It is not to be supposed that such an encounter as Mr Preston had just had with Roger Hamley sweetened the regards in which the two young men henceforward held each other. They had barely spoken to each other before, and but seldom met; for the land-agent's employment had hitherto lain at Ashcombe, some sixteen or seventeen miles from Hamley. He was older than Roger by several years; but during the time he had been in the county Osborne and Roger had been at school and at college. Mr Preston was prepared to dislike the Hamleys for many unreasonable reasons. Cynthia and Molly had both spoken of the brothers with familiar regard, implying considerable intimacy; their flowers had been preferred to his on the occasion of the ball; most people spoke well of them; and Mr Preston had an animal's instinctive jealousy and combativeness against all popular young men. Their 'position' - poor as the Hamleys might be - was far higher than his own in the county; and, moreover, he was agent to the great Whig lord, whose political interests were diametrically opposed to those of the old Tory squire. Not that Lord Cumnor troubled himself much about his political interests. His family had obtained property and title from the Whigs at the time of the Hanoverian succession; and so, traditionally, he was a Whig, and had belonged in his youth to Whig clubs, where he had lost considerable sums of money to Whig gamblers. All this was satisfactory and consistent enough. And if Lord Hollingford had not been returned for the county on the Whig interest - as his father had been before him, until he had succeeded to the title - it is quite probable Lord Cumnor would have considered the British constitution in danger, and the patriotism of his ancestors ungratefully ignored. But, excepting at elections, he had no notion of making Whig and Tory a party cry. He had lived too much in London, and was of too sociable a nature, to exclude any man who jumped with his humour, from the hospitality he was always ready to offer, be the agreeable acquaintance Whig, Tory, or Radical. But in the county of which he was lord-lieutenant, the old party distinction was still a shibboleth by which men were tested for their fitness for social intercourse, as well as on the hustings. If by any chance a Whig found himself at a Tory dinner-table - or vice-versâ - the food was hard of digestion, and wine and viands were criticized rather than enjoyed. A marriage between the young people of the separate parties was almost as unheard-of and prohibited an alliance as that of Romeo and Juliet's. And of course Mr Preston was not a man in whose breast such prejudices would die away. They were an excitement to him for one thing, and called out all his talent for intrigue on behalf of the party to which he was allied. Moreover, he considered it as loyalty to his employer to 'scatter his enemies' by any means in his power. He had always hated and despised the Tories in general; and after that interview on the marshy common in front of Silas's cottage, he hated the Hamleys and Roger especially, with a very choice and particular hatred. 'That prig,' as hereafter he always designated Roger - 'he shall pay for it yet,' he said to himself by way of consolation, after the father and son had left him. 'What a lout it is!' - watching the receding figure. 'The old chap has twice as much spunk,' as the squire tugged at his bridle-reins. 'The old mare could make her way better without being led, my fine fellow. But I see through your dodge. You're afraid of your old father turning back and getting into another rage. Position indeed! a beggarly squire - a man who did turn off his men just before winter, to rot or starve, for all he cared - it's just like a brutal old Tory.' And, under the cover of sympathy with the dismissed labourers, Mr Preston indulged his own private pique very pleasantly.
Mr Preston had many causes for rejoicing: he might have forgotten this discomfiture, as he chose to feel it, in the remembrance of an increase of income, and in the popularity he enjoyed in his new abode. All Hollingford came forward to do the earl's new agent honour. Mr Sheepshanks had been a crabbed, crusty old bachelor, frequenting inn-parlours on market-days, not unwilling to give dinners to three or four chosen friends and familiars, with whom, in return, he dined from time to time, and with whom, also, he kept up an amicable rivalry in the matter of wines. But he 'did not appreciate female society,' as Miss Browning elegantly worded his unwillingness to accept the invitations of the Hollingford ladies. He was unrefined enough to speak of these invitations to his intimate friends aforesaid in the following manner, 'Those old women's worrying,' but, of course, they never heard of this. Little quarter-of-sheet notes, without any envelopes - that invention was unknown in those days - but sealed in the corners when folded up instead of gummed as they are fastened at present, occasionally passed between Mr Sheepshanks and the Miss Brownings, Mrs Goodenough or others. In the first instance, the form ran as follows: - 'Miss' Browning and her sister, Miss Phoebe Browning, present their respectful compliments to Mr Sheepshanks, and beg to inform him that a few friends have kindly consented to favour them with their company at tea on Thursday next. Miss Browning and Miss Phoebe will take it very kindly if Mr Sheepshanks will join their little circle.'
Now for Mrs Goodenough: -
'Mrs Goodenough's respects to Mr Sheepshanks, and hopes he is in good health. She would be very glad if he would favour her with his company to tea on Monday. My daughter, in Combermere, has sent me a couple of guinea fowls, and Mrs Goodenough hopes Mr Sheepshanks will stay and take a bit of supper.'
No need for the dates of the days of the month. The good ladies would have thought that the world was coming to an end if the invitation had been sent out a week before the party therein named. But not even guinea-fowls for supper could tempt Mr Sheepshanks. He remembered the made-wines he had tasted in former days at Hollingford parties, and shuddered. Bread-and-cheese, with a glass of bitter-beer, or a little brandy-and-water, partaken of in his old clothes (which had worn into shapes of loose comfort, and smelt strongly of tobacco), he liked better than roast guinea-fowl and birch-wine, even without throwing into the balance the stiff uneasy coat, and the tight neckcloth and tighter shoes. So the ex-agent had been seldom, if ever, seen at the Hollingford tea-parties. He might have had his form of refusal stereotyped, it was so invariably the same.
'Mr Sheepshanks' duty to Miss Browning and her sister' (to Mrs Goodenough, or to others, as the case might be). 'Business of importance prevents him from availing himself of their polite invitation; for which he begs to return his best thanks.'
But now that Mr Preston had succeeded, and come to live in Hollingford, things were changed.
He accepted every civility right and left, and won golden opinions accordingly. Parties were made in his honour, 'just as if he had been a bride,' Miss Phoebe Browning said; and to all of them he went.
'What's the man after?' said Mr Sheepshanks to himself, when he heard of his successor's affability, and sociability, and amiability, and a variety of other agreeable 'ilities,' from the friends whom the old steward still retained at Hollingford.
'Preston's not a man to put himself out for nothing. He's deep. He'll be after something solider than popularity.'
The sagacious old bachelor was right. Mr Preston was 'after' something more than mere popularity. He went wherever he had a chance of meeting Cynthia Kirkpatrick.
It might be that Molly's spirits were more depressed at this time than they were in general; or that Cynthia was exultant, unawares to herself, in the amount of attention and admiration she was receiving from Roger by day, from Mr Preston in the evenings, but the two girls seemed to have parted company in cheerfulness. Molly was always gentle, but very grave and silent. Cynthia, on the contrary, was merry, full of pretty mockeries, and hardly ever silent. When first she came to Hollingford, one of her great charms had been that she was such a gracious listener; now her excitement, by whatever caused, made her too restless to hold her tongue; yet what she said was too pretty, too witty, not to be a winning and sparkling interruption, eagerly welcomed by those who were under her sway. Mr Gibson was the only one who observed this change, and reasoned upon it.
'She is in a mental fever of some kind,' thought he to himself. 'She is very fascinating, but I don't quite understand her.' If Molly had not been so entirely loyal to her friend, she might have thought this constant brilliancy a little tiresome when brought into every-day life; it was not the sunshiny rest of a placid lake, it was rather the glitter of the pieces of a broken mirror, which confuses and bewilders. Cynthia would not talk quietly about anything now; subjects of thought or conversation seemed to have lost their relative value. There were exceptions to this mood of hers, when she sank into deep fits of silence, that would have been gloomy had it not been for the never varying sweetness of her temper. If there was a little kindness to be done to either Mr Gibson or Molly, Cynthia was just as ready as ever to do it; nor did she refuse to do anything her mother wished, however fidgety might be, the humour that prompted the wish. But in this latter case Cynthia's eyes were not quickened by her heart.
Molly was dejected, she knew not why. Cynthia had drifted a little apart; that was not it. Her stepmother had whimsical moods; and if Cynthia displeased her, she would oppress Molly with small kindnesses and pseudo-affection. Or else everything was wrong, the world was out of joint, and Molly had failed in her mission to set it right, and was to be blamed accordingly. But Molly was of too steady a disposition to be much moved by the changeableness of an unreasonable person. She might be annoyed, or irritated, but she was not depressed. That was not it. The real cause was certainly this. As long as Roger was drawn to Cynthia, and sought her of his own accord, it had been a sore pain and bewilderment to Molly's heart; but it was a straightforward attraction, and one which Molly acknowledged, in her humility and great power of loving, to be the most natural thing in the world. She would look at Cynthia's beauty and grace, and feel as if no one could resist it. And when she witnessed all the small signs of honest devotion which Roger was at no pains to conceal, she thought, with a sigh, that surely no girl could help relinquishing her heart to such tender, strong keeping as Roger's character ensured. She would have been willing to cut off her right hand, if need were, to forward his attachment to Cynthia; and the self-sacrifice would have added a strange zest to a happy crisis. She was indignant at what she considered to be Mrs Gibson's obtuseness to so much goodness and worth; and when she called Roger 'a country lout', or any other depreciative epithet, Molly would pinch herself in order to keep silent. But after all those were peaceful days compared to the present, when she, seeing the wrong side of the tapestry, after the wont of those who dwell in the same house with a plotter, became aware that Mrs Gibson had totally changed her behaviour to Roger, from some cause unknown to Molly.
But he was always exactly the same; 'steady as old Time,' as Mrs Gibson called him, with her usual originality; 'a rock of strength, under whose very shadow there is rest,' as Mrs Hamley had once spoken of him. So the cause of Mrs Gibson's altered manner lay not in him. Yet now he was sure of a welcome, let him come at any hour he would. He was playfully reproved for having taken Mrs Gibson's words too literally, and for never coming before lunch. But he said he considered her reasons for such words to be valid, and should respect them. And this was done out of his simplicity, and from no tinge of malice. Then in their family conversations at home, Mrs Gibson was constantly making projects for throwing Roger 'and Cynthia together, with so evident a betrayal of her wish to bring about an engagement, that Molly chafed at the net spread so evidently, and at Roger's blindness in coming so willingly to be entrapped. She forgot his previous willingness, his former evidences of manly fondness for the beautiful Cynthia; she only saw plots of which he was the victim, and Cynthia the conscious if passive bait. She felt as if she could not have acted as Cynthia did; no, not even to gain Roger's love. Cynthia heard and saw as much of the domestic background as she did, and yet she submitted to the rôle assigned to her! To be sure, this rôle would have been played by her unconsciously; the things prescribed were what she would naturally have done; but because they were prescribed - by implication only, it is true - Molly would have resisted; have gone out, for instance, when she was expected to stay at home; or have lingered in the garden when a long country walk was planned. At last - for she could not help loving Cynthia, come what would - she determined to believe that Cynthia was entirely unaware of all; but it was with an effort that she brought herself to believe it.
It may be all very pleasant 'to sport with Amaryllis in the shade, or with the tangles of Neæra's hair,' but young men at the outset of their independent life have many other cares in this prosaic England to occupy their time and their thoughts. Roger was Fellow of Trinity, to be sure; and from the outside it certainly appeared as if his position, as long as he chose to keep unmarried, was a very easy one. His was not a nature, however, to sink down into inglorious ease, even had his fellowship income been at his disposal. He looked forward to an active life; in what direction he had not yet determined. He knew what were his talents and his tastes; and did not wish the former to lie buried, nor the latter, which he regarded as gifts, fitting him for some peculiar work, to be disregarded or thwarted. He rather liked awaiting an object, secure in his own energy to force his way to it, when he once saw it clearly. He reserved enough of money for his own personal needs, which were small, and for the ready furtherance of any project he might see fit to undertake; the rest of his income was Osborne's; given and accepted in the spirit which made the bond between these two brothers so rarely perfect. It was only the thought of Cynthia that threw Roger off his balance. A strong man in everything else, about her he was as a child. He knew that he could not marry and retain his fellowship; his intention was to hold himself loose from any employment or profession until he had found one to his mind, so there was no immediate prospect - no prospect for many years, indeed, that he would be able to marry. Yet he went on seeking Cynthia's sweet company, listening to the music of her voice, basking in her sunshine, and feeding his passion in every possible way, just like an unreasoning child. He knew that it was folly - and yet he did it; and it was perhaps this that made him so sympathetic with Osborne. Roger racked his brains about Osborne's affairs much more frequently than Osborne troubled himself. Indeed, he had become so ailing and languid of late, that even the squire made only very faint objections to his desire for frequent change of scene, though formerly he used to grumble so much at the necessary expenditure it involved.
'After all, it does not cost much,' the squire said to Roger one day. 'Choose how he does it, he does it cheaply; he used to come and ask me for twenty, where now he does it for five. But he and I. have lost each other's language, that's what we have! and my dictionary' (only he called it 'dixonary') 'has all got wrong because of those confounded debts - which he will never explain to me, or talk about - he always holds me off at arm's length when I begin upon it - he does, Roger - me, his old dad, as was his primest favourite of all, when he was a little bit of a chap!'
The squire dwelt so much upon Osborne's reserved behaviour to himself' that brooding over this one subject perpetually he became more morose and gloomy than ever in his manner to Osborne, resenting the want of the confidence and affection that he thus repelled. So much so that Roger, who desired to avoid being made the receptacle of his father's complaints against Osborne - and Roger's passive listening was the sedative his father always sought - had often to have recourse to the discussion of the drainage works as a counter-irritant. The squire had felt Mr Preston's speech about the dismissal of his workpeople very keenly; it fell in with the reproaches of his own conscience, though, as he would repeat to Roger over and over again, - 'I could not help it - how could I? - I was drained dry of ready money - I wish the land was drained as dry as I am,' said he, with a touch of humour that came out before he was aware, and at which he smiled sadly enough. 'What was I to do, I ask you, Roger? I know I was in a rage - I've had a deal to make me so - and maybe I did not think as much about consequences as I should ha' done, when I gave orders for 'em to be sent off; but I could not have done otherwise if I'd ha' thought for a twelvemonth in cool blood. Consequences! I hate consequences; they've always been against me; they have. I'm so tied up I can't cut down a stick more, and that's a "consequence" of having the property so deucedly well settled; I wish I'd never had any ancestors. Ay, laugh, lad! it does me good to see thee laugh a bit, after Osborne's long face, which always grows longer at sight o' me!'
'Look here, father!' said Roger suddenly, 'I'll manage somehow about the money for the works. You trust to me; give me two months to turn myself in, and you shall have some money, at any rate, to begin with.'
The squire looked at him, and his face brightened as a child's does at the promise of a pleasure made to him by some one on whom he can rely. He became a little graver, however, as he said, - 'But how will you get it? It's hard enough work.'
'Never mind; I'll get it - a hundred or so at first - I don't yet know how - but remember, father, I'm a Senior Wrangler, and a "very promising young writer," as that review called me. Oh, you don't know what a fine fellow you've got for a son. You should have read that review to know all my wonderful merits.'
'I did, Roger. I heard Gibson speaking of it, and I made him get it for me. I should have understood it better if they could have called the animals by their English names, and not put so much of their French jingo into it.'
'But it was an answer to an article by a French writer,' pleaded Roger.
'I'd ha' let him alone!' said the squire earnestly. 'We had to beat 'em, and we did it at Waterloo; but I'd not demean myself by answering any of their lies, if I was you. But I got through the review, for all their Latin and French; I did, and if you doubt me, you just look at the end of the great ledger, turn it upside down, and you'll find I've copied out all the fine words they said of you: "careful observer," "strong nervous English," "rising philosopher." Oh! I can nearly say it all off by heart, for many a time when I am frabbed by bad debts, or Osborne's bills, or moidered with accounts, I turn the ledger wrong way up, and smoke a pipe over it, while I read those pieces out of the review which speak about you, lad!'
Roger had turned over many plans in his mind, by which he thought that he could obtain sufficient money for the purpose he desired to accomplish. His careful grandfather, who had been a merchant in the city, had so tied up the few thousands he had left to his daughter, that although, in case of her death before her husband's, the latter might enjoy the life interest thereof, yet in case of both their deaths, their second son did not succeed to the property until he was five-and-twenty. and if he died before that age the money that would then have been his went to one of his cousins on the maternal side. In short, the old merchant had taken as many precautions about his legacy as if it had been for tens, instead of units of thousands. Of course Roger might have slipped through all these meshes by insuring his life until the specified age; and probably if he had consulted any lawyer this course would have been suggested to him. But he disliked taking any one into his confidence on the subject of his father's want of ready money. He had obtained a copy of his grandfather's will at Doctors' Commons, and he imagined that all the contingencies involved in it would be patent to the light of nature and common sense. He was a little mistaken in this, but not the less resolved that money in some way he would have in order to fulfil his promise to his father, and for the ulterior purpose of giving the squire some daily interest to distract his thoughts from the regrets and cares that were almost weakening his mind. It was 'Roger Hamley, Senior Wrangler and Fellow of Trinity, to the highest bidder, no matter what honest employment,' and presently it came down to 'any bidder at all.'
Another perplexity and distress at this time weighed upon Roger. Osborne, heir to the estate, was going to have a child. The Hamley property was entailed on 'heirs male born in lawful wedlock.' Was the 'wedlock' lawful? Osborne never seemed to doubt that it was - never seemed, in fact, to think twice about it. And if he, the husband, did not, how much less did Aimée, the trustful wife? Yet who could tell how much misery any shadows of illegality might cast into the future? One evening Roger, sitting by the languid, careless, dilettante Osborne, began to question him as to the details of the marriage. Osborne knew instinctively at what Roger was aiming. It was not that he did not desire perfect legality in justice to his wife; it was that he was so indisposed at the time that he hated to be bothered. It was something like the refrain of Gray's Scandinavian Prophetess: 'Leave me, leave me to repose.'
'But do try and tell me how you managed it.'
'How tiresome you are, Roger,' put in Osborne.
'Well, I dare say I am. Go on!'
'I've told you Morrison married us. You remember old Morrison at Trinity?'
'Yes; as good and blunder-headed a fellow as ever lived.'
'Well, he's taken orders; and the examination for priest's orders fatigued him so much that he got his father to give him a hundred or two for a tour on the Continent. He meant to get to Rome, because he heard that there were such pleasant winters there. So he turned up at Metz in August.'
'I don't see why.'
'No more did he. He never was great in geography, you know; and somehow he thought that Metz, pronounced French fashion, must be on the road to Rome. Some one had told him so in fun. However, it was very well for me that I met with him there for I was determined to be married, and that without loss of time.'
'But Aimée is a Catholic?'
'That's true! but you see I am not. You don't suppose I would do her any wrong, Roger?' asked Osborne, sitting up in his lounging-chair, and speaking rather indignantly to Roger, his face suddenly flushing red.
'No! I'm sure you would not mean it; but you see there's a child coming, and this estate is entailed on "heirs male." Now, I want to know if the marriage is legal or not? and it seems to me it's a ticklish question.'
'Oh!' said Osborne, falling back into repose, 'if that's all, I suppose you're next heir male, and I can trust you as I can myself. You know my marriage is bonâ fide in intention, and I believe it to be legal in fact. We went over to Strasbourg; Aimée picked up a friend - a good middle-aged Frenchwoman - who served half as bridesmaid, half as chaperone, and then we went before the mayor - préfet - what do you call them? I think Morrison rather enjoyed the spree. I signed all manner of papers in the prefecture; I did not read them over, for fear lest I could not sign them conscientiously. It was the safest plan. Aimée kept trembling so I thought she would faint, and then we went off to the nearest English chaplaincy, Carlsruhe, and the chaplain was away, so Morrison easily got the loan of the chapel, and we were married the next day.'
'But surely some registration or certificate was necessary?'
'Morrison said he would undertake all those forms; and he ought to know his own business.' I know I tipped him pretty well for the job.'
'You must be married again,' said Roger, after a pause, 'and that before the child is born. Have you got a certificate of the marriage?'
'I dare say Morrison has got it somewhere. But I believe I'm legally married according to the laws both of England and France; I really do, old fellow. I've got the préfet's papers somewhere.'
'Never mind! you shall be married again in England. Aimée goes to the Roman Catholic chapel at Prestham, does not she?'
'Yes. She is so good I would not disturb her in her religion for the world.'
'Then you shall be married both there and at the church of the parish in which she lives as well,' said Roger, decidedly.
'It's a great deal of trouble, unnecessary trouble, and unnecessary expense, I should say,' said Osborne. 'Why can't you leave well alone? Neither Aimée nor I are of the sort of stuff to turn scoundrels and deny the legality of our marriage, and if the child is a boy and my father dies, and I die, why I'm. sure you'll do him justice, as sure as I am of myself, old fellow!'
'But if I die into the bargain? Make a hecatomb of the present Hamleys all at once, while you are about it. Who succeeds as heir male?'
Osborne thought for a moment. 'One of the Irish Hamleys, I suppose. I fancy they are needy chaps. Perhaps you're right. But what need to have such gloomy forebodings?'
'The law makes one have foresight in such affairs,' said Roger. 'So I'll go down to Aimée next week when I'm in town, and I'll make all necessary arrangements before you come. I think you'll be happier if it is all done.'
'I shall be happier if I've a chance of seeing the little woman, that I grant you. But what is taking you up to town? I wish I'd money to run about like you, instead of being shut up for ever in this dull old house.'
Osborne was apt occasionally to contrast his position with Roger's in a tone of complaint, forgetting that both were the results of character, and also that out of his income Roger gave up so large a portion for the maintenance of his brother's wife. But if this ungenerous thought of Osborne's had been set clearly before his conscience, he would have smote his breast and cried 'Mea culpa' with the best of them; it was only that he was too indolent to keep an unassisted conscience.
'I should not have thought of going up,' said Roger, reddening as if he had been accused of spending another's money instead of his own, 'if I had not had to go up on business. Lord Hollingford has written for me; he knows my great wish for employment, and has heard of something which he considers suitable; there's his letter if you care to read it. But it does not tell anything definitely.'
Osborne read the letter and returned it to Roger. After a moment or two of silence he said, - 'Why do you want money? Are we taking too much from you? It's a great shame of me; but what can I do? Only suggest a career for me, and I'll follow it to-morrow.' He spoke as if Roger had been reproaching him.
'My dear fellow, don't get those notions into your head! I must do something for myself sometimes, and I have been on the look-out. Besides, I want my father to go on with his drainage, it would do good both to his health and his spirits. If I can advance any part of the money requisite, he and you shall pay me interest until you can return the capital.'
'Roger, you're the providence of the family,' exclaimed Osborne, suddenly struck by admiration at his brother's conduct, and forgetting to contrast it with his own.
So Roger went up to London and Osborne followed him, and for two or three weeks the Gibsons saw nothing of the brothers. But as wave succeeds to wave, so interest succeeds to interest. 'The family,' as they were called, came down for their autumn sojourn at the Towers; and again the house was full of visitors, and the Towers' servants, and carriages, and liveries were seen in the two streets of Hollingford, just as they might have been seen for scores of autumns past.
