with fifty thousand to her portion, I will disown him - it would be just disgusting.'
'Not if they loved each other, and their whole happiness depended upon their marrying each other?' put in Mrs Hamley, mildly.
'Pooh! away with love! Nay, my dear, we loved each other so dearly we should never have been happy with any one else; but that's a different thing. People are not like what they were when we were young. All the love now-a-days is just silly fancy, and sentimental romance, as far as I can see.'
Mr Gibson thought that he had settled everything about Molly's going to Hamley before he spoke to her about it, which he did not do, until the morning of the day on which Mrs Hamley expected her. Then he said, - 'By the way, Molly! you are to go to Hamley this afternoon; Mrs Hamley wants you to go to her for a week or two, and it suits me capitally that you should accept her invitation just now.'
'Go to Hamley! This afternoon! Papa, you've got some odd reasons at the back of your head - some mystery, or something. Please, tell me what it is. Go to Hamley for a week or two! Why, I never was from home before this without you in all my life.'
'Perhaps not. I don't think you ever walked before you put your feet to the ground. Everything must have a beginning.'
'It has something to do with that letter that was directed to me, but that you took out of my hands before I could even see the writing of the direction.' She fixed her grey eyes on her father's face, as if she meant to pluck out his secret.
He only smiled and said, - 'You're a witch, goosey!'
'Then it had! But if it was a note from Mrs Hamley, why might I not see it? I have been wondering if you had some plan in your head ever since that day - Thursday, was it not? You've gone about in a kind of thoughtful perplexed way, just like a conspirator. Tell me, papa' - coming up to him, and putting on a beseeching manner - 'why might not I see that note? and why am I to go to Hamley all on a sudden?'
'Don't you like to go? Would you rather not?' If she had said that she did not want to go he would have been rather pleased than otherwise, although it would have put him into a great perplexity; but he was beginning to dread the parting from her even for so short a time. However, she replied directly, -
'I don't know - I dare say I shall like it when I have thought a little more about it. Just now I am so startled by the suddenness of the affair, I have not considered whether I shall like it or not. I shan't like going away from you, I know. Why am I to go, papa?'
'There are three old ladies sitting somewhere, I and thinking about you just at this very minute; one has a distaff in her hands, and is spinning a thread; she has come to a knot in it, and is puzzled what to do with it. Her sister has a great pair of scissors in her hands, and wants - as she always does, when any difficulty arises in the smoothness of the thread - to cut it off short; but the third, who has the most head of the three, plans how to undo the knot; and she it is who has decided that you are to go to Hamley. The others are quite convinced by her arguments; so, as the Fates have decreed that this visit is to be paid, there is nothing left for you and me but to submit.'
'That is all nonsense, papa, and you are only making me more curious to find out this hidden reason.'
Mr Gibson changed his tone, and spoke gravely now. 'There is a reason, Molly, and one which I do not wish to give. When I tell you this much, I expect you to be an honourable girl, and to try and not even conjecture what the reason may be, - much less endeavour to put little discoveries together till very likely you may find out what I want to conceal.'
'Papa, I won't even think about your reason again. But then I shall have to plague you with another question. I have had no new gowns this year, and I have outgrown all my last summer frocks. I have only three that I can wear at all. Betty was saying only yesterday that I ought to have some more.'
'That will do that you have got on, won't it? It is a very pretty colour.'
'Yes; but, papa,' (holding it out as if she was, going to dance) 'it's made of woollen, and so hot and heavy; and every day it will be getting warmer.'
'I wish girls could dress like boys,' said Mr Gibson, with a little impatience. 'How is a man to know when his daughter wants clothes? and how is he to rig her out when he finds it out, just when she needs them most and has not got them?'
'Ah, that's the question!' said Molly, in some despair.
'Can't you go to Miss Rose's? Does not she keep ready-made frocks for girls of your age?'
'Miss Rose! I never had anything from her in my life,' replied Molly, in some surprise; for Miss Rose was the great dressmaker and milliner of the little town, and hitherto Betty had made the girl's frocks.
'Well, but it seems people consider you as a young woman now, and so I suppose you must run up milliners' bills like the rest of your kind. Not that you are to get anything anywhere that you can't pay for down in ready money. Here's a ten-pound note; go to Miss Rose's, or Miss anybody's, and get what you want at once. The Hamley carriage is to come for you at two, and anything that is not quite ready, can easily be sent by their cart on Saturday, when some of their people always come to market. Nay, don't thank me! I don't want to have the money spent, and I don't want you to go and leave me: I shall miss you, I know; it's only hard necessity that drives me to send you a-visiting, and to throw away ten pounds on your clothes. There, go away; you're a plague, and I mean to leave off loving you as fast as I can.'
'Papa!' holding up her finger as in warning, 'you are getting mysterious again; and though my honourableness is very strong, I won't promise that it shall not yield to my curiosity if you go on hinting at untold secrets.'
'Go away and spend your ten pounds. What did I give it you for but to keep you quiet?'
Miss Rose's ready-made resources and Molly's taste combined, did not arrive at a very great success. She bought a lilac print, because it would wash, and would be cool and pleasant for the mornings; and this Betty could make at home before Saturday. And for high-days and holidays - by which was understood afternoons and Sundays - Miss Rose persuaded her to order a gay-coloured, flimsy plaid silk, which she assured her was quite the latest fashion in London, and which Molly thought would please her father's Scotch blood. But when he saw the scrap which she had brought home as a pattern, he cried out that the plaid belonged to no clan in existence, and that Molly ought to have known this by instinct. It was too late to change it, however, for Miss Rose had promised to cut the dress out as soon as Molly had left her shop.
Mr Gibson had hung about the town all the morning instead of going away on his usual distant rides. He passed his daughter once or twice in the street, but he did not cross over the way when he was on the opposite side - only gave her a look or a nod, and went on his way, scolding himself for his weakness in feeling so much pain at the thought of her absence for a fortnight or so.
'And, after all,' thought he, 'I am only where I was when she comes back; at least, if that foolish fellow goes on with his imaginary fancy. She'll have to come back some time, and if he chooses to imagine himself constant, there's still the devil to pay.' Presently he began to hum the air out of the 'Beggar's Opera' -
Of course the news of Miss Gibson's approaching departure had spread through the household before the one o'clock dinner-time came; and Mr Coxe's dismal countenance was a source of much inward irritation to Mr Gibson, who kept giving the youth sharp glances of savage reproof for his melancholy face, and the want of appetite; which he trotted out, with a good deal of sad ostentation; all of which was lost upon Molly, who was too full of her own personal concerns to have any thought or observation to spare from them, excepting once or twice when she thought of the many days that must pass over before she should again sit down to dinner with her father.
When she named this to him after the meal was over, and they were sitting together in the drawing-room, waiting for the sound of the wheels of the Hamley carriage, he laughed, and said, -
'I'm coming over to-morrow to see Mrs Hamley; and I dare say I shall dine at their lunch; so you won't have to wait long before you've the treat of seeing the wild beast feed.'
Then they heard the approaching carriage.
'Oh, papa,' said Molly, catching at his hand, 'I do so wish I was not going, now that the time is come.'
'Nonsense; don't let us have any sentiment. Have you got your keys? that's more to the purpose.'
Yes; she had got her keys, and her purse; and her little box was put up on the seat by the coachman; and her father handed her in; the door was shut, and she drove away in solitary grandeur, looking back and kissing her hand to her father, who stood at the gate, in spite of his dislike of sentiment, as long as the carriage could be seen. Then he turned into the surgery, and found Mr Coxe had had his watching too, and had, indeed, remained at the window gazing, moonstruck, at the empty road, up which the young lady had disappeared. Mr Gibson startled him from his reverie by a sharp, almost venomous, speech about some small neglect of duty a day or two before. That night Mr Gibson insisted on passing by the bedside of a poor girl whose parents were worn-out by many wakeful anxious nights succeeding to hard working days.
Molly cried a little, but checked her tears as soon as she remembered how annoyed her father would have been at the sight of them. It was very pleasant driving quickly along in the luxurious carriage, through the pretty green lanes, with dog-roses and honeysuckles so plentiful and rathe in the hedges, that she once or twice was tempted to ask the coachman to stop till she had gathered a nosegay. She began to dread the end of her little journey of seven miles; the only drawback to which was, that her silk was not a true clan-tartan, and a little uncertainty as to Miss Rose's punctuality, At length they came to a village; straggling cottages lined the road, an old church stood on a kind of green, with the public-house close by it; there was a great tree, with a bench all round the trunk, midway between the church gates and the little inn. The wooden stocks were close to the gates. Molly had long passed the limit of her rides, but she knew this must be the village of Hamley, and they must be very near to the hall.
They swung in at the gates of the park in a few minutes, and drove up through meadow-grass, ripening for hay, - it was no grand aristocratic deer-park this - to the old red-brick hall; not three hundred yards from the high-road. There had been no footman sent with the carriage, but a respectable servant stood at the door, even before they drew up, ready to receive the expected visitor, and take her into the drawing-room where his mistress lay awaiting her.
Mrs Hamley rose from her sofa to give Molly a gentle welcome; she kept the girl's hand in hers after she had finished speaking, looking into her face, as if studying it, and unconscious of the faint blush she called up on the otherwise colourless cheeks.
'I think we shall be great friends,' said she, at length. 'I like your face, and I am always guided by first impressions. Give me a kiss, my dear.'
It was far easier to be active than passive during this process of 'swearing eternal friendship,' and Molly willingly kissed the sweet pale face held up to her.
'I meant to have gone and fetched you myself; but the heat oppresses me, and I did not feel up to the exertion. I hope you had a pleasant drive?'
'Very,' said Molly, with shy conciseness.
'And now I will take you to your room; I have had you put close to me; I thought you would like it better, even though it was a smaller room than the other.'
She rose languidly, and wrapping her light shawl round her yet elegant figure, led the way upstairs. Molly's bedroom opened out of Mrs Hamley's private sitting-room; on the other side of which was her own bedroom. She showed Molly this easy means of communication, and then, telling her visitor she would await her in the sitting-room, she closed the door, and Molly was left at leisure to make acquaintance with her surroundings.
First of all, she went to the window to see what was to be seen. A flower-garden right below; a meadow of ripe grass just beyond, changing colour in long sweeps, as the soft wind blew over it; great old forest-trees a little on one side; and, beyond them again, to be seen only by standing very close to the side of the window-sill, or by putting her head out, if the window was open, the silver shimmer of a mere, about a quarter of a mile off. On the opposite side to the trees and the mere, the look-out was bounded by the old walls and high-peaked roofs of the extensive farm-buildings. The deliciousness of the early summer silence was only broken by the song of the birds, and the nearer hum of bees. Listening to these sounds, which enhanced the exquisite sense of stillness, and puzzling out objects obscured by distance or shadow, Molly forgot herself, and was suddenly startled into a sense of the present by a sound of voices in the next room - some servant or other speaking to Mrs Hamley. Molly hurried to unpack her box, and arrange her few clothes in the pretty old-fashioned chest of drawers, which was to serve her as dressing-table as well. All the furniture in the room was as old-fashioned and as well-preserved as it could be. The chintz curtains were Indian calico of the last century - the colours almost washed out, but the stuff itself exquisitely clean. There was a little strip of bedside carpeting, but the wooden flooring, thus liberally displayed, was of finely-grained oak, so firmly joined, plank to plank, that no grain of dust could make its way into the interstices. There were none of the luxuries of modern days; no writing-table, or sofa, or pier-glass. In one corner of the walls was a bracket, holding an Indian jar filled with pot-pourri; and that and the climbing honeysuckle outside the open window scented the room more exquisitely than any toilette perfumes. Molly laid out her white gown (of last year's date and size) upon the bed, ready for the (to her new) operation of dressing for dinner, and having arranged her hair and dress, and taken out her company worsted-work,' she opened the door softly, and saw Mrs Hamley lying on the sofa.
'Shall we stay up here, m dear? I think it is pleasanter than down below; and then I shall not have to come upstairs again at dressing-time.'
'I shall like it very much,' replied Molly.
'Ah! you've got your sewing, like a good girl,' said Mrs Hamley. 'Now, I don't sew much. I live alone a great deal. You see, both my boys are at Cambridge, and the squire is out of doors all day long - so I have almost forgotten how to sew. I read a great deal. Do you like reading?'
'It depends upon the kind of book,' said Molly. 'I'm afraid I don't like "steady reading," as papa calls it.'
'But you like poetry!' said Mrs Hamley, almost interrupting Molly. 'I was sure you did, from your face. Have you read this last poem of Mrs Hemans? Shall I read it aloud to you?'
So she began. Molly was not so much absorbed in listening but that she could glance round the room. The character of the furniture was much the same as in her own. Old-fashioned, of handsome material, and faultlessly clean; the age and the foreign appearance of it gave an aspect of comfort and picturesqueness to the whole apartment. On the walls there hung some crayon sketches - portraits. She thought she could make out that one of them was a likeness of Mrs Hamley, in her beautiful youth. And then she became interested in the poem, and dropped her work, and listened in a manner that was after Mrs Hamley's own heart. When the reading of the poem was ended, Mrs Hamley replied to some of Molly's words of admiration, by saying, -
'Ah! I think I must read you some of Osborne's poetry some day; under seal of secrecy, remember; but I really fancy they are almost as good as Mrs Hemans'.'
To be 'nearly as good as Mrs Hemans" was saying as much to the young ladies of that day, as saying that poetry is nearly as good as Tennyson's would be in this. Molly looked up with eager interest.
'Mr Osborne Hamley? Does your son write poetry?'
'Yes. I really think I may say he is a poet. He is a very brilliant, clever young man, and he quite hopes to get a fellowship at Trinity. He says he is sure to be high up among the wranglers, and that he expects to get one of the Chancellor's medals. That is his likeness - the one hanging against the wall behind you.'
Molly turned round, and saw one of the crayon sketches - representing two boys, in the most youthful kind of jackets and trousers, and falling collars. The elder was sitting down, reading intently. The younger was standing by him, and evidently trying to call the attention of the reader off to some object out of doors - out of the window of the very room in which they were sitting, as Molly discovered when she began to recognize the articles of furniture faintly indicated in the picture.
'I like their faces!' said Molly. 'I suppose it is so long ago now, that I may speak of their likenesses to you as if they were somebody else; may not I?'
'Certainly,' said Mrs Hamley, as soon as she understood what Molly meant. 'Tell me just what you think of them, my dear; it will amuse me to compare your impressions with what they really are.'
'Oh! but I did not mean to guess at their characters. I could not do it; and it would be impertinent, if I could. I can only speak about their faces as I see them in the picture.'
'Well! tell me what you think of them!'
'The eldest - the reading boy - is very beautiful; but I can't quite make out his face yet, because his head is down, and I can't see the eyes. That is the Mr Osborne Hamley who writes poetry?'
'Yes. He is not quite so handsome now; but he was a beautiful boy. Roger was never to be compared with him.'
