Molly had her out-of-door things on, and she crept away as she was bidden; she lifted her heavy weight of heart and body along till she came to a field, not so very far off, - where she had sought the comfort of loneliness ever since she was a child; and there, under the hedge-bank, she sate down, burying her face in her hands, and quivering all over as she thought of Cynthia's misery, that she might not try to touch or assuage. She never knew how long she sate there, but it was long past lunch-time when once again she stole up to her room. The door opposite was open wide, - Cynthia had quitted the chamber. Molly arranged her dress and went down into the drawing-room. Cynthia and her mother sate there in the stern repose of an armed neutrality. Cynthia's face looked made of stone, for colour and rigidity; but she was netting away as if nothing unusual had occurred. Not so Mrs Gibson: her face bore evident marks of tears, and she looked up and greeted Molly's entrance with a faint smiling notice. Cynthia went on as though she had never heard the opening of the door, or felt the approaching sweep of Molly's dress. Molly took up a book, - not to read, but to have the semblance of some employment which should not necessitate conversation.
There was no measuring the duration of the silence that ensued. Molly grew to fancy it was some old enchantment that weighed upon their tongues and kept them still. At length Cynthia spoke, but she had to begin again before her words came clear, -
'I wish you both to know that henceforward all is at an end between me and Roger Hamley.'
Molly's book went down upon her knees; with open eyes and lips she strove to draw in Cynthia's meaning. Mrs Gibson spoke querulously, as if injured, -
'I could have understood this if it had happened three months ago, - when you were in London; but now it's just nonsense, Cynthia, and you know you don't mean it!'
Cynthia did not reply; nor did the resolute look on her face change when Molly spoke at last, -
'Cynthia - think of him! It will break his heart!'
'No!' said Cynthia, 'it will not. But even if it did, I cannot help it.'
'All this talk will soon pass away!' said Molly; 'and when he knows the truth from your own self -- '
'From my own self he shall never hear it. I do not love him well enough to go through the shame of having to excuse myself, - to plead that he will reinstate me in his good opinion. Confession may be - well! I can never believe it pleasant - but it may be an ease of mind if one makes it to some people, - to some person, - and it may not be a mortification to sue for forgiveness. I cannot tell. All I know is, - and I know it clearly, and will act upon it inflexibly - that -- ' And there she stopped short.
'I think you might finish your sentence,' said her mother, after a silence of five seconds.
'I cannot bear to exculpate myself to Roger Hamley. I will not submit to his thinking less well of me than he has done, - however foolish his judgment may have been. I would rather never see him again, for these two reasons. And the truth is, I do not love him. I like him, I respect him; but I will not marry him. I have written to tell him so. That was merely as a relief to myself, for when or where the letter will reach him -- And I have written to old Mr Hamley. The relief is the one good thing come out of it all. It is such a comfort to feel free again. It wearied me so to think of straining up to his goodness. "Extenuate my conduct!"' she concluded, quoting Mr Gibson's words. Yet when Mr Gibson came home, after a silent dinner, she asked to speak with him, alone, in his consulting-room; and there laid bare the exculpation of herself which she had given to Molly many weeks before. When she had ended, she said, -
'And now, Mr Gibson, - I still treat you like a friend, - help me to find some home far away, where all the evil talking and gossip mamma tells me of cannot find me and follow me. It may be wrong to care for people's good opinion, - but it is me, and I cannot alter myself. You, Molly, - all the people in the town, - I have not the patience to live through the nine days' wonder. I want to go away and be a governess.'
'But, my dear Cynthia, - how soon Roger will be back, - a tower of strength.'
'Has not mamma told you I have broken it all off with Roger? I wrote this morning. I wrote to his father. That letter will reach to-morrow. I wrote to Roger. If he ever receives that letter I hope to be far away by that time; in Russia may be.'
'Nonsense. An engagement like yours cannot be broken off, except by mutual consent. You have only given others a great deal of pain, without freeing yourself. Nor will you wish it in a month's time. When you come to think calmly you will be glad to think of the stay and support of such a husband as Roger. You have been in fault, and have acted foolishly at first, - perhaps wrongly afterwards; but you don't want your husband to think you faultless?'
'Yes, I do,' said Cynthia. 'At any rate, my lover must think me so. And it is just because I do not love him even as so light a thing as I could love, that I feel that I could not bear to have to tell him I'm sorry, and stand before him like a chidden child to be admonished and forgiven.'
'But here you are, just in such a position before me, Cynthia!'
'Yes! but I love you better than Roger; I have often told Molly so. And I would have told you, if I had not expected and hoped to leave you all before long. I could see if the recollection of it all came up before your mind; I could see it in your eyes; I should know it by instinct. I have a fine instinct for reading the thoughts of others when they refer to me. I almost hate the idea of Roger judging me by his own standard, which was not made for me, and graciously forgiving me at last.'
'Then I do believe it is right for you to break it off,' said Mr Gibson, almost as if he was thinking to himself. 'That poor lad! But it will be best for him too. And he'll get over it. He has a good strong heart. Poor old Roger!'
For a moment Cynthia's wilful fancy stretched after the object passing out of her grasp, - Roger's love became for the instant a treasure; but, again, she knew that in its entirety of high undoubting esteem, as well as of passionate regard, it would no longer be hers; and for the flaw which she herself had made, she cast it away, and would none of it. Yet often in after years, when it was too late, she wondered, and strove to penetrate the inscrutable mystery of 'what would have been.'
'Still take till to-morrow before you act upon your decision,' said Mr Gibson, slowly. 'What faults you have fallen into have been mere girlish faults at first, - leading you into much deceit, I grant.'
'Don't give yourself the trouble to define the shades of blackness,' said Cynthia, bitterly. 'I am not so obtuse but what I know them all better than any one can tell me. And as for my decision I acted upon it at once. It may be long before Roger gets my letter, - but I hope he is sure to get it at last, - and, as I said, I have let his father know; it won't hurt him! Oh, sir, I think if I had been differently brought up I should not have had the sore angry heart I have. Now! No, don't! I don't want reasoning comfort. I can't stand it. I should always have wanted admiration and worship, and men's good opinion. Those unkind gossips! To visit Molly with their hard words! Oh, dear! I think life is very dreary.'