So runs the round of life from day to day. Mrs Gibson found the chances of intercourse with the Towers rather more personally exciting than Roger's visits, or the rarer calls of Osborne Hamley. Cynthia had an old antipathy to the great family who had made so much of her mother and so little of her; and whom she considered as in some measure the cause why she had seen so little of her mother in the days when the little girl had craved for love and found none. Moreover, Cynthia missed her slave, although she did not care for Roger one thousandth part of what he did for her; yet she had found it not unpleasant to have a man whom she thoroughly respected, and whom men in general respected, the subject of her eye, the glad ministrant to each scarce spoken wish, a person in whose sight all her words were pearls or diamonds, all her actions heavenly graciousness, and in whose thoughts she reigned supreme. She had no modest unconsciousness about her; and yet she was not vain. She knew of all this worship; and when from circumstances she no longer received it she missed it. The Earl and the Countess, Lord Hollingford and Lady Harriet, lords and ladies in general, liveries, dresses, bags of game, and rumours of riding parties were as nothing to her as compared to Roger's absence. And yet she did not love him. No, she did not love him. Molly knew that Cynthia did not love him. Molly grew angry with her many and many a time as the conviction of this fact was forced upon her. Molly did not know her own feelings; Roger had no overwhelming interest in what they might be; while his very life-breath seemed to depend on what Cynthia felt and thought. Therefore Molly had keen insight into her 'sister's' heart; and she knew that Cynthia did not love Roger, Molly could have cried with passionate regret at the thought of the unvalued treasure lying at Cynthia's feet; and it would have been a merely unselfish regret. It was the old fervid tenderness. 'Do not wish for the moon, O my darling, for I cannot give it thee.' Cynthia's love was the moon Roger yearned for; and Molly saw that it was far away and out of reach, else would she have strained her heart-chords to give it to Roger.
'I am his sister,' she would say to herself. 'That old bond is not done away with, though he is too much absorbed by Cynthia to speak about it just now. His mother called me "Fanny;" it was almost like an adoption. I must wait and watch, and see if I can do anything for my brother.'
One day Lady Harriet came to call on the Gibsons, or rather on Mrs Gibson, for the latter retained her old jealousy if any one else in Hollingford was supposed to be on intimate terms at the great house, or in the least acquainted with their plans. Mr Gibson might possibly know as much, but then he was professionally bound to secrecy. Out of the house she considered Mr Preston as her rival, and he was aware that she did so, and delighted in teasing her by affecting a knowledge of family plans and details of affairs of which she was not aware. Indoors she was jealous of the fancy Lady Harriet had evidently taken for her stepdaughter, and she contrived to place quiet obstacles in the way of a too frequent intercourse between the two. These obstacles were not unlike the shield of the knight in the old story; only instead of the two sides presented to the two travellers approaching it from opposite quarters, one of which was silver, and one of which was gold, Lady Harriet saw the smooth and shining yellow radiance, while poor Molly only perceived a dull and heavy lead. To Lady Harriet it was 'Molly is gone out; she will be so sorry to miss you, but she was obliged to go to see some old friends of her mother's whom she ought not to neglect: as I said to her, constancy is everything. It is Sterne, I think, who says, "Thine own and thy mother's friends forsake not." But, dear Lady Harriet, you'll stop till she comes home, won't you? I know how fond you are of her. in fact' (with a little surface playfulness) 'I sometimes say you come more to see her than your poor old Clare.'
To Molly it had previously been, -
'Lady Harriet is coming here this morning. I can't have any one else coming in. Tell Maria to say I'm not at home. Lady Harriet has always so much to tell me. Dear Lady Harriet! I've known all her secrets since she was twelve years old. You two girls must keep out of the way. Of course she'll ask for you, out of common civility; but you would only interrupt us if you came in, as you did the other day;' - now addressing Molly - 'l hardly like to say so, but I thought it was very forward.'
'Maria told me she had asked for me,' put in Molly, simply.
'Very forward indeed!' continued Mrs Gibson, taking no further notice of the interruption, except to strengthen the words to which Molly's little speech had been intended as a correction.
'I think this time I must secure her ladyship from the chances of such an intrusion, by taking care that you are out of the house, Molly. You had better go to the Holly Farm, and speak about those damsons I ordered, and which have never been sent.'
'I'll go,' said Cynthia. 'It's far too long a walk for Molly; she's had a bad cold, and is not as strong as she was a fortnight ago. I delight in long walks. If you want Molly out of the way, mamma, send her to the Miss Brownings' - they are always glad to see her.'
'I never said I wanted Molly out of the way, Cynthia,' replied Mrs Gibson. 'You always put things in such an exaggerated - I should almost say, so coarse a manner. I am sure, Molly, my love, you could never have so misunderstood me; it is only on Lady Harriet's account.'
'I don't think I can walk as far as the Holly Farm; papa would take the message; Cynthia need not go.'
'Well! I'm the last person in the world to tax any one's strength; I'd sooner never see damson preserve again. Suppose you do go and see Miss Browning; you can pay her a nice long call - you know she likes that - and ask after Miss Phoebe's cold from me, you know. They were friends of your mother's, my dear, and I would not have you break off old friendships for the world. "Constancy above everything" is my motto, as you know, and the memory of the dead ought always to be cherished.'
'Now, mamma, where am I to go?' asked Cynthia. 'Though Lady Harriet does not care for me as much as she does for Molly - indeed, quite the contrary I should say - yet she might ask after me, and I had better be safely out of the way.'
'True!' said Mrs Gibson, meditatively, yet unconscious of any satire in Cynthia's speech. - 'She is much less likely to ask for you, my dear: I almost think you might remain in the house, or you might go to the Holly Farm; I really do want the damsons; or you might stay here in the dining-room, you know, so as to be ready to arrange lunch prettily, if she does take a fancy to stay for it. She is very fanciful, is dear Lady Harriet! I would not like her to think we made any difference in our meals because she stayed. "Simple elegance," as I tell her, "always is what we aim at." But still you could put out the best service, and arrange some flowers, and ask cook what there is for dinner that she could send us for lunch, and make it all look pretty, and impromptu, and natural. I think you had better stay at home, Cynthia, and then you could fetch Molly from Miss Brownings' in the afternoon, you know, and you two could take a walk together.'
'After Lady Harriet was fairly gone! I understand, mamma. Off with you, Molly. Make haste, or Lady Harriet may come and ask for you as well as mamma. I'll take care and forget where you are going to, so that no one shall learn from me where you are, and I'll answer for mamma's loss of memory.'
'Child! what nonsense you talk; you quite confuse me with being so silly,' said Mrs Gibson, fluttered and annoyed as she usually was with the Lilliputian darts' Cynthia flung at her. She had recourse to her accustomed feckless piece of retaliation - bestowing some favour on Molly; and this did not hurt Cynthia one whit.
'Molly, darling, there's a very cold wind, though it looks so fine. You had better put on my Indian shawl; and it will look so pretty, too, on your grey gown - scarlet and grey - it's not everybody I would lend it to, but you're so careful.'
'Thank you,' said Molly: and she left Mrs Gibson in careless uncertainty as to whether her otter would be accepted or not.
Lady Harriet was sorry to miss Molly, as she was fond of the girl; but as she perfectly agreed with Mrs Gibson's truisms about 'constancy' and 'old friends,' she saw no occasion for saying any more about the affair, but sate down in a little low chair with her feet on the fender. This said fender was made of bright, bright steel, and was strictly tabooed to all household and plebeian feet; indeed the position, if they assumed it, was considered low-bred and vulgar.
'That's right, dear Lady Harriet! you can't think what a pleasure it is to me to welcome you at my own fireside, into my humble home.'
'Humble! now, Clare, that's a little bit of nonsense, begging your pardon. I don't call this pretty little drawing-room a bit of a "humble home." It is as full of comforts, and of pretty things too, as any room of its size can be.'
'Ah! how small you must feel it! even I had to reconcile myself to it at first.'
'Well! perhaps your school-room was larger, but remember how bare it was, how empty of anything but deal tables, and forms, and mats. Oh, indeed, Clare, I quite agree with mamma, who always says you have done very well for yourself; and Mr Gibson too! What an agreeable, well-informed man!'
'Yes, he is,' said his wife, slowly, as if she did not like to relinquish her rôle of a victim to circumstances quite immediately. 'He is very agreeable, very; only we see so little of him; and of course he comes home tired and hungry, and not inclined to talk to his own family, and apt to go to sleep.'
'Come, come!' said Lady Harriet, 'I'm going to have my turn now. We've had the complaint of a doctor's wife, now hear the moans of a peer's daughter. Our house is so overrun with visitors; and literally to-day I have come to you for a little solitude.'
'Solitude!' exclaimed Mrs Gibson. 'Would you rather be alone?' slightly aggrieved.
'No, you dear silly woman; my solitude requires a listener, to whom I may say, "How sweet is solitude." But I am tired of the responsibility of entertaining. Papa is so open-hearted, he asks every friend he meets with to come and pay us a visit. Mamma is really a great invalid, but she does not choose to give up her reputation for good health, having always considered illness a want of self-control. So she gets wearied and worried by a crowd of people who are all of them open-mouthed for amusement of some kind; just like a brood of fledglings in a nest; so I have to be parent-bird, and pop morsels into their yellow leathery bills, to find them swallowed down before I can think of where to find the next. Oh, it's "entertaining" in the largest, literalest, dreariest sense of the word. So I have told a few lies this morning, and come off here for quietness and the comfort of complaining!'
Lady Harriet threw herself back in her chair, and yawned; Mrs Gibson took one of her ladyship's hands in a soft sympathizing manner, and murmured, 'Poor Lady Harriet!' and then she purred affectionately.
After a pause Lady Harriet started up and said, - 'I used to take you as my arbiter of morals when I was a little girl. Tell me, do you think it wrong to tell lies?'
'Oh, my dear! how can you ask such questions? - of course it is very wrong, - very wicked indeed, I think I may say. But I know you were only joking when you said you had told lies.'
'No, indeed, I was not. I told as plump fat lies as you would wish to hear. I said I "was obliged to go into Hollingford on business," when the truth was there was no obligation in the matter, only an insupportable desire of being free from my visitors for an hour or two, and my only business was to come here, and yawn, and complain, and lounge at my leisure. I really think I'm unhappy at having told a story, as children express it.'
'But, my dear Lady Harriet,' said Mrs Gibson, a little puzzled as to the exact meaning of the words that were trembling on her tongue, 'I am sure you thought that you meant what you said, when you said it.'
'No, I didn't,' put in Lady Harriet.
'And besides, if you didn't, it was the fault of the tiresome people who drove you into such straits - yes, it was certainly their fault, not yours - and then you know the conventions of society - ah, what trammels they are!'
Lady Harriet was silent for a minute or two; then she said, - 'Tell me, Clare; you've told lies sometimes, haven't you?'
'Lady Harriet! r think you might have known me better; but I know you don't mean it, dear.'
'Yes, I do. You must have told white lies, at any rate. How did you feel after them?'
'I should have been miserable if I ever had. I should have died of self-reproach. "The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," has always seemed to me such a fine passage. But then I have so much that is unbending in my nature, and in our sphere of life there are so few temptations. If we are humble, we are also simple, and unshackled by etiquette.'
'Then you blame me very much? If somebody else will blame me, I shan't be so unhappy at what I said this morning.'
'I am sure I never blamed you, not in my innermost heart, dear Lady Harriet. Blame you, indeed! That would be presumption in me.'
'I think I shall set up a confessor! and it shan't be you, Clare, for you have always been only too indulgent to me.'
After a pause she said, - 'Can you give me some lunch, Clare? I don't mean to go home till three. My "business" will take me till then, as the people at the Towers are duly informed.'
'Certainly. I shall be delighted! but you know we are very simple in our habits.'
'Oh, I only want a little bread and butter, and perhaps a slice of cold meat - you must not give yourself any trouble, Clare - perhaps you dine now? let me sit down just like one of your family.'
'Yes, you shall; I won't make any alteration; - it will be so pleasant to have you sharing our family meal, dear Lady Harriet. But we dine late, we only lunch now. How low the fire is getting; I really am forgetting everything in the pleasure of this tête-à-tête!'
So she rang twice; with great distinctness, and with a long pause between the rings. Maria brought in coals.
But the signal was as well understood by Cynthia as the 'Hall of Apollo' was by the servants of Lucullus. The brace of partridges that were to have been for the late dinner were instantly put down to the fire; and the prettiest china put out, and the table decked with flowers and fruit, arranged with all Cynthia's usual dexterity and taste. So that when the meal was announced, and Lady Harriet entered the room, she could not but think her hostess's apologies had been quite unnecessary; and be more and more convinced that Clare had done very well for herself. Cynthia now joined the party, pretty and elegant as she always was; but somehow she did not take Lady Harriet's fancy; she only noticed her on account of her being her mother's daughter. Her presence made the conversation more general, and Lady Harriet gave out several pieces of news, none of them of any great importance to her, but as what had been talked about by the circle of visitors assembled at the Towers.
'Lord Hollingford ought to have been with us,' she said, amongst other things; 'but he is obliged, or fancies himself obliged, which is all the same thing, to stay in town about this Crichton legacy!'
'A legacy? To Lord Hollingford? I am so glad!'
'Don't be in a hurry to be glad! It's nothing for him but trouble. Did not you hear of that rich eccentric Mr Crichton, who died some time ago, and - fired by the example of Lord Bridgewater, I suppose - left a sum of money in the hands of trustees, of whom my brother is one, to send out a man with a thousand fine qualifications, to make a scientific voyage, with a view to bringing back specimens of the fauna of distant lands, and so forming the nucleus of a museum which is to be called the Crichton Museum, and so perpetuate the founder's name. Such various forms does man's vanity take! Sometimes it stimulates philanthropy; sometimes a love of science!'
'It seems to me a very laudable and useful object, I am sure,' said Mrs Gibson, safely.
'I daresay it is, taking it from the public-good view. But it is rather tiresome to us privately, for it keeps Hollingford in town - or between it and Cambridge - and each place as dull and empty as can be, just when we want him down at the Towers. The thing ought to have been decided long ago, and there's some danger of the legacy lapsing. The two other trustees have run away to the Continent, feeling, as they say, the utmost confidence in him, but in reality shirking their responsibilities. However, I believe he likes it, so I ought not to grumble. He thinks he is going to be very successful in the choice of his man - and he belongs to this county, too, - young Hamley of Hamley, if he can only get his college to let him go, for he's a Fellow of Trinity, Senior Wrangler or something; and they're not so foolish as to send their crack man to be eaten up by lions and tigers!'
'It must be Roger Hamley!' exclaimed Cynthia, her eyes brightening, and her cheeks flushing.
'He's not the eldest son; he can scarcely be called Hamley of Hamley!' said Mrs Gibson.
'Hollingford's man is a Fellow of Trinity, as I said before.'
'Then it is Mr Roger Hamley,' said Cynthia; 'and he's up in London about some business! What news for Molly when she comes home!'
'Why, what has Molly to do with it?' asked Lady Harriet. 'Is -- ?' and she looked into Mrs Gibson's face for an answer. Mrs Gibson in reply gave an intelligent and very expressive glance at Cynthia, who however did not perceive it.
'Oh, no! not at all' - and Mrs Gibson nodded a little at her daughter, as much as to say, 'If any one, that.'
Lady Harriet began to look at the pretty Miss Kirkpatrick with fresh interest; her brother had spoken in such a manner of this young Mr Hamley that every one connected with the Phoenix was worthy of observation. Then, as if the mention of Molly's name had brought her afresh into her mind, Lady Harriet said, - 'And where is Molly all this time? I should like to see my little mentor. I hear she is very much grown since those days.'
'Oh! when she once gets gossipping with the Miss Brownings, she never knows when to come home,' said Mrs Gibson.
'The Miss Brownings? Oh! I am so glad you named them! I am very fond of them. Pecksy and Flapsy; I may call them so in Molly's absence. I'll go and see them before I go home, and then perhaps I shall see my dear little Molly too. Do you know, Clare, I have quite taken a fancy to that girl!'
So Mrs Gibson, after all her precautions, had to submit to Lady Harriet's leaving her half-an-hour earlier than she otherwise would have done in order to 'make herself common' (as Mrs Gibson expressed it) by calling on the Miss Brownings.
But Molly had left before Lady Harriet arrived.
Molly went the long walk to the Holly Farm to order the damsons out of a kind of penitence. She had felt conscious of anger at being sent out of the house by such a palpable manoeuvre as that which her stepmother had employed. Of course she did not meet Cynthia, so she went alone along the pretty lanes, with grassy sides and high hedge-banks not at all in the style of modern agriculture. At first she made herself uncomfortable with questioning herself as to how far it was right to leave unnoticed the small domestic failings - the webs, the distortions of truth which had prevailed in their household ever since her father's second marriage. She knew that very often she longed to protest, but did not do it, from the desire of sparing her father any discord; and she saw by his face that he, too, was occasionally aware of certain things that gave him pain, as showing that his wife's standard of conduct was not as high as he would have liked. It was a wonder to Molly if this silence was right or wrong. With a girl's want of toleration, and want of experience to teach her the force of circumstances, and of temptation, she had often been on the point of telling her stepmother some forcible home truths. But possibly her father's example of silence, and often some piece of kindness on Mrs Gibson's part (for after her way, and when in a good temper, she was very kind to Molly), made her hold her tongue.
That night at dinner Mrs Gibson recounted the conversation between herself and Lady Harriet, giving it a very strong individual colouring, as was her wont, and telling nearly the whole of what had passed, although implying that there was a great deal said that was so purely confidential, that she was bound in honour not to repeat it. Her three auditors listened to her without interrupting her much - indeed, without bestowing extreme attention on what she was saying, until she came to the fact of Lord Hollingford's absence in London, and the reason for it.
'Roger Hamley going off on a scientific expedition!' exclaimed Mr Gibson, suddenly awakened into vivacity.
'Yes. At least it is not settled finally; but as Lord Hollingford is the only trustee who takes any interest - and being Lord Cumnor's son - it is next to certain.'
'I think I must have a voice in the matter,' said Mr Gibson; and he relapsed into silence, keeping his ears open, however, henceforward.
'How long will he be away?' asked Cynthia. 'We shall miss him sadly.'
Molly's lips formed an acquiescing 'yes' to this remark, but no sound was heard. There was a buzzing in her ears as if the others were going on with the conversation, but the words they uttered seemed indistinct and blurred; they were merely conjectures, and did not interfere with the one great piece of news. To the rest of the party she appeared to be eating her dinner as usual, and, if she were silent, there was one listener the more to Mrs Gibson's stream of prattle, and Mr Gibson's and Cynthia's remarks.
It was a day or two afterwards, that Mr Gibson made time to ride round by Hamley, desirous to learn more exact particulars of this scheme for Roger than he could obtain from any extraneous source, and rather puzzled to know whether he should interfere in the project or not. The state of the case was this: - Osborne's symptoms were, in Mr Gibson's opinion, signs of his having a fatal disease. Dr Nicholls had differed from him on this head, and Mr Gibson knew that the old physician had had long experience, and was considered very skilful in the profession. Still he believed that he himself was right, and, if so, the complaint was one which might continue for years in the same state as at present, or might end the young man's life in a hour - a minute. Supposing that Mr Gibson was right, would it be well for Roger to be away where no sudden calls for his presence could reach him - away for two years? Yet if the affair was concluded, the interference of a medical man might accelerate the very evil to be feared; and after all Dr Nicholls might be right, and the symptoms might proceed from some other cause. Might? Yes. Probably did? No. Mr Gibson could not bring himself to say yes to this latter form of sentence. So he rode on, meditating; his reins slack, his head a little bent. It was one of those still and lovely autumn days when the red and yellow leaves are hanging-pegs to dewy, brilliant gossamer-webs; when the hedges are full of trailing brambles, loaded with ripe blackberries; when the air is full of the farewell whistles and pipes of birds, clear and short - not the long full-throated warbles of spring; when the whirr of the partridge's wings is heard in the stubble-fields, as the sharp hoof-blows fall on the paved lanes; when here and there a leaf floats and flutters down to the ground, although there is not a single breath of wind. The country surgeon felt the beauty of the seasons perhaps more than most men. He saw more of it by day, by night, in storm and sunshine, or in the still, soft, cloudy weather He never spoke about what he felt on the subject; indeed, he did not put his feelings into words, even to himself, But if his mood ever approached to the sentimental, it was on such days as this. He rode into the stable-yard, gave his horse to a man, and went into the house by a side entrance. In the passage he met the squire.
'That's capital, Gibson! what good wind blew you here? You'll have some lunch? it's on the table, I only just this minute left the room.' And he kept shaking Mr Gibson's hand all the time till he had placed him, nothing loth, at the well-covered dining-table.
'What's this I hear about Roger?' said Mr Gibson, plunging at once into the subject.
'Aha! so you've heard, have you? It's famous, is it not? He's a boy to be proud of, is old Roger. Steady Roger; we used to think him slow, but it seems to me that slow and sure wins the race. But tell me; what have you heard? how much is known? Nay, you must have a glass full. It's old ale, such as we don't brew now-a-days; it's as old as Osborne. We brewed it that autumn and we called it the young squire's ale. I thought to have tapped it on his marriage, but I don't know when that will come to pass, so we've tapped it now in Roger's honour.'
The old squire had evidently been enjoying the young squire's ale to the verge of prudence. It was indeed as he said, (as strong as brandy,' and Mr Gibson had to sip it very carefully as he ate his cold roast beef.
'Well! and what have you heard? There's a deal to hear, and all good news, though I shall miss the lad, I know that.'
'I did not know it was settled; I only heard that it was in progress.'
'Well, it was only in progress, as you call it, till last Tuesday. He never let me know anything about it, though; he says he thought I might be fidgety with thinking of the pros and cons. So I never knew a word on't till I had a letter from my Lord Hollingford - where is it?' pulling out a great black leathern receptacle for all manner of papers. And putting on his spectacles, he read aloud their headings.
'"Measurement of timber, new railings," "drench for cows, from Farmer Hayes," "Dobson's accounts," - 'um 'um - here it is. Now read that letter,' handing it to Mr Gibson.
It was a manly, feeling, sensible letter, explaining to the old father in very simple language the services which were demanded by the terms of the will to which he and two or three others were trustees; the liberal allowance for expenses, the still more liberal reward for performance, which had tempted several men of considerable renown to offer themselves as candidates for the appointment. Lord Hollingford then went on to say that, having seen a good deal of Roger lately, since the publication of his article in reply to the French osteologist, he had had reason to think that in him the trustees would find united the various qualities required in a greater measure than in any of the applicants who had at that time presented themselves. Roger had deep interest in the subject; much acquired knowledge, and at the same time, great natural powers of comparison, and classification of facts; he had shown' himself to be an observer of a fine and accurate kind, he was of the right age, in the very prime of health and strength, and unshackled by any family ties. Here Mr Gibson paused for consideration. He hardly cared to ascertain by what steps the result had been arrived at - he already knew what that result was; but his mind was again arrested as his eye caught on the remuneration offered, which was indeed most liberal; and then he read with attention the high praise bestowed on the son in this letter to the father. The squire had been watching Mr Gibson - waiting till he came to this part - and he rubbed his hands together as he said, -
'Ay! you've come to it at last. It's the best part of the whole, is it not? God bless the boy! and from a Whig, mind you, which makes it the more handsome. And there's more to come still. I say, Gibson, I think my luck is turning at last,' passing him on yet another letter to read. 'That only came this morning; but I've acted on it already, I sent for the foreman of the drainage works at once, I did; and to-morrow, please God, they'll be at work again.'
Mr Gibson read the second letter, from Roger. To a certain degree it was a modest repetition of what Lord Hollingford had said, with an explanation of how he had come to take so decided a step in life without consulting his father. He did not wish him to be in suspense for one reason. Another was that he felt, as no one else could feel for him, that by accepting this offer, he entered upon the kind of life for which he knew himself to be the most fitted. And then he merged the whole into business. He said that he knew well the suffering his father had gone through when he had had to give up his drainage works for want of money; that he, Roger, had been enabled at once to raise money upon the remuneration he was to receive on the accomplishment of his two years' work; and that he had insured his life at once, in order to provide for the repayment of the money he had raised, in case he did not live to return to England. He said that the sum he had borrowed on this security would at once be forwarded to his father.
Mr Gibson laid down the letter without speaking a word for some time; then he said, -
'He'll have to pay a pretty sum for insuring his life beyond seas.'
'He has got his Fellowship money,' said the squire, a little depressed at Mr Gibson's remark.
'Yes; that's true. And he's a strong young fellow, as I know.'
'I wish I could tell his mother,' said the squire in an under-tone.