'No; he is not handsome. And yet I like his face. I can see his eyes. They are grave and solemn-looking; but all the rest of his face is rather merry than otherwise. It looks too steady and sober, too good a face, to go tempting his brother to leave his lesson.'
'Ah! but it was not a lesson. I remember the painter, Mr Green, once saw Osborne reading some poetry, while Roger was trying to persuade him to come out and have a ride in the hay-cart - that was the "motive" of the picture, to speak artistically. Roger is not much of a reader; at least, he doesn't care for poetry, and books of romance, or sentiment. He is so fond of natural history; and that takes him, like the squire, a great deal out of doors; and when he is in, he is always reading scientific books that bear upon his pursuits. He is a good, steady fellow, though, and gives us great satisfaction, but he is not likely to have such a brilliant career as Osborne.'
Molly tried to find out in the picture the characteristics of the two boys, as they were now explained to her by their mother; and in questions and answers about the various drawings hung round the room the time passed away until the dressing-bell rang for the six o'clock dinner.
Molly was rather dismayed by the offers of the maid whom Mrs Hamley had sent to assist her. 'I am afraid they expect me to be very smart,' she kept thinking to herself. 'If they do, they'll be disappointed; that's all. But I wish my plaid silk gown had been ready.'
She looked at herself in the glass with some anxiety, for the first time in her life. She saw a slight, lean figure, promising to be tall; a complexion browner than cream-coloured, although in a year or two it might have that tint; plentiful curly black hair, tied up in a bunch behind with a rose- coloured ribbon; long, almond-shaped, soft grey eyes, shaded both above and below by curling black eye-lashes.
'I don't think I am pretty,' thought Molly, as she turned away from the glass; 'and yet I am not sure.' She would have been sure, if, instead of inspecting herself with such solemnity, she had smiled her own sweet merry smile, and called out the gleam of her teeth, and the charm of her dimples.
She found her way downstairs into the drawing-room in good time; she could look about her, and learn how to feel at home in her new quarters. The room was forty-feet long or so, fitted up with yellow satin at some distant period; high spindle-legged chairs and pembroke-tables abounded. The carpet was of the same date as the curtains, and was threadbare in many places; and in others was covered with drugget. Stands of plants, great jars of flowers, old Indian china and cabinets gave the room the pleasant aspect it certainly had. And to add to it, there were five high, long windows on one side of the room, all opening to the prettiest bit of flower-garden in the grounds - or what was considered as such - brilliant-coloured, geometrically-shaped beds, converging to a sun-dial in the midst. The squire came in abruptly, and in his morning dress; he stood at the door, as if surprised at the white-robed stranger in possession of his hearth. Then, suddenly remembering himself, but not before Molly had begun to feel very hot, he said, -
'Why, God bless my soul, I'd quite forgotten you; you're Miss Gibson, Gibson's daughter, aren't you? Come to pay us a visit? I'm sure I'm very glad to see you, my dear.'
By this time, they had met in the middle of the room, and he was shaking Molly's hand with vehement friendliness, intended to make up for his not knowing her at first.
'I must go and dress, though,' he said, looking at his soiled gaiters. 'Madam likes it. It's one of her fine London ways, and she's broken me into it at last. Very good plan, though, and quite right to make oneself fit for ladies' society. Does your father dress for dinner, Miss Gibson?' He did not stay to wait for her answer, but hastened away to perform his toilette.
They dined at a small table in a great large room. There were so few articles of furniture in it, and the apartment itself was so vast, that Molly longed for the snugness of the home dining-room; nay, it is to be feared that, before the stately dinner at Hamley Hall came to an end, she even regretted the crowded chairs and tables, the hurry of eating, the quick unformal manner in which everybody seemed to finish their meal as fast as possible, and to return to the work they had left. She tried to think that at six o'clock all the business of the day was ended, and that people might linger if they chose. She measured the distance from the sideboard to the table with her eye, and made allowances for the men who had to carry things backwards and forwards; but, all the same, this dinner appeared to her a wearisome business, prolonged because the squire liked it, for Mrs Hamley seemed tired out. She ate even less than Molly, and sent for fan and smelling- bottle to amuse herself with, until at length the table-cloth was cleared away, and the dessert was put upon a mahogany table, polished like a looking-glass.
The squire had hitherto been too busy to talk, except about the immediate concerns of the table, and one or two of the greatest breaks to the usual monotony of his days; a monotony in which he delighted, but which sometimes became oppressive to his wife. Now, however, peeling his orange, he turned to Molly, -
'To-morrow you'll have to do this for me Miss Gibson.'
'Shall I? I'll do it to-day, if you like, sir.'
'No; to-day I shall treat you as a visitor, with all proper ceremony. To-morrow I shall send you errands, and call you by your Christian name.'
'I shall like that,' said Molly.
'I was wanting to call you something less formal than Miss Gibson,' said Mrs Hamley.
'My name is Molly. It is an old-fashioned name, and I was christened Mary. But papa likes Molly.'
'That's right. Keep to the good old fashions, my dear.'
'Well, I must say I think Mary is prettier than Molly, and quite as old a name, too,' said Mrs Hamley.
'I think it was,' said Molly, lowering her voice, and dropping her eyes, 'because mamma was Mary, and I was called Molly while she lived.'
'Ah, poor thing,' said the squire, not perceiving his wife's signs to change the subject, 'I remember how sorry every one was when she died; no one thought she was delicate, she had such a fresh colour, till all at once she popped off, as one may say.'
'It must have been a terrible blow to your father,' said Mrs Hamley, seeing that Molly did not know what to answer.
'Ay, ay. It came so sudden, so soon after they were married.'
'I thought it was nearly four years,' said Molly.
'And four years is soon - is a short time to a couple who look to spending their lifetime together. Every one thought Gibson would have married again.'
'Hush,' said Mrs Hamley, seeing in Molly's eyes and change of colour how completely this was a new idea to her. But the squire was not so easily stopped.
'Well - I'd perhaps better not have said it, but it's the truth; they did. He's not likely to marry now, so one may say it out. Why, your father is past forty, isn't he?'
'Forty-three. I don't believe he ever thought of marrying again,' said Molly, recurring to the idea, as one does to that of danger which has passed by, without one's being aware of it.
'No! I don't believe he did my dear. He looks to me just like a man who would be constant to the memory of his wife. You must not mind what the squire says.'
'Ah! you'd better go away, if you're going to teach Miss Gibson such treason as that against the master of the house.' Molly went into the drawing-room with Mrs Hamley, but her thoughts did not change with the room. She could not help dwelling on the danger which she fancied she had escaped, and was astonished at her own stupidity at never having imagined such a possibility as her father's second marriage. She felt that she was answering Mrs Hamley's remarks in a very unsatisfactory manner.
'There is papa, with the squire!' she suddenly exclaimed. There they were coming across the flower-garden from the stable-yard, her father switching his boots with his riding whip, in order to make them presentable in Mrs Hamley's drawing-room. He looked so exactly like his usual self, his home-self, that the seeing him in the flesh was the most efficacious way of dispelling the phantom fears of a second wedding, which were beginning to harass his daughter's mind; and the pleasant conviction that he could not rest till he had come over to see how she was going on in her new home, stole into her heart, although he spoke but little to her, and that little was all in a joking tone. After he had gone away, the squire undertook to teach her cribbage; and she was happy enough now to give him all her attention. He kept on prattling while they played; sometimes in relation to the cards; at others telling her of small occurrences which he thought might interest her.
'So you don't know my boys, even by sight. I should have thought you would have done, for they are fond enough of riding into Hollingford; and I know Roger has often enough been to borrow books from your father. Roger is a scientific sort of a fellow. Osborne is clever, like this mother. I should not wonder if he published a book some day. You're not counting right, Miss Gibson. Why, I could cheat you as easily as possible.' And so on, till the butler came in with a solemn look, placed a large prayer-book before his master, who huddled the cards away in a hurry, as if caught in an incongruous employment; and then the maids and men trooped in to prayers - the windows were still open, and the sounds of the solitary corncrake, and the owl hooting in the trees, mingled with the words spoken. Then to bed; and so ended the day.
Molly looked out of her chamber window - leaning on the sill, and snuffing up the night odours of the honeysuckle. The soft velvet darkness hid everything that was at any distance from her; although she was as conscious of their presence as if she had seen them.
'I think I shall be very happy here,' was in Molly's thoughts, as she turned away at length, and began to prepare for bed. Before long the squire's words, relating to her father's second marriage, came across her, and spoilt the sweet peace of her final thoughts. 'Who could he have married?' she asked herself. 'Miss Eyre? Miss Browning? Miss Phoebe? Miss Goodenough?' One by one, each of these was rejected for sufficient reasons. Yet the unsatisfied question rankled in her mind, and darted out of ambush to disturb her dreams.
Mrs Hamley did not come down to breakfast; and Molly found out, with a little dismay, that the squire and she were to have it tete-a-tete. On this first morning he put aside his newspapers - one an old established Tory journal, with all the local and county news, which was the most interesting to him; the other the Morning Chronicle, which he called his dose of bitters, and which called out many a strong expression and tolerably pungent oath. To-day, however, he was 'on his manners,' as he afterwards explained to Molly; and he plunged about, trying to find ground for a conversation. He could talk of his wife and his sons, his estate, and his mode of farming; his tenants, and the mismanagement of the last county election. Molly's interests were her father, Miss Eyre, her garden and pony; in a fainter degree the Miss Brownings, the Cumnor Charity School, and the new gown that was to come from Miss Rose's; into the midst of which the one great question, 'Who was it that people thought it was possible papa might marry?' kept popping up into her mouth, like a troublesome Jack-in-the-box. For the present, however, the lid was snapped down upon the intruder as often as he showed his head between her teeth. They were very polite to each other during the meal; and it was not a little tiresome to both. When it was ended the squire withdrew into his study to read the untasted newspapers. It was the custom to call the room in which Squire Hamley kept his coats, boots, and gaiters, his different sticks and favourite spud, his gun and fishing-rods, the study. There was a bureau in it, and a three-cornered arm-chair, but no books were visible. The greater part of them were kept in a large, musty-smelling room, in an unfrequented part of the house; so unfrequented that the housemaid often neglected to open the window-shutters, which looked into a part of the grounds over-grown with the luxuriant growth of shrubs. Indeed, it was a tradition in the servants' hall that, in the late squire's time - he who had been plucked at college - the library windows had been boarded up to avoid paying the window-tax. And when the 'young gentlemen' were at home the housemaid, without a single direction to that effect, was regular in her charge of this room; opened the windows and lighted fires daily, and dusted the handsomely-bound volumes, which were really a very fair collection of the standard literature in the middle of the last century. All the books that had been purchased since that time were held in small book-cases between each two of the drawing-room windows, and in Mrs Hamley's own sitting-room upstairs. Those in the drawing-room were quite enough to employ Molly; indeed she was so deep in one of Sir Walter Scott's novels that she jumped as if she had been shot, when an hour or so after breakfast the squire came to the gravel-path outside one of the windows, and called to ask her if she would like to come out of doors and go about the garden and home-fields with him.
'It must be a little dull for you, my girl, all by yourself, with nothing but books to look at, in the mornings here; but you see, madam has a fancy for being quiet in the mornings: she told your father about it, and so did I, but I felt sorry for you all the same, when I saw you sitting on the ground all alone in the drawing-room.'
Molly had been in the very middle of the Bride of Lammermoor, and would gladly have stayed in-doors to finish it, but she felt the squire's kindness all the same. They went in and out of old-fashioned greenhouses, over trim lawns, the squire unlocked the great walled kitchen-garden, and went about giving directions to gardeners; and all the time Molly followed him like a little dog, her mind quite full of 'Ravenswood' and 'Lucy Ashton.' Presently, every place near the house had been inspected and regulated, and the squire was more at liberty to give his attention to his companion, as they passed through the little wood that separated the gardens from the adjoining fields. Molly, too, plucked away her thoughts from the seventeenth century; and, somehow or other, that one question, which had so haunted her before, came out of her lips before she was aware - a literal impromptu, -
'Who did people think papa would marry? That time - long ago - soon after mamma died?'
She dropped her voice very soft and low, as she spoke the last words. The squire turned round upon her, and looked at her face, he knew not why. It was very grave, a little pale, but her steady eyes almost commanded some kind of answer.
'Whew,' said he, whistling to gain time; not that he had anything definite to say, for no one had ever had any reason to join Mr Gibson's name with any known lady: it was only a loose conjecture that had been hazarded on the probabilities - a young widower, with a little girl.
'I never heard of any one - his name was never coupled with any lady's - 'twas only in the nature of things that he should marry again; he may do it yet, for aught I know, and I don't think it would be a bad move either. I told him so, the last time but one he was here.'
'And what did he say?' asked breathless Molly.
'Oh: he only smiled, and said nothing. You shouldn't take up words so seriously, my dear. Very likely he may never think of marrying again, and if he did, it would be a very good thing both for him and for you!'
Molly muttered something, as if to herself, but the squire might have heard it if he had chosen. As it was, he wisely turned the current of the conversation.
'Look at that!' he said, as they suddenly came upon the mere, or large pond. There was a small island in the middle of the glassy water, on which grew tall trees, dark Scotch firs in the centre, silvery shimmering willows close to the water's edge. 'We must get you punted over there, some of these days. I'm not fond of using the boat at this time of the year, because the young birds are still in the nests among the reeds and water-plants; but we'll go. There are coots and grebes.'
'Oh, look, there's a swan!'
'Yes; there are two pair of them here. And in those trees there is both a rookery and a heronry; the herons ought to be here by now, for they're off to the sea in August, but I have not seen one yet. Stay! is not that one - that fellow on a stone, with his long neck bent down, looking into the water?'
'Yes! I think so. I have never seen a heron, only pictures of them.'
'They and the rooks are always at war, which does not do for such near neighbours. If both herons leave the nest they are building, the rooks come and tear it to pieces; and once Roger showed me a long straggling fellow of a heron, with a flight of rooks after him, with no friendly purpose in their minds, I'll be bound. Roger knows a deal of natural history, and finds out queer things sometimes. He would have been off a dozen times during this walk of ours, if he'd been here; his eyes are always wandering about, and see twenty things where I only see one. Why! I have known him bolt into a copse because he saw something fifteen yards off - some plant, maybe, which he would tell me was very rare, though I should say I'd seen its marrow at every turn in the woods; and, if we came upon such a thing as this,' touching a delicate film of a cobweb upon a leaf with his stick, as he spoke, 'why, he could tell you what insect or spider made it, and if it lived in rotten fir-wood, or in a cranny of good sound timber, or deep down in the ground, or up in the sky, or anywhere. It is a pity they don't take honours in Natural History at Cambridge. Roger would be safe enough if they did.'
'Mr Osborne Hamley is very clever, is he not?' Molly asked, timidly.