She put her head down on her hands; tired out mentally as well as bodily. So Mr Gibson thought. He felt as if much speech from him would only add to her excitement, and make her worse. He left the room, and called Molly, from where she was sitting, dolefully. 'Go to Cynthia!' he whispered, and Molly went. She took Cynthia into her arms with gentle power, and laid her head against her own breast, as if the one had been a mother, and the other a child.
'Oh, my darling!' she murmured. 'I do so love you, dear, dear Cynthia!' and she stroked her hair, and kissed her eyelids; Cynthia passive all the while, till suddenly she started up stung with a new idea, and looking Molly straight in the face, she said, -
'Molly, Roger will marry you! See if it is not so! You two good -- '
But Molly pushed her away with a sudden violence of repulsion. 'Don't!' she said. She was crimson with shame and indignation. 'Your husband this morning! Mine to-night! What do you take him for?'
'A man!' smiled Cynthia. 'And therefore, if you won't let me call him changeable, I'll coin a word and call him consolable!' But Molly gave her back no answering smile. At this moment, the servant Maria entered the consulting-room, where the two girls were. She had a scared look.
'Is not master here?' asked she, as if she distrusted her eyes.
'No!' said Cynthia. 'I heard him go out. I heard him shut the front door not five minutes ago.'
'Oh, dear!' said Maria. 'And there's a man come on horseback from Hamley Hall, and he says Mr Osborne is dead, and that master must go off to the squire straight away!'
'Osborne Hamley dead?' said Cynthia, in awed surprise. Molly was out at the front door, seeking the messenger through the dusk, round into the stable-yard, where the groom sate motionless on his dark horse, flecked with foam, made visible by the lantern placed on the steps near, where it had been left by the servants, who were dismayed at this news of the handsome young man who had frequented their master's house, so full of sportive elegance and winsomeness. Molly went up to the man, whose thoughts were lost in recollection of the scene he had left at the place he had come from.
She laid her hand on the hot damp skin of the horse's shoulder; the man started.
'Is the doctor coming, Miss?' For he saw who it was by the dim light.
'He is dead, is he not?' asked Molly, in a low voice.
'I'm afeard he is, - leastways there is no doubt according to what they said. But I have ridden hard! there may be a chance. Is the doctor coming, Miss?'
'He is gone out. They are seeking him, I believe. I will go myself. Oh! the poor old squire.' She went into the kitchen - went over the house with swift rapidity to gain news of her father's whereabouts. The servants knew no more than she did. Neither she nor they had heard what Cynthia, ever quick of perception, had done. The shutting of the front door had fallen on deaf cars, as far as others were concerned. Upstairs sped Molly to the drawing-room, where Mrs Gibson stood at the door, listening to the unusual stir in the house.
'What is it, Molly? Why, how white you look, child!'
'Gone out. What's the matter?'
'How should I know? I was asleep; Jenny came upstairs on her way to the bedrooms; she's a girl who never keeps to her work, and Maria takes advantage of her.'
'Jenny, Jenny!' cried Molly, frantic at the delay.
'Don't shout, dear, - ring the bell. What can be the matter?'
'Oh, Jenny!' said Molly, half way up the stairs to meet her, 'who wanted papa?'
Cynthia came to join the group; she too had been looking for traces or tidings of Mr Gibson.
'What is the matter?' said Mrs Gibson. 'Can nobody speak and answer a question?'
'Osborne Hamley is dead!' said Cynthia, gravely.
'Dead! Osborne! Poor fellow! I knew it would be so, though, - I was sure of it. But Mr Gibson can do nothing if he's dead. Poor young man! I wonder where Roger is now? He ought to come home.'
Jenny bad been blamed for coming into the drawing-room instead of Maria, whose place it was, and so had lost the few wits she had. To Molly's hurried questions her replies had been entirely unsatisfactory. A man had come to the back door - she could not see who it was - she had not asked his name: he wanted to speak to master, - master had seemed in a hurry, and only stopped to get his hat.
'He will not be long away,' thought Molly, 'or he would have left word where he was going. But oh! the poor father all alone.' And then a thought came into her head, which she acted upon straight. 'Go to James, tell him to put the side-saddle I had in November on Nora Creina. Don't cry, Jenny. There's no time for that. No one is angry with you. Run!'
So down into the cluster of collected women Molly came, equipped in her jacket and skirt; quick determination in her eyes; controlled quivering about the corners of her mouth.
'Why, what in the world,' said Mrs Gibson, - 'Molly, what are you thinking about?' But Cynthia had understood it at a glance, and was arranging Molly's hastily assumed dress, as she passed along.
'I am going. I must go. I cannot bear to think of him alone. When papa comes back he is sure to go to Hamley, and if I am not wanted, I can come back with him.' She heard Mrs Gibson's voice following her in remonstrance, but she did not stay for words. She had to wait in the stable-yard, and she wondered how the messenger could bear to eat and drink the food and beer brought out to him by the servants. Her coming out had evidently interrupted the eager talk, - the questions and answers passing sharp to and fro; but she caught the words, 'all amongst the tangled grass,' and 'the squire would let none on us touch him: he took him up as if he was a baby; he had to rest many a time, and once he sate him down on the ground; but still he kept him in his arms; but we thought we should ne'er have gotten him up again - him and the body.'
Molly had never felt that Osborne was really dead till she heard those words. They rode quick under the shadows of the budding hedgerow trees, but when they slackened speed, to go up a brow, or to give their horses breath, Molly heard those two little words again in her cars; and said them over again to herself, in hopes of forcing the sharp truth into her unwilling sense. But when they came in sight of the square stillness of the house, shining in the moonlight - the moon had risen by this time - Molly caught at her breath, and for an instant she thought she never could go in, and face the presence in that dwelling. One yellow light burnt steadily, spotting the silver shining with its earthly coarseness. The man pointed it out: it was almost the first word he had spoken since they had left Hollingford.