'It seems all settled now,' said Mr Gibson, more in reply to his own thoughts than to the squire's remark.
'Yes!' said the squire; 'and they're not going to let the grass grow under his feet. He's to be off as soon as he can get his scientific traps ready. I almost wish he wasn't to go. You don't seem quite to like it, doctor?'
'Yes I do,' said Mr Gibson in a more cheerful tone than before. 'It can't be helped now without doing a mischief,' thought he to himself. 'Why, squire, I think it's a great honour to have such a son. I envy you, that's what I do. Here's a lad of three or four and twenty distinguishing himself in more ways than one, and as simple and affectionate at home as any fellow need to be - not a bit set up.'
'Ay, ay; he's twice as much a son to me as Osborne, who has been all his life set up on nothing at all, as one may say.
'Come, squire, I must not hear anything against Osborne; we may praise one, without hitting at the other. Osborne has not had the strong health which has enabled Roger to work as he has done. I met a man who knew his tutor at Trinity the other day, and of course we began cracking about Roger - it's not every day that one can reckon a senior wrangler amongst one's friends, and I'm nearly as proud of the lad as you are. This Mr Mason told me the tutor said that only half of Roger's success was owing to his mental powers; the other half was owing to his perfect health, which enabled him to work harder and more continuously than most men without suffering. He said that in all his experience he had never known any one with an equal capacity for mental labour; and that he could come again with a fresh appetite to his studies after shorter intervals of rest than most. Now I, being a doctor, trace a good deal of his superiority to the material cause of a thoroughly good constitution, which Osborne has not got.'
'Osborne might have if he got out o' doors more,' said the squire, moodily; 'but except when he can loaf into Hollingford he does not care to go out at all. I hope,' he continued, with a glance of sudden suspicion at Mr Gibson, 'he's not after one of your girls? I don't mean any offence, you know; but he'll have the estate, and it won't be free, and he must marry money. I don't think I could allow it in Roger; but Osborne is the eldest son, you know.'
Mr Gibson reddened; he was offended for a moment. Then the partial truth of what the squire said was presented to his mind, and he remembered their old friendship, so he spoke quietly, if shortly.
'I don't believe there's anything of the kind going on. I'm not much at home, you know; but I've never heard or seen anything that should make me suppose that there is. When I do, I'll let you know.'
'Now, Gibson, don't go and be offended. I am glad for the boys to have a pleasant house to go to, and I thank you and Mrs Gibson for making it pleasant. Only keep off love; it can come to no good. That's all. I don't believe Osborne will ever earn a farthing to keep a wife during my life, and if I were to die to-morrow, she would have to bring some money to clear the estate. And if I do speak as I should not have done formerly - a little sharp or so - why, it's because I've been worried by many a care no one knows anything of.'
'I'm not going to take offence,' said Mr Gibson, 'but let us understand each other clearly. If you don't want your sons to come as much to my house as they do, tell them so yourself. I like the lads, and am glad to see them; but if they do come, you must take the consequences, whatever they are, and not blame me, or them either, for what may happen from the frequent intercourse between two young men and two young women; and what is more, though, as I said, I see nothing whatever of the kind you fear at present, and have promised to tell you of the first symptoms I do see, yet farther than that I won't go. If there is an attachment at any future time, I won't interfere.'
'I should not so much mind if Roger fell in love with your Molly. He can fight for himself, you see, and she's an uncommon nice girl. My poor wife was so fond of her,' answered the squire. 'It's Osborne and the estate I'm thinking of!'
'Well, then, tell him not to come near us. I shall be sorry, but you will be safe.'
'I'll think about it; but he's difficult to manage. I've always to get my blood well up before I can speak my mind to him.'
Mr Gibson was leaving the room, but at these words he turned and laid his hand on the squire's arm.
'Take my advice, squire. As I said, there is no harm done as yet, as far as I know. Prevention is better than cure. Speak out, but speak gently to Osborne, and do it at once. I shall understand how it is if he does not show his face for some months in my house. If you speak gently to him, he'll take the advice as from a friend. If he can assure you there's no danger, of course he'll come just as usual, when he likes.'
It was all very fine giving the squire this good advice; but as Osborne had already formed the very kind of marriage his father most deprecated, it did not act quite as well as Mr Gibson had hoped. The squire began the conversation with unusual self-control; but he grew irritated when Osborne denied his father's right to interfere in any marriage he might contemplate; denied it with a certain degree of doggedness and weariness of the subject that drove the squire into one of his passions; and although on after reflection he remembered that he had his son's promise and solemn word not to think of either Cynthia or Molly for his wife, yet the father and son had passed through one of those altercations which help to estrange men for life. Each had said bitter things to the other; and, if the brotherly affection had not been so true between Osborne and Roger, they too might have become alienated, in consequence of the squire's exaggerated and injudicious comparison of their characters and deeds. But as Roger in his boyhood had loved Osborne too well to be jealous of the praise and love the eldest son, the beautiful brilliant lad, had received, to the disparagement of his own plain awkwardness and slowness, so now Osborne strove against any feeling of envy or jealousy with all his might; but his efforts were conscious, Roger's had been the simple consequence of affection, and the end to poor Osborne was that he became moody and depressed in mind and body; but both father and son concealed their feelings in Roger's presence. When he came home just before sailing, busy and happy, the squire caught his infectious energy, and Osborne looked up and was cheerful.
There was no time to be lost. He was bound to a hot climate, and must take all advantage possible of the winter months. He was to go first to Paris, to have interviews with some of the scientific men there. Some of his outfit, instruments, &c., were to follow him to Havre, from which port he was to embark, after transacting his business in Paris. The squire, learnt all his arrangements and plans, and even tried in after-dinner conversations to penetrate into the questions involved in the researches his son was about to make. But Roger's visit home could not be prolonged beyond two days.
The last day he rode into Hollingford earlier than he needed to have done to catch the London coach, in order to bid the Gibsons good-by. He had been too actively busy for some time to have leisure to bestow much thought on Cynthia; but there was no need for fresh meditation on that subject. Her image as a prize to be worked for, to be served for seven years, and seven years more,' was safe and sacred in his heart. It was very bad, this going away, and wishing her good-by for two long years; and he wondered much during his ride how far he should be justified in telling her mother, perhaps in telling her own sweet self, what his feelings were without expecting, nay, indeed reprobating, any answer on her part. Then she would know at any rate how dearly she was beloved by one who was absent; how in all difficulties or dangers the thought of her would be a polar star, high up in the heavens, and so on, and so on; for with all a lover's quickness of imagination and triteness of fancy, he called her a star, a flower, a nymph, a witch, an angel, or a mermaid, a nightingale, a siren, as one or another of her attributes rose up before him.
It was afternoon. Molly had gone out for a walk. Mrs Gibson had been paying some calls. Lazy Cynthia had declined accompanying either. A daily walk was not a necessity to her as it was to Molly. On a lovely day, or with an agreeable object, or when the fancy took her, she could go as far as any one; but these were exceptional cases; in general, she was not disposed to disturb herself from her in-door occupations. Indeed, not one of the ladies would have left the house, had they been aware that Roger was in the neighbourhood; for they were aware that he was to come down but once before his departure, and that his stay at home then would be but for a short time, and they were all anxious to wish him good-by before his long absence, But they had understood that he was not coming to the Hall until the following week, and therefore they had felt themselves at full liberty this afternoon to follow their own devices.
Molly chose a walk that had been a favourite with her ever since she was a child. Something or other had happened just before she left home that made her begin wondering how far it was right for the sake of domestic peace to pass over without comment the little deviations from right that people perceive in those whom they live with. Or, whether, as they are placed in families for distinct purposes, not by chance merely, there are not duties involved in this aspect of their lot in life, - whether by continually passing over failings, their own standard is not lowered, - the practical application of these thoughts being a dismal sort of perplexity on Molly's part as to whether her father was quite aware of her stepmother's perpetual lapses from truth; and whether his blindness was wilful or not. Then she felt bitterly enough that although she was sure as could be that there was no real estrangement between her and her father, yet that there were perpetual obstacles thrown in the way of their intercourse; and she thought with a sigh that if he would but come in with authority, he might cut his way clear to the old intimacy with his daughter, and that they might have all the former walks and talks, and quips and cranks, and glimpses of real confidence once again; things that her stepmother did not value, yet which she, like the dog in the manger, prevented Molly enjoying. But after all Molly was a girl, not so far removed from childhood; and in the middle of her grave regrets and perplexities her eye was caught by the sight of some fine ripe blackberries flourishing away high up on the hedge-bank among scarlet hips and green and russet leaves. She did not care much for blackberries herself; but she had heard Cynthia say that she liked them; and besides there was the charm of scrambling and gathering them, so she forgot all about her troubles, and went climbing up the banks, and clutching at her almost inaccessible prizes, and slipping down again triumphant, to carry them back to the large leaf which was to serve her as a basket. One or two of them she tasted, but they were as vapid to her palate as ever. The skirt of her pretty print gown was torn out of the gathers, and even with the fruit she had eaten 'her pretty lips with blackberries were all besmeared and dyed,' when, having gathered as many and more than she could possibly carry, she set off home, hoping to escape into her room and mend her gown before it had offended Mrs Gibson's neat eye. The front door was easily opened from the outside, and Molly was out of the clear light of the open air and in the shadow of the hall; she saw a face peep out of the dining-room before she quite recognized who it was; and then Mrs Gibson came softly out, sufficiently at least to beckon her into the room. When Molly had entered Mrs Gibson closed the door. Poor Molly expected a reprimand for her torn gown and untidy appearance, but was soon relieved by the expression of Mrs Gibson's face - mysterious and radiant.
'I have been watching for you, dear. Don't go upstairs into the drawing-room, love. It might be a little interruption just now. Roger Hamley is there with Cynthia; and I've reason to think, - in fact I did open the door unawares, but I shut it again softly, and I don't think they heard me. Is not it charming? Young love, you know, ah, how sweet it is!'
'Do you mean that Roger has proposed to Cynthia?' asked Molly.
'Not exactly that. But I don't know; of course I know nothing. Only I did hear him say that he had meant to leave England without speaking of his love, but that the temptation of seeing her alone had been too great for him. It was symptomatic, was it not, my dear? And all I wanted was to let it come to a crisis without interruption. So I've been watching for you to prevent your going in and disturbing them.'
'But I may go to my room, mayn't I,' pleaded Molly.
'Of course,' said Mrs Gibson, a little testily. 'Only I had expected sympathy from you at such an interesting moment.'
But Molly did not hear these last words. She had escaped upstairs, and had shut her door. Instinctively she had carried her leaf full of blackberries - what would blackberries be to Cynthia now? She felt as if she could not understand it all; but as for that matter, what could she understand? Nothing. For a few minutes her brain seemed in too great a whirl to comprehend anything but that she was being carried on in earth's diurnal course, with rocks, and stones, and trees, with as little volition on her part as if she were dead. Then the room grew stifling, and instinctively she went to the open casement window, and leant out, gasping for breath. Gradually the consciousness of the soft peaceful landscape stole into her mind, and stilled the buzzing confusion. There, bathed in the almost level rays of the autumn sunlight, lay the landscape she had known and loved from childhood; as quiet, as full of low humming life as it had been at this hour for many generations. The autumn flowers blazed out in the garden below, the lazy cows were in the meadow beyond, chewing their cud in the green aftermath; the evening fires had just been made up in the cottages beyond, in preparation for the husband's homecoming, and were sending up soft curls of blue smoke into the still air; the children, let loose from school, were shouting merrily in the distance, and she -- Just then she heard nearer sounds; an opened door, steps on the lower flight of stairs, He could not have gone without even seeing her. He never, never would have done so cruel a thing - never would have forgotten poor little Molly, however happy he might be. No! there were steps and voices, and the drawing-room door was opened and shut once more. She laid down her head on her arms that rested on the window-sill, and cried, - she had been so distrustful as to have let the idea enter her mind that he could go without wishing her good-by; her, whom his mother had so loved, and called by the name of his little dead sister. And as she thought of the tender love Mrs Hamley had borne her she cried the more, for the vanishing of such love for her off the face of the earth. Suddenly the drawing-room door opened, and some one was heard coming upstairs; it was Cynthia's step. Molly hastily wiped her eyes, and stood up and tried to look unconcerned; it was all she had time to do before Cynthia, after a little pause at the closed door, had knocked; and on an answer being given, had said, without opening the door, - 'Molly! Mr Roger Hamley is here, and wants to wish you good-by before he goes.' Then she went downstairs again, as if anxious just at that moment to avoid even so short a tête-à-tête with Molly. With a gulp and a fit of resolution, as a child makes up its mind to swallow a nauseous dose of medicine, Molly went instantly downstairs.
Roger was talking earnestly to Mrs Gibson in the bay of the window when Molly entered; Cynthia was standing near, listening, but taking no part in the conversation. Her eyes were downcast, and she did not look up as Molly drew shyly near.
Roger was saying, - 'I could never forgive myself if I had accepted a pledge from her. She shall be free until my return; but the hope, the words, her sweet goodness, have made me happy beyond description. Oh, Molly!' suddenly becoming aware of her presence, and turning to her, and taking her hand in both of his, - 'I think you have long guessed my secret, have you not? I once thought of speaking to you before I left, and confiding it all to you. But the temptation has been too great, I have told Cynthia how fondly I love her, as far as words can tell; and she says -- ' then he looked at Cynthia with passionate delight and seemed to forget in that gaze that he had left his sentence to Molly half finished.
Cynthia did not seem inclined to repeat her saying, whatever it was, but her mother spoke for her.
'My dear sweet girl values your love as it ought to be valued, I am sure. And I believe,' looking at Cynthia and Roger with intelligent archness, 'I could tell tales as to the cause of her indisposition in the spring.'
'Mother,' said Cynthia suddenly, 'you know it was no such thing. Pray don't invent stories about me. I have engaged myself to Mr Roger Hamley, and that is enough.'
'Enough! more than enough!' said Roger. 'I will not accept your pledge. I am bound, but you are free. I like to feel bound, it makes me happy and at peace, but with all the chances involved in the next two years, you must not shackle yourself by promises.'
Cynthia did not speak at once; she was evidently revolving something in her own mind. Mrs Gibson took up the word.
'You are very generous, I am sure. Perhaps it will be better not to mention it.'
'I would much rather have it kept a secret,' said Cynthia, interrupting.
'Certainly, my dear love. That was just what I was going to say. I once knew a young lady who heard of the death of a young man in America, whom she had known pretty well; and she immediately said she had been engaged to him, and even went so far as to put on weeds; and it was a false report, for he came back well and merry, and declared to everybody he had never so much as thought about her. So it was very awkward for her. These things had much better be kept secret until the proper time has come for divulging them.'
Even then and there Cynthia could not resist the temptation of saying, - 'Mamma, I will promise you I won't put on weeds, whatever reports come of Mr Roger Hamley.'
'Roger, please!' he put in, in a tender whisper.
'And you will all be witnesses that he has professed to think of me, if he is tempted afterwards to deny the fact. But at the same time I wish it to be kept a secret until his return - and I am sure you will all be so kind as to attend to my wish. Please, Roger! Please, Molly! Mamma! I must especially beg it of you!'
Roger would have granted anything when she asked him by that name, and in that tone. He took her hand in silent pledge of his reply. Molly felt as if she could never bring herself to name the affair as a common piece of news. So it was only Mrs Gibson answered aloud, -
'My dear child! why "especially" to poor me! You know I'm the most trustworthy person alive!'
The little pendule on the chimney-piece struck the half-hour.
'I must go!' said Roger, in dismay. 'I had no idea it was so late. I shall write from Paris. The coach will be at the "George" by this time, and will only stay five minutes. Dearest Cynthia -- ' he took her hand, and then, as if the temptation was irresistible, he drew her to him and kissed her. 'Only remember you are free!' said he, as he released her and passed on to Mrs Gibson.
'If I had considered myself free,' said Cynthia, blushing a little, but ready with her repartee to the last, - 'if I had thought myself free, do you think I would have allowed that?'
Then Molly's turn came; and the old brotherly tenderness came back into his look, his voice, his bearing.
'Molly! you won't forget me, I know; I shall never forget you, nor your goodness to - her.' His voice began to quiver, and it was best to be gone. Mrs Gibson was pouring out, unheard and unheeded, words of farewell; Cynthia was rearranging some flowers in a vase on the table, the defects in which had caught her artistic eye, without the consciousness penetrating to her mind. Molly stood, numb to the heart; neither glad nor sorry, nor anything but stunned. She felt the slackened touch of the warm grasping hand; she looked up - for till now her eyes had been downcast, as if there were heavy weights to their lids - and the place was empty where he had been ; his quick step was heard on the stair, the front door was opened and shut; and then as quick as lightning Molly ran up to the front attic - the lumber-room, whose window commanded the street down which he must pass. The window-clasp was unused and stiff, Molly tugged at it - unless it was open, and her head put out, that last chance would be gone.
'I must see him again; I must! I must!' she wailed out, as she was pulling. There he was, running hard to catch the London coach; his luggage had been left at the 'George' before he came up to wish the Gibsons good-by. In all his hurry, Molly saw him turn round and shade his eyes from the level rays of the westering sun, and rake the house with his glances - in hopes, she knew, of catching one more glimpse of Cynthia. But apparently he saw no one, not even Molly at the attic casement. for she had drawn back when he had turned, and kept herself in shadow; for she had no right to put herself forward as the one to watch and yearn for farewell signs. None came - another moment - he was out of sight for years.
She shut the window softly, and shivered all over. She left the attic and went to her own room; but she did not begin to take off her out-of-door things till she heard Cynthia's foot on the stairs. Then she hastily went to the toilet-table, and began to untie her bonnet-strings; but they were in a knot, and took time to undo. Cynthia's step stopped at Molly's door; she opened it a little and said, - 'May I come in, Molly?'
'Certainly,' said Molly, longing to be able to say 'No' all the time. Molly did not turn to meet her, so Cynthia came up behind her, and putting her two hands round Molly's waist, peeped over her shoulder, putting out her lips to be kissed. Molly could not resist the action - the mute entreaty for a caress. But in the moment before she had caught the reflection of the two faces in the glass; her own, red-eyed, pale, with lips dyed with blackberry juice, her curls tangled, her bonnet pulled awry, her gown torn - and contrasted it with Cynthia's brightness and bloom, and the trim elegance of her dress. 'Oh! it is no wonder!' thought poor Molly, as she turned round, and put her arms round Cynthia, and laid her head for an instant on her shoulder - the weary, aching head that sought a loving pillow in that supreme moment! The next she had raised herself, and taken Cynthia's two hands, and was holding her off a little, the better to read her face.
'Cynthia! you do love him dearly, don't you?'
Cynthia winced a little aside from the penetrating steadiness of those eyes.
'You speak with all the solemnity of an adjuration, Molly!' said she, laughing a little at first to cover her nervousness, and then looking up at Molly. 'Don't you think I have given a proof of it? But you know I've often told you I've not the gift of loving; I said pretty much the same thing to him. I can respect, and I fancy I can admire, and I can like, but I never feel carried off my feet by love for any one, not even for you, little Molly, and I am sure I love you more than -- '
'No, don't!' said Molly, putting her hand before Cynthia's mouth, in almost a passion of impatience. 'Don't, don't - I won't hear you - I ought not to have asked you - it makes you tell lies!'
'Why, Molly!' said Cynthia, in her turn seeking to read Molly's face, 'what's the matter with you? One might think you cared for him yourself.'
'I?' said Molly, all the blood rushing to her heart suddenly; then it returned, and she had courage to speak, and she spoke the truth as she believed it, though not the real actual truth.
'I do care for him; I think you have won the love of a prince amongst men. Why, I am proud to remember that he has been to me as a brother, and I love him as a sister, and I love you doubly because he has honoured you with his love.'
'Come, that's not complimentary!' said Cynthia, laughing, but not ill-pleased to hear her lover's praises, and even willing to depreciate him a little in order to hear more. 'He's well enough, I daresay, and a great deal too learned and clever for a stupid girl like me; but even you must acknowledge he is very plain and awkward; and I like pretty things and pretty people.'
'Cynthia, I won't talk to you about him. You know you don't mean what you are saying, and you only say it out of contradiction, because I praise him. He shan't be run down by you, even in joke.'
'Well, then, we won't talk of him at all. I was so surprised when he began to speak - so -- ' and Cynthia looked very lovely, blushing and dimpling up as she remembered his words and looks. Suddenly she recalled herself to the present time, and her eye caught on the leaf full of blackberries - the broad green leaf, so fresh and crisp when Molly had gathered it an hour or so ago, but now soft and flabby, and dying. Molly saw it, too, and felt a strange kind of sympathetic pity for the poor inanimate leaf.
'Oh! what blackberries! you've gathered them for me, I know!' said Cynthia, sitting down and beginning to feed herself daintily, touching them lightly with the ends of her taper fingers, and dropping each ripe berry into her open mouth. When she had eaten about half she stopped suddenly short.
'How I should like to have gone as far as Paris with him,' she exclaimed. 'I suppose it would not have been proper; but how pleasant it would have been. I remember at Boulogne' (another blackberry) 'how I used to envy the English who were going to Paris; it seemed to me then as if nobody stopped at Boulogne, but dull, stupid school-girls.'
'When will he be there?' asked Molly.
'On Wednesday, he said. I'm to write to him there; at any rate he is going to write to me.'
Molly went about the adjustment of her dress in a quiet, business-like manner, not speaking much; Cynthia, although sitting still, seemed very restless. Oh! how much Molly wished that she would go.
'Perhaps, after all,' said Cynthia, after a pause of apparent meditation, 'we shall never be married.'
'Why do you say that?' said Molly, almost bitterly. 'You have nothing to make you think so. I wonder how you can bear to think you won't, even for a moment.'
'Oh!' said Cynthia; 'you must not go and take me au grand sérieux. I daresay I don't mean what I say, but you see everything seems a dream at present. Still, I think the chances are equal - the chances for and against our marriage, I mean. Two years! it's a long time; he may change his mind, or I may; or some one else may turn up, and say I'm engaged to him: what should you think of that, Molly? I'm putting such a gloomy thing as death quite on one side, you see; yet in two years how much may happen.'
'Don't talk so, Cynthia, please don't,' said Molly, piteously. 'One would think you did not care for him, and he cares so much for you!'
'Why, did I say I did not care for him! I was only calculating chances. I am sure I hope nothing will happen to prevent the marriage. Only, you know it may, and I thought I was taking a step in wisdom, in looking forward to all the evils that might befall. I am sure all the wise people I have ever known thought it a virtue to have gloomy prognostics of the future. But you're not in a mood for wisdom or virtue, I see; so I'll go and get ready for dinner, and leave you to your vanities of dress.'
She took Molly's face in both her hands, before Molly was aware of her intention, and kissed it playfully. Then she left Molly to herself.
Mr Gibson was not at home at dinner - detained by some patient, most probably. This was not an unusual occurrence; but it was rather an unusual occurrence for Mrs Gibson to go down into the dining-room, and sit with him as he ate his deferred meal when he came in an hour or two later. In general, she preferred her easy-chair, or her corner of the sofa, upstairs in the drawing-room, though it was very rarely that she would allow Molly to avail herself of her stepmother's neglected privilege. Molly would fain have gone down and kept her father company every night that he had these solitary meals; but for peace and quietness she gave up her own wishes on the subject.
Mrs Gibson took a seat by the fire in the dining-room, and patiently waited for the auspicious moment when Mr Gibson, having satisfied his healthy appetite, turned from the table, and took his place by her side. She got up, and with unaccustomed attention she moved the wine and glasses so that he could help himself without moving from his chair.
'There, now! are you comfortable? for I have a great piece of news to tell you!' said she, when all was arranged.
'I thought there was something on hand,' said he, smiling. 'Now for it!'
'Roger Hamley has been here this afternoon to bid us good-by.'