'Oh, yes. Osborne's a bit of a genius. His mother looks for great things from Osborne. I'm rather proud of him myself. He'll get a Trinity fellowship, if they play him fair. As I was saying at the magistrates' meeting yesterday, "I've got a son who will make a noise at Cambridge, or I'm very much mistaken." Now, is it not a queer quip of Nature,' continued the squire, turning his honest face towards Molly, as if he was going to impart a new idea to her, 'that I, a Hamley of Hamley, straight in descent from nobody knows when - the Heptarchy, they say - What's the date of the Heptarchy?'
'I don't know,' said Molly, startled at being thus appealed to.
'Well! it was some time before King Alfred, because he was the King of all England, you know; but, as I was saying, here am I, of as good and as old a descent as any man in England, and I doubt if a stranger to look at me, would take me for a gentleman, with my red face, great hands and feet, and thick figure, fourteen stone, and never less than twelve even when I was a young man;' and there's Osborne, who takes after his mother, who could not tell her great-grandfather from Adam, bless her; and Osborne has a girl's delicate face, and a slight make, and hands and feet as small as a lady's. He takes after madam's side, who, as I said, can't tell who was their grandfather. Now, Roger is like me, a Hamley of Hamley, and no one who sees him in the street will ever think that red-brown, big-boned, clumsy chap is of gentle blood. Yet all those Cumnor people, you make such ado of in Hollingford, are mere muck of yesterday. I was talking to madam the other day about Osborne's marrying a daughter of Lord Hollingford's - that's to say, if he had a daughter - he's only got boys, as it happens; but I'm not sure if I should consent to it. I really am not sure; for you see Osborne will have had a first-rate education, and his family dates from the Heptarchy, while I should be glad to know where the Cumnor folk were in the time of Queen Anne?' He walked on, pondering the question of whether he could have given his consent to this impossible marriage; and after some time, and when Molly had quite forgotten the subject to which he alluded, he broke out with - 'No! I am sure I should have looked higher. So, perhaps, it's as well my Lord Hollingford has only boys.'
After a while, he thanked Molly for her companionship, with old-fashioned courtesy; and told her that he thought, by this time, madam would be up and dressed, and glad to have her young visitor with her. He pointed out the deep purple house, with its stone facings, as it was seen at some distance between the trees, and watched her protectingly on her way along the field-paths.
'That's a nice girl of Gibson's,' quoth he to himself. 'But what a tight hold the wench got of the notion of his marrying again! One had need be on one's guard as to what one says before her. To think of her never having thought of the chance of a step-mother. To be sure, a step-mother to a girl is a different thing to a second wife to a man!'
If Squire Hamley had been unable to tell Molly who had ever been thought of as her father's second wife, fate was all this time preparing an answer of a pretty positive kind to her wondering curiosity. But fate is a cunning hussy, and builds up her plans as imperceptibly as a bird builds her nest; and with much the same kind of unconsidered trifles.' The first 'trifle' of an event was the disturbance which Jenny (Mr Gibson's cook) chose to make at Bethia's being dismissed. Bethia was a distant relation and protegee of Jenny's, and she chose to say it was Mr Coxe the tempter who ought to have 'been sent packing,' not Bethia the tempted, the victim. In this view there was quite enough plausibility to make Mr Gibson feel that he had been rather unjust. He had, however, taken care to provide Bethia with another situation, to the full as good as that which she held in his family. Jenny, nevertheless, chose to give warning; and though Mr Gibson knew full well from former experience that her warnings were words, not deeds, he hated the discomfort, the uncertainty, - the entire disagreeableness of meeting a woman at any time in his house, who wore a grievance and an injury upon her face as legibly as Jenny took care to do.
Down into the middle of this small domestic trouble came another, and one of greater consequence. Miss Eyre had gone with her old mother, and her orphan nephews and nieces, to the sea-side, during Molly's absence, which was only intended at first to last for a fortnight. After about ten days of this time had elapsed, Mr Gibson received a beautifully written, beautifully worded, admirably folded, and most neatly sealed letter from Miss Eyre. Her eldest nephew had fallen ill of scarlet fever, and there was every probability that the younger children would be attacked by the same complaint. It was distressing enough for poor Miss Eyre - this additional expense, this anxiety - the long detention from home which the illness involved. But she said not a word of any inconvenience to herself; she only apologized with humble sincerity for her inability to return at the appointed time to her charge in Mr Gibson's family; meekly adding, that perhaps it was as well, for Molly had never had the scarlet fever, and even if Miss Eyre had been able to leave the orphan children to return to her employments, it might not have been a safe or a prudent step.
'To be sure not,' said Mr Gibson, tearing the letter in two, and throwing it into the hearth, where he soon saw it burnt to ashes. 'I wish I'd a five-pound house and not a woman within ten miles of me. I might have some peace then.' Apparently, he forgot Mr Coxe's powers of making mischief; but indeed he might have traced that evil back to unconscious Molly. The martyr-cook's entrance to take away the breakfast things, which she announced by a heavy sigh, roused Mr Gibson from thought to action.
'Molly must stay a little longer at Hamley,' he resolved. 'They've often asked for her, and now they'll have enough of her, I think. But I can't have her back here just yet; and so the best I can do for her is to leave her where she is. Mrs Hamley seems very fond of her, and the child is looking happy, and stronger in health. I'll ride round by Hamley to-day at any rate, and see how the land lies.'
He found Mrs Hamley lying on a sofa placed under the shadow of the great cedar-tree on the lawn. Molly was flitting about her, gardening away under her directions; tying up the long sea-green stalks of bright budded carnations, snipping off dead roses.
'Oh! here's papa!' she cried out joyfully, as he rode up to the white paling which separated the trim lawn and trimmer flower-garden from the rough park-like ground in front of the house.
'Come in - come here - through the drawing-room window,' said Mrs Hamley, raising herself on her elbow. 'We've got a rose-tree to show you that Molly has budded all by herself. We are both so proud of it.'
So Mr Gibson rode round to the stables, left his horse there, and made his way through the house to the open-air summer-parlour under the cedar-tree, where there were chairs, a table, books, and tangled work. Somehow, he rather disliked asking for Molly to prolong her visit; so he determined to swallow his bitter first, and then take the pleasure of the delicious day, the sweet repose, the murmurous, scented air. Molly stood by him, her hand on his shoulder. He sate opposite to Mrs Hamley.
'I have come here to-day to ask for a favour,' he began.
'Granted before you name it. Am not I a bold woman?'
He smiled and bowed, but went straight on with his speech.
'Miss Eyre, who has been Molly's - governess, I suppose I must call her - for many years, writes to-day to say that one of the little nephews she took with her to Newport while Molly was staying here, has caught the scarlet fever.'
'I guess your request. I make it before you do. I beg for dear little Molly to stay on here. Of course Miss Eyre can't come back to you; and of course Molly must stay here!'
'Thank you; thank you very much. That was my request.'
Molly's hand stole down to his, and nestled in that firm compact grasp.
'Papa! - Mrs Hamley! - I know you'll both understand me - but mayn't I go home? I am very very happy here; but - oh papa! I think I should like to be at home with you best.'
An uncomfortable suspicion flashed across his mind. He pulled her round, and looked straight and piercingly into her innocent face. Her colour came at his unwonted scrutiny, but her sweet eyes were filled with wonder, rather than with any feeling which he dreaded to find. For an instant he had doubted whether young red-headed Mr Coxe's love might not have called out a response in his daughter s breast; but he was quite clear now.
'Molly, you're rude to begin with. I don't know how you're to make your peace with Mrs Hamley, I'm sure. And in the next place, do you think you're wiser than I am; or that I don't want you at home, if all other things were conformable? Stay where you are, and be thankful.'
Molly knew him well enough to be certain that the prolongation of her visit at Hamley was quite a decided affair in his mind; and then she was smitten with a sense of ingratitude. She left her father, and went to Mrs Hamley, and bent over and kissed her; but she did not speak. Mrs Hamley took hold of her hand, and made room on the sofa for her.
'I was going to have asked for a longer visit the next time you came, Mr Gibson. We are such happy friends, are not we, Molly? and now that this good little nephew of Miss Eyre's -- '
'I wished he was whipped,' said Mr Gibson.
' - has given us such a capital reason, I shall keep Molly for a real long visitation. You must come over and see us very often. There's a room here for you always, you know; and I don't see why you should not start on your rounds from Hamley every morning, just as well as from Hollingford.'
'Thank you. If you had not been so kind to my little girl, I might be tempted to say something rude in answer to your last speech.'
'Pray say it. You won't be easy till you have given it out, I know.'
'Mrs Hamley has found out from whom I get my rudeness,' said Molly, triumphantly. 'It's an hereditary quality.'
'I was going to say that proposal of yours that I should sleep at Hamley was just like a woman's idea - all kindness, and no common sense. How in the world would my patients find me out, seven miles from my accustomed place? They'd be sure to send for some other doctor, and I should be ruined in a month.'
'Could not they send on here? A messenger costs very little.'
'Fancy old Goody Henbury struggling up to my surgery, groaning at every step, and then being told to just step on seven miles farther! Or take the other end of society: - I don't think my Lady Cumnor's smart groom would thank me for having to ride on to Hamley every time his mistress wants me.'
'Well, well, I submit. I am a woman. Molly, thou art a woman! Go and order some strawberries and cream for this father of yours. Such humble offices fall within the province of women. Strawberries and cream are all kindness and no common sense, for they'll give him a horrid fit of indigestion.'
'Please speak for yourself, Mrs Hamley,' said Molly, merrily. 'I ate - oh, such a great basketful yesterday, and the squire went himself to the dairy and brought me out a great bowl of cream when he found me at my busy work. And I'm as well as ever I was, to-day, and never had a touch of indigestion near me.'
'She's a good girl,' said her father, when she had danced out of hearing. The words were not quite an inquiry, he was so certain of his answer. There was a mixture of tenderness and trust in his eyes, as he awaited the reply, which came in a moment.
'She's a darling! I cannot tell you how fond the squire and I are of her; both of us. I am so delighted to think she is not to go away for a long time. The first thing I thought of this morning when I wakened up, was that she would soon have to return to you, unless I could persuade you into leaving her with me a little longer. And now she must stay - oh, two months at least.'
It was quite true that the squire had become very fond of Molly. The charm of having a young girl dancing and singing inarticulate ditties about the house and garden, was indescribable in its novelty to him. And then Molly was. so willing and so wise; ready both to talk and to listen at the right times. Mrs Hamley was quite right in speaking of her husband's fondness for Molly. But either she herself chose a wrong time for telling him of the prolongation of the girl's visit, or one of the fits of temper to which he was liable, but which he generally strove to check in the presence of his wife, was upon him; at any rate, he received the news in anything but a gracious frame of mind.
'Stay longer! Did Gibson ask for it?' 'Yes! I don't see what else is to become of her; Miss Eyre away and all. It's a very awkward position for a motherless girl like her to be at the head of a household with two young men in it.'
'That's Gibson's look-out; he should have thought of it before taking pupils, or apprentices, or whatever he calls them.'
'My dear squire! why, I thought you'd be as glad as I was - as I am to keep Molly. I asked her to stay for an indefinite time; two months at least.'
'And to be in the house with Osborne! Roger, too, will be at home.'
By the cloud in the squire's eyes, Mrs Hamley read his mind.
'Oh, she's not at all the sort of girl young men of their age would take to, We like her because we see what she really is; but lads of one or two and twenty want all the accessories of a young woman.'
'Want what?' growled the squire.
'Such things as becoming dress, style of manner. They would not at their age even see that she is pretty; their ideas of beauty would include colour.'
'I suppose all that's very clever; but I don't understand it. All I know is, that it's a very dangerous thing to shut two young men of one and three and twenty up in a country-house like this, with a girl of seventeen - choose what her gowns may be like, or her hair, or her eyes. And I told you particularly I didn't want Osborne, or either of them, indeed, to be falling in love with her. I'm very much annoyed.'
Mrs Hamley's face fell; she became a little pale.
'Shall we make arrangements for their stopping away while she is here; staying up at Cambridge, or reading with some one? going abroad for a month or two?'
'No; you've been reckoning this ever so long on their coming home. I've seen the marks of the weeks on your almanack. I'd sooner speak to Gibson, and tell him he must take his daughter away, for it's not convenient to us -- '
'My dear Roger! I beg you will do no such thing. It will be so unkind; it will give the lie to all I said yesterday. Don't, please, do that. For my sake, don't speak to Mr Gibson!'
'Well, well, don't put yourself in a flutter,' for he was afraid of her becoming hysterical; 'I'll speak to Osborne when he comes home, and tell him how much I should dislike anything of the kind.'
'And Roger is always far too full of his natural history and comparative anatomy, and messes of that sort, to be thinking of falling in love with Venus herself, He has not the sentiment and imagination of Osborne.'
'Ah, you don't know; you never can be sure about a young man! But with Roger it wouldn't so much signify. He would know he couldn't marry for years to come.'
All that afternoon the squire tried to steer clear of Molly, to whom he felt himself to have been an inhospitable traitor. But she was so perfectly unconscious of his shyness of her, and so merry and sweet in her behaviour as a welcome guest, never distrusting him for a moment, however gruff he might be, that by the next morning she had completely won him round, and they were quite on the old terms again. At breakfast this very morning, a letter was passed from the squire to his wife, and back again, without a word as to its contents; but -
Little did Molly apply these expressions to the piece of news Mrs Hamley told her in the course of the day; namely, that her son Osborne had received an invitation to stay with a friend in the neighbourhood of Cambridge, and perhaps to make a tour on the Continent with him subsequently; and that, consequently, he would not accompany his brother when Roger came home.
Molly was very sympathetic.
'Oh, dear! I am so sorry!'
Mrs Hamley was thankful her husband was not present, Molly spoke the words so heartily.
'You have been thinking so long of his coming home. I am afraid it is a great disappointment.'
Mrs Hamley smiled - relieved.
'Yes! it is a disappointment certainly, but we must think of Osborne's pleasure. And with his poetical mind, he will write us such delightful travelling letters. Poor fellow! he must be going into the examination to-day! Both his father and I feel sure, though, that he will be a high wrangler.' Only - I should like to have seen him, my own dear boy. But it is best as it is.'
Molly was a little puzzled by this speech, but soon put it out of her head. It was a disappointment to her, too, that she should not see this beautiful, brilliant young man, his mother's hero. From time to time her maiden fancy had dwelt upon what he would be like; how the lovely boy of the picture in Mrs Hamley's dressing-room would have changed in the ten years that had elapsed since the likeness was taken; if he would read poetry aloud; if he would even read his own poetry. However, in the never-ending feminine business of the day, she soon forgot her own disappointment; it only came back to her on first wakening the next morning, as a vague something that was not quite so pleasant as she had anticipated, and then was banished as a subject of regret. Her days at Hamley were well filled up with the small duties that would have belonged to a daughter of the house had there been one. She made breakfast for the lonely squire, and would willingly have carried up madam's, but that daily piece of work belonged to the squire, and was jealously guarded by him. She read the smaller print of the newspapers aloud to him, city articles, money and corn-markets included. She strolled about the gardens with him, gathering fresh flowers, meanwhile, to deck the drawing-room against Mrs Hamley should come down. She was her companion when she took her drives in the close carriage; they read poetry and mild literature together in Mrs Hamley's sitting-room upstairs. She was quite clever at cribbage now, and could beat the squire if she took pains. Besides these things, there were her own independent ways of employing herself. She used to try to practise a daily hour on the old grand piano in the solitary drawing-room, because she had promised Miss Eyre she would do so. And she had found her way into the library, and used to undo the heavy bars of the shutters if the housemaid had forgotten this duty, and mount the ladder, sitting on the steps, for an hour at a time, deep in some book of the old English classics. The summer days were very short to this happy girl of seventeen.