'It's the old nursery. They carried him there. The squire broke down at the stair-foot, and they took him to the readiest place. I'll be bound for it the squire is there hisself, and old Robin too. They fetched him, as a knowledgable man among dumb beasts, till th' regular doctor came.'
Molly dropped down from her seat before the man could dismount to help her. She gathered up her skirts and did not stay again to think of what was before her. She ran along the once familiar turns, and swiftly up the stairs, and through the doors, till she came to the last; then she stopped and listened. It was a deathly silence. She opened the door: the squire was sitting alone at the side of the bed, holding the dead man's hand, and looking straight before him at vacancy. He did not stir or move, even so much as an eyelid, at Molly's entrance. The truth had entered his soul before this, and he knew that no doctor, be he ever so cunning, could, with all his striving, put the breath into that body again. Molly came up to him with the softest steps, the most hushed breath that ever she could. She did not speak, for she did not know what to say. She felt that he had no more hope from earthly skill, so what was the use of speaking of her father and the delay in his coming? After a moment's pause, standing by the old man's side, she slipped down to the floor, and sate at his feet. Possibly her presence might have some balm in it; but uttering of words was as a vain thing. He must have been aware of her being there, but he took no apparent notice. There they sate, silent and still, he in his chair, she on the floor; the dead man, beneath the sheet, for a third. She fancied that she must have disturbed the father in his contemplation of the quiet face, now more than half, but not fully, covered up out of sight. Time had never seemed so without measure, silence had never seemed so noiseless as it did to Molly, sitting there. In the acuteness of her senses she heard a step mounting a distant staircase, coming slowly, coming nearer. She knew it not to be her father's, and that was all she cared about. Nearer and nearer - close to the outside of the door - a pause, and a soft hesitating tap. The great gaunt figure sitting by her side quivered at the sound. Molly rose and went to the door: it was Robinson, the old butler, holding in his hand a covered basin of soup.
'God bless you, Miss,' said he; 'make him touch a drop o' this: he's gone since breakfast without food, and it's past one in the morning now.'
He softly removed the cover, and Molly took the basin back with her to her place at the squire's side. She did not speak, for she did not well know what to say, or how to present this homely want of nature before one so rapt in grief. But she put a spoonful to his lips, and touched them with the savoury food, as if he had been a sick child, and she the nurse; and instinctively he took down the first spoonful of the soup. But in a minute he said, with a sort of cry, and almost overturning the basin Molly held, by his passionate gesture as he pointed to the bed, -
'He will never eat again - never.'
Then he threw himself across the corpse, and wept in such a terrible manner that Molly trembled lest he also should die - should break his heart there and then. He took no more notice of her words, of her tears, of her presence, than he did of that of the moon, looking through the unclosed window, with passionless stare, Her father stood by them both. before either of them was aware.
'Go downstairs, Molly,' said he gravely; but he stroked her head tenderly as she rose. 'Go into the dining-room.' Now she felt the reaction from all her self-control. She trembled with fear as she went along the moonlit passages. It seemed to her as if she should meet Osborne, and hear it all explained; how he came to die, - what he now felt and thought and wished her to do. She did get down to the dining-room, - the last few steps with a rush of terror, - senseless terror of what might be behind her; and there she found supper laid out, and candles lit, and Robinson bustling about decanting some wine. She wanted to cry; to get into some quiet place, and weep away her over-excitement; but she could hardly do so there. She only felt very much tired, and to care for nothing in this world any more. But vividness of life came back when she found Robinson holding a glass to her lips as she sate in the great leather easy-chair, to which she had gone instinctively as to a place of rest.
'Drink, Miss. It's good old Madeira. Your papa said as how you was to eat a bit. Says he, "My daughter may have to stay here, Mr Robinson, and she's young for the work. Persuade her to eat something, or she'll break down utterly." Those was his very words.'
Molly did not say anything. She had not energy enough for resistance. She drank and she ate at the old servant's bidding; and then she asked him to leave her alone, and went back to her easy-chair and let herself cry, and so ease her heart.
It seemed very long before Mr Gibson came down. He went and stood with his back to the empty fireplace, and did not speak for a minute or two.
'He's gone to bed,' said he at length. 'Robinson and I have got him there. But just as I was leaving him he called me back, and asked me to let you stop. I'm sure I don't know - but one doesn't like to refuse at such a time.'
'I wish to stay,' said Molly.
'Do you? There's a good girl. But how will you manage?'
'Oh, never mind that. I can manage. Papa,' - she paused - what did Osborne die of?' She asked the question in a low, awe-stricken voice.
'Something wrong about the heart. You wouldn't understand if I told you. I apprehended it for some time; but it is, better not to talk of such things at home. When I saw him on Thursday week, he seemed better than I have seen him for a long time. I told Dr Nicholls so. But one never can calculate in these complaints.'
'You saw him on Thursday week? Why, you never mentioned it!' said Molly.
'No. I don't talk of my patients at home, Besides, I didn't want him to consider me as his doctor, but. as a friend. Any alarm about his own health would only have hastened the catastrophe.'
'Then didn't he know that he was ill - ill of a dangerous complaint, I mean: one that might end as it has done?'
'No; certainly not. He would only have been watching his symptoms - accelerating matters, in fact.'
'Oh, papa!' said Molly, shocked.
'I've no time to go into the question,' Mr Gibson continued. 'And until you know what has to be said on both sides, and in every instance, you are not qualified to judge. We must keep our attention on the duties in hand now. You sleep here for the remainder of the night, which is more than half-gone already?'
'Promise me to go to bed just as usual. You may not think it, but most likely you'll go to sleep at once. People do at your age.'
'Papa, I think I ought to tell you something. I know a great secret of Osborne's, which I promised solemnly not to tell; but the last time I saw him I think he must have been afraid of something like this.' A fit of sobbing came upon her, which her father was afraid would end in hysterics. But suddenly she mastered herself, and looked up into his anxious face, and smiled to reassure him.
'I could not help it, papa!'
'No. I know. Go on with what you were saying. You ought to be in bed; but if you have a secret on your mind you won't sleep.'
'Osborne was married,' said she, fixing her eyes on her father. 'That is the secret.'