'Good-by! Is he gone? I did not know he was going so soon!' exclaimed Mr Gibson.
'Yes: never mind, that's not it,'
'But tell me; has he left this neighbourhood? I wanted to have seen him.'
'Yes, yes. He left love and regret, and all that sort of thing for you. Now let me get on with my story: he found Cynthia alone, proposed to her, and was accepted.'
'Cynthia? Roger proposed to her, and she accepted him?' repeated Mr Gibson, slowly.
'Yes, to be sure. Why not? you speak as if it was something so very surprising.'
'Did I? But I am surprised. He is a very fine young fellow, and I wish Cynthia joy; but do you like it? It will have to be a very long engagement.'
'Perhaps,' said she, in a knowing manner.
'At any rate he will be away for two years,' said Mr Gibson.
'A great deal may happen in two years,' she replied.
'Yes! he will have to run many risks, and go into many dangers, and will come back no nearer to the power of maintaining a wife than when he went out.'
'I don't know that,' she replied, still in the arch manner of one possessing superior knowledge. 'A little bird did tell me that Osborne's life is not so very secure; and then - what will Roger be? Heir to the estate.'
'Who told you that about Osborne?' said he, facing round upon her, and frightening her with his sudden sternness of voice and manner. It seemed as if absolute fire came out of his long dark sunken eyes. 'Who told you, I say?'
She made a faint rally back into her former playfulness.
'Why? can you deny it? Is it not the truth?'
'I ask you again, Hyacinth, who told you that Osborne Hamley's life is in more danger than mine - or yours?'
'Oh, don't speak in that frightening way. My life is not in danger, I'm sure; nor yours either, love, I hope.'
He gave an impatient movement, and threw a wine-glass off the table. For the moment she felt grateful for the diversion, and busied herself in picking up the fragments: 'bits of glass were so dangerous,' she said. But she was startled by a voice of command, such as she had never yet heard from her husband.
'Never mind the glass. I ask you again, Hyacinth, who told you anything about Osborne Hamley's state of health?'
'I am sure I wish no harm to him, and I daresay he is in very good health, as you say,' whispered she, at last.
'Who told -- ?' began he again, sterner than ever.
'Well, if you will know, and will make such a fuss about it,' said she, driven to extremity, 'it was you yourself - you or Dr Nicholls, I am sure I forget which.'
'I never spoke to you on the subject, and I don't believe Nicholls did. You had better tell me at once what you are alluding to, for I'm resolved I'll have it out before we leave this room.'
'I wish I'd never married again,' she said, now fairly crying, and looking round the room, as if in vain search for a mouse-hole in which to hide herself. Then, as if the sight of the door into the store-room gave her courage, she turned and faced him.
'You should not talk your medical secrets so loud then, if you don't want people to hear them. I had to go into the store-room that day Dr Nicholls was here; cook wanted a jar of preserve, and stopped me just as I was going out - I am sure it was for no pleasure of mine, for I was sadly afraid of stickying my gloves - it was all that you might have a comfortable dinner.'
She looked as if she was going to cry again, but he gravely motioned her to go on, merely saying, -
'Well! you overheard our conversation, I suppose?'
'Not much,' she answered, eagerly, almost relieved by being this helped out in her forced confession. 'Only a sentence or two.'
'What were they?' he asked.
'Why, you had just been saying something, and Dr Nicholls said: "If he had got aneurism of the aortal his days are numbered."'
'Well. Anything more?'
'Yes; you said, "I hope to God I may be mistaken; but there is a pretty clear indication of symptoms, in my opinion."'
'How do you know we were speaking of Osborne Hamley?' he asked; perhaps in hopes of throwing her off the scent. But as soon as she perceived that he was descending to her level of subterfuge, she took courage, and said in quite a different tone to the cowed one which she had been using, -
'Oh! I know. I heard his name mentioned by you both before I began to listen.'
'Then you own you did listen?'
'Yes,' said she, hesitating a little now.
'And pray how do you come to remember so exactly the name of the disease spoken of?'
'Because I went -- now don't be angry, I really can't see any harm in what I did - '
'Then, don't deprecate anger. You went -- '
'Into the surgery, and looked it out. Why might not I?'
Mr Gibson did not answer - did not look at her. His face was very pale, and both forehead and lips were contracted. At length he roused himself, sighed, and said, -
'Well! I suppose as one brews one must bake?'
'I don't understand what you mean,' pouted she.
'Perhaps not,' he replied. 'I suppose that it was what you heard on that occasion that made you change your behaviour to Roger Hamley? I have noticed how much more civil you were to him of late.'
'If you mean that I have ever got to like him as much as Osborne, you are very much mistaken; no, not even though he has offered to Cynthia, and is to be my son-in-law.'
'Let me know the whole affair. You overheard, - I will own that it was Osborne about whom we were speaking, though I shall have something to say about that presently - and then, if I understand you rightly, you changed your behaviour to Roger, and made him more welcome to this house than you had ever done before, regarding him as proximate heir to the Hamley estates?'
'I don't know what you mean by "proximate."'
'Go into the surgery, and look into the dictionary then,' said he, losing his temper for the first time during the conversation.
'I knew,' said she through sobs and tears, 'that Roger had taken a fancy to Cynthia; any one might see that; and as long as Roger was only a younger son, with no profession, and nothing but his Fellowship, I thought it right to discourage him, as any one would who had a grain of common sense in them; for a clumsier, more common, awkward, stupid fellow I never saw - to be called county, I mean.'
'Take care; you'll have to eat your words presently when you come to fancy he'll have Hamley some day.'
'No, I shan't,' said she, not perceiving his exact drift. 'You are vexed now because it is not Molly he's in love with; and I call it very unjust and unfair to my poor fatherless girl. I am sure I have always tried to further Molly's interests as if she was my own daughter.'
Mr Gibson was too indifferent to this accusation to take any notice of it. He returned to what was of far more importance to him.
'The point I want to be clear about is this. Did you or did you not alter your behaviour to Roger in consequence of what you overheard of my professional conversation with Dr Nicholls? Have you not favoured his suit to Cynthia since then, on the understanding gathered from that conversation that he stood a good chance of inheriting Hamley?'
'I suppose I did,' said she, sulkily. 'And if I did, I can't see any harm in it, that I should be questioned as if I were in a witness-box. He was in love with Cynthia long before that conversation, and she liked him so much. It was not for me to cross the path of true love. I don't see how you would have a mother love her child if she may not turn accidental circumstances to her advantage. Perhaps Cynthia might have died if she had been crossed in love; her poor father was consumptive.'
'Don't you know that all professional conversations are confidential? That it would be the most dishonourable thing possible for me to betray secrets which I learn in the exercise of my profession?'
'Yes, of course, you.'
'Well! and are not you and I one in all these respects? You cannot do a dishonourable act without my being inculpated in the disgrace. If it would be a deep disgrace for me to betray a professional secret, what would it be for me to trade on that knowledge?'
He was trying hard to be patient; but the offence was of that class which galled him insupportably.
'I don't know what you mean by trading. Trading in a daughter's affections is the last thing I should do; and I should have thought you would be rather glad than otherwise to get Cynthia well married, and off your hands.'
Mr Gibson got up, and walked about the room, his hands in his pockets. Once or twice he began to speak, but he stopped impatiently short without going on.
'I don't know what to say to you,' he said at length. 'You either can't or won't see what I mean. I am glad enough to have Cynthia here. I have given her a true welcome, and I sincerely hope she will find this house as much a home as my own daughter does. But for the future I must look out of my doors, and double-lock the approaches if I am so foolish as to -- However, that's past and gone; and it remains with me to prevent its recurrence as far as I can for the future. Now let us hear the present state of affairs.'
'I don't think I ought to tell you anything about it. It is a secret, just as much as your mysteries are.'
'Very well; you have told me enough for me to act upon, which I most certainly shall do. It was only the other day I promised the squire to let him know if I suspected anything - any love affair, or entanglement, much less an engagement, between either of his sons and our girls.'
'But this is not an engagement; he would not let it be so; if you would only listen to me, I could tell you all. Only I do hope you won't go and tell the squire and everybody. Cynthia did so beg that it might not be known. It is only my unfortunate frankness has led me into this scrape. I never could keep a secret from those whom I love.'
'I must tell the squire. I shall not mention it to any one else. And do you quite think it was consistent with your general frankness to have overheard what you did, and never to have mentioned it to me? I could have told you then that Dr Nicholls' opinion was decidedly opposed to mine, and that he believed and believes that the disturbance about which I consulted him on Osborne's behalf was merely temporary. Dr Nicholls would tell you that Osborne is as likely as any man to live and marry and beget children.'
If there was any skill used by Mr Gibson so to word this speech as to conceal his own opinion, Mrs Gibson was not sharp enough to find it out. She was dismayed, and Mr Gibson enjoyed her dismay; it restored him to something like his usual frame of mind.
'Let us review this misfortune, for I see you consider it as such,' said he.
'No, not quite a misfortune,' said she. 'But certainly if I had known Dr Nicholls' opinion -- ' she hesitated.
'You see the advantage of always consulting me,' he continued gravely. 'Here is Cynthia engaged -- '
'Not engaged, I told you before. He would not allow it to be considered an engagement on her part.'
'Well, entangled in a love affair with a lad of three-and-twenty, with nothing beyond his fellowship and a chance of inheriting an encumbered estate; no profession even, abroad for two years, and I must go and tell his father all about it to-morrow.'
'Oh dear! Pray say that, if he dislikes it, he has only to express his opinion.'
'I don't think you can act without Cynthia in the affair. And if I am not mistaken, Cynthia will have a pretty stout will of her own on the subject.'
'Oh, I don't think she cares for him very much; she is not one to be always falling in love, and she does not take things very deeply to heart. But of course one would not do anything abruptly; two years' absence gives one plenty of time to turn oneself in.'
'But a little while ago we were threatened with consumption and an early death if Cynthia's affections were thwarted.'
'Oh, you dear creature, how you remember all my silly words! It might be, you know. Poor dear Mr Kirkpatrick was consumptive, and Cynthia may have inherited it, and a great sorrow might bring out the latent seeds. At times I am so fearful. But I dare say it is not probable, for I don't think she takes things very deeply to heart.'
'Then I am quite at liberty to give up the affair, acting as Cynthia's proxy, if the squire disapproves of it?'
Poor Mrs Gibson was in a strait at this question.
'No!' she said at last. 'We cannot give it up. I am sure Cynthia would not; especially if she thought others were acting for her. And he really is very much in love. I wish he were in Osborne's place.'
'Shall I tell you what I should do?' said Mr Gibson, in real earnest. 'However it may have been brought about, here are two young people in love with each other. One is as fine a young fellow as ever breathed; the other a very pretty, lively, agreeable girl. The father of the young man must be told, and it is most likely he will bluster and oppose; for there is no doubt it is an imprudent affair as far as money goes. But let them be steady and patient, and a better lot need await no young woman. I only wish it were Molly's good fortune to meet with such another.'
'I will try for her; I will indeed,' said Mrs Gibson, relieved by his change of tone.
'No, don't. That's one thing I forbid. I'll have no "trying" for Molly.'
'Well, don't be angry, dear! Do you know I was quite afraid you were going to lose your temper at one time!'
'It would have been of no use!' said he, gloomily, getting up as if to close the sitting. His wife was only too glad to make her escape. The conjugal interview had not been satisfactory to either. Mr Gibson had been compelled to face and acknowledge the fact that the wife he had chosen had a very different standard of conduct to that which he had upheld all his life, and had hoped to have seen inculcated in his daughter. He was more irritated than he chose to show; for there was so much of self-reproach in his irritation that he kept the feeling to himself, brooded over it, and allowed a feeling of suspicious dissatisfaction with his wife to grow up in his mind, which extended itself by-and-by to the innocent Cynthia, and caused his manner to both mother and daughter to assume a certain curt severity, which took the latter at any rate with extreme surprise. But on the present occasion he followed his wife up to the drawing-room, and gravely congratulated the astonished Cynthia.
'Has mamma told you?' said she, shooting an indignant glance at her mother. 'It is hardly an engagement; and we all pledged ourselves to keep it a secret, mamma among the rest!'
'But, my dearest Cynthia, you could not expect - you could not have wished me to keep a secret from my husband?' pleaded Mrs Gibson.
'No, perhaps not. At any rate, sir,' said Cynthia, turning towards him with graceful frankness, 'I am glad you should know it. You have always been a most kind friend to me, and I daresay I should have told you myself, but I did not want it named; if you please, it must still be a secret. In fact, it is hardly an engagement - he' (she blushed and sparkled a little at the euphuism, which implied that there was but one 'he' present in her thoughts at the moment) 'would not allow me to bind myself by any promise until his return!'
Mr Gibson looked gravely at her, irresponsive to her winning looks, which at the moment reminded him too forcibly of her mother's ways. Then he took her hand, and said, seriously enough, -
'I hope you are worthy of him, Cynthia, for you have indeed drawn a prize. I have never known a truer or warmer heart than Roger's; and I have known him boy and man.'
Molly felt as if she could have thanked her father aloud for this testimony to the value of him who was gone away. But Cynthia pouted a little before she smiled up in his face.
'You are not complimentary, are you, Mr Gibson?' said she. 'He thinks me worthy, I suppose; and if you have so high an opinion of him, you ought to respect his judgment of me.' If she hoped to provoke a compliment, she was disappointed, for Mr Gibson let go of her hand in an absent manner, and sate down in an easy chair by the fire, gazing at the wood embers as if hoping to read the future in them. Molly saw Cynthia's eyes fill with tears, and followed her to the other end of the room, where she had gone to seek some working materials.
'Dear Cynthia,' was all she said; but she pressed her hand while trying to assist in the search.
'Oh, Molly, I am so fond of your father; what makes him speak so to me to-night?'
'I don't know,' said Molly; 'perhaps he's tired.'
They were recalled from further conversation by Mr Gibson. He had roused himself from his reverie, and was now addressing Cynthia.
'I hope you will not consider it a breach of confidence, Cynthia, but I must tell the squire of - of what has taken place to-day between you and his son. I have bound myself by a promise to him. He was afraid - it's as well to tell you the truth - he was afraid' (an emphasis on this last word) 'of something of this kind between his sons and one of you two girls. It was only the other day I assured him there was nothing of the kind on foot; and I told him then I would inform him at once if I saw any symptoms.'
Cynthia looked extremely annoyed.
'It was the one thing I stipulated for - secrecy.'
'But why?' said Mr Gibson. 'I can understand your not wishing to have it made public under the present circumstances. But the nearest friends on both sides! Surely you can have no objection to that?'
'Yes, I have,' said Cynthia; 'I would not have had any one know if I could have helped it.'
'I am almost certain Roger will tell his father.'
'No, he won't,' said Cynthia; 'I made him promise, and I think he is one to respect a promise' - with a glance at her mother, who, feeling herself in disgrace with both husband and child, was keeping a judicious silence.
'Well, at any rate, the story would come with so much better a grace from him that I shall give him the chance; I won't go over to the Hall till the end of the week; he may have written and told his father before then.'
Cynthia held her tongue for a little while. Then she said, with tearful pettishness, -
'A man's promise is to override a woman's wish then, is it?'
'I don't see any reason why it should not.'
'Will you trust in my reasons when I tell you it will cause me a great deal of distress if it gets known?' She said this in so pleading a voice, that if Mr Gibson had not been thoroughly displeased and annoyed by his previous conversation with her mother, he must have yielded to her. As it was, he said coldly, - 'Telling Roger's father is not making it public. I don't like this exaggerated desire for such secrecy, Cynthia. It seems to me as if something more than was apparent was concealed behind it.'
'Come, Molly,' said Cynthia, suddenly; 'let us sing that duet I've been teaching you; it's better than talking as we are doing.'
It was a little lively French duet. Molly sang it carelessly, with heaviness at her heart; but Cynthia sang it with spirit and apparent merriment; only she broke down in hysterics at last, and flew upstairs to her own room. Molly, heeding nothing else - neither her father nor Mrs Gibson's words - followed her, and found the door of her bedroom locked, and for all reply to her entreaties to be allowed to come in, she heard Cynthia sobbing and crying.
It was more than a week after the incidents last recorded before Mr Gibson found himself at liberty to call on the squire; and he heartily hoped that long before then, Roger's letter might have arrived from Paris, telling his father the whole story. But he saw at the first glance that the squire had heard nothing unusual to disturb his equanimity. He was looking better than he had done for months past; the light of hope was in his eyes, his face seemed of a healthy ruddy colour, gained partly by his resumption of out-of-door employment in the superintendence of the works, and partly because the happiness he had lately had through Roger's means, caused his blood to flow with regular vigour. He had felt Roger's going away, it is true; but whenever the sorrow of parting with him pressed too heavily upon him, he filled his pipe, and smoked it out over a long, slow, deliberate reperusal of Lord Hollingford's letter, every word of which he knew by heart; but expressions in which he made a pretence to himself of doubting, that he might have an excuse for looking at his son's praises once again. The first greetings over, Mr Gibson plunged into his subject.
'Any news from Roger yet?'
'Oh, yes; here's his letter,' said the squire, producing lets black leather case, in which Roger's missive had been placed along with the other very heterogeneous contents.
Mr Gibson read it, hardly seeing the words after he had by one rapid glance assured himself that there was no mention of Cynthia in it.
'Hum! I see he does not name one very important event that has befallen him since he left you,' said Mr Gibson, seizing on the first words that came. 'I believe I'm committing a breach of confidence on one side. but I'm going to keep the promise I made the last time I was here. I find there is something - something of the kind you apprehended - you understand - between him and my step-daughter, Cynthia Kirkpatrick. He called at our house to wish us good-by, while waiting for the London coach, found her alone, and spoke to her. They don't call it an engagement, but of course it is one.'
'Give me back the letter,' said the squire, in a constrained kind of voice. Then he read it again, as if he had not previously mastered its contents, and as if there might be some sentence or sentences he had overlooked.
'No!' he said at last, with a sigh. 'He tells me nothing about it. Lads may play at confidences with their fathers, but they keep a deal back.' The squire appeared more disappointed at not having heard of this straight from Roger than displeased at the fact itself, Mr Gibson thought. But he let him take his time.
'He's not the eldest son,' continued the squire, talking as it were to himself. 'But it's not the match I should have planned for him. How came you, sir,' said he, firing round on Mr Gibson, suddenly - 'to say when you were last here, that there was nothing between my sons and either of your girls? Why, this must have been going on all the time!'
'I am afraid it was. But I was as ignorant about it as the babe unborn. I only heard of it on the evening of the day of Roger's departure.'
'And that's a week ago, sir. What's kept you quiet ever since?'
'I thought that Roger would tell you himself.'
'That shows you've no sons. More than half their life is unknown to their fathers. Why, Osborne there, we live together - that's to say, we have our meals together, and we sleep under the same roof - and yet - Well! well! life is as God has made it. You say it's not an engagement yet? But I wonder what I'm doing? Hoping for my lad's disappointment in the folly he's set his heart on - and just when he's been helping me. Is it a folly, or is it not? I ask you, Gibson, for you must know this girl. She has not much money, I suppose?'
'About thirty pounds a year, at my pleasure during her mother's life.'
'Whew! It's well he's not Osborne. They'll have to wait. What family is she of? None of 'em in trade, I reckon, from her being so poor?'
'I believe her father was grandson of a certain Sir Gerald Kirkpatrick. Her mother tells me it is an old baronetcy. I know nothing of such things.'
'That's something. I do know something of such things, as you are pleased to call them. I like honourable blood.'
Mr Gibson could not help saying, 'But I'm afraid that only one-eighth of Cynthia's blood is honourable; I know nothing further of her relations excepting the fact that her father was a curate.'
'Professional, That's a step above trade at any rate. How old is she?'
'Eighteen or nineteen.'
'Yes, I think so; most people do; but it is all a matter of taste. Come, squire, judge for yourself. Ride over and take lunch with us any day you like. I may not be in; but her mother will be there, and you can make acquaintance with your son's future wife.'
This was going too fast, however; presuming too much on the quietness with which the squire had been questioning him. Mr Hamley drew back within his shell, and spoke in a surly manner as he replied, -
'Roger's "future wife!" - He'll be wiser by the time he comes home. Two years among the black folk will have put more sense in him.'
'Possible, but not probable, I should say,' replied Mr Gibson. 'Black folk are not remarkable for their powers of reasoning, I believe, so that they have not much chance of altering his opinion by argument, even if they understood each other's language; and certainly if he shares my taste, their peculiarity of complexion will only make him appreciate white skins the more.'
'But you said it was no engagement,' growled the squire. 'If he thinks better of it, you won't keep him to it, will you?'
'If he wishes to break it off, I shall certainly advise Cynthia to be equally willing, that's all I can say. And I see no reason for discussing the affair further at present. I have told you how matters stand because I promised you I would, if I saw anything of this kind going on. But in the present condition of things, we can neither make nor mar; we can only wait.' And he took up his hat to go. But the squire was discontent.
'Don't go, Gibson. Don't take offence at what I've said, though I'm sure I don't know why you should. What is the girl like in herself?'
'I don't know what you mean,' said Mr Gibson. But he did; only he was vexed, and did not choose to understand.
'Is she - well, is she like your Molly? - sweet-tempered and sensible - with her gloves always mended, and neat about the feet, and ready to do anything one asks her just as if doing it Was the very thing she liked best in the world?'
Mr Gibson's face relaxed now, and he could understand all the squire's broken sentences and unexplained meanings.
'She is much prettier than Molly to begin with, and has very winning ways. She is always well-dressed and smart-looking, and I know she has not much to spend on her clothes, and always does what she is asked to do, and is ready enough with her pretty, lively answers. I don't think I ever saw her out of temper; but then I'm not sure if she takes things keenly to heart, and a certain obtuseness of feeling goes a great way towards a character for good temper, I've observed. Altogether I think Cynthia is one in a hundred.'
The squire meditated a little. 'Your Molly is one in a thousand, to my mind. But then you see she comes of no family at all, - and I don't suppose she'll have a chance of much money.' This he said as if he were thinking aloud, and without reference to Mr Gibson, but it nettled the latter gentleman, and he replied somewhat impatiently, -
'Well, but as there is no question of Molly in this business, I don't see the use of bringing her name in, and considering either her family or her fortune.'
'No, to be sure not,' said the squire, rousing up. 'My wits had gone far afield, and I'll own I was only thinking what a pity it was she would not do for Osborne. But of course it's out of the question - out of the question.'
'Yes,' said Mr Gibson, 'and if you will excuse me, squire, I really must go now, and then you'll be at liberty to send your wits afield uninterrupted.' This time he was at the door before the squire called him back. He stood impatiently hitting his top-boots with his riding-whip, waiting for the interminable last words.
'I say, Gibson, we're old friends, and you're a fool if you take anything I say as an offence. Madam your wife and I did not hit it off the only time I ever saw her. I won't say she was silly, but I think one of us was silly, and it was not me. However, we'll pass that over. Suppose you bring her, and this girl Cynthia (which is as outlandish a Christian name as I'd wish to hear), and little Molly out here to lunch some day, - I'm more at my ease in my own house, - and I'm more sure to be civil, too. We need say nothing about Roger, - neither the lass nor me, - and you keep your wife's tongue quiet, if you can. It will only be like a compliment to you on your marriage, you know - and no one must take it for anything more. Mind, no allusion or mention of Roger, and this piece of folly. I shall see the girl then, and I can judge her for myself; for, as you say, that will be the best plan. Osborne will be here, too; and he's always in his element talking to women. I sometimes think he's half a woman himself, he spends so much money and is so unreasonable.'