On Thursday, the quiet country household was stirred through all its fibres with the thought of Roger's coming home. Mrs Hamley had not seemed quite so well, or quite in such good spirits for two or three days before; and the squire himself had appeared to be put out without any visible cause. They had not chosen to tell Molly that Osborne's name had only appeared very low down in the mathematical tripos. So all that their visitor knew was that something was out of tune, and she hoped that Roger's coming home would set it to rights, for it was beyond the power of her small cares and wiles.
On Thursday, the housemaid apologized to her for some slight negligence in her bedroom, by saying she had been busy scouring Mr Roger's rooms. 'Not but what they were as clean as could be beforehand; but mistress would always have the young gentlemen's rooms cleaned afresh before they came home. If it had been Mr Osborne, the whole house would have had to be done; but to be sure he was the eldest son, so it was but likely.' Molly was amused at this testimony to the rights of heirship; but somehow she herself had fallen into the family manner of thinking that nothing was too great or too good for 'the eldest son.' In his father's eyes, Osborne was the representative of the ancient house of Hamley of Hamley, the future owner of the land which had been theirs for a thousand years. His mother clung to him because they two were cast in the same mould, both physically and mentally - because he bore her maiden name. She had indoctrinated Molly with her faith, and, in spite of her amusement at the housemaid's speech, the girl visitor would have been as anxious as any one to show her feudal loyalty to the heir, if indeed it had been he that was coming. After luncheon, Mrs Hamley went to rest, in preparation for Roger's return; and Molly also retired to her own room, feeling that it would be better for her to remain there until dinner-time, and so to leave the father and mother to receive their boy in privacy. She took a book of MS. poems with her; they were all of Osborne Hamley's composition; and his mother had read some of them aloud to her young visitor more than once. Molly had asked permission to copy one or two of those which were her greatest favourites; and this quiet summer afternoon she took this copying for her employment, sitting at the pleasant open window, and losing herself in dreamy out-looks into the gardens and woods, quivering in the noontide heat. The house was so still, in its silence it might have been the 'moated grange;' the booming buzz of the blue flies, in the great staircase window, seemed the loudest noise in-doors. And there was scarcely a sound out-of-doors but the humming of bees, in the flower-beds below the window. Distant voices from the far-away fields in which they were making hay - the scent of which came in sudden wafts distinct from that of the nearer roses and honey-suckles - these merry piping voices just made Molly feel the depth of the present silence. She had left off copying, her hand weary with the unusual exertion of so much writing, and she was lazily trying to learn one or two of the poems off by heart.
she kept saying to herself, losing her sense of whatever meaning the words had ever had, in the repetition which had become mechanical. Suddenly there was the snap of a shutting gate; wheels cranching on the dry gravel, horses' feet on the drive; a loud cheerful voice in the house, coming up through the open windows, the hall, the passages, the staircase, with unwonted fulness and roundness of tone. The entrance-hall downstairs was paved with diamonds of black and white marble; the low wide staircase that went in short flights around the hall, till you could look down upon the marble floor from the top story of the house, was uncarpeted - uncovered. The squire was too proud of his beautifully-joined oaken flooring to cover this staircase up unnecessarily; not to say a word of the usual state of want of ready money to expend upon the decorations of his house. So, through the undraperied hollow square of the hall and staircase every sound ascended clear and distinct; and Molly heard the squire's glad 'Hollo! here he is,' and madam's softer, more plaintive voice; and then the loud, full, strange tone, which she knew must be Roger's. Then there was an opening and shutting of doors, and only a distant buzz of talking. Molly began again -
And this time she had nearly finished learning the poem, when she heard Mrs Hamley come hastily into her sitting-room that adjoined Molly's bedroom, and burst out into an irrepressible half-hysterical fit of sobbing. Molly was too young to have any complication of motives which should prevent her going at once to try and give what comfort she could. In an instant she was kneeling at Mrs Hamley's feet, holding the poor lady's hands, kissing them, murmuring soft words; which, all unmeaning as they were of aught but sympathy with the untold grief, did Mrs Hamley good. She checked herself, smiling sadly at Molly through the midst of her thick-coming sobs.
'It's only Osborne,' said she, at last. 'Roger has been telling us about him.'
'What about him?' asked Molly, eagerly.
'I knew on Monday; we had a letter - he said he had not done so well as we had hoped - as he had hoped himself, poor fellow! He said he had just passed, - was only low down among the junior optimes, and not where he had expected, and had led us to expect, But the squire has never been at college, and does not understand college terms, and he has been asking Roger all about it, and Roger has been telling him, and it has made him so angry. But the squire hates college slang; - he has never been there, you know; and he thought poor Osborne was taking it too lightly, and he has been asking Roger about it, and Roger -- '
There was a fresh fit of the sobbing crying. Molly burst out, -
'I don't think Mr Roger should have told; he had no need to begin so soon about his brother's failure. Why, he hasn't been in the house an hour!'
'Hush, hush, love!' said Mrs Hamley. 'Roger is so good. You don't understand. The squire Would begin and ask questions before Roger had tasted food - as soon as ever we had got into the dining-room. And all he said - to me, at any rate - was that Osborne was nervous, and that if he could only have gone in for the Chancellor's medals, he would have carried all before him. But Roger said that after failing like this, he is not very likely to get a fellowship, which the squire had placed his hopes on. Osborne himself seemed so sure of it, that the squire can't understand it, and is seriously angry, and growing more so the more he talks about it. He has kept it in two or three days, and that never suits him. He is always better when he is angry about a thing at once, and does not let it smoulder in his mind. Poor, poor Osborne! I did wish he had been coming straight home, instead of going to these friends of his; I thought I could have comforted him. But now I'm glad, for it will be better to let his father's anger cool first.'
So talking out what was in her heart, Mrs Hamley became more composed; and at length she dismissed Molly to dress for dinner, with a kiss, saying, -
'You're a real blessing to mothers, child! You give one such pleasant sympathy, both in one's gladness and in one's sorrow; in one's pride (for I was so proud last week, so confident), and in one's disappointment. And now your being a fourth at dinner will keep us off that sore subject; there are times when a stranger in the household is a wonderful help.'
Molly thought over all that she had heard, as she was dressing and putting on the terrible, over-smart plaid gown in honour of the new arrival. Her unconscious fealty to Osborne was not in the least shaken by his having come to grief at Cambridge. Only she was indignant - with or without reason - against Roger, who seemed to have brought the reality of bad news as an offering of first-fruits on his return home.
She went down into the drawing-room with anything but a welcome to him in her heart. He was standing by his mother; the squire had not yet made his appearance. Molly thought that the two were hand in hand when she first opened the door, but she could not be quite sure. Mrs Hamley came a little forwards to meet her, and introduced her in so fondly intimate a way to her son, that Molly, innocent and simple, knowing nothing but Hollingford manners, which were anything but formal, half put out her hand to shake hands with one of whom she had heard so much - the son of such kind friends. She could only hope he had not seen the movement, for he made no attempt to respond to it; only bowed.
He was a tall powerfully-made young man, giving the impression of strength more than elegance. His face was rather square, ruddy-coloured (as his father had said), hair and eyes brown - the latter rather deep-set beneath his thick eyebrows; and he had a trick of wrinkling up his eyelids when he wanted particularly to observe anything, which made his eyes look even smaller still at such times. He had a large mouth, with excessively mobile lips; and another trick of his was, that when he was amused at anything, he resisted the impulse to laugh, by a droll manner of twitching and puckering up his mouth, till at length the sense of humour had its way, and his features relaxed, and he broke into a broad sunny smile; his beautiful teeth - his only beautiful feature - breaking out with a white gleam upon the red-brown countenance. These two tricks of his - of crumpling up the eyelids, so as to concentrate the power of sight, which made him look stern and thoughtful; and the odd twitching of the lips, which was preliminary to a smile, which made him. look intensely merry - gave the varying expressions of his face a greater range 'from grave to gay, from lively to severe,' than is common to most men. To Molly, who was not finely discriminative in her glances at the stranger this first night, he simply appeared 'heavy-looking, clumsy,' and 'a person she was sure she should never get on with.' He certainly did not seem to care much what impression he made upon his mother's visitor. He was at that age when young men admire a formed beauty more than a face with any amount of future capability of loveliness, and when they are morbidly conscious of the difficulty of finding subjects of conversation in talking to girls in a state of feminine hobbledehoyhood. Besides, his thoughts were full of other subjects, which he did not intend to allow to ooze out in words, yet he wanted to prevent any of that heavy silence which he feared might be impending - with an angry and displeased father, and a timorous and distressed mother. He only looked upon Molly as a badly-dressed, and rather awkward girl, with black hair and an intelligent face, who might help him in the task he had set himself of keeping up a bright general conversation during the rest of the evening; might help him - if she would, but she would not. She thought him unfeeling in his talkativeness; his constant flow of words upon indifferent subjects was a wonder and a repulsion to her. How could he go on so cheerfully while his mother sate there, scarcely eating anything, and doing her best, with ill success, to swallow down the tears that would keep rising to her eyes; when his father's heavy brow was deeply clouded, and he evidently cared nothing - at first at least - for all the chatter his son poured forth? Had Mr Roger Hamley no sympathy in him? She would show that she had, at any rate. So she quite declined the part, which he had hoped she would have taken, of respondent, and possible questioner; and his work became more and more like that of a man walking in a quagmire. Once the squire roused himself to speak to the butler; he felt the need of outward stimulus - of a better vintage than usual.
'Bring up a bottle of the Burgundy with the yellow seal.'
He spoke low; he had no spirit to speak in his usual voice. The butler answered in the same tone. Molly sitting near them, and silent herself, heard what they said.
'If you please, sir, there are not above six bottles of that seal left; and it is Mr Osborne's favourite wine.'
The squire turned round with a growl in his voice.
'Bring up a bottle of the Burgundy with the yellow seal, as I said.'
The butler went away, wondering. 'Mr Osborne's' likes and dislikes had been the law of the house in general until now. If he had liked any particular food or drink, any seat or place, any special degree of warmth or coolness, his wishes were to be attended to; for he was the heir, and he was delicate, and he was the clever one of the family. All the out-of-doors men would have said the same; Mr Osborne wished a tree cut down, or kept standing, or had such-and-such a fancy about the game; or had desired something unusual about the horses; and they had all to attend to it as if it were law. But to-day the Burgundy with the yellow seal was to be brought; and it was brought. Molly testified with quiet vehemence of action; she never took wine, so she need not have been afraid of the man's pouring it into her glass; but as an open mark of fealty to the absent Osborne, however little it might be understood, she placed the palm of her small brown hand over the top of the glass, and held it there, till the wine had gone round, and Roger and his father were in full enjoyment of the same.
After dinner, too, the gentlemen lingered long over their dessert, and Molly heard them laughing; and then she saw them loitering about in the twilight out-of-doors; Roger hatless, his hands in his pockets, lounging by his father's side, who was now able to talk in his usual loud and cheerful way, forgetting Osborne. Voe, victis!
And so in mute opposition on Molly's side, in polite indifference, scarcely verging on kindliness on his, Roger and she steered clear of each other. He had many occupations in which he needed no companionship, even if she had been qualified to give it. The worst was, that she found he was in the habit of occupying the library, her favourite retreat, in the mornings before Mrs Hamley came down. She opened the half-closed door a day or two after his return home, and found him busy among books and papers, with which the large leather-covered table was strewn; and she softly withdrew before he could turn his head and see her, so as to distinguish her from one of the housemaids. He rode out every day, sometimes with his father about the outlying fields, sometimes far away for a good gallop. Molly would have enjoyed accompanying him on these occasions, for she was very fond of riding; and there had been some talk of sending for her habit and grey pony when first she came to Hamley; only the squire, after some consideration, had said he so rarely did more than go slowly from one field to another, where his labourers were at work, that he feared she would find such slow work - ten minutes riding through heavy land, twenty minutes sitting still on horseback, listening to the directions he should have to give to his men - rather dull. Now, when if she had had her pony here she might have ridden out with Roger, without giving him any trouble - she would have taken care of that - nobody seemed to think of renewing the proposal. Altogether it was pleasanter before he came home.
Her father came over pretty frequently; sometimes there were long unaccountable absences, it was true; when his daughter began to fidget after him, and to wonder what had become of him. But when he made his appearance he had always good reasons to give; and the right she felt that she had to his familiar household tenderness; the power she possessed of fully understanding the exact value of both his words and his silence, made these glimpses of intercourse with him inexpressibly charming. Latterly her burden had always been, 'When may I come home, papa?' It was not that she was unhappy, or uncomfortable; she was passionately fond of Mrs Hamley, she was a favourite of the squire's, and could not as Yet fully understand why some people were so much afraid of him; and as for Roger, if he did not add to her pleasure, he scarcely took away from it. But she wanted to be at home once more. The reason why she could not tell; but this she knew full well. Mr Gibson reasoned with her till she was weary of being completely convinced that it was right and necessary for her to stay where she was. And then with an effort she stopped the cry upon her tongue, for she saw that its repetition harassed her father.
During this absence of hers Mr Gibson was drifting into matrimony. He was partly aware of whither he was going; and partly it was like the soft floating movement of a dream. He was more passive than active in the affair; though, if his reason had not fully approved of the step he was tending to - if he had not believed that a second marriage was the very best way of cutting the Gordian knot of domestic difficulties, he could have made an effort without any great trouble to himself, and extricated himself without pain from the mesh of circumstances. It happened in this manner: -
Lady Cumnor having married her two eldest daughters, found her labours as a chaperone to Lady Harriet, the youngest, considerably lightened by co-operation; and, at length, she had leisure to be an invalid. She was, however, too energetic to allow herself this indulgence constantly; only she permitted herself to break down occasionally after a long course of dinners, late hours, and London atmosphere: and then, leaving Lady Harriet with either Lady Cuxhaven or Lady Agnes Manners, she betook herself to the comparative quiet of the Towers, where she found occupation in doing her benevolence, which was sadly neglected in the hurly-burly of London. This particular summer she had broken down earlier than usual, and longed for the repose of the country. She believed that her state of health, too, was more serious than previously; but she did not say a word of this to her husband or daughters; reserving her confidence for Mr Gibson's cars. She did not wish to take Lady Harriet away from the gaieties of town which she was thoroughly enjoying, by any complaint of hers, which might, after all, be ill-founded; and yet she did not quite like being without a companion in the three weeks or a month that might intervene before her family would join her at the Towers, especially as the annual festivity to the school visitors was impending; and both the school and the visit of the ladies connected with it, had rather lost the zest of novelty.