'Married! Nonsense. What makes you think so?'
'He told me. That's to say, I was in the library - was reading there, some time ago; and Roger came and spoke to Osborne about his wife. Roger did not see me, but Osborne did. They made me promise secrecy. I don't think I did wrong.'
'Don't worry yourself about right or wrong just now; tell me more about it, at once.'
'I knew no more till six months ago - last November, when you went up to Lady Cumnor. Then he called, and gave me his wife's address, but still under promise of secrecy; and, excepting those two times, I have never heard any one mention the subject. I think he would have told me more that last time, only Miss Phoebe came in.'
'Where is this wife of his?'
'Down in the south; near Winchester, I think. He said she was a Frenchwoman and a Roman Catholic; and I think he said she was a servant,' added Molly.
'Phew!' Her father made a long whistle of dismay.
'And,' continued Molly, 'he spoke of a child. Now you know as much as I do, papa, except the address. I have it written down safe at home.'
Forgetting, apparently, what time of night it was, Mr Gibson sate down, stretched out his legs before him, put his hands in his pockets, and began to think. Molly sate still without speaking, too tired to do more than wait.
'Well!' said he at last, jumping up, 'nothing can be done to-night; by to-morrow morning, perhaps, I may find out. Poor little pale face!' - taking it between both his hands and kissing it; 'poor, sweet, little pale face!' Then he rang the bell, and told Robinson to send some maid-servant to take Miss Gibson to her room.
'He won't be up early,' said he, in parting. 'The shock has lowered him too much to be energetic. Send breakfast up to him in his own room. I'll be here again before ten.'
Late as it was before he left, he kept his word.
'Now, Molly,' he said, 'you and I must tell him the truth between us. I don't know how he will take it; it may comfort him, but I have very little hope: either way, he ought to know it at once.'
'Robinson says he has gone into the room again, and he is afraid he has locked the door on the inside.'
'Never mind. I shall ring the bell, and send up Robinson to say that I am here, and wish to speak to him.'
The message returned was, 'The squire's kind love, and could not see Mr Gibson just then.' Robinson added, 'It was a long time before he'd answer at all, sir.'
'Go up again, and tell him I can wait his convenience. Now that's a lie,' Mr Gibson said, turning round to Molly as soon as Robinson had left the room. 'I ought to be far enough away at twelve; but, if I'm not much mistaken, the innate habits of a gentleman will make him uneasy at the idea of keeping me waiting his pleasure, and will do more to bring him out of that room into this than any entreaties or reasoning.' Mr Gibson was growing impatient though, before they heard the squire's footstep on the stairs; he was evidently coming slowly and unwillingly. He came in almost like one blind, groping along, and taking hold of chair or table for support or guidance till he reached Mr Gibson. He did not speak when he held the doctor by the hand; he only hung down his head, and kept on a feeble shaking of welcome.
'I'm brought very low, sir. I suppose it's God's doing; but it comes hard upon me. He was my firstborn child.' He said this almost as if speaking to a stranger, and informing him of facts of which he was ignorant.
'Here's Molly,' said Mr Gibson, choking a little himself, and pushing her forwards.
'I beg your pardon; I did not see you at first. My mind is a good deal occupied just now.' He sate heavily down, and then seemed almost to forget they were there. Molly wondered what was to come next. Suddenly her father spoke, -
'Where's Roger?' said he. 'Is he not likely to be soon at the Cape?' He got up and looked at the directions of one or two unopened letters brought by that morning's post; among them was one in Cynthia's handwriting. Both Molly and he saw it at the same time. How long it was since yesterday! But the squire took no notice of their proceedings or their looks.
'You will be glad to have Roger at home as soon as may be, I think, sir. Some months must elapse first; but I'm sure he will return as speedily as possible.'
The squire said something in a very low voice. Both father and daughter strained their ears to hear what it was. They both believed it to be, 'Roger is not Osborne!' And Mr Gibson spoke on that belief. He spoke more quietly than Molly had ever heard him do before.
'No! we know that. I wish that anything that Roger could do, or that I could do, or that any one could do, would comfort you; but it is past human comfort.'
'I do try to say, God's will be done, sir,' said the squire, looking up at Mr Gibson for the first time, and speaking with more life in his voice; 'but it is harder to be resigned than happy people think.' They were all silent for a while. The squire himself was the first to speak again, - 'He was my first child, sir; my eldest son. And of late years we weren't' - his voice broke down, but he controlled himself - 'we weren't quite as good friends as could be wished; and I'm not sure - not sure that he knew how I loved him.' And now he cried aloud with an exceeding bitter cry.
'Better so!' whispered Mr Gibson to Molly. 'When he is a little calmer, don't be afraid; tell him all you know, exactly as it happened.'
Molly began. Her voice sounded high and unnatural to herself, as if some one else was speaking, but she made her words clear. The squire did not attempt to listen, at first, at any rate.
'One day when I was here, at the time of Mrs Hamley's last illness' (the squire here checked his convulsive breathing), 'I was in the library, and Osborne came in. He said he had only come in for a book, and that I was not to mind him, so I went on reading. Presently, Roger came along the flagged garden-path just outside the window (which was open). He did not see me in the corner where I was sitting, and said to Osborne, "Here's a letter from your wife!"'
Now the squire was all attention; for the first time his tear-swollen eyes met the eyes of another, and he looked at Molly with searching anxiety, as he repeated, 'His wife! Osborne married!' Molly went on, -
'Osborne was angry with Roger for speaking out before me, and they made me promise never to mention it to any one; or to allude to it to either of them again. I never named it to papa till last night.'
'Go on,' said Mr Gibson. 'Tell the squire about Osborne's call, - what you told me!' Still the squire hung on her lips, listening with open mouth and eyes.
'Some months ago Osborne called. He was not well, and wanted to see papa. Papa was away, and I was alone. I don't exactly remember how it came about, but he spoke to me of his wife for the first and only time since the affair in the library.' She looked at her father, as if questioning him as to the desirableness of telling the few further particulars that she knew. The squire's mouth was dry and stiff, but he tried to say, 'Tell me all, - everything.' And Molly understood the half-formed words.