The squire was pleased with his own speech and his own thought, and smiled a little as he finished speaking. Mr Gibson was both pleased and amused; and he smiled too, anxious as he was to be gone. The next Thursday was soon fixed upon as the day on which Mr Gibson was to bring his womankind out to the Hall. He thought that on the whole the interview had gone off a good deal better than he had expected, and felt rather proud of the invitation of which he was the bearer. Therefore Mrs Gibson's manner of receiving it was an annoyance to him. She meanwhile had been considering herself as an injured woman ever since the evening of the day of Roger's departure. what business had any one had to speak as if the chances of Osborne's life being prolonged were infinitely small, if in fact the matter was uncertain? She liked Osborne extremely, much better than Roger; and would gladly have schemed to secure him for Cynthia, if she had not shrunk from the notion of her daughter's becoming a widow. For if Mrs Gibson had ever felt anything acutely it was the death of Mr Kirkpatrick, and, amiably callous as she was in most things, she recoiled from exposing her daughter wilfully to the same kind of suffering which she herself had experienced. But if she had only known Dr Nicholls' opinion she would never have favoured Roger's suit; never. And then Mr Gibson himself; why was he so cold and reserved in his treatment of her since that night of explanation? she had done nothing wrong; yet she was treated as though she were in disgrace. And everything about the house was flat just now. She even missed the little excitement of Roger's visits, and the watching of his attentions to Cynthia. Cynthia too was silent enough; and as for Molly, she was absolutely dull and out of spirits, a state of mind so annoying to Mrs Gibson just now, that she vented some of her discontent upon the poor girl, from whom she feared neither complaint nor repartee.
The evening of the day on which Mr Gibson had been to see the squire, the three women were alone in the drawing-room, for Mr Gibson had had a long round and was not as yet come in. They had had to wait dinner for him; and for some time after his return there was nothing done or said but what related to the necessary business of eating. Mr Gibson was, perhaps, as well satisfied with his day's work as any of the four; for this visit to the squire had been weighing on his mind ever since he had heard of the state of things between Roger and Cynthia. He did not like the having to go and tell of a love affair so soon after he had declared his belief that no such thing existed; it was a confession of fallibility which is distasteful to most men. If the squire had not been of so unsuspicious and simple a nature, he might have drawn his own conclusions from the apparent concealment of facts, and felt doubtful of Mr Gibson's perfect honesty in the business; but being what he was, there was no danger of such unjust misapprehension. Still Mr Gibson knew the hot hasty temper he had to deal with, and had expected more violence of language than he really encountered; and the last arrangement by which Cynthia, her mother, and Molly - who, as Mr Gibson thought to himself, and smiled at the thought, was sure to be a, peacemaker, and a sweetener of intercourse - were to go to the Hall and make acquaintance with the squire, appeared like a great success to Mr Gibson, for achieving which he took not a little credit to himself. Altogether, he was more cheerful and bland than he had been for many days; and when he came up into the drawing-room for a few minutes after dinner, before going out again to see his town-patients, he whistled a little under his breath, as he stood with his back to the fire, looking at Cynthia, and thinking that he had not done her justice when describing her to the squire. Now this soft, almost tuneless whistling, was to Mr Gibson what purring is to a cat. He could no more have done it with an anxious case on his mind, or when he was annoyed by human folly, or when he was hungry, than he could have flown through the air. Molly knew all this by instinct, and was happy without being aware of it, as soon as she heard the low whistle which was no music after all. But Mrs Gibson did not like this trick of her husband's; it was not refined she thought, not even 'artistic;' if she could have called it by this fine word it would have compensated her for the want of refinement. To-night it was particularly irritating to her nerves; but since her conversation with Mr Gibson about Cynthia's engagement, she had not felt herself in a sufficiently good position to complain.
Mr Gibson began, - 'Well, Cynthia; I have seen the squire to-day, and made a clean breast of it.'
Cynthia looked up quickly, questioning with her eyes; Molly stopped her netting to listen; no one spoke.
'You're all to go there on Thursday to lunch; he asked you all, and I promised for you.'
Still no reply; natural, perhaps, but very flat.
'You'll be glad of that Cynthia, shan't you?' asked Mr Gibson. 'It may be a little formidable, but I hope it will be the beginning of a good understanding between you.'
'Thank you!' said she, with an effort. 'But - but won't it make it public? I do so wish not to have it known, or talked about, not till he comes back or close upon the marriage.'
'I don't see how it should make it public,' said Mr Gibson. 'My wife goes to lunch with my friend, and takes her daughters with her - there's nothing in that, is there?'
'I am not sure that I shall go,' put in Mrs Gibson. She did not know why she said it, for she fully intended to go all the time; but having said it she was bound to stick to it for a little while; and, with such a husband as hers, the hard necessity was sure to fall upon her of having to find a reason for her saying. There it came, quick and sharp.
'Why not?' said he, turning round upon her.
'Oh, because - because I think he ought to have called on Cynthia first; I've that sort of sensitiveness I can't bear to think of her being slighted because she is poor.'
'Nonsense!' said Mr Gibson. 'I do assure you, no slight whatever was intended. He does not wish to speak about the engagement to anyone - not even to Osborne - that's your wish, too, is it not, Cynthia? Nor does he intend to mention it to any of you when you go there; but, naturally enough, he wants to make acquaintance with his future daughter-in-law. If he deviated so much from his usual course as to come calling here -- '
'I am sure I don't want him to come calling here,' said Mrs Gibson, interrupting. 'He was not so very agreeable the only time he did come. But I am that sort of a character that I cannot put up with any neglect of persons I love, just because they are not smiled upon by fortune.' She sighed a little ostentatiously as she ended her sentence.
'Well, then, you won't go!' said Mr Gibson provoked, but not wishing to have a long discussion, especially as he felt his temper going.
'Do you wish it, Cynthia?' said Mrs Gibson, anxious for an excuse to yield.
But her daughter was quite aware of this motive for the question, and replied quietly, - 'Not particularly, mamma. I am quite willing to refuse the invitation.'
'It is already accepted,' said Mr Gibson, almost ready to vow that he would never again meddle in any affair in which women were concerned, which would effectually shut him out from all love affairs for the future. He had been touched by the squire's relenting, pleased with what he had thought would give others pleasure, and this was the end of it!
'Oh, do go, Cynthia!' said Molly, pleading with her eyes as' well as her words. 'Do; I am sure you will like the squire; and it is such a pretty place, and he'll be so much disappointed.'
'I should not like to give up my dignity,' said Cynthia, demurely. 'And you heard what mamma said!' It was very malicious of her. She fully intended to go, and was equally sure that her mother was already planning her dress for the occasion in her own mind. Mr Gibson, however, who, surgeon though he was, had never learnt to anatomize a woman's heart, took it all literally, and was excessively angry both with Cynthia and her mother; so angry that he did not dare to trust himself to speak. He went quickly to the door, intending to leave the room; but his wife's voice arrested him; she said, -
'My dear, do you wish me to go? if you do, I will put my own feelings on one side.'
'Of course I do!' he said, short and stern, and left the room.
'Then I'll go!' said she, in the voice of a victim - those words were meant for him, but he hardly heard them. 'And we'll have a fly from the "George," and get a livery-coat for Thomas, which I've long been wanting, only dear Mr Gibson did not like it, but on an occasion like this I'm sure he won't mind; and Thomas shall go on the box, and -- '
'But, mamma, I've my feelings too,' said Cynthia.
'Nonsense, child! when all is so nicely arranged too.'
So they went on the day appointed. Mr Gibson was aware of the change of plans, and that they were going after all; but he was so much annoyed by the manner in which his wife had received an invitation which had appeared to him so much kinder than he had expected from his previous knowledge of the squire, and his wishes on the subject of his sons' marriages, that Mrs Gibson heard neither interest nor curiosity expressed by her husband as to the visit itself, or the reception they met with. Cynthia's indifference as to whether the invitation was accepted or not had displeased Mr Gibson. He was not up to her ways with her mother, and did not understand how much of this said indifference had been assumed in order to countervent Mrs Gibson's affectation and false sentiment, But for all his annoyance on the subject, he was, in fact, very curious to know how the visit had gone off, and took the first opportunity of being alone with Molly to question her about the lunch of the day before at Hamley Hall.
'And so you went to Hamley yesterday after all?'
'Yes; I thought you would have come. The squire seemed quite to expect you.'
'I thought of going there at first; but I changed my mind like other people. I don't see why women are to have a monopoly of changeableness. Well! how did it go off? Pleasantly, I suppose, for both your mother and Cynthia were in high spirits last night.'
'Yes. The dear old squire was in his best dress and on his best behaviour, and was so prettily attentive to Cynthia, and she looked so lovely, walking about with him, and listening to all his talk about the garden and farm. Mamma was tired, and stopped in-doors, so they got on very well, and saw a great deal of each other.'
'And my little girl trotted behind?'
'Oh, yes. You know I was almost at home, and besides - of course -- ' Molly went very red, and left the sentence unfinished.
'Do you think she's worthy of him?' asked her father, just as if she had completed her speech.
'Of Roger, papa? oh, who is? But she is very sweet, and very, very charming.'
'Very charming if you will, but somehow I don't quite understand her. Why does she want all this secrecy? Why was she not more eager to go and pay her duty to Roger's father? She took it as coolly as if I'd asked her to go to church!'
'I don't think she did take it coolly; I believe I don't quite understand her either, but I love her dearly all the same.'
'Umph; I like to understand people thoroughly, but I know it's not necessary to women. D'ye really think she's worthy of him?'
'Oh, papa - ' said Molly, and then she stopped; she wanted to speak in favour of Cynthia, but somehow she could form no reply that pleased her to this repeated inquiry. He did not seem much to care if he got an answer or not, for he went on with his own thoughts, and the result was that he asked Molly if Cynthia had heard from Roger.
'Yes; on Wednesday morning.'
'Did she show it to you? But of course not. Besides, I read the squire's letter, which told all about him.'
Now Cynthia, rather to Molly's surprise, had told her that she might read the letter if she liked, and Molly had shrunk from availing herself of the permission, for Roger's sake. She thought that he would probably have poured out his heart to the one sole person, and that it was not fair to listen, as it were, to his confidences.
'Was Osborne at home?' asked Mr Gibson. 'The squire said he did not think he would have come back; but the young fellow is so uncertain -- '
'No, he was still from home.' Then Molly blushed all over crimson, for it suddenly struck her that Osborne was probably with his wife - that mysterious wife, of whose existence she was cognizant, but of whom she knew so little, and of whom her father knew nothing, Mr Gibson noticed the blush with anxiety. What did it mean? It was troublesome enough to find that one of the squire's precious sons had fallen in love within the prohibited ranks; and what would not have to be said and done if anything fresh were to come out between Osborne and Molly? He spoke out at once to relieve himself of this new apprehension.
'Molly, I was taken by surprise by this affair between Cynthia and Roger Hamley - if there's anything more on the tapis let me know at once, honestly and openly. I know it's an awkward question for you to reply to; but I would not ask it unless I had good reasons.' He took her hand as he spoke. She looked up at him with clear, truthful eyes which filled with tears as she spoke. She did not know why the tears came; perhaps it was because she was not so strong as formerly.
'If you mean that you're afraid that Osborne thinks of me as Roger thinks of Cynthia, papa, you are quite mistaken. Osborne and I are friends and nothing more, and never can be anything more. That's all I can tell you.'
'It's quite enough, little one. It's a great relief. I don't want to have my Molly carried off by any young man just yet; I should miss her sadly.' He could not help saying this in the fulness of his heart just then, but he was surprised at the effect these few tender words produced. Molly threw her arms round his neck, and began to sob bitterly, her head lying on his shoulder. 'There, there!' said he, patting her on the back, and leading her to the sofa, 'that will do. I get quite enough of tears in the day, shed for real causes, not to want them at home, where, I hope, they are shed for no cause at all. There's nothing really the matter, is there, my dear?' he continued, holding her a little away from him that he might look in her face. She smiled at him through her tears; and he did not see the look of sadness which returned to her face after he had left her.
'Nothing, dear, dear papa - nothing now. It is such a comfort to have you all to myself - it makes me happy.'
Mr Gibson knew all implied in these words, and felt that there was no effectual help for the state of things which had arisen from his own act. It was better for them both that they should not speak out more fully. So he kissed her, and said, -
'That's right, dear! I can leave you in comfort now, and indeed I've stayed too long already gossiping. Go out and have a walk - take Cynthia with you, if you like. I must be off. Good-by, little one.'
His commonplace words acted like an astringent on Molly's relaxed feelings. He intended that they should do so; it was the truest kindness to her; but he walked away from her with a sharp pang at his heart, which he stunned into numbness as soon as he could by throwing himself violently into the affairs and cares of others.
The honour and glory of having a lover of her own was soon to fall to Molly's share; though to be sure it was a little deduction to the honour that the man who came with the full intention of proposing to her, ended by making Cynthia an offer. It was Mr Coxe, who came back to Hollingford to follow out the purpose he had announced to Mr Gibson nearly two years before, of inducing Molly to become his wife as soon as he should have succeeded to his uncle's estate. He was now a rich, though still a red-haired, young man. He came to the 'George' Inn, bringing his horses and his groom; not. that he was going to ride much, but that he thought such outward signs of his riches might help on his suit; and he was so justly modest in his estimation of himself that he believed that he needed all extraneous aid. He piqued himself on his constancy; and indeed, considering that he had been so much restrained by his duty, his affection, and his expectations to his crabbed old uncle, that he had not been able to go much into society, and very rarely indeed into the company of young ladies, such fidelity to Molly was very meritorious, at least in his own eyes. Mr Gibson too was touched by it, and made it a point of honour to give him a fair field, all the time sincerely hoping that Molly would not be such a goose as to lend a willing ear to a youth who could never remember the difference between apophysis and epiphysis. He thought it as well not to tell his wife more of Mr Coxe's antecedents than that he had been a former pupil; who had relinquished (all that he knew of, understood) the medical profession because an old uncle had left him enough of money to be idle. Mrs Gibson, who felt that she had somehow lost her place in her husband's favour, took it into her head that she could reinstate herself if she was successful in finding a good match for his daughter Molly. She knew that her husband had forbidden her to try for this end, as distinctly as words could express a meaning; but her own words so seldom did express her meaning, or if they did, she held to her opinions so loosely, that she had no idea but that it was the same with other people. Accordingly she gave Mr Coxe a very sweet and gracious welcome.
'It is such a pleasure to me to make acquaintance with the former pupils of my husband. He had spoken to me so often of you that I quite feel as if you were one of the family, as indeed I am sure that Mr Gibson considers you.'
Mr Coxe felt much flattered, and took the words as a happy omen for his love-affair. 'Is Miss Gibson in?' asked he, blushing violently. 'I knew her formerly, that is to say, I lived in the same house with her, for more than two years, and it would be a great pleasure to - to -- '
'Certainly, I am sure she will be so glad to see you. I sent her and Cynthia - you don't know my daughter Cynthia, I think, Mr Coxe? she and Molly are such great friends - out for a brisk walk this frosty day, but I think they will soon come back.' She went on saying agreeable nothings to the young man, who received her attentions with a certain complacency, but was all the time much more engaged in listening to the well-remembered click at the front door, - the shutting it to again with household care, and the sound of the familiar bounding footstep on the stair. At last they came. Cynthia entered first, bright and blooming, fresh colour in her cheeks and lips, fresh brilliance in her eyes. She looked startled at the sight of a stranger, and for an instant she stopped short at the door, as if taken by surprise. Then in came Molly softly behind her, smiling, happy, dimpled; but not such a glowing beauty as Cynthia.
'Oh, Mr Coxe, is it you?' said she, going up to him with an outstretched hand, and greeting him with simple friendliness.
'Yes; it seems such a long time since I saw you. You are so much grown - so much - well, I suppose I must not say what,' he replied, speaking hurriedly, and holding her hand all the time rather to her discomfiture. Then Mrs Gibson introduced her daughter, and the two girls spoke of the enjoyment of their walk. Mr Coxe marred his cause in that very first interview, if indeed he ever could have had any chance, by his precipitancy in showing his feelings, and Mrs Gibson helped him to mar it by trying to assist him. Molly lost her open friendliness of manner, and began to shrink away from him in a way which he thought was a very ungrateful return for all his faithfulness to her these two years past, and after all she was not the wonderful beauty his fancy or his love had painted her. That Miss Kirkpatrick was far more beautiful and much easier of access. For Cynthia put on all her pretty airs - her look of intent interest in what any one was saying to her, let the subject be what it would, as if it was the thing she cared the most about in the whole world; her unspoken deference; in short, all the unconscious ways she possessed by instinct of tickling the vanity of men. So while Molly quietly repelled him, Cynthia drew him to her by her soft attractive ways; and his constancy fell before her charms. He was thankful that he, had not gone too far with Molly, and grateful to Mr Gibson for having prohibited all declarations two years ago. For Cynthia, and Cynthia alone, could make him happy. After a fortnight's time, during which he had entirely veered round in his allegiance, he thought it desirable to speak to Mr Gibson. He did so with a certain sense of exultation in his own correct behaviour in the affair, but at the same time feeling rather ashamed of the confession of his own changeableness which was naturally involved. Now it had so happened that Mr Gibson had been unusually little at home during the fortnight that Mr Coxe had ostensibly lodged at the 'George' - but in reality had spent the greater part of his time at Mr Gibson's house - so that he had seen very little of his former pupil, and on the whole he had thought him improved, especially after Molly's manner had made her father pretty sure that Mr Coxe stood no chance in that quarter. But Mr Gibson was quite ignorant of the attraction which Cynthia had had for the young man. If he had perceived it he would have nipped it in the bud pretty quickly, for he had no notion of any girl, even though only partially engaged to one man, receiving offers from others if a little plain speaking could prevent it. Mr Coxe had asked for a private interview; they were sitting in the old surgery, now called the consulting-room, but still retaining so much of its former self as to be the last place in which Mr Coxe could feel himself at case. He was red up to me very roots of his red Hair, and kept turning his glossy new hat round and round in his fingers, unable to find out the proper way of beginning his sentence, so at length he plunged in, grammar or no grammar.
'Mr Gibson, I daresay you'll be surprised, I'm sure I am at - at what I want to say; but I think it's the part of an honourable man, as you said yourself, sir, a year or two ago, to - to speak to the father first, and as you, sir, stand in the place of a father to Miss Kirkpatrick, I should like to express my feelings, my hopes, or perhaps I should say wishes, in short -- '
'Miss Kirkpatrick?' said Mr Gibson, a good deal surprised.
'Yes, sir!' continued Mr Coxe, rushing on now he had got so far. 'I know it may appear inconstant and changeable, but I do assure you, I came here with a heart as faithful to your daughter, as ever beat in a man's bosom. I most fully intended to offer myself and all that I had to her acceptance before I left; but really, sir, if you had seen her manner to me every time I endeavoured to press my suit a little - it was more than coy, it was absolutely repellent, there could be no mistaking it, - while Miss Kirkpatrick -- ' he looked modestly down, and smoothed the nap of his hat, smiling a little while he did SO.
'While Miss Kirkpatrick -- ?' repeated Mr Gibson, in such a stern voice, that Mr Coxe, landed esquire as he was now, felt as much discomfited as he used to do when he was an apprentice, and Mr Gibson had spoken to him in a similar manner.
'I was only going to say, sir, that so far as one can judge from manner, and willingness to listen, and apparent pleasure in my visits - altogether I think I may venture to hope that Miss Kirkpatrick is not quite indifferent to me, - and I would wait, - you have no objection, have you, sir, to my speaking to her, I mean?' said Mr Coxe, a little anxious at the expression on Mr Gibson's face. 'I do assure you I have not a chance with Miss Gibson,' he continued, not knowing what to say, and fancying that his inconstancy was rankling in Mr Gibson's mind.
'No! I don't suppose you have. Don't go and fancy it is that which is annoying me. You're mistaken about Miss Kirkpatrick, however. I don't believe she could ever have meant to give you encouragement!'
Mr Coxe's face grew perceptibly paler. His feelings, if evanescent, were evidently strong.
'I think, sir, if you could have seen her - I don't consider myself vain, and manner is so difficult to describe. At any rate, you can have no objection to my taking my chance, and speaking to her.'
'Of course, if you won't be convinced otherwise, I can have no objection. But if you'll take my advice, you will spare yourself the pain of a refusal. I may, perhaps, be trenching on confidence, but I think I ought to tell you that her affections are otherwise engaged.'
'It cannot be!' said Mr Coxe. 'Mr Gibson, there must be some mistake. I have gone as far as I dared iii expressing my feelings, and her manner has been most gracious. I don't think she could have misunderstood my meaning. Perhaps she has changed her mind? It is possible that, after consideration, she has learnt to prefer another, is it not?'
'By "another," you mean yourself, I suppose. I can believe in such inconstancy' (he could not help, in his own mind, giving a slight sneer at the instance before him), 'but I should be very sorry to think that Miss Kirkpatrick could be guilty of it.'
'But she may - it is a chance. Will you allow me to see her?'
'Certainly, my poor fellow' - for, intermingled with a little contempt, was a good deal of respect for the simplicity, the unworldliness, the strength of feeling, even though the feeling was evanescent - 'I will send her to you directly.'
'Thank you, sir. God bless you for a kind friend!'
Mr Gibson went upstairs to the drawing-room, where he was pretty sure he should find Cynthia. There she was' as bright and careless as usual, making up a bonnet for her mother, and chattering to Molly as she worked.
'Cynthia, you will oblige me by going down into my consulting-room at once. Mr Coxe wants to speak to you!'
'Mr Coxe?' said Cynthia. 'What can he want with me?'
Evidently, she answered her own question as soon as it was asked, for she coloured, and avoided meeting Mr Gibson's severe, uncompromising look. As soon as she had left the room, Mr Gibson sate down, and took up a new Edinburgh lying on the table, as an excuse for conversation. Was there anything in the article that made him say, after a minute or two, to Molly, who sate silent and wondering, -
"Molly, you must never trifle with the love of an honest man. You don't know what pain you may give."
Presently Cynthia came back into the drawing-room, looking very much confused. Most likely she would not have returned if she had known that Mr Gibson was still there; but it was such an unheard-of thing for him to be sitting in that room in the middle of the day, reading or making pretence to read, that she had never thought of his remaining. He looked up at her the moment she came in, so there was nothing for it but putting a bold face on it, and going back to her work.
'Is Mr Coxe still downstairs?' asked Mr Gibson.
'No. He is gone. He asked me to give you both his kind regards. I believe he is leaving this afternoon.' Cynthia tried to make her manner as commonplace as possible; but she did not look up, and her voice trembled a little.
Mr Gibson went on looking at his book for a few minutes; but Cynthia felt that more was coming, and only wished it would come quickly, for the severe silence was very hard to bear. It came at last.
'I trust this will never occur again, Cynthia!' said he, in grave displeasure. 'I should not feel satisfied with the conduct of any girl, however free, who could receive marked attentions from a young man with complacency, and so lead him on to make an offer which she never meant to accept. But what must I think of a young woman in your position, engaged - yet "accepting most graciously," for that was the way Coxe expressed it - the overtures of another man? Do you consider what unnecessary pain you have given him by your thoughtless behaviour? I call it "thoughtless," but it is the mildest epithet I can apply to it. I beg that such a thing may not occur again, or I shall be obliged to characterize it more severely.'
Molly could not imagine what "more severely" could be, for her father's manner appeared to her almost cruel in its sternness. Cynthia coloured up extremely, then went pale, and at length raised her beautiful appealing eyes full of tears to Mr Gibson. He was touched by that look, but he resolved immediately not to be mollified by any of her physical charms of expression, but to keep to his sober judgment of her conduct.
'Please, Mr Gibson, hear my side of the story before you speak so hardly to me. I did not mean to - to flirt. I merely meant to make myself agreeable, - I can't help doing that, - and that goose of a Mr Coxe seems to have fancied I meant to give him encouragement.'
'Do you mean that you were not aware that he was falling in love with you?' Mr Gibson was melting into a readiness to be convinced by that sweet voice, and pleading face.