'Thursday, the 19th, Harriet,' said Lady Cumnor meditatively; 'what do you say to coming down to the Towers on the 18th, and helping me over that long day; you could stay in the country till Monday, and have a few days' rest and good air; you would return a great deal fresher to the remainder of your gaieties. Your father would bring you down, I know: indeed, he is coming naturally.'
'Oh, mammal' said Lady Harriet, the youngest daughter of the house - the prettiest, the most indulged; 'I cannot go; there is the water-party up to Maidenhead on the 20th, I should be so sorry to miss it: and Mrs Duncan's ball, and Grisi's concert; please, don't want me. Besides, I should do no good. I can't make provincial small-talk; I'm not up in the local politics of Hollingford. I should be making mischief, I know I should.'
'Very well, my dear,' said Lady Cumnor, sighing, 'I had forgotten the Maidenhead water-party, or I would not have asked you.'
'What a pity it isn't the Eton holidays, so that you could have had Hollingford's boys to help you to do the honours, mamma. They are such affable little prigs. It was the greatest fun to watch them last year at Sir Edward's, doing the honours of their grandfather's house to much such a collection of humble admirers as you get together at the Towers. I shall never forget seeing Edgar gravely squiring about an old lady in a portentous black bonnet, and giving her information in the correctest grammar possible.'
'Well, I like those lads,' said Lady Cuxhaven; 'they are on the way to become true gentlemen. But, mamma, why shouldn't you have Clare to stay with you? You like her, and she is just the person to save you the troubles of hospitality to the Hollingford people, and we should all be so much more comfortable if we knew you had her with you.'
'Yes, Clare would do very well,' said Lady Cumnor; 'but is not it her school-time or something? We must not interfere with her school so as to injure her, for I am afraid she is not doing too well as it is; and she has been so very unlucky ever since she left us - first her husband died, and then she lost Lady Davies' situation, and then Mrs Maude's, and now Mr Preston told your father it was all she could do to pay her way in Ashcombe, though Lord Cumnor lets her have the house rent-free.'
'I can't think how it is,' said Lady Harriet. 'She's not very wise, certainly; but she is so useful and agreeable, and has such pleasant manners. I should have thought any one who wasn't particular about education would have been charmed to keep her as a governess.'
'What do you mean by not being particular about education? Most people who keep governesses for their children are supposed to be particular,' said Lady Cuxhaven.
'Well, they think themselves so, I've no doubt; but I call you particular, Mary, and I don't think mamma was; but she thought herself so, I am sure.'
'I can't think what you mean, Harriet,' said Lady Cumnor, a good deal annoyed at this speech of her clever, heedless, youngest daughter.
'Oh dear, mamma, you did everything you could think of for us; but you see you'd ever so many other engrossing interests, and Mary hardly ever allows her love for her husband to interfere with her all-absorbing care for the children. You gave us the best of masters in every department, and Clare to dragonize and keep us up to our preparation for these masters, as well as ever she could; but then you know, or rather you didn't know, some of the masters admired our very pretty governess, and there was a kind of respectable veiled flirtation going on, which never came to anything, to be sure; and then you were often so overwhelmed with your business as a great lady - fashionable and benevolent, and all that sort of thing - that you used to call Clare away from us at the most critical times of our lessons, to write your notes, or add up your accounts, and the consequence is, that I'm about the most ill-informed girl in London. Only Mary was so capitally trained by good awkward Miss Benson, that she is always full to overflowing with accurate knowledge, and her glory is reflected upon me.'
'Do you think what Harriet says is true, Mary?' asked Lady Cumnor, rather anxiously.
'I was so little with Clare in the schoolroom. I used to read French with her; she had a beautiful accent, I remember. Both Agnes and Harriet were very fond of her. I used to be jealous for Miss Benson's sake, and perhaps - ' Lady Cuxhaven paused a minute - 'that made me fancy that she had a way of flattering and indulging them - not quite conscientious, I used to think. But girls are severe judges, and certainly she has had an anxious enough life since. I am always so glad when we can have her, and give her a little pleasure. The only thing that makes me uneasy now is the way in which she seems to send her daughter away from her so much; we never can persuade her to bring Cynthia with her when she comes to see us.'
'Now that I call ill-natured,' said Lady Harriet; 'here is a poor dear woman trying to earn her livelihood, first as a governess, and what could she do with her daughter then, but send her to school? and after that, when Clare is asked to go visiting, and is too modest to bring her girl with her - besides all the expense of the journey, and the rigging out - Mary finds fault with her for her modesty and economy.'
'Well, after all, we are not discussing Clare and her affairs, but trying to plan for mamma's comfort. I don't see that she can do better than ask Mrs Kirkpatrick to come to the Towers - as soon as her holidays begin, I mean.'
'Here is her last letter,' said Lady Cumnor, who had been searching for it in her escritoire, while her daughters were talking. Holding her glasses before her eyes, she began to read, '"My wonted misfortunes appear to have followed me to Ashcombe" - um, um, um; that's not it - "Mr Preston is most kind in sending me fruit and flowers from the Manor-house, according to dear Lord Cumnor's kind injunctions." Oh, here it is! "The vacation begins on the 11th, according to the usual custom of schools in Ashcombe; and I must then try and obtain some change of air and scene, in order to fit myself for the resumption of my duties on the 10th of August." You see, girls, she would be at liberty, if she has not made any other arrangement for spending her holidays. To-day is the 15th.'
'I'll write to her at once, mamma,' Lady Harriet said. 'Clare and I are always great friends; I was her confidant in her loves with poor Mr Kirkpatrick, and we've kept up our intimacy ever since. I know of three offers she had besides.'
'I sincerely hope Miss Bowes is not telling her love-affairs to Grace or Lily. Why, Harriet, you could not have been older than Grace when Clare was married!' said Lady Cuxhaven in maternal alarm.
'No; but I was well versed in the tender passion, thanks to novels. Now I dare say you don't admit novels into your school-room, Mary; so your daughters wouldn't be able to administer discreet sympathy to their governess in case she was the heroine of a love-affair.'
'My dear Harriet, don't let me hear you talking of love in that way; it is not pretty. Love is a serious thing.'
'My dear mamma, your exhortations are just eighteen years too late. I've talked all the freshness off love, and that's the reason I'm tired of the subject.'
This last speech referred to a recent refusal of lady Harriet's, which had displeased Lady Cumnor, and rather annoyed my lord; as they, the parents, could see no objection to the gentleman in question. Lady Cuxhaven did not want to have the subject brought up, so she hastened to say, -
'Do ask the poor little daughter to come with her mother to the Towers; why, she must be seventeen or more; she would really be a companion to you, mamma, if her mother was unable to come,' said Lady Cuxhaven.
'I was not ten when Clare married, and I'm nearly nine-and-twenty,' added Lady Harriet.
'Don't speak of it, Harriet; at any rate you are but eight-and-twenty now, and you look a great deal younger. There is no need to be always bringing up your age on every possible occasion.'
'There was need of it now, though. I wanted to make out how old Cynthia Kirkpatrick was. I think she can't be far from eighteen.'
'She is at school at Boulogne, I know; and so I don't think she can be as old as that. Clare says something about her in this letter: "Under these circumstances" (the ill-success of her school), "I cannot think myself justified in allowing myself the pleasure of having darling Cynthia at home for the holidays; especially as the period when the vacation in French schools commences differs from that common in England; and it might occasion some confusion in my arrangements if darling Cynthia were to come to Ashcombe, and occupy my time and thoughts so immediately before the commencement of my scholastic duties as the 8th of August, on which day her vacation begins, which is but two days before my holidays end." So, you see, Clare would be quite at liberty to come to me, and I dare say it would be a very nice change for her.'
'And Hollingford is busy seeing after his new laboratory at the Towers, and is constantly backwards and forwards. And Agnes wants to go there for change of air, as soon as she is strong enough after her confinement. And even my own dear insatiable "me" will have had enough of gaiety in two or three weeks, if this hot weather lasts.'
'I think I may be able to come down for a few days too, if you will let me, mamma; and I'll bring Grace, who is looking rather pale and weedy; growing too fast, I am afraid. So I hope you won't be dull.'
'My dear,' said Lady Cumnor, drawing herself up, 'I should be ashamed of feeling dull with my resources; my duties to others and to myself!'
So the plan in its present shape was told to Lord Cumnor, who highly approved of it; as he always did of every project of his wife's. Lady Cumnor's character was perhaps a little too ponderous for him in reality, but he was always full of admiration for all her words and deeds, and used to boast of her wisdom, her benevolence, her power and dignity, in her absence, as if by this means he could buttress up his own more feeble nature.
'Very good - very good, indeed! Clare to join you at the Towers! Capital! I could not have planned it better myself! I shall go down with you on Wednesday in time for the jollification on Thursday. I always enjoy that day; they are such nice, friendly people, those good Hollingford ladies. Then I'll have a day with Sheepshanks, and perhaps I may ride over to Ashcombe and see Preston - Brown Jess can do it in a day, eighteen miles - to be sure! But there's back again to the Towers! how much is twice eighteen - thirty?'
'Thirty-six,' said Lady Cumnor, sharply.
'So it is; you're always right, my dear. Preston's a clever, sharp fellow.'
'I don't like him,' said my lady.
'He takes looking after; but he's a sharp fellow. He's such a good-looking man, too, I wonder you don't like him.'
'I never think whether a land-agent is handsome or not. They don't belong to the class of people whose appearance I notice.'
'To be sure not. But he is a handsome fellow; and what should make you like him is the interest he takes in Clare and her prospects. He is constantly suggesting something that can be done to her house, and I know he sends her fruit, and flowers, and game just as regularly as we should ourselves if we lived at Ashcombe.'
'How old is he?' said Lady Cumnor, with a faint suspicion of motives in her mind.
'About twenty-seven, I think. Ah! I see what is in your ladyship's head. No! no! he's too young for that. You must look out for some middle-aged man, if you want to get poor Clare married; Preston won't do.'
'I'm not a match-maker, as you might know. I never did it for my own daughters. I'm not likely to do it for Clare,' said she, leaning back languidly.
'Well! you might do a worse thing. I'm beginning to think she'll never get on as a schoolmistress, though why she should not, I'm sure I don't know; for she's an uncommonly pretty woman for her age, and her having lived in our family, and your having had her so often with you, ought to go a good way. I say, my lady, what do you think of Gibson? He would be just the right age - widower - lives near the Towers.'
'I told you just now I was no match-maker, my lord. I suppose we had better go by the old road - the people at those inns know us?'
And so they passed on to speaking about other things than Mrs Kirkpatrick and her prospects, scholastic or matrimonial.
Mrs Kirkpatrick was only too happy to accept Lady Cumnor's invitation. It was what she had been hoping for, but hardly daring to expect, as she believed that the family were settled in London for some time to come. The Towers was a pleasant and luxurious house in which to pass her holidays; and though she was not one to make deep plans, or to look far ahead, she was quite aware of the prestige which her being able to say she had been staying with 'dear Lady Cumnor' at the Towers, was likely to give her and her school in the eyes of a good many people; so she gladly prepared to join her ladyship on the 17th. Her wardrobe did not require much arrangement; if it had done, the poor lady would not have had much money to appropriate to the purpose. She was very pretty and graceful; and that goes a great way towards carrying off shabby clothes; and it was her taste more than any depth of feeling, that had made her persevere in wearing all the delicate tints - the violets and greys - which, with a certain admixture of black, constitute half-mourning. This style of becoming dress she was supposed to wear in memory of Mr Kirkpatrick; in reality because it was both lady-like and economical. Her beautiful hair was of that rich auburn that hardly ever turns grey; and partly out of consciousness of its beauty, and partly because the washing of caps is expensive, she did not wear anything on her head; her complexion had the vivid tints that often accompany the kind of hair which has once been red; and the only injury her skin had received from advancing years was that the colouring was rather more brilliant than delicate, and varied less with every passing emotion. She could no longer blush; and at eighteen she had been very proud of her blushes. Her eyes were soft, large, and china-blue in colour. they had not much expression or shadow about them, which was perhaps owing to the flaxen colour of her eyelashes. Her figure was a little fuller than it used to be, but her movements were as soft and sinuous as ever. Altogether, she looked much younger than her age, which was not far short of forty. She had a very pleasant voice, and read aloud well and distinctly, which Lady Cumnor liked. Indeed, for some inexplicable reason, she was a greater; more positive favourite with Lady Cumnor than with any of the rest of the family, though they all liked her up to a certain point, and found it agreeably useful to have any one in the house who was so well acquainted with their ways and habits; so ready to talk, when a little trickle of conversation was required; so willing to listen, and to listen with tolerable intelligence, if the subjects spoken about did not refer to serious solid literature, or science, or politics, or social economy. About novels and poetry, travels and gossip, personal details, or anecdotes of any kind, she always made exactly the remarks which are expected from an agreeable listener; and she had sense enough to confine herself to those short expressions of wonder, admiration, and astonishment, which may mean anything, when more recondite things were talked about.
It was a very pleasant change to a poor unsuccessful schoolmistress to leave her own house, full of battered and shabby furniture (she had taken the goodwill and furniture of her predecessor at a valuation, two or three years before), where the look-out was as gloomy, and the surrounding as squalid, as is often the case in the smaller streets of a country town, and to come bowling through the Towers Park in the luxurious carriage sent to meet her; to alight, and feel secure that the well-trained servants would see after her bags and umbrella, and parasol, and cloak, without her loading herself with all these portable articles, as she had had to do while following the wheel-barrow containing her luggage in going to the Ashcombe coach-office that morning; to pass up the deep-piled carpets of the broad shallow stairs into my lady's own room, cool and deliciously fresh, even on this sultry day, and fragrant with great bowls of freshly gathered roses of every shade of colour. There were two or three new novels lying uncut on the table; the daily papers, the magazines. Every chair was an easy-chair of some kind or other; and all covered with French chintz that mimicked the real flowers in the garden below. She was familiar with the bedroom called hers, to which she was soon ushered by Lady Cumnor's maid. It seemed to her far more like home than the dingy place she had left that morning; it was so natural to her to like dainty draperies and harmonious colouring, and fine linen and soft raiment. She sate down on the arm-chair by the bed-side, and wondered over her fate something in this fashion, -
'One would think it was an easy enough thing to deck a looking-glass like that with muslin and pink ribbons; and yet how hard it is to keep it up! People don't know how hard it is till they've tried as I have. I made my own glass just as pretty when I first went to Ashcombe; but the muslin got dirty, and the pink ribbons faded, and it is so difficult to earn money to renew them; and when one has got the money one hasn't the heart to spend it all at once. One thinks and one thinks how one can get the most good out of it; and a new gown, or a day's pleasure, or some hot-house fruit, or some piece of elegance that can be seen and noticed in one's drawing-room, carries the day, and good-by to prettily decked looking-glasses. Now here, money is like the air they breathe. No one ever asks or knows how much the washing costs, or what pink ribbon is a yard. Ah! it would be different if they had to earn every penny as I have! They would have to calculate, like me, how to get the most pleasure out of it. I wonder if I am to go on all my life toiling and moiling for money? It's not natural. Marriage is the natural thing; then the husband has all that kind of dirty work to do, and his wife sits in the drawing-room like a lady. I did, when poor Kirkpatrick was alive. Heigho! it's a sad thing to be a widow.'