'He said his wife was a good woman, and that he loved her dearly; but she was a French Roman Catholic, and a' - another glance at her father - 'she had been a servant once. That was all; except that I have her address at home. He wrote it down and gave it me.'
'Well, well!' moaned the squire. 'It's all over now. All over. All past and gone. We'll not blame him, - no; but I wish he'd a told me; he and I to live together with such a secret in one of us. It's no wonder to me now - nothing can be a wonder again, for one never can tell what's in a man's heart. Married so long! and we sitting together at meals - and living together. Why, I told him everything! Too much, may be, for I showed him all my passions and ill-tempers! Married so long! Oh, Osborne, Osborne, you should have told me!'
'Yes, he should!' said Mr Gibson. 'But I daresay he knew how much you would dislike such a choice as he had made. But he should have told you!'
'You know nothing about it, sir,' said the squire sharply. 'You don't know the terms we were on. Not hearty or confidential. I was cross to him many a time. angry with him for being dull, poor lad - and he with all this weight on his mind. I won't have people interfering and judging between me and my sons. And Roger too! He could know it all, and keep it from me!'
'Osborne evidently had bound him down to secrecy, just as he bound me,' said Molly; 'Roger could not help himself.'
'Osborne was such a fellow for persuading people, and winning them over,' said the squire, dreamily. 'I remember - but what's the use of remembering? It's all over, and Osborne is dead without opening his heart to me. I could have been tender to him, I could. But he'll never know it now!'
'But we can guess what wish he had strongest in his mind at the last, from what we do know of his life.' said Mr Gibson.
'What, sir?' said the squire, with sharp suspicion of what was coming.
'His wife must have been his last thought, must she not?'
'How do I know she was his wife? Do you think he'd go and marry a French baggage of a servant? It may be all a tale trumped up.'
'Stop, squire. I don't care to defend my daughter's truth or accuracy. But with the dead man's body lying upstairs - his soul with God - think twice before you say more hasty words, impugning his character; if she was not his wife, what was she?'
'I beg your pardon. I hardly know what I am saying. Did I accuse Osborne? Oh, my lad, my lad - thou might have trusted thy old dad! He used to call me his "old dad" when he was a little chap not bigger than this,' indicating a certain height with his hand. 'I never meant to say he was not - not what one would wish to think him now - his soul with God, as you say very justly - for I am sure it is there - '
'Well! but, squire,' said Mr Gibson, trying to check the other's rambling, 'to return to his wife -- '
'And the child,' whispered Molly to her father. Low as the whisper was, it struck on the squire's ear.
'What?' said he, turning round to her suddenly, ' - child! You never named that? Is there a child? Husband and father, and I never knew! God bless Osborne's child! I say, God bless it!' He stood up reverently, and the other two instinctively rose. He closed his hands as if in momentary prayer. Then exhausted he sate down again, and put out his hand to Molly.
'You're a good girl. Thank you. Tell me what I ought to do, and I'll do it.' This to Mr Gibson.
'I am almost as much puzzled as you are, squire,' replied he. 'I fully believe the whole story; but I think there must be some written confirmation of it, which perhaps ought to be found at once, before we act. Most probably this is to be discovered among Osborne's papers. Will you look over them at once? Molly shall return with me, and find the address that Osborne gave her, while you are busy -- '
'She'll come back again?' said the squire eagerly. 'You - she won't leave me to myself?'
'No! She shall come back this evening. I'll manage to send her somehow. But she has no clothes but the habit she came in, and I want my horse that she rode away upon.'
'Take the carriage,' said the squire. 'Take anything. I'll give orders. You'll come back again, too?'
'No! I'm afraid not, to-day. I'll come to-morrow, early. Molly shall return this evening, whenever it suits you to send for her.'
'This afternoon; the carriage shall be at your house at three. I dare not look at Osborne's - at the papers without one of you with me; and yet I shall never rest till I know more.'
'I will send the desk in by Robinson before I leave. And - can you give me some lunch before I go?'
Little by little he led the squire to eat a morsel or so of food; and so, strengthening him physically, and encouraging him mentally, Mr Gibson hoped that he would begin his researches during Molly's absence.
There was something touching in the squire's wistful looks after Molly as she moved about. A stranger might have imagined her to be his daughter instead of Mr Gibson's. The meek, broken-down, considerate ways of the bereaved father never showed themselves more strongly than when he called them back to his chair, out of which he seemed too languid to rise, and said, as if by an after-thought, - 'Give my love to Miss Kirkpatrick; tell her I look upon her as quite one of the family. I shall be glad to see her after - after the funeral. I don't think I can before.'
'He knows nothing of Cynthia's resolution to give up Roger,' said Mr Gibson as they rode away. 'I had a long talk with her last night, but she was as resolute as ever. From what your mamma tells me, there is a third lover in London, whom she's already refused. I'm thankful that you've no lover at all, Molly, unless that abortive attempt of Mr Coxe's at an offer, long ago, can be called a lover.'
'I never heard of it, papa,' said Molly.
'Oh, no. I forgot. What a fool I was! Why, don't you remember the hurry I was in to get you off to Hamley Hall, the very first time you ever went? It was all because I got hold of a desperate love-letter from Coxe, addressed to you.'
But Molly was too tired to be amused, or even interested. She could not get over the sight of the straight body covered with a sheet, which yet let the outlines be seen, - all that remained of Osborne. Her father had trusted too much to the motion of the ride, and the change of scene from the darkened house. He saw his mistake.
'Some one must write to Mrs Osborne Hamley,' said he. 'I believe her to have a legal right to the name; but whether or no, she must be told that the father of her child is dead. Shall you do it, or I?'
'Oh, you, please, papa!'
'I will, if you wish, But she may have heard of you as a friend of her dead husband's; while of me - a mere country doctor - it's very probable she has never heard the name.'
'If I ought, I will do it.' Mr Gibson did not like this ready acquiescence, given in so few words, too.
'There's Hollingford church-spire,' said she presently, as they drew near the town, and caught a glimpse of the church through the trees. 'I think I never wish to go out of sight of it again.'