'Well, I suppose I must speak truly.' Cynthia blushed and smiled - ever so little - but it was a smile, and it hardened Mr Gibson's heart again. 'I did think once or twice that he was becoming a little more complimentary than the occasion required; but I hate throwing cold water on people, and I never thought he could take it into his silly head to fancy himself seriously in love, and to make such a fuss at the last, after only a fortnight's acquaintance.'
'You seem to have been pretty well aware of his silliness (I should rather call it simplicity). Don't you think you should have remembered that it might lead him to exaggerate what you were doing and saying into encouragement?'
'Perhaps. I daresay I'm all wrong, and that he is all right,' said Cynthia, piqued and pouting. 'We used to say in France, that "les absens ont toujours tort," but really it seems as if here -- ' she stopped. She was unwilling to be impertinent to a man whom she respected and liked. She took up another point of her defence, and rather made matters worse. 'Besides, Roger would not allow me to consider myself as finally engaged to him; I would willingly have done it, but he would not let me.'
'Nonsense. Don't let us go on talking about it, Cynthia! I have said all that I mean to say. I believe that you were only thoughtless, as I told you before. But don't let it happen again.' He left the room at once, to put a stop to the conversation, the continuance of which would serve no useful purpose, and perhaps end by irritating him.
'"Not guilty, but we recommend the prisoner not to do it again." It's pretty much that, isn't it, Molly?' said Cynthia, letting her tears downfall,' even. while she smiled. 'I do believe your father might make a good woman of me yet, if he would only take the pains, and was not quite so severe. And to think of that stupid little fellow making all this mischief He pretended to take it to heart, as if he had loved me for years instead of only for days. I daresay only for hours if the truth were told.'
'I was afraid he was becoming very fond of you,' said Molly; 'at least it struck me once or twice; but I knew he could not stay long, and I thought it would only make you uncomfortable if I said anything about it. But now I wish I had!'
'It would not have made a bit of difference,' replied Cynthia. 'I knew he liked me, and I like to be liked; it's born in me to try to make every one I come near fond of me; but then they should not carry it too far, for it becomes very troublesome if they do. I shall hate red-haired people for the rest of my life. To think of such a man as that being the cause of your father's displeasure with me!'
Molly had a question at her tongue's end that she longed to put; she knew it was indiscreet, but at last out it came almost against her will.
'Shall you tell Roger about it?'
Cynthia replied, 'I have not thought about it - no! I don't think I shall - there's no need. Perhaps, if we are ever married -- '
'Ever married!' said Molly, under her breath. But Cynthia took no notice of the exclamation until she had finished the sentence which it interrupted.
' -- and I can see his face, and know his mood, I may tell it him then; but not in writing, and when he is absent; it might annoy him.'
'I am afraid it would make him uncomfortable,' said Molly, simply. 'And yet it must be so pleasant to be able to tell him everything - all your difficulties and troubles.'
'Yes; only I don't worry him with these things; it is better to write him merry letters, and cheer him up among the black folk. You repeated "Ever married," a little while ago; do you know, Molly, I don't think I ever shall be married to him? I don't know why, but I have a strong presentiment, so it's just as well not to tell him all my secrets, for it would be awkward for him to know them if it never came off!'
Molly dropped her work, and sate silent, looking into the future; at length she said, 'I think it would break his heart, Cynthia!'
'Nonsense. Why, I am sure that Mr Coxe came here with the intention of falling in love with you - you need not blush so violently. I am sure you saw it as plainly as I did, only you made yourself disagreeable, and I took pity on him, and consoled his wounded vanity.'
'Can you - do you dare to compare Roger Hamley to Mr Coxe?' asked Molly, indignantly.
'No, no, I don't!' said Cynthia in a moment. 'They are as different as men can be. Don't be so dreadfully serious over everything, Molly. You look as oppressed with sad reproach, as if I had been passing on to you the scolding your father gave me.'
'Because I don't think you value Roger as you ought, Cynthia!' said Molly stoutly, for it required a good deal of courage to force herself to say this, although she could not tell why she shrank so from speaking.
'Yes, I do! It's not in my nature to go into ecstasies, and I don't suppose I shall ever be what people call "in love." But I am glad he loves me, and I like to make him happy, and I think him the best and most agreeable man I know, always excepting your father when he is not angry with me. What can I say more, Molly? would you like me to say I think him handsome?'
'I know most people think him plain, but -- '
'Well, I'm of the opinion of most people then, and small blame to them. But I like his face - oh, ten thousand times better than Mr Preston's handsomeness!' For the first time during the conversation Cynthia seemed thoroughly in earnest. Why Mr Preston was introduced neither she nor Molly knew; it came up and out by a sudden impulse; but a fierce look came into the eyes, and the soft lips contracted themselves as Cynthia named his name. Molly had noticed this look before, always at the mention of this one person.
'Cynthia, what makes you dislike Mr Preston so much?'
'Don't you? Why do you ask me? and yet, Molly,' said she, suddenly relaxing into depression, not merely in tone and look, but in the droop of her limbs - 'Molly, what should you think of me if I married him after all?'
'Married him! Has he ever asked you?'
But Cynthia, instead of replying to this question, went on, uttering her own thoughts, - 'More unlikely things have happened. Have you never heard of strong wills mesmerizing weaker ones into submission? One of the girls at Madame Lefevre's went out as a governess to a Russian family, who lived near Moscow. I sometimes think I'll write to her to get me a situation in Russia, just to get out of the daily chance of seeing that man!'
'But sometimes you seem quite intimate with him, and talk to him -- '
'How can I help it?' said Cynthia impatiently. Then recovering herself she added: 'We knew him so well at Ashcombe, and he's not a man to be easily thrown off, I can tell you. I must be civil to him; it's not from liking, and he knows it is not, for I've told him so. However, we won't talk about him. I don't know how we came to do it, I'm sure: the mere fact of his existence, and of his being within half a mile of us, is bad enough. Oh! I wish Roger was at home, and rich, and could marry me at once, and carry me away from that man! If I'd thought of it, I really believe I would have taken poor red-haired Mr Coxe.'
'I don't understand it at all,' said Molly. 'I dislike Mr Preston, but I should never think of taking such violent steps as you speak of, to get away from the neighbourhood in which he lives.'
'No, because you are a reasonable little darling,' said Cynthia, resuming her usual manner, and coming up to Molly, and kissing her. 'At least you'll acknowledge I'm a good hater!'
'Yes. But still I don't understand it.'
'Oh, never mind! There are old complications with our affairs at Ashcombe. Money matters are at the root of it all. Horrid poverty - do let us talk of something else! Or, better still, let me go and finish my letter to Roger, or I shall be too late for the African mail!'
'Is it not gone? Oh, I ought to have reminded you! It will be too late. Did you not see the notice at the post-office that letters for -- ought to be in London on the morning of the 10th instead of the evening. Oh, I am so sorry!'
'So am I, but it can't be helped. It is to be hoped it will be the greater treat when he does get it. I've a far greater weight on my heart, because your father seems so displeased with me. I was fond of him, and now he is making me quite a coward. You see, Molly,' continued she, a little piteously, 'I've never lived with people with such a high standard of conduct before; and I don't quite know how to behave.'
'You must learn,' said Molly, tenderly. 'You'll find Roger quite as strict in his notions of right and wrong.'
'Ah, but he's in love with me!' said Cynthia, with a pretty consciousness of her power. Molly turned away her head, and was silent; it was of no use combating the truth, and she tried rather not to feel it - not to feel, poor girl, that she too had a great weight on her heart, into the cause of which she shrank from examining. That whole winter long she had felt as if her sun was all shrouded over with grey mist, and could no longer shine brightly for her. She wakened up in the morning with a dull sense of something being wrong - the world was out of joint, and, if she were born to set it right, she did not know how to do it. Blind herself as she would, she could not help perceiving that her father was not satisfied with the wife he had chosen. For a long time Molly had been surprised at his apparent contentment; sometimes she had been unselfish enough to be glad that he was satisfied; but still more frequently nature would have its way, and she was almost irritated at what she considered his blindness. Something, however, had changed him now: something that had arisen at the time of Cynthia's engagement; he had become nervously sensitive to his wife's failings, and his whole manner had grown dry and sarcastic, not merely to her, but sometimes to Cynthia, - and even - but this very rarely, to Molly herself. He was not a man to go into passions, or ebullitions of feeling: they would have relieved him, even while degrading him in his own eyes; but he became hard, and occasionally bitter in his speeches and ways. Molly now learnt to long after the vanished blindness in which her father had passed the first year of his marriage; yet there were no outrageous infractions of domestic peace. Some people might say that Mr Gibson 'accepted the inevitable;' he told himself in more homely phrase 'that it was no use crying over spilt milk;' and he, from principle, avoided all actual dissensions with his wife, preferring to cut short a discussion by a sarcasm, or by leaving the room. Moreover, Mrs Gibson had a very tolerable temper of her own, and her cat-like nature purred and delighted in smooth ways, and pleasant quietness. She had no great facility for understanding sarcasm; it is true it disturbed her, but as she was not quick at deciphering any depth of meaning, and felt it to be unpleasant to think about it, she forgot it as soon as possible. Yet she saw she was often in some kind of disfavour with her husband, and it made her uneasy. She resembled Cynthia in this; she liked to be liked; and she wanted to regain the esteem which she did not perceive she had lost for ever. Molly sometimes took her stepmother's part in secret; she felt as if she herself could never have borne her father's hard speeches so patiently: they would have cut her to the heart, and she must either have demanded an explanation, and probed the sore to the bottom, or sate down despairing and miserable. Instead of which Mrs Gibson, after her husband had left the room on these occasions, would say in a manner more bewildered than hurt, -
'I think dear papa seems a little put out to-day; we must see that he has a dinner that he likes when he comes home. I have often perceived that everything depends on making a man comfortable in his own house.'
And thus she went on, groping about to find the means of reinstating herself in his good graces - really trying, according to her lights, till Molly was often compelled to pity her in spite of herself, and although she saw that her stepmother was the cause of her father's increased astringency of disposition. For indeed he had got into that kind of exaggerated susceptibility with regard to his wife's faults, which may be best typified by the state of bodily irritation that is produced by the constant recurrence of any particular noise: those who are brought within hearing of it, are apt to be always on the watch for the repetition, if they are once made to notice it, and are in an irritable state of nerves.
So that poor Molly had not passed a cheerful winter, independently of any private sorrows that she might have in her own heart. She did not look well, either; she was gradually falling into low health, rather than bad health. Her heart beat more feebly and slower; the vivifying stimulant of hope - even unacknowledged hope - was gone out of her life. It seemed as if there was not, and never could be in this world, any help for the dumb discordancy between her father and his wife. Day after day, month after month, year after year, would Molly have to sympathize with her father, and pity her stepmother, feeling acutely for both, and certainly more than Mrs Gibson felt for herself. Molly could not imagine how she had at one time wished for her father's eyes to be opened, and how she could ever have fancied that if they were, he would be able to change things in Mrs Gibson's character. It was all hopeless, and the only attempt at a remedy was to think about it as little as possible. Then Cynthia's ways and manners about Roger gave Molly a great deal of uneasiness. She did not believe that Cynthia cared enough for him; at any rate, not with the sort of love that she herself would have bestowed, if she had been so happy - no, that was not ii - if she had been in Cynthia's place. She felt as if she should have gone to him both hands held out, full and brimming over with tenderness, and been grateful for every word of precious confidence bestowed on her. Yet Cynthia received his letters with a kind of carelessness, and read them with a strange indifference, while Molly sate at her feet, so to speak, looking up with eyes as wistful as a dog's waiting for crumbs, and such chance beneficences.
She tried to be patient on these occasions, but at last she must ask, - 'Where is he, Cynthia? What does he say?' By this time Cynthia had put down the letter on the table by her, smiling a little from time to time, as she remembered the loving compliments it contained.
'Where? Oh, I did not look exactly - somewhere in Abyssinia - Huon.' I can't read the word, and it does not much signify, for it would give me no idea.'
'Is he well?' asked greedy Molly.
'Yes, now. He has had a slight touch of fever, he says; but it's all over now, and he hopes he is getting acclimatized.'
'Of fever! - and who took care of him? he would want nursing - and so far from home. Oh, Cynthia!'
'Oh, I don't fancy he had any nursing, poor fellow! One does not expect nursing, and hospitals, and doctors in Abyssinia; but he had plenty of quinine with him, and I suppose that is the best specific. At any rate, he says he is quite well now!'
Molly sate silent for a minute or two.
'What is the date of the letter, Cynthia?'
'I did not look. December the - December the 10th.'
'That's nearly two months ago,' said Molly.
'Yes; but I determined I would not worry myself with useless anxiety, when he went away. If anything did - go wrong, you know,' said Cynthia, using an euphuism' for death, as most people do (it is an ugly word to speak plain out in the midst of life), 'it would be all over before I even heard of his illness, and I could be of no use to him - could I, Molly?'
'No. I daresay it is all very true; only I should think the squire could not take it so easily.'
'I always write him a little note when I hear from Roger, but I don't think I'll name this touch of fever - shall I, Molly?'
'I don't know,' said Molly. 'People say one ought, but I almost wish I had not heard it. Please, does he say anything else that I may hear?'
'Oh, lovers' letters are so silly, and I think this is sillier than usual,' said Cynthia, looking over her letter again. 'Here's a piece you may read, from that line to that,' indicating two places. 'I have not read it myself for it looked dullish - all about Aristotle and Pliny - and I want to get this bonnet-cap made up before we go out to pay our calls.'
Molly took the letter, the thought crossing her mind that he had touched it, had had his hands upon it, in those far-distant desert lands, where he might be lost to sight and to any human knowledge of his fate; even now her pretty brown fingers almost caressed the flimsy paper with their delicacy of touch as she read. She saw references made to books, which, with a little trouble, would be accessible to her here in Hollingford. Perhaps the details and the references would make the letter dull and dry to some people, but not to her, thanks to his former teaching and the interest he had excited in her for his pursuits. But, as he said in apology, what had he to write about in that savage land, but his love, and his researches, and travels? There was no society, no gaiety, no new books to write about, no gossip in Abyssinian wilds.
Molly was not in strong health, and perhaps this made her a little fanciful; but certain it is that her thoughts by day and her dreams by night were haunted by the idea of Roger lying ill and untended in those savage lands. Her constant prayer, 'O my Lord! give her the living child, and in no wise slay it,' came from a heart as true as that of the real mother in King Solomon's judgment. 'Let him live, let him live, even though I may never set eyes upon him again. Have pity upon his father! Grant that he may come home safe, and live happily with her whom he loves so tenderly - so tenderly, O God.' And then she would burst into tears, and drop asleep at last, sobbing.
Cynthia was always the same with Molly: kind, sweet-tempered, ready to help, professing a great deal of love for her, and probably feeling as much as she did for any one in the world. But Molly had reached to this superficial depth of affection and intimacy in the first few weeks of Cynthia's residence in her father's house; and if she had been of a nature prone to analyse the character of one whom she loved dearly, she might have perceived that, with all Cynthia's apparent frankness, there were certain limits beyond which her confidence did not go; where her reserve began, and her real self was shrouded in mystery. For instance, her relations with Mr Preston were often very puzzling to Molly. She was sure that there had been a much greater intimacy between them formerly at Ashcombe, and that the remembrance of this was often very galling and irritating to Cynthia, who was as evidently desirous of forgetting it as he was anxious to make her remember it. But why this intimacy had ceased, why Cynthia disliked him so extremely now, and many other unexplained circumstances connected with these two facts, were Cynthia's secrets; and she effectually baffled all Molly's innocent attempts during the first glow of her friendship for Cynthia, to learn the girlish antecedents of her companion's life. Every now and then Molly came to a dead wall, beyond which she could not pass - at least with the delicate instruments which were all she chose to use. Perhaps Cynthia might have told all there was to tell to a more forcible curiosity, which knew how to improve every slip of the tongue and every fit of temper to its own gratification. But Molly's was the interest of affection, not the coarser desire of knowing everything for a little excitement; and as soon as she saw that Cynthia did not wish to tell her anything about that period of her life, Molly left off referring to it. But if Cynthia had preserved a sweet tranquillity of manner and an unvarying kindness for Molly during the winter of which there is question, at present she was the only person to whom the beauty's ways were unchanged. Mr Gibson's influence had been good for her as long as she saw that he liked her; she had tried to keep as high a place in his good opinion as she could, and had curbed many a little sarcasm against her mother, and many a twisting of the absolute truth when he was by. Now there was a constant uneasiness about her which made her more cowardly than before; and even her partisan, Molly, could not help being aware of the distinct equivocations she occasionally used when anything in Mr Gibson's words or behaviour pressed her too hard. Her repartees to her mother were less frequent than they had been, but there was often the unusual phenomenon of pettishness in her behaviour to Mrs Gibson. These changes in humour and disposition, here described all at once, were in themselves a series of delicate alterations of relative conduct spread over many months - many winter months of long evenings and bad weather, which bring out discords of character, as a dash of cold water brings out the fading colours of an old fresco.
During much of this time Mr Preston had been at Ashcombe; for Lord Cumnor had not been able to find an agent whom he liked to replace Mr Preston; and while the inferior situation remained vacant Mr Preston had undertaken to do the duties of both. Mrs Goodenough had had a serious illness; and the little society at Hollingford did not care to meet while one of their habitual set was scarcely out of danger. So there had been very little visiting; and though Miss Browning said that the absence of the temptations of society was very agreeable to cultivated minds, after the dissipations of the previous autumn, when there were parties every week to welcome Mr Preston, yet Miss Phoebe let out in confidence that she and her sister had fallen into the habit of going to bed at nine o'clock, for they found cribbage night after night, from five o'clock till ten, rather too much of a good thing. To tell the truth, that winter, if peaceful, was monotonous in Hollingford; and the whole circle of gentility there was delighted to be stirred up in March by the intelligence that Mr Kirkpatrick, the newly-made Q.C., was coming on a visit of a couple of days to his sister-in-law Mrs Gibson. Mrs Goodenough's room was the very centre of gossip; gossip had been her daily bread through her life, gossip was meat and wine to her now.
'Dear-ah-me!' said the old lady, rousing herself so as to sit upright in her easy chair, and propping herself with her hands on the arms; 'who would ha' thought she'd such grand relations! Why, Mr Ashton told me once that a Queen's counsel was as like to be a judge as a kitten is like to be a cat. And to think of her being as good as a sister to a judge! I saw one oncst; and I know I thought as I should not wish for a better winter-cloak than his old robes would make me, if I could only find out where I could get them second-hand. And I know she'd her silk gowns turned and dyed and cleaned, and, for aught I know, turned again, while she lived at Ashcombe. Keeping a school, too, and so near akin to this Queen's counsel all the time! Well, to be sure, it was not much of a school - only ten young ladies at the best o' times; so perhaps he never heard of it.'
'I've been wondering what they'll give him to dinner,' said Miss Browning. 'It is an unlucky time for visitors; no game to be had, and lamb so late this year, and chicken hardly to be had for love or money.'
'He'll have to put up with calves-head, that he will,' said Mrs Goodenough, solemnly. 'If I'd ha' got my usual health I'd copy out a receipt of my grandmother's for a rolled calves-head,' and send it to Mrs Gibson, - the doctor has been very kind to me all through this illness, - I wish my daughter in Combermere would send me some autumn chickens - I'd pass 'em on to the doctor, that I would; but she's been a-killing of 'em all, and a-sending of them to me, and the last she sent she wrote me word was the last.'
'I wonder if they'll give a party for him!' suggested Miss Phoebe. 'I should like to see a Queen's counsel for once in my life. I have seen javelin-men, but that's the greatest thing in the legal line I ever came across.'
'They'll ask Mr Ashton, of course,' said Miss Browning. 'The three black graces, Law, Physic, and Divinity, as the song calls them.' Whenever there's a second course, there's always the clergyman of the parish invited in any family of gentility.'
'I wonder if he's married!' said Mrs Goodenough. Miss Phoebe had been feeling the same wonder, but had not thought it maidenly to express it, even to her sister, who was the source of knowledge, having met Mrs Gibson in the street on her way to Mrs Goodenough's.
'Yes, he's married, and must have several children, for Mrs Gibson said that Cynthia Kirkpatrick had paid them a visit in London, to have lessons with her cousins. And she said that his wife was a most accomplished woman, and of good family, though she brought him no fortune.'
'It's a very creditable connection, I'm sure; it's only a wonder to me as how we've heard so little talk of it before,' said Mrs Goodenough. 'At the first look of the thing, I should not ha' thought Mrs Gibson was one to hide away her fine relations under a bushel; indeed for that matter we're all of us fond o' turning the best breadth o' the gown to the front. I remember, speaking o' breadths, how I've undone my skirts many a time and oft to put a stain or a grease-spot next to poor Mr Goodenough. He'd a soft kind of heart when first we was married, and he said, says he, "Patty, link thy right arm into my left one, then thou'lt be nearer to my heart;" and so we kept up the habit, when, poor man, he'd a deal more to think on than romancing on which side his heart lay; so as I said I always put my damaged breadths on the right hand, and when we walked arm in arm, as we always did, no one was never the wiser.'
'I should not be surprised if he invited Cynthia to pay him another visit in London,' said Miss Browning. 'If he did it when he was poor, he's twenty times more likely to do it now he's a Queen's counsel.'
'Ay, work it by the rule o' three, and she stands a good chance. I only hope it won't turn her head; going up visiting in London at her age. Why, I was fifty before ever I went!'
'But she has been in France, she's quite a travelled young lady,' said Miss Phoebe.
Mrs Goodenough shook her head, for a whole minute before she gave vent to her opinion.
'It's a risk,' said she, 'a great risk. I don't like saying so to the doctor, but I should not like having my daughter, if I was him, so cheek-by-jowl with a girl as was brought up in the country where Robespierre and Bonyparte was born.'
'But Buonaparte was a Corsican,' said Miss Browning, who was much farther advanced both in knowledge and in liberality of opinions than Mrs Goodenough. 'And there's a great opportunity for cultivation of the mind afforded by intercourse with foreign countries. I always admire Cynthia's grace of manner, never too shy to speak, yet never putting herself forwards; she's quite a help to a party; and if she has a few airs and graces, why they're natural at her age! Now as for dear Molly, there's a kind of awkwardness about her - she broke one of our best china cups last time she was at a party at our house, and spilt the coffee on the new carpet; and then she got so confused that she hardly did anything but sit in a corner and hold her tongue all the rest of the evening.'
'She was so sorry for what she'd done, sister,' said Miss Phoebe, in a gentle tone of reproach; she was always faithful to Molly.
'Well, and did I say she wasn't? but was there any need for her to be stupid all the evening after?'
'But you were rather sharp, - rather displeased -- '
'And I think it my duty to be sharp, ay, and cross too, when I see young folks careless. And when I see my duty clear I do it; I'm not one to shrink from it, and they ought to be grateful to me. It's not every one that will take the trouble of reproving them, as Mrs Goodenough knows. I'm very fond of Molly Gibson, very, for her own sake and for her mother's too; I'm not sure if I don't think she's worth half-a-dozen Cynthias, but for all that she should not break my best china tea-cup, and then sit doing nothing for her livelihood all the rest of the evening.'
By this time Mrs Goodenough gave evident signs of being tired; Molly's misdemeanors and Miss Browning's broken teacup were not as exciting subjects of conversation as Mrs Gibson's newly-discovered good luck in having a successful London lawyer for a relation.