Then there was the contrast between the dinners which she had to share with her scholars at Ashcombe - rounds of beef, legs of mutton, great dishes of potatoes, and large barter-puddings, with the tiny meal of exquisitely cooked delicacies, sent up on old Chelsea china, that was served every day to the earl and countess and herself at the Towers. She dreaded the end of her holidays as much as the most home-loving of her pupils. But at this time that end was some weeks off, so Clare shut her eyes to the future, and tried to relish the present to its fullest extent. A disturbance to the pleasant, even course of the summer days came in the indisposition of Lady Cumnor. Her husband had gone back to London, and she and Mrs Kirkpatrick had been left to the very even tenor of life, which was according to my lady's wish just now. In spite of her languor and fatigue, she had gone through the day when the school visitors came to the Towers, in full dignity, dictating clearly all that was to be done, what walks were to be taken, what hothouses to be seen, and when the party were to return to the 'collation.' She herself remained indoors, with one or two ladies who had ventured to think that the fatigue or the heat might be too much for them, and who had therefore declined accompanying the ladies in charge of Mrs Kirkpatrick, or those other favoured few to whom Lord Cumnor was explaining the new buildings in his farm-yard. 'With the utmost condescension,' as her hearers afterwards expressed it, Lady Cumnor told them all about her married daughters' establishments, nurseries, plans for the education of their children, and manner of passing the day. But the exertion tired her; and when every one had left, the probability is that she would have gone to lie down and rest, had not her husband made an unlucky remark in the kindness of his heart. He came up to her and put his hand on her shoulder.
'I'm afraid you're sadly tired, my lady?' he said.
She braced her muscles, and drew herself up, saying coldly, -
'When I am tired, Lord Cumnor, I will tell you so.' And her own fatigue showed itself during the rest of the evening in her sitting particularly upright, and declining all offers of easy-chairs or footstools, and refusing the insult of a suggestion that they should all go to bed earlier. She went on in something of this kind of manner as long as Lord Cumnor remained at the Towers. Mrs Kirkpatrick was quite deceived by it, and kept assuring Lord Cumnor that she had never seen dear Lady Cumnor looking better, or so strong and well. But he had an affectionate heart, if a blundering head; and though he could give no reason for his belief, he was almost certain his wife was not well. Yet he was too much afraid of her to send for Mr Gibson without her permission. His last words to Clare were, -
'It's such a comfort to leave my lady to you; only don't you be deluded by her ways. She'll not show she's ill till she can't help it. Consult with Bradley,' (Lady Cumnor's 'own woman,' - she disliked the new-fangledness of 'lady's-maid,') 'and if I were you, I'd send and ask Gibson to call - you might make any kind of a pretence,' - and then the idea he had had in London of the fitness of a match between the two coming into his head just now, he could not help adding, - 'Get him to come and see you, he's a very agreeable man; Lord Hollingford says there's no one like him in these parts: and he might be looking at my lady while he was talking to you, and see if he thinks her really ill. And let me know what he says about her.'
But Clare was just as great a coward about doing anything for Lady Cumnor which she had not expressly ordered, as Lord Cumnor himself. She knew she might fall into such disgrace if she sent for Mr Gibson without direct permission, that she might never be asked to stay at the Towers again; and the life there, monotonous in its smoothness of luxury as it might be to some, was exactly to her taste. She in her turn tried to put upon Bradley the duty which Lord Cumnor had put upon her.
'Mrs Bradley,' she said one day, 'are you quite comfortable about my lady's health? Lord Cumnor fancied that she was looking worn and ill?'
'Indeed, Mrs Kirkpatrick, I don't think my lady is herself. I can't persuade myself as she is, though if you was to question me till night I couldn't tell you why.'
'Don't you think you could make some errand to Hollingford, and see Mr Gibson, and ask him to come round this way some day, and make a call on Lady Cumnor?'
'It would be as much as my place is worth, Mrs Kirkpatrick. Till my lady's dying day, if Providence keeps her in her senses, she'll have everything done her own way, or not at all. There's only Lady Harriet that can manage her at all, and she not always.'
'Well, then - we must hope that there is nothing the matter with her; and I dare say there is not. She says there is not, and she ought to know best herself.'
But a day or two after this conversation took place, Lady Cumnor startled Mrs Kirkpatrick, by saying suddenly, -
'Clare, I wish you'd write a note to Mr Gibson, saying, I should like to see him this afternoon. I thought he would have called of himself before now. He ought to have done so, to pay his respects.'
Mr Gibson had been far too busy in his profession to have time for mere visits of ceremony, though he knew quite well he was neglecting what was expected of him. But the district of which he may be said to have had medical charge was full of a bad kind of low fever, which took up all his time and thought, and often made him very thankful that Molly was out of the way in the quiet shades of Hamley.
His domestic 'raws' had not healed over in the least, though he was obliged to put the perplexities on one side for the time. The last drop - the final straw, had been an impromptu visit of Lord Hollingford's, whom he had met in the town one forenoon. They had had a good deal to say to each other about some new scientific discovery, with the details of which Lord Hollingford was well acquainted, while Mr Gibson was ignorant and deeply interested. At length Lord Hollingford said suddenly, -
'Gibson, I wonder if you'd give me some lunch; I've been a good deal about since my seven-o'clock breakfast, and am getting quite ravenous.'
Now Mr Gibson was only too much pleased to show hospitality to one whom he liked and respected so much as Lord Hollingford, and he gladly took him home with him to the early family dinner. But it was just at the time when the cook was sulking at Bethia's dismissal - and she chose to be unpunctual and careless. There was no successor to Bethia as yet appointed to wait at the meals. So, though Mr Gibson knew well that bread-and-cheese, cold beef, or the simplest food available, would have been welcome to the hungry lord, he could not get either these things for luncheon, or even the family dinner, at anything like the proper time, in spite of all his ringing, and as much anger as he liked to show, for fear of making Lord Hollingford uncomfortable. At last dinner was ready, but the poor host saw the want of nicety - almost the want of cleanliness, in all its accompaniments - dingy plate, dull-looking glass, a tablecloth that, if not absolutely dirty, was anything but fresh in its splashed and rumpled condition, and compared it in his own mind with the dainty delicacy with which even a loaf of brown bread was served up at his guest's home. He did not apologize directly, but, after dinner, just as they were parting, he said, -
'You see a man like me - a widower - with a daughter who cannot always be at home - has not the regulated household which would enable me to command the small portions of time I can spend there.'
He made no allusion to the comfortless meal of which they had both partaken, though it was full in his mind. Nor was it absent from Lord Hollingford's, as he made reply, -
'True, true. Yet a man like you ought to be free from any thought of household cares. You ought to have somebody. How old is Miss Gibson?'
'Seventeen. It's a very awkward age for a motherless girl.'
'Yes; very. I have only boys, but it must be very awkward with a girl. Excuse me, Gibson, but we're talking like friends. Have you never thought of marrying again? It would not be like a first marriage, of course; but if you found a sensible agreeable woman of thirty or so, I really think you couldn't do better than take her to manage your home, and so save you either discomfort or worry; and, besides, she would be able to give your daughter that kind of tender supervision which, I fancy, all girls of that age require. It's a delicate subject, but you'll excuse my having spoken frankly.'
Mr Gibson had thought of this advice several times since it was given; but it was a case of 'first catch your hare.' Where was the 'sensible and agreeable woman of thirty or so?' Not Miss Browning, nor Miss Phoebe, nor Miss Goodenough. Among his country patients there were two classes pretty distinctly marked: farmers, whose children were unrefined and uneducated; squires, whose daughters would, indeed think the world was coming to a pretty pass, if they were to marry a country surgeon.
But the first day on which Mr Gibson paid his visit to Lady Cumnor, he began to think it possible that Mrs Kirkpatrick was his 'hare.' He rode away with slack rein, thinking over what he knew of her, more than about the prescriptions he should write, or the way he was going. He remembered her as a very pretty Miss Clare: the governess who had the scarlet fever; that was in his wife's days, a long time ago; he could hardly understand Mrs Kirkpatrick's youthfulness of appearance when he thought how long. Then he heard of her marriage to a curate; and the next day (or so it seemed, he could not recollect the exact duration of the interval), of his death. He knew, in some way, that ever since she had been living as a governess in different families; but that she had always been a great favourite with the family at the Towers, for whom, quite independent of their rank, he had a true respect. A year or two ago he had heard that she had taken the good-will of a school at Ashcombe; a small town close to another property of Lord Cumnor's, in the same county. Ashcombe was a larger estate than that near Hollingford, but the old Manor-house there was not nearly so good a residence as the Towers; so it was given up to Mr Preston, the land-agent, for the Ashcombe property, just as Mr Sheepshanks was for that at Hollingford. There were a few rooms at the Manor-house reserved for the occasional visits of the family, otherwise Mr Preston, a handsome young bachelor, had it all to himself. Mr Gibson knew that Mrs Kirkpatrick had one child, a daughter, who must be much about the same age as Molly. Of course she had very little, if any, property. But he himself had lived carefully, and had a few thousands well invested; besides which, his professional income was good, and increasing rather than diminishing every year. By the time he had arrived at this point in his consideration of the case, he was at the house of the next patient on his round, and he put away all thought of matrimony and Mrs Kirkpatrick for the time. Once again, in the course of the day, he remembered with a certain pleasure that Molly had told him some little details connected with her unlucky detention at the Towers five or six years ago, which had made him feel at the time as if Mrs Kirkpatrick had behaved very kindly to his little girl. So there the matter rested for the present, as far as he was concerned.
Lady Cumnor was out of health; but not so ill as she had been fancying herself during all those days when the people about her dared not send for the doctor. It was a great relief to her to have Mr Gibson to decide for her what she was to do; what to eat, drink, avoid. Such decisions ab extra, are sometimes a wonderful relief to those whose habit it has been to decide, not only for themselves, but for every one else; and occasionally the relaxation of the strain which a character for infallible wisdom brings with it, does much to restore health. Mrs Kirkpatrick thought in her secret soul that she had never found it so easy to get on with Lady Cumnor; and Bradley and she had never done singing the praises of Mr Gibson, 'who always managed my lady so beautifully.'
Reports were duly sent up to my lord, but he and her daughters were strictly forbidden to come down. Lady Cumnor wished to be weak and languid, and uncertain both in body and mind, without family observation. It was a condition so different to anything she had ever been in before, that she was unconsciously afraid of losing her prestige, if she was seen in it. Sometimes she herself wrote the daily bulletins; at other times she bade Clare to do it, but she would always see the letters. Any answers she received from her daughters she used to read herself, occasionally imparting some of their contents to 'that good Clare.' But anybody might read my lord's letters. There was no great fear of family secrets oozing out in his sprawling lines of affection. But once Mrs Kirkpatrick came upon a sentence in a letter from Lord Cumnor, which she was reading out loud to his wife, that caught her eye before she came to it, and if she could have skipped it and kept it for private perusal, she would gladly have done so. My lady was too sharp for her, though. In her opinion 'Clare was a good creature, but not clever,' the truth being that she was not always quick at resources, though tolerably unscrupulous in the use of them.
'Read on. What are you stopping for? There is no bad news, is there, about Agnes? - Give me the letter.'
Lady Cumnor read, half aloud, -
'"How are Clare and Gibson getting on? You despised my advice to help on that affair, but I really think a little match-making would be a very pleasant amusement now that you are shut up in the house; and I cannot conceive any marriage more suitable."'
'Oh!' said Lady Cumnor, laughing, 'it was awkward for you to come upon that, Clare: I don't wonder you stopped short. You gave me a terrible fright, though.'
'Lord Cumnor is so fond of joking,' said Mrs Kirkpatrick, a little flurried, yet quite recognizing the truth of his last words, - 'I cannot conceive any marriage more suitable.' She wondered what Lady Cumnor thought of it. Lord Cumnor wrote as if there was really a chance. It was not an unpleasant idea; it brought a faint smile out upon her face, as she sate by Lady Cumnor, while the latter took her afternoon nap.
Mrs Kirkpatrick had been reading aloud till Lady Cumnor fell asleep, the book rested on her knee, just kept from falling by her hold. She was looking out of the window, not seeing the trees in the park, nor the glimpses of the hills beyond, but thinking how pleasant it would be to have a husband once more; - some one who would work while she sate at her elegant ease in a prettily-furnished drawing-room; and she was rapidly investing this imaginary bread-winner with the form and features of the country surgeon, when there was a slight tap at the door, and almost before she could rise, the object of her thoughts came in. She felt herself blush, and she was not displeased at the consciousness. She advanced to meet him, making a sign towards her sleeping ladyship.
'Very good,' said he, in a low voice, casting a professional eye on the slumbering figure; 'can I speak to you for a minute or two in the library?'
'Is he going to offer?' thought she, with a sudden palpitation, and a conviction of her willingness to accept a man whom an hour before she had simply looked upon as one of the category of unmarried men to whom matrimony was possible.
He was only going to make one or two medical inquiries; she found that out very speedily, and considered the conversation as rather flat to her, though it might be instructive to him. She was not aware that he finally made up his mind to propose, during the time that she was speaking - answering his questions in many words, but he was accustomed to winnow the chaff from the corn; and her voice was so soft, her accent so pleasant, that it struck him as particularly agreeable after the broad country accent he was perpetually hearing. Then the harmonious colours of her dress, and her slow and graceful movements, had something of the same soothing effect upon his nerves that a cat's purring has upon some people's. He began to think that he should be fortunate if he could win her, for his own sake. Yesterday he had looked upon her more as a possible stepmother for Molly; to-day he thought more of her as a wife for himself. The remembrance of Lord Cumnor's letter gave her a very becoming consciousness; she wished to attract, and hoped that she was succeeding. Still they only talked of the countess's state for some time; then a lucky shower came on. Mr Gibson did not care a jot for rain, but just now it gave him an excuse for lingering.
'It is very stormy weather,' said he.
'Yes, very. My daughter writes me word, that for two days last week the packet could not sail from Boulogne.'
'Miss Kirkpatrick is at Boulogne, is she?'
'Yes, poor girl; she is at school there, trying to perfect herself in the French language. But, Mr Gibson, you must not call her Miss Kirkpatrick. Cynthia remembers you with so much - affection, I may say. She was your little patient when she had the measles here four years ago, you know. Pray call her Cynthia; she would be quite hurt at such a formal name as Miss Kirkpatrick from you.'