'Nonsense!' said he. 'Why, you've all your travelling to do yet; and if these newfangled railways spread, as they say they will, we shall all be spinning about the world; "sitting on tea-kettles," as Phoebe Browning calls it. Miss Browning wrote such a capital letter of advice to Miss Hornblower. I heard of it at the Millers'. Miss Hornblower was going to travel by railroad for the first time; and Sally was very anxious, and sent her directions for her conduct; one piece of advice was not to sit on the boiler.'
Molly laughed a little, as she was expected to do.
'Here we are at home, at last.'
Mrs Gibson gave Molly a warm welcome. For one thing, Cynthia was in disgrace; for another, Molly came from the centre of news; for a third, Mrs Gibson was really fond of the girl, in her way, and sorry to see her pale heavy looks.
'To think of it all being so sudden at last! Not but what I always expected it! And so provoking! Just when Cynthia had given up Roger! If she had only waited a day! What does the squire say to it all?'
'He is beaten down with grief,' replied Molly.
'Indeed! I should not have fancied he had liked the engagement so much.'
'Why, Roger to Cynthia, to be sure. I asked you how the squire took her letter, announcing the breaking of it off?'
'Oh - I made a mistake. He has not opened his letters to-day. I saw Cynthia's among them.'
'Now that I call positive disrespect.'
'I don't know. He did not mean it for such. Where is Cynthia?'
'Gone out into the meadow-garden. She'll be in directly. I wanted her to do some errands for me, but she flatly refused to go into the town. I am afraid she mismanages her affairs sadly. But she won't allow me to interfere. I hate to look at such things in a mercenary spirit, but it is provoking to see her throw over two such good matches. First Mr Henderson, and now Roger Hamley. When does the squire expect Roger? Does he think he will come back sooner for poor dear Osborne's death?'
'I don't know. He hardly seems to think of anything but Osborne. He seems to me to have almost forgotten every one else. But perhaps the news of Osborne's being married, and of the child, may rouse him up.'
Molly had no doubt that Osborne was really and truly married, nor had she any idea that her father had never breathed the facts of which she had told him on the previous night, to his wife or Cynthia. But Mr Gibson had been slightly dubious of the full legality of the marriage, and had not felt inclined to speak of it to his wife until that had been ascertained one way or another. So Mrs Gibson exclaimed, 'What do you mean, child? Married! Osborne married. Who says so?'
'Oh, dear! I suppose I ought not to have named it. I am very stupid to-day. Yes! Osborne has been married a long time; but the squire did not know of it until this morning. I think it has done him good. But I don't know.'
'Who is the lady? Why, I call it a shame to go about as a single man, and be married all the time! If there is one thing that revolts me, it is duplicity. Who is the lady? Do tell me all you know about it, there's a dear.'
'She is French, and a Roman Catholic,' said Molly.
'French! They are such beguiling women; and he was so much abroad! You said there was a child, - is it a boy or girl?'
'I did not hear. I did not ask.'
Molly did not think it necessary to do more than answer questions; indeed, she was vexed enough to have told anything of what her father evidently considered it desirable to keep secret. Just then Cynthia came wandering into the room with a careless, hopeless look in her face, which Molly noticed at once. She had not heard of Molly's arrival, and had no idea that she was returned until she saw her sitting there.
'Molly, darling! Is that you? You're as welcome as the flowers in May, though you've not been gone twenty-four hours. But the house is not the same when you are away!'
'And she brings us such news too!' said Mrs Gibson. 'I'm really almost glad you wrote to the squire yesterday, for if you had waited till to-day - I thought you were in too great a hurry at the time - he might have thought you had some interested reason for giving up your engagement. Osborne Hamley was married all this time unknown to everybody, and has got a child too.'
'Osborne married!' exclaimed Cynthia. 'If ever a man looked a bachelor, he did. Poor Osborne! with his fair delicate elegance, - he looked so young and boyish!'
'Yes! it was a great piece of deceit, and I can't easily forgive him for it. Only think! If he had paid either of you any particular attention, and you had fallen in love with him! Why, he might have broken your heart, or Molly's either. I can't forgive him, even though he is dead, poor fellow!'
Well, as he never did pay either of us any particular attention, and as we neither of us did fall in love with him, I think I only feel sorry that he had all the trouble and worry of concealment.' Cynthia spoke with a pretty keen recollection of how much trouble and worry her concealment had cost her.
'And now of course it is a son, and will be the heir, and Roger will just be as poorly off as ever. I hope you'll take care and let the squire know Cynthia was quite ignorant of these new facts that have come out when she wrote those letters, Molly? I should not like a suspicion of worldliness to rest upon any one with whom I had any concern.'
'He has not read Cynthia's letter yet. Oh, do let me bring it home unopened,' said Molly. 'Send another letter to Roger - now - at once; it will reach him at the same time; he will get both when he arrives at the Cape, and make him understand which is the last - the real one. Think! he will hear of Osborne's death at the same time - two such sad things! Do, Cynthia!'
'No, my dear,' said Mrs Gibson. 'I could not allow that, even if Cynthia felt inclined for it. Asking to be re-engaged to him! At any rate, she must wait now until he proposes again, and we see how things turn out.'
But Molly kept her pleading eyes fixed on Cynthia.
'No!' said Cynthia firmly, but not without consideration. 'It cannot be. I have felt more content this last night than I have done for weeks past. I am glad to be free. I dreaded Roger's goodness, and learning, and all that. It was not in my way, and I don't believe I should have ever married him, even without knowing of all these ill-natured stories that are circulating about me, and which he would hear of, and expect me to explain, and be sorry for, and penitent and humble. I know he could not have made me happy, and I don't believe he would have been happy with me. It must stay as it is. I would rather be a governess than married to him. I should get weary of him every day of my life.'
'Weary of Roger!' said Molly to herself. 'It is best as it is, I see,' she answered aloud. 'Only I am very sorry for him, very. He did love you so. You will never get any one to love you like him!'
'Very well. I must take my chance. And too much love is rather oppressive to me, I believe. I like a great deal, widely spread about; not all confined to one individual lover.'