Mr Kirkpatrick had been, like many other men, struggling on in his profession, and encumbered with a large family of his own; he was ready to do a good turn for his connections, if it occasioned him no loss of time, and if (which was, perhaps, a primary condition) he remembered their existence. Cynthia's visit to Doughty Street nine or ten years ago had not made much impression upon him after he had once suggested its feasibility to his good-natured wife. He was even rather startled every now and then by the appearance of a pretty little girl amongst his own children, as they trooped in to dessert, and had to remind himself who she was. But as it was his custom to leave the table almost immediately and to retreat into a small back-room called his study, to immerse himself in papers for the rest of the evening, the child had not made much impression upon him; and probably the next time he remembered her existence was when Mrs Kirkpatrick wrote to him to beg him to receive Cynthia for a night on her way to school at Boulogne. The same request was repeated on her return; but it so happened that he had not seen her either time; and only dimly remembered some remarks which his wife had made on one of these occasions, that it seemed to her rather hazardous to send so young a girl so long a journey without making more provision for her safety than Mrs Kirkpatrick had done. He knew that his wife would fill up all deficiencies in this respect as if Cynthia had been her own daughter; and thought no more about her until he received an invitation to attend Mrs Kirkpatrick's wedding with Mr Gibson, the highly-esteemed surgeon of Hollingford, &c. &c. - an attention which irritated instead of pleasing him. 'Does the woman think I have nothing to do but run about the country in search of brides and bridegrooms, when this great case of Houghton v. Houghton is coming on, and I have not a moment to spare?' he asked of his wife.
'Perhaps she never heard of it,' suggested Mrs Kirkpatrick.
'Nonsense! the case has been in the papers for days.'
'But she mayn't know you are engaged in it.'
'She mayn't,' said he, meditatively - such ignorance was possible.
But now the great case of Houghton v. Houghton was a thing of the past; the hard struggle was over, the comparative table-land of Q. C.-dom gained, and Mr Kirkpatrick had leisure for family feeling and recollection. One day in the Easter vacation he found himself near Hollingford; he had a Sunday to spare, and he wrote to offer himself as a visitor to the Gibsons from Friday to Monday, expressing strongly (what he really felt, in a less degree,) his wish to make Mr Gibson's acquaintance. Mr Gibson, though often overwhelmed with professional business, was always hospitable; and moreover, it was always a pleasure to him to get out of the somewhat confined mental atmosphere which he had breathed over and over again, and have a whiff of fresh air: a glimpse of what was passing in the great world beyond his daily limits of thought and action. So he was ready to give a cordial welcome to his unknown relation. Mrs Gibson was in a flutter of sentimental delight, which she fancied was family affection, but which might not have been quite so effervescent if Mr Kirkpatrick had remained in his former position of struggling lawyer, with seven children, living in Doughty Street.
When the two gentlemen met they were attracted towards each other by a similarity of character, with just enough difference in their opinions to make the experience of each, on which such opinions were based, valuable to the other. Mrs Gibson, although the bond between them, counted for very little in their intercourse. Mr Kirkpatrick paid her very polite attention; and was, in fact, very glad that she had done so well for herself as to marry a sensible and agreeable man, who was able to keep her in comfort, and to behave to her daughter in so liberal a manner. Molly struck him as a delicate-looking girl, who might be very pretty if she had had a greater look of health and animation: indeed, looking at her critically, there were beautiful points about her face - long soft grey eyes, black curling eyelashes, rarely-showing dimples, perfect teeth; but there was a languor over all, a slow depression of manner, which contrasted unfavourably with the brightly-coloured Cynthia, sparkling, quick, graceful, and witty. As Mr Kirkpatrick expressed it afterwards to his wife, he was quite in love with that girl; and Cynthia, as ready to captivate strangers as any little girl of three or four, rose to the occasion, forgot all her cares and despondencies, remembered no longer her regret at having lost something of Mr Gibson's good opinion, and listened eagerly and made soft replies, intermixed with naîve sallies of droll humour, till Mr Kirkpatrick was quite captivated. He left Hollingford, almost surprised to have performed a duty, and found it a pleasure. For Mrs Gibson and Molly he had a general friendly feeling; but he did not care if he never saw them again. But for Mr Gibson he had a warm respect, a strong personal liking, which he should be glad to have ripen into a friendship, if there was time for it in this bustling world. And he fully resolved to see more of Cynthia; his wife must know her; they must have her up to stay with them in London, and show her something of the world. But, on returning home, Mr Kirkpatrick found so much work awaiting him that he had to lock up embryo friendships and kindly plans in some safe closet of his mind, and give himself up, body and soul, to the immediate work of his profession. But, in May, he found time to take his wife to the Academy Exhibition,' and some portrait there, striking him as being like Cynthia, he told his wife more about her and his visit to Hollingford than he had ever had leisure to do before; and the result was that on the next day a letter was sent off to Mrs Gibson, inviting Cynthia to pay a visit to her cousins in London, and reminding her of many little circumstances that had occurred when she was with them as a child, so as to carry on the clue of friendship from that time to the present.
On its receipt this letter was greeted in various ways by the four people who sate round the breakfast-table. Mrs Gibson read it to herself first. Then, without telling what its contents were, so that her auditors were quite in the dark as to what her remarks applied, she said, -
'I think they might have remembered that I am a generation nearer to them than she is, but nobody thinks of family affection now-a-days; and I liked him so much, and bought a new cookery-book, all to make it pleasant and agreeable and what he was used to.' She said all this in a plaintive, aggrieved tone of voice; but as no one knew to what she was referring, it was difficult to offer her consolation. Her husband was the first to speak.
'If you want us to sympathize with you, tell us what is the nature of your woe.'
'Why, I daresay it's what he means as a very kind attention, only I think I ought to have been asked before Cynthia,' said she, reading the letter over again.
'Who's he? and what's meant for a "kind attention"?'
'Mr Kirkpatrick, to be sure. This letter is from him; and he wants Cynthia to go and pay them a visit, and never says anything about you or me, my dear. And I'm sure we did our best to make it pleasant; and he should have asked us first, I think.'
'As I could not possibly have gone, it makes very little difference to me.'
'But I could have gone; and, at any rate, he should have paid us the compliment: it's only a proper mark of respect, you know. So ungrateful, too, when I gave up my dressing-room on purpose for him!'
'And I dressed for dinner every day he was here, if we are each to recapitulate all our sacrifices on his behalf. But for all that I did not expect to be invited to his house. I shall be only too glad if he will come again to mine.'
'I've a great mind not to let Cynthia go,' said Mrs Gibson, reflectively.
'I can't go, mamma,' said Cynthia, colouring. 'My gowns are all so shabby, and my old bonnet must do for this summer.'
'Well, but you can buy a new one; and I'm sure it is high time you should get yourself another silk-gown. You must have been saving up a great deal, for I don't know when you've had any new clothes.'
Cynthia began to say something, but stopped short. She went on buttering her toast, but she held it in her hand without eating it; without looking up either, as, after a minute or two of silence, she spoke again, -
'I cannot go. I should like it very much; but I really cannot go. Please, mamma, write at once, and refuse it.'
'Nonsense, child! When a man in Mr Kirkpatrick's position comes forward to offer a favour, it does not do to decline it without giving a sufficient reason. So kind of him as it is, too!'
'Suppose you offer to go instead of me?' proposed Cynthia.
'No, no! that won't do,' said Mr Gibson, decidedly. 'You can't transfer invitations in that way. But really this excuse about your clothes does appear to be very trivial, Cynthia, if you have no other reason to give.'
'It is a real, true reason to me,' said Cynthia, looking up at him as she spoke. 'You must let me judge for myself. It would not do to go there in a state of shabbiness, for even in Doughty Street, I remember, my aunt was very particular about dress; and now that Margaret and Helen are grown up, and they visit so much, - pray don't say anything more about it, for I know it would not do.'
'What have you done with all your money, I wonder?' said Mrs Gibson. 'You've twenty pounds a year, thanks to Mr Gibson and me; and I'm sure you haven't spent more than ten.'
'I had not many things when I came back from France,' said Cynthia, in a low voice, and evidently troubled by all this questioning. 'Pray let it be decided at once; I can't go, and there's an end of it.' She got up, and left the room rather suddenly.
'I don't understand it at all,' said Mrs Gibson. 'Do you, Molly?'
'No. I know she does not like spending money on her dress, and is very careful.' Molly said this much, and then was afraid she had made mischief.
'But then she must have got the money somewhere. It always has struck me that if you have not extravagant habits, and do not live up to your income, you must have a certain sum to lay by at the end of the year. Have I not often said so, Mr Gibson?'
'Well, then, apply the same reasoning to Cynthia's case; and then, I ask, what has become of the money?'
'I cannot tell,' said Molly, seeing that she was appealed to. 'She may have given it away to some one who wants it.'
Mr Gibson put down his newspaper.
'It is very clear that she has neither got the dress nor the money necessary for this London visit, and that she does not want any more inquiries to be made on the subject. She likes mysteries, in fact, and I detest them. Still, I think it is a desirable thing for her to keep up the acquaintance, or friendship, or whatever it is to be called, with her father's family; and I shall gladly give her ten pounds; and if that's not enough, why, either you must help her out, or she must do without some superfluous article of dress or another.'
'I'm sure there never was such a kind, dear, generous man as you are, Mr Gibson,' said his wife. 'To think of your being a stepfather! and so good to my poor fatherless girl! But, Molly my dear, I think you'll acknowledge that you too are very fortunate in your stepmother. Are not you, love? And what happy tête-à-têtes we shall have together when Cynthia goes to London. I'm not sure if I don't get on better with you even than with her, though she is my own child; for, as dear papa says so truly, there is a love of mystery about her; and if I hate anything, it is the slightest concealment or reserve. Ten pounds! Why, it will quite set her up, buy her a couple of gowns and a new bonnet, and I don't know what all! Dear Mr Gibson, how generous you are!'
Something very like 'Pshaw!' was growled out from behind the newspaper.
'May I go and tell her?' said Molly, rising up.
'Yes, do, love. Tell her it would be so ungrateful to refuse; and tell her that your father wishes her to go; and tell her, too, that it would be quite wrong not to avail herself of an opening which may by-and-by be extended to the rest of the family. I am sure if they ask me - which certainly they ought to do - I won't say before they asked Cynthia, because I never think of myself, and am really the most forgiving person in the world, in forgiving slights; - but when they do ask me, which they are sure to do, I shall never be content till, by putting in a little hint here and a little hint there, I've induced them to send you an invitation. A month or two in London would do you so much good, Molly.'
Molly had left the room before this speech was ended, and Mr Gibson was occupied with his newspaper; but Mrs Gibson finished it to herself very much to her own satisfaction; for, after all, it was better to have some one of the family going on the visit, though she might not be the right person, than to refuse it altogether, and never to have the opportunity of saying anything about it. As Mr Gibson was so kind to Cynthia, she too would be kind to Molly, and dress her becomingly, and invite young men to the house; do all the things, in fact, which Molly and her father did not want to have done, and throw the old stumbling-blocks in the way of their unrestrained intercourse, which was the one thing they desired to have, free and open, and without the constant dread of her jealousy.
Molly found Cynthia in the drawing-room, standing in the bow-window, looking out on the garden. She started as Molly came up to her.
'Oh, Molly,' said she, putting her arms out towards her, 'I am always so glad to have you with me!'
It was outbursts of affection such as these that always called Molly back, if she had been ever so unconsciously wavering in her allegiance to Cynthia. She had been wishing downstairs that Cynthia would be less reserved, and not have so many secrets; but now it seemed almost like treason to have wanted her to be anything but what she was. Never had any one more than Cynthia the power spoken of by Goldsmith when he wrote, -
'Do you know, I think you'll be glad to hear what I've got to tell you?' said Molly. 'I think you would really like to go to London; should not you?'
'Yes, but it is of no use liking,' said Cynthia. 'Don't you begin about it, Molly, for the thing is settled; and I can't tell you why, but I can't go.'
'It is only the money, dear. And papa has been so kind about it. He wants you to go; he thinks you ought to keep up relationships; and he is going to give you ten pounds.'
'How kind he is!' said Cynthia. 'But I ought not to take it. I wish I had known you years ago; I should have been different to what I am.'
'Never mind that! We like you as you are; we don't want you different. You'll really hurt papa if you don't take it. Why do you hesitate? Do you think Roger won't like it?'
'Roger! no, I was not thinking about him! Why should he care? I shall be there and back again before he even hears about it.'
'Then you will go?' said Molly.
Cynthia thought for a minute or two. 'Yes, I will,' said she, at length. 'I daresay it's not wise, but it will be pleasant, and I'll go. Where is Mr Gibson? I want to thank him. Oh, how kind he is! Molly, you're a lucky girl!'
'I?' said Molly, quite startled at being told this; for she had been feeling as if so many things were going wrong, almost as if they would never go right again.
'There he is!' said Cynthia. 'I hear him in the hall!' And down she flew, and laying her hands on Mr Gibson's arm, she thanked him with such warm impulsiveness, and in so pretty and caressing a manner, that something of his old feeling of personal liking for her returned, and he forgot for a time the causes of disapproval he had against her.
'There, there!' said he, 'that's enough, my dear! It is quite right you should keep up with your relations; there's nothing more to be said about it.'
'I do think your father is the most charming man I know,' said Cynthia, on her return to Molly; 'and it's that which always makes me so afraid of losing his good opinion, and fret go when I think he is displeased with me. And now let us think all about this London visit. It will be delightful, won't it? I can make ten pounds go ever so far; and in some ways it will be such a comfort to get out of Hollingford.'
'Will it?' said Molly, rather wistfully.
'Oh, yes! You know I don't mean that it will be a comfort to leave you; that will be anything but a comfort. But, after all, a country town is a country town, and London is London. You need not smile at my truisms; I've always had a sympathy with M. de la Palisse, -
sang she, in so gay a manner that she puzzled Molly, as she often did, by her change of mood from the gloomy decision with which she had refused to accept the invitation only half an hour ago. She suddenly took Molly round the waist, and began waltzing round the room with her, to the imminent danger of the various little tables, loaded with 'objets d'art' (as Mrs Gibson delighted to call them) with which the drawing-room was crowded. She avoided them, however, with her usual skill; but they both stood still at last, surprised at Mrs Gibson's surprise, as she stood at the door, looking at the whirl going on before her.
'Upon my word, I only hope you are not going crazy, both of you? What's all this about, pray?'
'Only because I'm so glad I'm going to London, mamma,' said Cynthia, demurely.
'I'm not sure if it's quite the thing for an engaged young lady to be so much beside herself at the prospect of gaiety. In my time, our great pleasure in our lovers' absence was in thinking about them.'
'I should have thought that would have given you pain, because you would have had to remember that they were away, which ought to have made you unhappy. Now, to tell you the truth, just at the moment I had forgotten all about Roger. I hope it was not very wrong. Osborne looks as if he did all my share as well as his own of the fretting after Roger. How ill he looked yesterday!'
'Yes,' said Molly; 'I did not know if any one besides me had noticed it. I was quite shocked.'
'Ah,' said Mrs. Gibson, 'I'm afraid that young man won't live long - very much afraid,' and she shook her head ominously.
'Oh, what will happen if he dies!' exclaimed Molly, suddenly sitting down, and thinking of that strange, mysterious wife who never made her appearance, whose very existence was never spoken about - and Roger away too!
'Well, it would be very sad, of course, and we should all feel it very much, I've no doubt; for I've always been very fond of Osborne; in fact, before Roger became, as it were, my own flesh and blood, I liked Osborne better: but we must not forget the living, dear Molly' (for Molly's eyes were filling with tears at the dismal thoughts presented to her). 'Our dear good Roger would, I am sure, do all in his power to fill Osborne's place in every way; and his marriage need not be so long delayed.'
'Don't speak of that in the same breath as Osborne's life, mamma,' said Cynthia, hastily.
'Why, my dear, it is a very natural thought. For poor Roger's sake, you know, one wishes it not to be so very very long an engagement; and I was only answering Molly's question, after all. One can't help following out one's thoughts. People must die, you know - young, as well as old.'
'If I ever suspected Roger of following out his thoughts in a similar way,' said Cynthia, 'I'd never speak to him again.'
'As if he would!' said Molly, warm in her turn. 'You know he never would; and you should not suppose it of him, Cynthia - no, not even for a moment!'
'I can't see the great harm of it all, for my part,' said Mrs Gibson, plaintively. 'A young man strikes us all as looking very ill - and I'm sure I'm sorry for it; but illness very often leads to death. Surely you agree with me there, and what's the harm of saying so? Then Molly asks what will happen if he dies; and I try to answer her question. I don't like talking or thinking of death any more than any one else; but I should think myself wanting in strength of mind if I could not look forward to the consequences of death. I really think we're commanded to do so, somewhere in the Bible or the Prayer-book.'
'Do you look forward to the consequences of my death, mamma?' asked Cynthia.
'You really are the most unfeeling girl I ever met with,' said Mrs Gibson, really hurt. 'I wish I could give you a little of my own sensitiveness, for I have too much for my happiness. Don't let us speak of Osborne's looks again; ten to one it was only some temporary over-fatigue, or some anxiety about Roger, or perhaps a little fit of indigestion. I was very foolish to attribute it to anything more serious, and dear papa might be displeased if he knew I had done so. Medical men don't like other people to be making conjectures about health; they consider it as trenching on their own particular province, and very proper I'm sure. Now let us consider about your dress, Cynthia; I could not understand how you had spent your money, and made so little show with it.'
'Mammal it may sound very cross, but I must tell Molly and you, and everybody, once for all, that as I don't want and did not ask for more than my allowance, I'm not going to answer any questions about what I do with it.' She did not say this with any want of respect; but she said it with quiet determination, which subdued her mother for the time, though often afterwards when Mrs Gibson and Molly were alone, the former would start the wonder as to what Cynthia could possibly have done with her money, and hunt each poor conjecture through woods and valleys of doubt, till she was wearied out;' and the exciting sport was given up for the day. At present, however, she confined herself to the practical matter in hand; and the genius for millinery and dress, inherent in both mother and daughter, soon settled a great many knotty points of contrivance and taste, and then they all three set to work to 'gar auld claes look amaist as weel's the new.'
Cynthia's relations with the squire had been very stationary ever since the visit she had paid to the Hall the previous autumn. He had received them all at that time with hospitable politeness, and he had also been more charmed with Cynthia than he liked to acknowledge to himself when he thought the visit all over afterwards.
'She's a pretty lass sure enough,' thought he, 'and has pretty ways about her too, and likes to learn from older people, which is a good sign; but somehow I don't like madam her mother, but still she is her mother, and the girl is her daughter; yet she spoke to her once or twice as I should not ha' liked our little Fanny to have spoken, if it had pleased God for her to ha' lived. No, it's not the right way, and it may be a bit old-fashioned, but I like the right way. And then again she took possession o' me as I may say, and little Molly had to run after us in the garden walks that are too narrow for three, just like a little four-legged doggie; and the other was so full of listening to me, she never turned round for to speak a word to Molly. I don't mean to say they're not fond of each other, and that's in Roger's sweetheart's favour, and it's very ungrateful in me to go and find fault with a lass who was so civil to me, and had such a pretty way with her of hanging on every word that fell from my lips. Well! a deal may come and go in two years! and the lad says nothing to me about it. I'll be as deep as him, and take no more notice of the affair till he comes home and tells me himself.'
So although the squire was always delighted to receive the little notes which Cynthia sent to him every time she heard from Roger, and although this attention on her part was melting the heart he tried to harden, he controlled himself into writing her the briefest acknowledgements. His words were strong in meaning, but formal in expression; she herself did not think much about them, being satisfied to do the kind actions that called them forth. But her mother criticized them and pondered them. She thought she had hit on the truth when she had decided in her own mind that it was a very old-fashioned style, and that he and his house and his furniture all wanted some of the brightening up and polishing which they were sure to receive, when -- she never quite liked to finish the sentence definitely, although she kept repeating to herself that 'there was no harm in it.'
To return to the squire. Occupied as he now was, he recovered his former health, and something of his former cheerfulness. If Osborne had met him half-way, it is probable that the old bond between father and son might have been renewed; but Osborne either was really an invalid, or had sunk into invalid habits, and made no effort to rally. If his father urged him to go out - nay, once or twice he gulped down his pride, and asked Osborne to accompany him - Osborne would go to the window and find out some flaw or speck in the wind or weather, and make that an excuse for stopping in the house over his books. He would saunter out on the sunny side of the house in a manner that the squire considered as both indolent and unmanly. Yet if there was a prospect of his leaving home, which he did pretty often about this time, he was seized with a hectic energy: the clouds in the sky, the easterly wind, the dampness of the air, were nothing to him then; and as the squire did not know the real secret cause of this anxiety to be gone, he took it into his head that it arose from Osborne's dislike to Hamley and to the monotony of his father's society.
'It was a mistake,' thought the squire. 'I see it now. I was never great at making friends myself. I always thought those Oxford and Cambridge men turned up their noses at me for a country booby, and I'd get the start and have none o' them. But when the boys went to Rugby and Cambridge, I should ha' let them have had their own friends about 'em, even though they might ha' looked down on me; it was the worst they could ha' done to me, and now what few friends I had have fallen off from me, by death or somehow, and it is but dreary work for a young man, I grant it. But he might try not to show it so plain to me as he does. I'm getting case-hardened, but it does cut me to the quick sometimes - it does. And he so fond of his dad as he was once! If I can but get the land drained I'll make him an allowance, and let him go to London, or where he likes. Maybe he'll do better this time, or maybe he'll go to the dogs altogether; but perhaps it will make him think a bit kindly of the old father at home - I should like him to do that, I should!'
It is possible that Osborne might have been induced to tell his father of his marriage during their long tête-à-tête intercourse, if the squire, in an unlucky moment, had not given him his confidence about Roger's engagement with Cynthia. It was on one wet Sunday afternoon, when the father and son were sitting together in the large empty drawing-room. Osborne had not been to church in the morning; the squire had, and he was now trying hard to read one of Blair's sermons. They had dined early; they always did on Sundays; and either that, or the sermon, or the hopeless wetness of the day, made the afternoon seem interminably long to the squire. He had certain unwritten rules for the regulation of his conduct on Sundays. Cold meat, sermon-reading, no smoking till after evening prayers, as little thought as possible as to the state of the land and the condition of the crops, and as much respectable sitting-indoors in his best clothes as was consistent with going to church twice a day, and saying the responses louder than the clerk. To-day it had rained so unceasingly that he had remitted the afternoon church; but oh, even with the luxury of a nap, how long it seemed before he saw the Hall servants trudging homewards, along the field-path, a covey of umbrellas! He had been standing at the window for the last half-hour, his hands in his pockets, and his mouth often contracting itself into the traditional sin of a whistle, but as often checked into sudden gravity - ending, nine times out of ten, in a yawn. He looked askance at Osborne, who was sitting near the fire absorbed in a book. The poor squire was something like the little boy in the child's story, who asks all sorts of birds and beasts to come and play with him; and, in every case, receives the sober answer, that they are too busy to have leisure for trivial amusements. The father wanted the son to put down his book, and talk to him: it was so wet, so dull, and a little conversation would so wile away the time! But Osborne, with his back to the window where his father was standing, saw nothing of all this, and went on reading. He had assented to his father's remark that it was a very wet afternoon, but had not carried on the subject into all the varieties of truisms of which it was susceptible. Something more rousing must be started, and this the squire felt. The recollection of the affair between Roger and Cynthia came into his head, and, without giving it a moment's consideration, he began, -
'Osborne! Do you know anything about this - this attachment of Roger's?'
Quite successful. Osborne laid down his book in a moment, and turned round to his father.
'Roger! an attachment! No! I never heard of it - I can hardly believe it - that is to say, I suppose it is to -- '
And then he stopped; for he thought he had no right to betray his own conjecture that the object was Cynthia Kirkpatrick.
'Yes. He is though. Can you guess who to? Nobody that I particularly like - not a connection to my mind - yet she's a very pretty girl; and I suppose I was to blame in the first instance.'
'Is it -- '
'It's no use beating about the bush. I've gone so far, I may as well tell you all. It's Miss Kirkpatrick, Gibson's stepdaughter. But it's not an engagement, mind you -- '
'I'm very glad - I hope she likes Roger back again -- '
'Like - it's only too good a connection for her not to like it: if Roger is of the same mind when he comes home, I'll be bound she'll be only too happy!'