'Cynthia seems to me such an out-of-the-way name, only fit for poetry, not for daily use.'
'It is mine,' said Mrs Kirkpatrick, in a plaintive tone of reproach. 'I was christened Hyacinth, and her poor father would have called her after me. I'm sorry you don't like it.'
Mr Gibson did not know what to say. He was not quite prepared to plunge into the directly personal style. While he was hesitating, she went on, -
'Hyacinth Clare! Once upon a time I was quite proud of my pretty name; and other people thought it pretty, too.'
'I've no doubt - ' Mr Gibson began; and then stopped.
'Perhaps I did wrong in yielding to his wish, to have her called by such a romantic name. It may excite prejudice against her in some people; and, poor child! she will have enough to struggle with. A young daughter is a great charge, Mr Gibson, especially when there is only one parent to look after her.'
'You are quite right,' said he, recalled to the remembrance of Molly; 'though I should have thought that a girl who is so fortunate as to have a mother could not feel the loss of her father so acutely as one who is motherless must suffer from her deprivation.'
'You are thinking of your own daughter. It was careless of me to say what I did. Dear child! how well I remember her sweet little face as she lay sleeping on my bed. I suppose she is nearly grown-up now. She must be near my Cynthia's age. How I should like to see her!'
'I hope you will. I should like you to see her. I should like you to love my poor little Molly, - to love her as your own - ' He swallowed down something that rose in his throat, and was nearly choking him.
'Is he going to offer? Is he?' she wondered; and she began to tremble in the suspense before he next spoke.
'Could you love her as your daughter? Will you try? Will you give me the right of introducing you to her as her future mother; as my wife?'
There! he had done it - whether it was wise or foolish - he had done it; but he was aware that the question as to its wisdom came into his mind the instant that the words were said past recall.
She hid her face in her hands.
'Oh! Mr Gibson,' she said; and then, a little to his surprise, and a great deal to her own, she burst into hysterical tears: it was such a wonderful relief to feel that she need not struggle any more for a livelihood.
'My dear - my dearest,' said he, trying to soothe her with word and caress; but, just at the moment, uncertain what name he ought to use. After her sobbing had abated a little, she said herself, as if understanding his difficulty, -
'Call me Hyacinth - your own Hyacinth. I can't bear "Clare," it does so remind me of being a governess, and those days are all past now.'
'Yes; but surely no one can have been more valued, more beloved than you have been in this family at least.'
'Oh, yes! they have been very good. But still one has always had to remember one's position.'
'We ought to tell Lady Cumnor,' said he, thinking, perhaps, more of the various duties which lay before him, in consequence of the step he had just taken, than of what his future bride was saying.
'You'll tell her, won't you?' said she, looking up in his face with beseeching eyes. 'I always like other people to tell her things, and then I can see how she takes them.'
'Certainly! I will do whatever you wish. Shall we go and see if she is awake now?'
'No! I think not. I had better prepare her. You will come to-morrow, won't you? and you will tell her then.'
'Yes; that will be best. I ought to tell Molly first. She has the right to know. I do hope you and she will love each other dearly.'
'Oh, yes! I'm sure we shall. Then you'll come to-morrow and tell Lady Cumnor? And I'll prepare her.'
'I don't see what preparation is necessary; but you know best, my dear. When can we arrange for you and Molly to meet?'
Just then a servant came in, and the pair started apart.
'Her ladyship is awake, and wishes to see Mr Gibson.'
They both followed the man upstairs; Mrs Kirkpatrick trying hard to look as if nothing had happened, for she particularly wished 'to prepare' Lady Cumnor; that is to say, to give her version of Mr Gibson's extreme urgency, and her own coy unwillingness.
But Lady Cumnor had observant eyes in sickness as well as in health. She had gone to sleep with the recollection of the passage in her husband's letter full in her mind, and, perhaps, it gave a direction to her wakening ideas.
'I'm glad you're not gone, Mr Gibson. I wanted to tell you -- What's the matter with you both? What have you been saying to Clare? I'm sure something has happened.'
There was nothing for it, in Mr Gibson's opinion, but to make a clean breast of it, and tell her ladyship all. He turned round, and took hold of Mrs Kirkpatrick's hand, and said out straight, 'I have been asking Mrs Kirkpatrick to be my wife, and to be a mother to my child; and she has consented. I hardly know how to thank her enough in words.'
'Umph! I don't see any objection. I dare say you'll be very happy. I'm very glad of it! Here! shake hands with me, both of you.' Then laughing a little, she added, 'It does not seem to me that any exertion has been required on my part.'
Mr Gibson looked perplexed at these words. Mrs Kirkpatrick reddened.
'Did she not tell you? Oh, then, I must. It's too good a joke to be lost, especially as everything has ended so well. When Lord Cumnor's letter came this morning - this very morning - I gave it to Clare to read aloud to me, and I saw she suddenly came to a full stop, where no full stop could be, and I thought it was something about Agnes, so I took the letter and read - stay! I'll read the sentence to you. Where's the letter, Clare? Oh! don't trouble yourself, here it is. "How are Clare and Gibson getting on? You despised my advice to help on that affair, but I really think a little match-making would be a very pleasant amusement now that you are shut up in the house; and I cannot conceive any marriage more suitable." You see, you have my lord's full approbation. But I must write, and tell him you have managed your own affairs without any interference of mine. Now we'll just have a little medical talk, Mr Gibson, and then you and Clare shall finish your tete-a-tete.'
They were neither of them quits as desirous of further conversation together as they had been before the passage out of Lord Cumnor's letter had been read aloud. Mr Gibson tried not to think about it, for he was aware that if he dwelt upon it, he might get to fancy all sorts of things, as to the conversation which had ended in his offer. But Lady Cumnor was imperious now, as always.
'Come, no nonsense. I always made my girls go and have tete-a-tetes with the men who were to be their husbands, whether they would or no: there's a great deal to be talked over before every marriage, and you two are certainly old enough to be above affectation. Go away with you.' So there was nothing for it but for them to return to the library; Mrs Kirkpatrick pouting a little, and Mr Gibson feeling more like his own cool, sarcastic self, by many degrees, than he had done when last in that room.
She began, half crying, -
'I cannot tell what poor Kirkpatrick would say if he knew what I have done. He did so dislike the notion of second marriages, poor fellow.'
'Let us hope that he does not know, then; or that, if he does know, he is wiser - I mean, that he sees how second marriages may be most desirable and expedient in some cases.'
Altogether, this second tete-a-tete, done to command, was not so satisfactory as the first; and Mr Gibson was quite alive to the necessity of proceeding on his round to see his patients before very much time had elapsed.
'We shall shake down into uniformity before long, I've no doubt,' said he to himself, as he rode away. 'It's hardly to be expected that our thoughts should run in the same groove all at once. Nor should I like it,' he added. 'It would be very flat and stagnant to have only an echo of one's own opinions from one's wife. Heigho! I must tell Molly about it: dear little woman, I wonder how she'll take it! It's done, in a great measure, for her good.' And then he lost himself in recapitulating Mrs Kirkpatrick's good qualities, and the advantages to be gained to his daughter from the step he had just taken.
It was too late to go round by Hamley that afternoon. The Towers and the Towers' round lay just in the opposite direction to Hamley. So it was the next morning before Mr Gibson arrived at the hall, timing his visit as well as he could so as to have half-an-hour's private talk with Molly before Mrs Hamley came down into the drawing-room. He thought that his daughter would require sympathy after receiving the intelligence he had to communicate; and he knew there was no one more fit to give it than Mrs Hamley.
It was a brilliantly hot summer's morning; men in their shirt-sleeves were in the fields getting in the early harvest of oats; as Mr Gibson rode slowly along, he could see them over the tall hedge-rows, and even hear the soothing measured sound of the fall of the long swathes, as they were mown. The labourers seemed too hot to talk; the dog, guarding their coats and cans, lay panting loudly on the other side of the elm, under which Mr Gibson stopped for an instant to survey the scene, and gain a little delay before the interview that he wished was well over. In another minute he had snapped at himself for his weakness, and put spurs to his horse. He came up to the hall at a good sharp trot; it was earlier than the usual time of his visits, and no one was expecting him; all the stablemen were in the fields, but that signified little to Mr Gibson; he walked his horse about for five minutes or so before taking him into the stable, and loosened his girths, examining him with perhaps unnecessary exactitude. He went into the house by a private door, and made his way into the drawing-room, half expecting, however, that Molly would be in the garden. She had been there, but it was too hot and dazzling now for her to remain out of doors, and she had come in by the open window of the drawing-room. Oppressed with the heat, she had fallen asleep in an easy-chair, her bonnet and open book upon her knee, one arm hanging listlessly down. She looked very soft, and young, and childlike; and a gush of love sprang into her father's heart as he gazed at her.
'Molly!' said he, gently, taking the little brown hand that was hanging down, and holding it in his own. 'Molly!'
She opened her eyes, that for one moment had no recognition in them. Then the light came brilliantly into them and she sprang up, and threw her arms round his neck, exclaiming, -
'Oh, papa, my dear, dear papa! What made you come while I was asleep? I love the pleasure of watching for you.'
Mr Gibson turned a little paler than he had been before. He still held her hand, and drew her to a seat by him on a sofa, without speaking. There was no need; she was chattering away.
'I was up so early! It is so charming to be out here in the fresh morning air. I think that made me sleepy. But isn't it a gloriously hot day? I wonder if the Italian skies they talk about can be bluer than that - that little bit you see just between the oaks - there!'
She pulled her hand away, and used both it and the other to turn her father's head, so that he should exactly see the very bit she meant. She was rather struck by his unusual silence.
'Have you heard from Miss Eyre, papa? How are they all? And this fever that is about? Do you know, papa, I don't think you are looking well? You want me at home to take care of you. How soon may I come home?'
'Don't I look well? That must be all your fancy, goosey. I feel uncommonly well; and I ought to look well, for -- I have a piece of news for you, little woman.' (He felt that he was doing his business very awkwardly, but he was determined to plunge on.) 'Can you guess it?'
'How should I?' said she; but her tone was changed, and she was evidently uneasy, as with the presage of an instinct.
'Why, you see, my love,' said he, again taking her hand, 'that you are in a very awkward position - a girl growing up in such a family as mine - young men - which was a piece of confounded stupidity on my part. And I am obliged to be away so much.'
'But there is Miss Eyre,' said she, sick with the strengthening indefinite presage of what was to come. 'Dear Miss Eyre, I want nothing but her and you.'
'Still there are times like the present when Miss Eyre cannot be with you; her home is not with us; she has other duties. I've been in great perplexity for some time; but at last I've taken a step which will, I hope, make us both happier.'
'You're going to be married again,' said she, helping him out, with a quiet dry voice, and gently drawing her hand out of his.
'Yes. To Mrs Kirkpatrick - you remember her? They call her Clare at the Towers. You recollect how kind she was to you that day you were left there?'
She did not answer. She could not tell what words to use. She was afraid of saying anything, lest the passion of anger, dislike, indignation - whatever it was that was boiling up in her breast - should find vent in cries and screams, or worse, in raging words that could never be forgotten. It was as if the piece of solid ground on which she stood had broken from the shore, and she was drifting out to the infinite sea alone.
Mr Gibson saw that her silence was unnatural, and half-guessed at the cause of it. But he knew that she must have time to reconcile herself to the idea, and still believed that it would be for her eventual happiness. He had, besides, the relief of feeling that the secret was told, the confidence made, which he had been dreading for the last twenty-four hours. He went on recapitulating all the advantages of the marriage; he knew them off by heart now.
'She's a very suitable age for me. I don't know how old she is exactly, but she must be nearly forty. I shouldn't have wished to marry any one younger. She's highly respected by Lord and Lady Cumnor and their family, which is of itself a character. She has very agreeable and polished manners - of course, from the circles she has been thrown into - and you and I , goosey, are apt to be a little brusque, or so; we must brush up our manners now.'
No remark from her on this little bit of playfulness. He went on, -
'She has been accustomed to housekeeping - economical housekeeping, too - for of late years she has had a school at Ashcombe, and has had, of course, to arrange all things for a large family. And last, but not least, she has a daughter - about your age, Molly - who, of course, will come and live with us, and be a nice companion - a sister - for you.'
Still she was silent. At length she said, -
'So I was sent out of the house that all this might be quietly arranged in my absence?'
Out of the bitterness of her heart she spoke, but she was roused out of her assumed impassiveness by the effect produced. Her father started up, and quickly left the room, saying something to himself - what, she could not hear, though she ran after him, followed him through dark stone passages, into the glare of the stable-yard, into the stables -
'Oh, papa, papa - I'm not myself - I don't know what to say about this hateful - detestable -- '
He led his horse out. She did not know if he beard her words. Just as he mounted, he turned round upon her with a grey grim face, -
'I think it's better for both of us, for me to go away now. We may say things difficult to forget. We are both much agitated. By to-morrow we shall be more composed; you will have thought it over, and have seen that the principal - one great motive, I mean - was your good. You may tell Mrs Hamley - I meant to have told her myself. I will come again to-morrow. Good-by, Molly.'
For many minutes after he had ridden away - long after the sound of his horse's hoofs on the round stones of the paved lane, beyond the home-meadows, had died away - Molly stood there, shading her eyes, and looking at the empty space of air in which his form had last appeared. Her very breath seemed suspended; only, two or three times, after long intervals she drew a miserable sigh, which was caught up into a sob. She turned way at last, but could not go into the house, could not tell Mrs Hamley, could not forget how her father had looked and spoken - and left her.
She went out by a side-door - it was the way by which the gardeners passed when they took the manure into the garden - and the walk to which it led was concealed from sight as much as possible by shrubs and evergreens and over-arching trees. No one would know what became of her, and, with the ingratitude of misery, she added to herself, no one would care. Mrs Hamley had her own husband, her own children, her close home interests - she was very good and kind, but there was a bitter grief in Molly's heart, with which the stranger could not intermeddle. She went quickly on to the bourne which she had fixed for herself - a seat almost surrounded by the drooping leaves of a weeping-ash - a seat on the long broad terrace walk on the other side of the wood, that overlooked the pleasant slope of the meadows beyond; the walk had probably been made to command this sunny, peaceful landscape, with trees, and a church spire, two or three red-tiled roofs of old cottages, and a purple bit of rising ground in the distance; and at some previous date, when there might have been a large family of Hamleys residing at the hall, ladies in hoops, and gentlemen in bag-wigs with swords by their sides, might have filled up the breadth of the terrace, as they sauntered, smiling, along. But no one ever cared to saunter there now. It was a deserted walk. The squire or his sons might cross it in passing to a little gate that led to the meadow beyond; but no one loitered there. Molly almost thought that no one knew of the hidden seat under the ash-tree but herself; for there were not more gardeners employed upon the grounds than were necessary to keep the kitchen-gardens and such of the ornamental part as was frequented by the family, or in sight of the house, in good order.