'I don't believe you,' said Molly. 'But don't let us talk any more about it. It is best as it is. I thought - I almost felt sure you would be sorry this morning. But we will leave it alone now.' She sate silently looking out of the window, her heart sorely stirred, she scarcely knew how or why. But she could not have spoken. Most likely she would have begun to cry if she had spoken. Cynthia stole softly up to her after a while.
'You are vexed with me, Molly,' she began in a low voice. But Molly turned sharply round.
'I! I have no business at all in the affair. It is for you to judge. Do what you think right. I believe you have done right. Only I don't want to discuss it, and paw it over with talk. I am very much tired, dear' - gently now she spoke, - 'and I hardly know what I say. If I speak crossly, don't mind it.' Cynthia did not reply at once. Then she said, -
'Do you think I might go with you, and help you? I might have done yesterday; and you say he has not opened my letter, so he has not heard as yet. And I was always fond of poor Osborne, in my way, you know.'
'I cannot tell; I have no right to say,' replied Molly, scarcely understanding Cynthia's motives, which, after all, were only impulses in this case. 'Papa would be able to judge; I think, perhaps, you had better not. But don't go by my opinion, I can only tell what I should wish to do in your place.'
'It was as much for your sake as any one's, Molly,' said Cynthia.
'Oh, then, don't! I am tired to-day with sitting up; but to-morrow I shall be all right; and I should not like it, if, for my sake, you came into the house at so solemn a time.'
'Very well!' said Cynthia, half-glad that her impulsive offer was declined; for, as she said, thinking to herself, 'It would have been awkward after all,' So Molly went back in the carriage alone, wondering how she should find the squire, wondering what discoveries he had made among Osborne's papers; and at what conviction he would have arrived.
Robinson opened the door for Molly almost before the carriage had fairly drawn up at the Hall, and told her that the squire had been very anxious for her return, and had more than once sent him to an upstairs window, from which a glimpse of the hill-road between Hollingford and Hamley could be perceived, to know if the carriage was not yet in sight. Molly went into the drawing-room. The squire was standing in the middle of the floor, awaiting her; in fact, longing to go out and meet her, but restrained by a feeling of solemn etiquette, which prevented his moving about as usual in that house of mourning. He held a paper in his hands, which were trembling with excitement and emotion; and four or five open letters were strewed on a table near him.
'It's all true,' he began; 'she's his wife, and he's her husband - was her husband - that's the word for it - was! Poor lad! poor lad! it's cost him a deal. Pray God, it was not my fault. Read this, my dear. It's a certificate. It's all regular - Osborne Hamley to Marie-Aimée Scherer, - parish-church and all, and witnessed. Oh, dear!' He sate down in the nearest chair and groaned. Molly took a seat by him, and read the legal paper, the perusal of which was not needed to convince her of the fact of the marriage. She held it in her hand after she had finished reading it, waiting for the squire's next coherent words; for he kept talking to himself in broken sentences. 'Ay, ay! that comes o' temper, and crabbedness. She was the only one as could - and I've been worse since she was gone. Worse! worse! and see what it has come to. He was afraid of me - ay - afraid. That's the truth of it - afraid. And it made him keep all to himself, and care killed him. They may call it heart-disease - O my lad, my lad, I know better now; but it's too late - that's the sting of it - too late, too late!' He covered his face, and moved himself backwards and forwards till Molly could bear it no longer.
'There are some letters,' said she: 'may I read any of them?' At another time she would not have asked; but she was driven to it now by her impatience of the speechless grief of the old man.
'Ay, read 'em, read 'em,' said he. 'Maybe you can. I can only pick out a word here and there. I put 'em there for you to look at; and tell me what is in 'em.'
Molly's knowledge of written French of the present day was not so great as her knowledge of the French of the Mémoires de Sully, and neither the spelling nor the writing of the letters was of the best; but she managed to translate into good enough colloquial English some innocent sentences of love, and submission to Osborne's will - as if his judgment was infallible, - and faith in his purposes; - little sentences in 'little language' that went home to the squire's heart. Perhaps if Molly had read French more easily she might not have translated them into such touching, homely, broken words. Here and there, there were expressions in English; these the hungry-hearted squire had read while waiting for Molly's return. Every time she stopped, he said, 'Go on.' He kept his face shaded, and only repeated those two words at every pause. She got up to find some more of Aimée's letters. In examining the papers, she came upon one in particular. 'Have you seen this, sir? This certificate of baptism' (reading aloud) 'of Roger Stephen Osborne Hamley, born June 21, 183-, child of Osborne Hamley and Marie-Aimée his wife - '
'Give it me,' said the squire, his voice breaking now, and stretching forth his eager hand. '"Roger," that's me, "Stephen," that's my poor old father: he died when he was not so old as I am; but I've always thought on him as very old. He was main and fond of Osborne, when he was quite a little one. It's good of the lad to have thought on my father Stephen. Ay! that was his name. And Osborne - Osborne Hamley! One Osborne Hamley lies dead on his bed - and t'other - t'other I have never seen, and never heard on till to-day. He must be called Osborne: Molly. There is a Roger - there's two for that matter; but one is a good-for-nothing old man; and there's never an Osborne any more, unless this little thing is called Osborne: we'll take him here, and get a nurse for him; and make his mother comfortable for life in her own country. I'll keep this, Molly. You're a good lass for finding it. Osborne Hamley! And if God will give me grace, he shall never hear a cross word from me - never. He shan't be afeard of me. Oh, my Osborne, my Osborne' (he burst out), 'do you know now how bitter and sore is my heart for every hard word as I ever spoke to you? Do you know now how I loved you - my boy - my boy?'
From the general tone of the letters Molly doubted if the mother would consent, so easily as the squire seemed to expect, to be parted from her child; the letters were not very wise, perhaps (though of this Molly never thought), but a heart full of love spoke tender words in every line. Still, it was not for Molly to talk of this doubt of hers just then; rather to dwell on the probable graces and charms of the little Roger Stephen Osborne Hamley. She let the squire exhaust himself in wondering as to the particulars of every event, helping him out in conjectures; and both of them, from their imperfect knowledge of possibilities, made the most curious, fantastic, and improbable guesses at the truth. And so that day passed over, and the night came.