'I wonder Roger never told me,' said Osborne, a little hurt, now he began to consider himself.
'He never told me either,' said the squire. 'It was Gibson, who came here, and made a clean breast of it like a man of honour. I'd been saying to him, I could not have either of you two lads taking up with his lasses. I'll own it was you I was afraid of - it's bad enough with Roger, and maybe will come to nothing after all; but if it had been you, I'd ha' broken with Gibson and every mother's son of 'em, sooner than have let it go on; and so I told Gibson.'
'I beg your pardon for interrupting you, but, once for all, I claim the right of choosing my wife for myself, subject to no man's interference,' said Osborne, hotly.
'Then you'll keep your wife with no man's interference, that's all; for ne'er a penny will you get from me, my lad, unless you marry to please me a little, as well as yourself a great deal. That's all I ask of you. I'm not particular as to beauty, or as to cleverness, and piano-playing, and that sort of thing; if Roger marries this girl, we shall have enough of that in the family. I should not much mind her being a bit older than you, but she must be well-born, and the more money she brings the better for the old place.'
'I say again, father, I choose my wife for myself, and I don't admit any man's right of dictation.'
'Well, well!' said the squire, getting a little angry in his turn. 'If I'm not to be father in this matter, thou shan't be son. Go against me in what I've set my heart on, and you'll find there's the devil to pay, that's all. But don't let us get angry, it's Sunday afternoon for one thing, and it's a sin; and besides that, I've not finished my story.'
For Osborne had taken up his book again, and under pretence of reading, was fuming to himself, He hardly put it away even at his father's request.
'As I was saying, Gibson said, when first we spoke about it, that there was nothing on foot between any of you four, and that if there was, he would let me know; so by-and-by he comes and tells me of this.'
'Of what - I don't understand how far it has gone?'
There was a tone in Osborne's voice the squire did not quite like; and he began answering rather angrily.
'Of this to be sure - of what I'm telling you - of Roger going and making love to this girl, that day he left, after he had gone away from here, and was waiting for the "Umpire" in Hollingford. One would think you quite stupid at times, Osborne.'
'I can only say that these details are quite new to me; you never mentioned them before, I assure you.'
'Well; never mind whether I did or not. I'm sure I said Roger was attached to Miss Kirkpatrick, and be hanged to her; and you might have understood all the rest, as a matter of course.'
'Possibly,' said Osborne, politely. 'May I ask if Miss Kirkpatrick, who appeared to me to be a very nice girl, responds to Roger's affection?'
'Fast enough, I'll be bound,' said the squire, sulkily. 'A Hamley of Hamley is not to be had every day. Now, I'll tell you what, Osborne, you're the only marriageable one left in the market, and I want to hoist the old family up again. Don't go against me in this; it really will break my heart if you do.'
'Father, don't talk so,' said Osborne. 'I will do anything I can to oblige you, except -- '
'Except the only thing I've set my heart on your doing.'
'Well, well, let it alone for the present. There's no question of my marrying just at this moment. I'm out of health, and I'm not up to going into society, and meeting young ladies and all that sort of thing, even if I had an opening into fitting society.'
'You should have an opening fast enough. There'll be more money coming in, in a year or two, please God. And as for your health, why, what's to make you well, if you cower over the fire all day, and shudder away from a good honest tankard as if it were poison?'
'So it is to me,' said Osborne, languidly, playing with his book as if he wanted to end the conversation and take it up again. The squire saw the movements, and understood them.
'Well,' said he, 'I'll go and have a talk with Will about poor old Black Bess. It's Sunday work enough, asking after a dumb animal's aches and pains.'
But after his father had left the room Osborne did not take up his book again. He laid it down on the table by him, leant back in his chair, and covered his eyes with his hand. He was in a state of health which made him despondent about many things, though, least of all, about what was most in danger. The long concealment of his marriage from his father made the disclosure of it far far more difficult than it would have been at first. Unsupported by Roger, how could he explain it all to one so passionate as the squire? how tell of the temptation, the stolen marriage, the consequent happiness, and alas! the consequent suffering? - for Osborne had suffered, and did suffer, greatly in the untoward circumstances in which he had placed himself. He saw no way out of it all, excepting by the one strong stroke of which he felt himself incapable. So with a heavy heart he addressed himself to his book again. Everything seemed to come in his way, and he was not strong enough in character to overcome obstacles. The only overt step he took in consequence of what he had heard from his father, was to ride over to Hollingford the first fine day after he had received the news, and go to see Cynthia and the Gibsons. He had not been there for a long time; bad weather and languor combined had prevented him. He found them full of preparations and discussions about Cynthia's visit to London; and she herself not at all in the sentimental mood proper to respond to his delicate intimations of how glad he was in his brother's joy. Indeed, it was so long after the time, that Cynthia scarcely perceived that to him the intelligence was recent, and that the first bloom of his emotions had not yet passed away. With her head a little on one side, she was contemplating the effect of a knot of ribbons, when he began, in a low whisper, and leaning forward towards her as he spoke, - 'Cynthia - I may call you Cynthia now, mayn't I? - I am so glad of this news; I've only just heard of it, but I'm so glad!'
'What news do you mean?' She had her suspicions; but she was annoyed to think that from one person her secret was passing to another, and another, till, in fact, it was becoming no secret at all. Still, Cynthia could always conceal her annoyance when she chose. 'Why are you to begin calling me Cynthia now?' she went on, smiling. 'The terrible word has slipped out from between your lips before, do you know?'
This light way of taking his tender congratulations did not quite please Osborne, who was in a sentimental mood, and for a minute or so he remained silent. Then, having finished making her bow of ribbon, she turned to him, and continued, in a quick low voice, anxious to take advantage of a tête-à-tête between her mother and Molly, -
'I think I can guess why you made me that pretty little speech just now. But do you know you ought not to have been told? And, moreover, things are not quite arrived at the solemnity of - of - well - an engagement. He would not have it so. Now, I shan't say any more; and you must not. Pray remember you ought not to have known; it is my own secret, and I particularly wished it not to be spoken about; and I don't like it's being so talked about. Oh, the leaking of water through one small hole!'
And then she plunged into the tête-à-tête of the other two, making the conversation general. Osborne was rather discomfited at the non-success of his congratulations; he had pictured to himself the unbosoming of a love-sick girl, full of rapture, and glad of a sympathizing confidant. He little knew Cynthia's nature. The more she suspected that she was called upon for a display of emotion, the less would she show; and her emotions were generally under the control of her will. He had made an effort to come and see her; and now he leant back in his chair, weary and a little dispirited.
'You poor dear young man,' said Mrs Gibson, coming up to him with her soft, soothing manner; 'how tired you look! Do take some of that eau-de-Cologne and bathe your forehead. This spring weather overcomes me too. 'Primavera' I think the Italians call it. But it is very trying for delicate constitutions, as much from its associations as from its variableness of temperature. It makes me sigh perpetually; but then I am so sensitive. Dear Lady Cumnor always used to say I was like a thermometer. You've heard how ill she has been?'
'No,' said Osborne, not very much caring either.
'Oh, yes, she is better now; but the anxiety about her has tried me so: detained here by what are, of course, my duties, but far away from all intelligence, and not knowing what the next post might bring.'
'Where was she then?' asked Osborne, becoming a little more sympathetic.
'At Spa. Such a distance off! Three days' post! Can't you conceive the trial? Living with her as I did for years; bound up in the family as I was.'
'But Lady Harriet said, in her last letter, that they hoped that she would be stronger than she had been for years,' said Molly, innocently.
'Yes - Lady Harriet - of course - every one who knows Lady Harriet knows that she is of too sanguine a temperament for her statements to be perfectly relied on. Altogether - strangers are often deluded by Lady Harriet - she has an off - hand manner which takes them in; but she does not mean half she says.'
'We will hope she does in this instance,' said Cynthia, shortly. 'They are in London now, and Lady Cumnor has not suffered from the journey.'
'They say so,' said Mrs Gibson, shaking her head, and laying an emphasis on the word 'say.' 'I am perhaps over-anxious, but I wish - I wish I could see and judge for myself. It would be the only way of calming my anxiety. I almost think I shall go up with you, Cynthia, for a day or two, just to see her with my own eyes. I don't quite like your travelling alone either. We will think about it, and you shall write to Mr Kirkpatrick, and propose it, if we determine upon it. You can tell him of my anxiety; and it will be only sharing your bed for a couple of nights.'
That was the way in which Mrs Gibson first broached her intention of accompanying Cynthia up to London for a few days' visit. She had a trick of producing the first sketch of any new plan before an outsider to the family circle; so that the first emotions of others, if they disapproved of her projects, had to be repressed, until the idea had become familiar to them. To Molly it seemed too charming a proposal ever to come to pass. She had never allowed herself to recognize the restraint she was under in her stepmother's presence; but all at once she found it out when her heart danced at the idea of three whole days - for that it would be at the least - of perfect freedom of intercourse with her father; of old times come back again; of meals without perpetual fidgetiness after details of ceremony and correctness of attendance.
'We'll have bread and cheese for dinner, and eat it on our knees; we'll make up for having had to eat sloppy puddings with a fork instead of a spoon all this time, by putting our knives in our mouths till we cut ourselves. Papa shall pour his tea into his saucer if he is in a hurry; and if I'm thirsty, I'll take the slop-basin. And oh, if I could but get, buy, borrow, or steal any kind of an old horse; my grey skirt is not new, but it will do; - that would be too delightful. After all, I think I can be happy again; for months and months it has seemed as if I had got too old ever to feel pleasure, much less happiness again.'
So thought Molly. Yet she blushed, as if with guilt, when Cynthia, reading her thought, said to her one day, -
'Molly, you are very glad to get rid of us, are not you?'
'Not of you, Cynthia; at least, I don't think I am. Only, if you only knew how I love papa, and how I used to see a great deal more of him than I ever do now -- '
'Ah! I often think what interlopers we must seem, and are in fact -- '
'I don't feel you as such. You, at any rate, have been a new delight to me, a sister; and I never knew how charming such a relationship could be.'
'But mamma?' said Cynthia, half-suspiciously, half-sorrowfully.
'She is papa's wife,' said Molly, quietly. 'I don't mean to say I am not often very sorry to feel I am no longer first with him; but it was' - the violent colour flushed into her face till even her eyes burnt, and she suddenly found herself on the point of crying; the weeping ash-tree, the misery, the slow dropping comfort;' and the comforters came all so vividly before her; - 'it was Roger!' - she went on looking up at Cynthia, as she overcame her slight hesitation at mentioning his name - 'Roger, who told me how I ought to take papa's marriage, when I was first startled and grieved at the news. Oh, Cynthia, what a great thing it is to be loved by him!'
Cynthia blushed, and looked fluttered and pleased.
'Yes, I suppose it is. At the same time, Molly, I'm afraid he'll expect me to be always as good as he fancies me now, and I shall have to walk on tip-toe all the rest of my life.'
'But you are good, Cynthia,' put in Molly.
'No, I'm not. You're just as much mistaken as he is; and some day I shall go down in your opinions with a run, just like the hall clock the other day when the spring broke.'
'I think he'll love you just as much,' said Molly.
'Could you? Would you be my friend if - if it turned out ever that I had done very wrong things? Would you remember how very difficult it has sometimes been to me to act rightly' (she took hold of Molly's hand as she spoke). 'We won't speak of mamma, for your sake as much as mine or hers; but you must see she is not one to help a girl with much good advice, or good -- Oh, Molly, you don't know how I was neglected just at a time when I wanted friends most. Mamma does not know it; it is not in her to know what I might have been if I had only fallen into wise, good hands. But I know it; and what's more,' continued she, suddenly ashamed of her unusual exhibition of feeling, 'I try not to care, which I daresay is really the worst of all; but I could worry myself to death if I once took to serious thinking.'
'I wish I could help you, or even understand you,' said Molly, after a moment or two of sad perplexity.
'You can help me,' said Cynthia, changing her manner abruptly. 'I can trim bonnets, and make head-dresses; but somehow my hands can't fold up gowns and collars, like your deft little fingers. Please will you help me to pack? That's a real, tangible piece of kindness, and not sentimental consolation for sentimental distresses, which are, perhaps, imaginary after all.'
In general, it is the people who are left behind stationary, who give way to low spirits at any parting; the travellers, however bitterly they may feel the separation, find something in the change of scene to soften regret in the very first hour of separation. But as Molly walked home with her father from seeing Mrs Gibson and Cynthia off to London by the 'Umpire' coach, she almost danced along the street.
'Now, papa!' said she, 'I'm going to have you all to myself for a whole week. You must be very obedient.'
'Don't be tyrannical, then. You are walking me out of breath, and we are cutting Mrs Goodenough, in our hurry.'
So they crossed over the street to speak to Mrs Goodenough.
'We've just been seeing my wife and her daughter off to London. Mrs Gibson has gone up for a week!'
'Deary, deary, to London, and only for a week! Why, I can remember its being a three days' journey! It will be very lonesome for you, Miss Molly, without your young companion!'
'Yes!' said Molly, suddenly feeling as if she ought to have taken this view of the case. 'I shall miss Cynthia very much.'
'And you, Mr Gibson; why, it will be like being a widower over again! You must come and drink tea with me some evening. We must try and cheer you up a bit amongst us. Shall it be Tuesday?'
In spite of the sharp pinch which Molly gave to his arm, Mr Gibson accepted the invitation, much to the gratification of the old lady.
'Papa, how could you go and waste one of our evenings. We have but six in all, and now but five; and I had so reckoned on our doing all sorts of things together.'
'What sort of things?'
'Oh, I don't know: everything that is unrefined and ungenteel,' added she, slyly looking up into her father's face.
His eyes twinkled, but the rest of his face was perfectly grave. 'I'm not going to be corrupted. With toil and labour I have reached a very fair height of refinement. I won't be pulled down again.'
'Yes, you will, papa. We'll have bread and cheese for lunch this very day. And you shall wear your slippers in the drawing-room every evening you'll stay quietly at home; and oh, papa, don't you think I could ride Nora Creina. I've been looking out the old grey skirt, and I think I could make myself tidy.'
'Where is the side-saddle to come from?'
'To be sure the old one won't fit that great Irish mare. But I'm not particular, papa. I think I could manage somehow.'
'Thank you. But I'm not quite going to return into barbarism. It may he a depraved taste, but I should like to see my daughter properly mounted.'
'Think of riding together down the lanes - why, the dog-roses must be all out in flower, and the honeysuckles, and the hay - how I should like to see Merriman's farm again! Papa, do let me have one ride with you! Please do. I am sure we can manage it somehow.'
And 'somehow' it was managed. 'Somehow' all Molly's wishes came to pass; there was only one little drawback to this week of holiday and happy intercourse with her father. Everybody would ask them out to tea. They were quite like bride and bridegroom; for the fact was, that the late dinners which Mrs Gibson had introduced into her own house, were a great inconvenience in the calculations of the small tea-drinkings at Hollingford. How ask people to tea at six, who dined at that hour? How, when they refused cake and sandwiches at half-past eight, how induce other people who were really hungry to commit a vulgarity before those calm and scornful eyes? So there had been a great lull of invitations for the Gibsons to Hollingford tea-parties. Mrs Gibson, whose object was to squeeze herself into 'county society,' had taken this being left out of the smaller festivities with great equanimity; but Molly missed the kind homeliness of the parties to which she had gone from time to time as long as she could remember; and though, as each three-cornered note was brought in, she grumbled a little over the loss of another charming tête-à-tête with her father, she really was glad to go again in the old way among old friends. Miss Browning and Miss Phoebe were especially compassionate towards her in her loneliness. If they had had their will she would have dined there every day; and she had to call upon them very frequently in order to prevent their being hurt at her declining the dinners. Mrs Gibson wrote twice during her week's absence to her husband. That piece of news was quite satisfactory to the Miss Brownings, who had of late months held themselves a great deal aloof from a house where they chose to suppose that their presence was not wanted. In their winter evenings they had often talked over Mr Gibson's household, and having little besides conjectures to go upon, they found the subject interminable, as they could vary the possibilities every day. One of their wonders was how Mr and Mrs Gibson really got on together; another was whether Mrs Gibson was extravagant or not. Now two letters during the week of her absence showed what was in those days considered a very proper amount of conjugal affection. Yet not too much - at elevenpence halfpenny postage. A third letter would have been extravagant. Sister looked to sister with an approving nod as Molly named the second letter, which arrived in Hollingford the very day before Mrs Gibson was to return. They had settled between themselves that two letters would show the right amount of good feeling and proper understanding in the Gibson family: more would have been extravagant; only one would have been a mere matter of duty. There had been rather a question between Miss Browning and Miss Phoebe as to which person the second letter (supposing it came) was to be addressed. It would be very conjugal to write twice to Mr Gibson; and yet it would be very pretty if Molly came in for her share.
'You've had another letter, you say, my dear,' asked Miss Browning, 'I daresay Mrs Gibson has written to you this time?'
'It is a large sheet, and Cynthia has written on one half to me, and all the rest is to papa.'
'A very nice arrangement, I'm sure. And what does Cynthia say? Is she enjoying herself?'
'Oh, yes, I think so. They have had a dinner-party, and one night when mamma was at Lady Cumnor's, Cynthia went to the play with her cousins.'
'Upon my word! and all in one week? I do call that dissipation. Why, Thursday would be taken up with the journey, and Friday with resting, and Sunday is Sunday all the world over; and they must have written on Tuesday. Well! I hope Cynthia won't find Hollingford dull, that's all, when she comes back.'
'I don't think it's likely,' said Miss Phoebe, with a little simper and a knowing look, which sate oddly on her kindly innocent face. 'You see a great deal of Mr Preston, don't you, Molly!'
'Mr Preston!' said Molly, flushing up with surprise. 'No! not much. He's been at Ashcombe all winter, you know! He has but just come back to settle here, What should make you think so!'
'Oh! a little bird told us,' said Miss Browning. Molly knew that little bird from her childhood, and had always hated it, and longed to wring its neck. Why could not people speak out and say that they did not mean to give up the name of their informant? But it was a very favourite form of fiction with the Miss Brownings, and to Miss Phoebe it was the very acme of wit.
'The little bird was flying about one day in Heath Lane, and it saw Mr Preston and a young lady - we won't say who - walking together in a very friendly manner, that is to say, he was on horseback; but the path is raised above the road, just where there is the little wooden bridge over the brook -- '
'Perhaps Molly is in the secret, and we ought not to ask her about it,' said Miss Phoebe, seeing Molly's extreme discomfiture and annoyance.
'It can be no great secret,' said Miss Browning, dropping the little-bird formula, and assuming an air of dignified reproval at Miss Phoebe's interruption, 'for Miss Hornblower says Mr Preston owns to being engaged -- '
'At any rate it is not to Cynthia, that I know positively,' said Molly with some vehemence. 'And pray put a stop to any such reports; you don't know what mischief they may do. I do so hate that kind of chatter!' It was not very respectful of Molly to speak in this way to be sure, but she thought only of Roger; and the distress any such reports might cause, should he ever hear of them (in the centre of Africa!) made her colour up scarlet with vexation.
'Heighty-teighty! Miss Molly! don't you remember that I am old enough to be your mother, and that it is not pretty behaviour to speak so to us - to me! "Chatter" to be sure. Really, Molly -- '
'I beg your pardon,' said Molly, only half-penitent.
'I daresay you did not mean to speak so to sister,' said Miss Phoebe, trying to make peace.
Molly did not answer all at once. She wanted to explain how much mischief might be done by such reports.
'But don't you see,' she went on, still flushed by vexation, 'how bad it is to talk of such things in such a way? Supposing one of them cared for some one else, and that might happen, you know; Mr Preston, for instance, may be engaged to some one else?'
'Molly! I pity the woman! Indeed I do. I have a very poor opinion of Mr Preston,' said Miss Browning, in a warning tone of voice; for a new idea had come into her head.
'Well, but the woman, or young lady, would not like to hear such reports about Mr Preston.'
'Perhaps not. But for all that, take my word for it, he's a great flirt, and young ladies had better not have much to do with him.'
'I daresay it was all accident their meeting in Heath Lane.' said Miss Phoebe.
'I know nothing about it,' said Molly, 'and I daresay I have been impertinent, only please don't talk about it any more. I have my reasons for asking you.' She got up, for by the striking of the church clock she had just found out that it was later than she had thought, and she knew that her father would be at home by this time. She bent down and kissed Miss Browning's grave and passive face.
'How you are growing, Molly!' said Miss Phoebe, anxious to cover over her sister's displeasure. '"As tall and as straight as a poplar-tree!" as the old song says.'
'Grow in grace, Molly, as well as in good looks!' said Miss Browning, watching her out of the room. As soon as she was fairly gone, Miss Browning got up and shut the door quite securely, and then sitting down near her sister, she said, in a low voice, 'Phoebe, it was Molly herself that was with Mr Preston in Heath Lane that day when Mrs Goodenough saw them together!'
'Gracious goodness me!' exclaimed Miss Phoebe, receiving it at once as gospel. 'How do you know?'
'By putting two and two together. Did not you notice how red Molly went, and then pale, and how she said she knew for a fact that Mr Preston and Cynthia Kirkpatrick were not engaged?'
'Perhaps not engaged; but Mrs Goodenough saw them loitering together, all by their own two selves -- '
'Mrs Goodenough only crossed Heath Lane at the Shire Oak, as she was riding in her phaeton,' said Miss Browning, sententiously. 'We all know what a coward she is in a carriage, so that most likely she had only half her wits about her, and her eyes are none of the best when she is standing steady on the ground. Molly and Cynthia have got those new plaid shawls just alike, and they trim their bonnets alike, and Molly is grown as tall as Cynthia since Christmas. I was always afraid she'd be short and stumpy, but she's now as tall and slender as any one need be. I'll answer for it, Mrs Goodenough saw Molly, and took her for Cynthia.'
When Miss Browning 'answered for it' Miss Phoebe gave up doubting. She sate some time in silence revolving her thoughts. Then she said, -
'It would not be such a very bad match after all, sister.' She spoke very meekly, awaiting her sister's sanction to her opinion.
'Phoebe, it would be a bad match for Mary Preston's daughter. If I had known what I know now we'd never have had him to tea last September.'
'Why, what do you know?' asked Miss Phoebe.
'Miss Hornblower told me many things; some that I don't think you ought to hear, Phoebe. He was engaged to a very pretty Miss Gregson, at Henwick, where he comes from; and her father made inquiries, and heard so much that was bad about him, that he made his daughter break off the match, and she's dead since!'
'How shocking!' said Miss Phoebe, duly impressed.
'Besides, he plays at billiards and he bets at races, and some people do say he keeps race-horses.'
'But is not it strange that the earl keeps him on as his agent?'
'No! perhaps not. He's very clever about land, and very sharp in all law affairs; and my lord is not bound to take notice - if indeed he knows - of the manner in which Mr Preston talks when he has taken too much wine.'
'Taken too much wine. Oh, sisters is he a drunkard? and we have had him to tea!'
'I did not say he was a drunkard, Phoebe,' said Miss Browning, pettishly. 'A man may take too much wine occasionally, without being a drunkard. Don't let me hear you using such coarse words, Phoebe!'
Miss Phoebe was silent for a time after this rebuke.
'Presently she said, 'I do hope it was not Molly Gibson.'
'You may hope as much as you like, but I'm pretty sure it was. However, we'd better say nothing about it to Mrs Goodenough; she has got Cynthia into her head, and there let her rest. Time enough to set reports afloat about Molly when we know there's some truth in them. Mr Preston might do for Cynthia, who's been brought up France, though she has such pretty manners; but it may have made her not particular. He must not, and he shall not, have Molly, if I go into church and forbid the banns myself; but I'm afraid - I'm afraid there's something between her and him. We must keep on the lookout, Phoebe. I'll be her guardian angel, in spite of herself.'