When she had once got to the seat she broke out with a suppressed passion of grief; she did not card to analyze the sources of her tears and sobs - her father was going to be married again - her father was angry with her; she had done very wrong - he had gone away displeased; she had lost his love, he was going to be married - away from her - away from his child - his little daughter - forgetting her own dear, dear mother. So she thought in a tumultuous kind of way, sobbing till she was wearied out, and had to gain strength by being quiet for a time, to break forth into her passion of tears afresh. She had cast herself on the ground - that natural throne for violent sorrow - and leant up against the old moss-grown seat; sometimes burying her face in her hands; sometimes clasping them together, as if by the tight painful grasp of her fingers she could deaden mental suffering.
She did not see Roger Hamley returning from the meadows, nor hear the click of the little white gate. He had been out dredging in ponds and ditches, and had his wet sling-net, with its imprisoned treasures of nastiness, over his shoulder. He was coming home to lunch, having always a fine midday appetite, though he pretended to despise the meal in theory. But he knew that his mother liked his companionship then; she depended much upon her luncheon, and was seldom downstairs and visible to her family much before the time. So he overcame his theory, for the sake of his mother, and had his reward in the hearty relish with which he kept her company in eating.
He did not see Molly as he crossed the terrace-walk on his way homewards. He had gone about twenty yards on the small wood-path at right angles to the terrace, when, looking among the grass and wild plants under the trees, he spied out one which was rare, one which he had been long wishing to find in flower, and saw it at last, with those bright keen eyes of his. Down went his net, skilfully twisted so as to retain its contents, while it lay amid the herbage, and he himself went with light and well-planted footsteps in search of the treasure. He was so great a lover of nature that, without any thought, but habitually, he always avoided treading unnecessarily on any plant; who knew what long-sought growth or insect might develop itself in what now appeared but insignificant?
His steps led him in the direction of the ash-tree seat, much less screened from observation on this side than on the terrace. He stopped; he saw a light-coloured dress on the ground - somebody half-lying on the seat, so still just then, he wondered if the person, whoever it was, had fallen ill or fainted. He paused to watch. In a minute or two the sobs broke out again - the words. It was Miss Gibson crying out in a broken voice, -
'Oh, papa, papa! if you would but come back!'
For a minute or two he thought it would be kinder to leave her believing herself unobserved; he had even made a retrograde step or two, on tip-toe; but then he heard the miserable sobbing again. It was farther than his mother could walk, or else, be the sorrow what it would, she was the natural comforter of this girl, her visitor. However, whether it was right or wrong, delicate or obtrusive, when he heard the sad voice talking again, in such tones of uncomforted, lonely misery, he turned back, and went to the green tent under the ash-tree. She started up when he came thus close to her; she tried to check her sobs, and instinctively smoothed her wet tangled hair back with her hands.
He looked down upon her with grave, kind sympathy, but he did not know exactly what to say.
'Is it lunch-time?' said she, trying to believe that he did not see the traces of her tears and the disturbance of her features - that he had not seen her lying, sobbing her heart out there.
'I don't know. I was going home to lunch. But - you must let me say it - I couldn't go on when I saw your distress. Has anything happened? - anything in which I can help you, I mean; for, of course, I've no right to make the inquiry, if it is any private sorrow, in which I can be of no use.'
She had exhausted herself so much with crying, that she felt as if she could neither stand nor walk just yet. She sate down on the seat, and sighed, and turned so pale, he thought she was going to faint.
'Wait a moment,' said he, quite unnecessarily, for she could not have stirred; and he was off like a shot to some spring of water that he knew of in the wood, and in a minute or two he returned with careful steps, bringing a little in a broad green leaf, turned into an impromptu cup. Little as it was, it did her good.
'Thank you!' she said: 'I can walk back now, in a short time. Don't stop.'
'You must let me,' said he: 'my mother wouldn't like me to leave you to come home alone, while you are so faint.'
So they remained in silence for a little while; he, breaking off and examining one or two abnormal leaves of the ash-tree, partly from the custom of his nature, partly to give her time to recover.
'Papa is going to be married again,' said she, at length.
She could not have said why she told him this; an instant before she spoke, she had no intention of doing so. He dropped the leaf he held in his hand, turned round, and looked at her. Her poor wistful eyes were filling with tears as they met his, with a dumb appeal for sympathy. Her look was much more eloquent than her words. There was a momentary pause before he replied, and then it was more because he felt that he must say something than that he was in any doubt as to the answer to the question he asked.
'You are sorry for it?'
She did not take her eyes away from his, as her quivering lips formed the word 'Yes,' though her voice made no sound. He was silent again now; looking on the ground, kicking softly at a loose pebble with his foot. His thoughts did not come readily to the surface in the shape of words; nor was he apt at giving comfort till he saw his way clear to the real source from which consolation must come. At last he spoke, - almost as if he was reasoning out the matter with himself.
'It seems as if there might be cases where - setting the question of love entirely on one side - it must be almost a duty to find some one to be a substitute for the mother.... I can believe,' said he, in a different tone of voice, and looking at Molly afresh, 'that this step may be greatly for your father's happiness - it may relieve him from many cares, and may give him a pleasant companion.'
'He had me. You don't know what we were to each other - at least, what he was to me,' she added, humbly.
'Still he must have thought it for the best, or he wouldn't have done it. He may have thought it the best for your sake even more than for his own.'
'That is what he tried to convince me of.'
Roger began kicking the pebble again. He had not got hold of the right end of the clue. Suddenly he looked up.
'I want to tell you of a girl I know. Her mother died when she was about sixteen - the eldest of a large family. From that time - all though the bloom of her youth - she gave herself up to her father first as his comforter, afterwards as his companion, friend, secretary - anything you like. He was a man with a great deal of business on hand, and often came home only to set to afresh to preparations for the next day's work. Harriet was always there, ready to help, to talk, or to be silent. It went on for eight or ten years in this way; and then her father married again, - a woman not many years older than Harriet herself. Well - they are just the happiest set of people I know - you wouldn't have thought it likely, would you?'
She was listening, but she had no heart to say anything. Yet she was interested in this little story of Harriet - a girl who had been so much to her father, more than Molly in this early youth of hers could have been to Mr Gibson. 'How was it?' she sighed out at last.
'Harriet thought of her father's happiness before she thought of her own,' Roger answered, with something of severe brevity. Molly needed the bracing. She began to cry again a little.
'If it were for papa's happiness -- '
'He must believe that it is. Whatever you fancy, give him a chance. He cannot have much comfort, I should think, if he sees you fretting or pining, - you who have been so much to him, as you say. The lady herself, too - if Harriet's stepmother had been a selfish woman, and been always clutching after the gratification of her own wishes; but she was not: she was as anxious for Harriet to be happy as Harriet was for her father - and your father's future wife may be another of the same kind, though such people are rare.'
'I don't think she is, though,' murmured Molly, a waft of recollection bringing to her mind the details of her day at the Towers long ago.
Roger did not want to hear Molly's reasons for this doubting speech. He felt as if he had no right to hear more of Mr Gibson's family life, past, present, or to come, than was absolutely necessary for him, in order that he might comfort and help the crying girl, whom he had come upon so unexpectedly. And besides, he wanted to go home, and be with his mother at lunch-time. Yet he could not leave her alone.
'It is right to hope for the best about everybody, and not to expect the worst. This sounds like a truism, but it has comforted me before now, and some day you'll find it useful. One has always to try to think more of others than of oneself, and it is best not to prejudge people on the bad side. My sermons aren't long, are they? Have they given you an appetite for lunch? Sermons always make me hungry, I know.'
He appeared to be waiting for her to get up and come along with him, as indeed he was. But he meant her to perceive that he should not leave her; so she rose up languidly, too languid to say how much she should prefer being left alone, if he would only go away without her. She was very weak, and stumbled over the straggling root of a tree that projected across the path. He, watchful though silent, saw this stumble, and putting out his hand held her up from falling. He still held her hand when the occasion was past; this little physical failure impressed on his heart how young and helpless she was, and he yearned to her, remembering the passion of sorrow in which he had found her, and longing to be of some little tender bit of comfort to her, before they parted - before their tete-a-tete walk was merged in the general familiarity of the household life. Yet he did not know what to say.
'You will have thought me hard,' he burst out at length, as they were nearing the drawing-room windows and the garden-door. 'I never can manage to express what I feel, somehow I always fall to philosophizing, but I am sorry for you. Yes, I am; it's beyond my power to help you, as far as altering facts goes, but I can feel for you, in a way which it's best not to talk about, for it can do no good. Remember how sorry I am for you! I shall often be thinking of you, though I daresay it's best not to talk about it again.'
She said, 'I know you are sorry,' under her breath, and then she broke away, and ran indoors, and upstairs to the solitude of her own room. He went straight to his mother, who was sitting before the untasted luncheon, as much annoyed by the mysterious unpunctuality of her visitor as she was capable of being with anything; for she had heard that Mr Gibson had been, and was gone, and she could not discover if he had left any message for her; and her anxiety about her own health, which some people esteemed hypochondriacal, always made her particularly craving for the wisdom which might fall from her doctor's lips.
'Where have you been, Roger? Where is Molly? - Miss Gibson, I mean,' for she was careful to keep up a barrier of forms between the young man and young woman who were thrown together in the same household.
'I've been out dredging. (By the way, I left my net on the terrace walk.) I found Miss Gibson sitting there, crying as if her heart would break. Her father is going to be married again.'
'Married again! You don't say so.'
'Yes, he is; and she takes it very hardly, poor girl. Mother, I think if you could send some one to her with a glass of wine, a cup of tea, or something of that sort - she was very nearly fainting -- '
'I'll go to her myself, poor child,' said Mrs Hamley, rising.
'Indeed you must not,' said he, laying his hand upon her arm. 'We have kept you waiting already too long; you are looking quite pale. Hammond can take it,' he continued, ringing the bell. She sate down again, almost stunned with surprise.
'Whom is he going to marry?'
'I don't know. I didn't ask, and she didn't tell me.'
'That's so like a man. Why, half the character of the affair lies in the question of whom it is that he is going to marry.'
'I daresay I ought to have asked. But somehow I'm not a good one on such occasions. I was as sorry as could be for her, and yet I couldn't tell what to say.'
'What did you say?'
'I gave her the best advice in my power.'
'Advice! you ought to have comforted her. Poor little Molly!'
'I think that if advice is good it's the best comfort.'
'That depends on what you mean by advice. Hush! here she is.'
To their surprise, Molly came in, trying hard to look as usual. She had bathed her eyes, and arranged her hair; and was making a great struggle to keep from crying, and to bring her voice into order. She was unwilling to distress Mrs Hamley by the sight of pain and suffering. She did not know that she was following Roger's injunctions to think more of others than of herself - but so she was. Mrs Hamley was not sure if it was wise in her to begin on the piece of news she had just heard from her son; but she was too full of it herself to talk of anything else. 'So I hear your father is going to be married, my dear? May I ask whom it is to?'
'Mrs Kirkpatrick. I think she was governess a long time ago at the Countess of Cumnor's. She stays with them a great deal, and they call her Clare, and I believe they are very fond of her.' Molly tried to speak of her future stepmother in the most favourable manner she knew how.
'I think I've heard of her. Then she is not very young? That's as it should be. A widow too. Has she any family?'
'One girl, I believe. But I know so little about her!'
Molly was very near crying again.
'Never mind, my dear. That will all come in good time. Roger, you've hardly eaten anything; where are you going?'
'To fetch my dredging-net. It's full of things I don't want to lose. Besides, I never eat much, as a general thing.' The truth was partly told, not all. He thought he had better leave the other two alone. His mother had such sweet power of sympathy, that she would draw the sting out of the girl's heart in a tete-a-tete. As soon as he was gone, Molly lifted up her poor swelled eyes, and, looking at Mrs Hamley, she said, - 'He was so good to me. I mean to try and remember all he said,'
'I'm glad to hear it, love; very glad. From what he told me, I was afraid he had been giving you a little lecture. He has a good heart, but he isn't so tender in his manner as Osborne. Roger is a little rough sometimes.'
'Then I like roughness. It did me good. It made me feel how badly - oh, Mrs Hamley, I did behave so badly to papa this morning.'
She rose up and threw herself into Mrs Hamley's arms, and sobbed upon her breast. Her sorrow was not now for the fact that her father was going to be married again, but for her own ill-behaviour.
If Roger was not tender in words, he was in deeds. Unreasonable and possibly exaggerated as Molly's grief had appeared to him, it was real suffering to her; and he took some pains to lighten it, in his own way, which was characteristic enough. That evening he adjusted his microscope, and put the treasures he had collected in his morning's ramble on a little table; and then he asked his mother to come and admire. Of course Molly came too, and this was what he had intended. He tried to interest her in his pursuit, cherished her first little morsel of curiosity, and nursed it into a very proper desire for further information. Then he brought out books on the subject, and translated the slightly pompous and technical language into homely every-day speech. Molly had come down to dinner, wondering how the long hours till bedtime would ever pass away: hours during which she must not speak on the one thing that would be occupying her mind to the exclusion of all others; for she was afraid that already she had wearied Mrs Hamley with it during their afternoon tete-a-tete. But prayers and bedtime came long before she had expected; she had been refreshed by a new current of thought, and she was very thankful to Roger. And now there was to-morrow to come, and a confession of penitence to be made to her father.
But Mr Gibson did not want speech or words. He was not fond of expressions of feeling at any time, and perhaps, too, he felt that the less said the better on a subject about which it was evident that his daughter and he were not thoroughly and impulsively in harmony. He read her repentance in her eyes; he saw how much she had suffered; and he had a sharp pang at his heart in consequence. But he stopped her from speaking out her regret at her behaviour the day before, by a 'There, there, that will do. I know all you want to say. I know my little, Molly - my silly little goosey - better than she knows herself. I've brought you an invitation. Lady Cumnor wants you to go and spend next Thursday at the Towers!'
'Do you wish me to go?' said she, her heart sinking.
'I wish you and Hyacinth to become better acquainted - to learn to love each other.'
'Hyacinth!' said Molly, entirely bewildered.
'Yes; Hyacinth! It's the silliest name I ever heard of; but it's hers, and I must call her by it. I can't bear Clare, which is what my lady and all the family at the Towers call her; and "Mrs Kirkpatrick" is formal and nonsensical too, as she'll change her name so soon.'
'When, papa?' asked Molly, feeling as if she were living in a strange, unknown world.
'Not till after Michaelmas.' And then, continuing on his own thoughts, he added, 'And the worst is, she's gone and perpetuated her own affected name by having her daughter called after her. Cynthia! One thinks of the moon, and the man in the moon with his bundle of faggots. I'm thankful you're plain Molly, child.'
'How old is she - Cynthia, I mean?'
'Ay, get accustomed to the name. I should think Cynthia Kirkpatrick was about as old as you are. She's at school in France, picking up airs and graces. She's to come home for the wedding, so you'll be able to get acquainted with her then; though, I think, she's to go back again for another half-year or so.'