There were not many people who had any right to be invited to the funeral, and of these Mr Gibson and the squire's hereditary man of business had taken charge. But when Mr Gibson came, early on the following morning, Molly referred the question to him, which had suggested itself to her mind, though apparently not to the squire's. What intimation of her loss should be sent to the widow, living solitary near Winchester, watching and waiting, if not for his coming who lay dead in his distant home, at least for his letters? A letter had already come in her foreign handwriting to the post-office to which all her communications were usually sent, but of course they at the Hall knew nothing of this.
'She must be told!' said Mr Gibson, musing.
'Yes, she must,' replied her daughter. 'But how?'
'A day or two of waiting will do no harm,' said he, almost as if he was anxious to delay the solution of the problem. 'It will make her anxious, poor thing, and all sorts of gloomy possibilities will suggest themselves to her mind - amongst them the truth; it will be a kind of preparation.'
'For what? Something must be done at last,' said Molly.
'Yes; true. Suppose you write, and say he is very ill; write to-morrow. I daresay they have indulged themselves in daily postage, and then she'll have had three days' silence. You say how you come to know all how and about it; I think she ought to know he is very ill - in great danger, if you like: and you can follow it up next day with the full truth. I would not worry the squire about it. After the funeral we will have a talk about the child.'
'She will never part with it,' said Molly.
'Whew! Till I see the woman I can't tell,' said her father; (some women would. It will be well provided for, according to what you say. And she is a foreigner, and may very likely wish to go back to her own people and kindred. There's much to be said on both sides.'
'So you always say, papa. But in this case I think you'll find I'm right. I judge from her letters; but I think I'm right.'
'So you always say, daughter. Time will show. So the child is a boy? Mrs Gibson told me particularly to ask. It will go far to reconciling her to Cynthia's dismissal of Roger. But indeed it is quite as well for both of them, though of course he will be a long time before he thinks so. They were not suited to each other. Poor Roger! It was hard work writing to him yesterday; and who knows what may have become of him! Well, well! one has to get through the world somehow. I'm glad, however, this little lad has turned up to be the heir. I should not have liked the property to go to the Irish Hamleys, who are the next heirs, as Osborne once told me. Now write that letter, Molly, to the poor little Frenchwoman out yonder. It will prepare her for it; and we must think a bit how to spare her the shock, for Osborne's sake.'
The writing this letter was rather difficult work for Molly, and she tore up two or three copies before she could manage it to her satisfaction; and at last, in despair of ever doing it better, she sent it off without re-reading it. The next day was easier; the fact of Osborne's death was told briefly and tenderly. But when this second letter was sent off, Molly's heart began to bleed for the poor creature, bereft of her husband, in a foreign land, and he at a distance from her, dead and buried without her ever having had the chance of printing his dear features on her memory by one last long lingering look. With her thoughts full of the unknown Aimée, Molly talked much about her that day to the squire. He would listen for ever to any conjecture, however wild, about the grandchild, but perpetually winced away from all discourse about 'the Frenchwoman,' as he called her; not unkindly, but to his mind she was simply the Frenchwoman - chattering, dark-eyed, demonstrative, and possibly even rouged. He would treat her with respect as his son's widow, and would try even not to think upon the female inveiglement in which he believed. He would make her an allowance to the extent of his duty; but he hoped and trusted he might never be called upon to see her. His solicitor, Gibson, anybody and everybody, should be called upon to form a phalanx of defence against that danger.
And all this time a little, young, grey-eyed woman was making her way; not towards him, but towards the dead son, whom as yet she believed to be her living husband. She knew she was acting in defiance of his expressed wish; but he had never dismayed her with any expression of his own fears about his health; and she, bright with life, had never contemplated death coming to fetch away one so beloved. He was ill - very ill, the letter from the strange girl said that; but Aimée had nursed her parents, and knew what illness was. The French doctor had praised her skill and neat-handedness as a nurse, and even if she had been the clumsiest of women, was he not her husband - her all? And was she not his wife, whose place was by his pillow? So without even as much reasoning as has been here given, Aimée made her preparations, swallowing down the tears that would overflow her eyes, and drop into the little trunk she was packing so neatly. And by her side, on the ground, sate the child, now nearly two years old; and for him Aimée had always a smile and a cheerful word. Her servant loved her and trusted her; and the woman was of an age to have had experience of humankind. Aimée had told her that her husband was ill, and the servant had known enough of the household history to know that as yet Aimée was not his acknowledged wife. But she sympathized with the prompt decision of her mistress to go to him directly, wherever he was, Caution comes from education of one kind or another, and Aimée was not dismayed by warnings; only the woman pleaded hard for the child to be left. 'He was such company,' she said; 'and he would so tire his mother in her journeying; and maybe his father would be too ill to see him.' To which Aimée replied, 'Good company for you, but better for me. A woman is never tired with carrying her own child' (which was not true; but there was sufficient truth in it to make it be believed by both mistress and servant), 'and if Monsieur could care for anything, he would rejoice to hear the babble of his little son.' So Aimée caught the evening coach to London at the nearest cross-road, Martha standing by as chaperon and friend to see her off, and handing her in the large lusty child, already crowing with delight at the sight of the horses. There was a 'lingerie' shop, kept by a Frenchwoman, whose acquaintance Aimée had made in the days when she was a London nursemaid, and thither she betook herself, rather than to an hotel, to spend the few night-hours that intervened before the Birmingham coach started at early morning. She slept or watched on a sofa in the parlour, for spare-bed there was none; but Madame Pauline came in betimes with a good cup of coffee for the mother, and of 'soupe blanche' for the boy; and they went off again into the wide world, only thinking of, only seeking the 'him,' who was everything human to both. Aimée remembered the sound of the name of the village where Osborne had often told her that he alighted from the coach to walk home; and though she could never have spelt the strange uncouth word, yet she spoke it with pretty slow distinctness to the guard, asking him in her broken English when they should arrive there? Not till four o'clock. Alas! and what might happen before then! Once with him she should have no fear; she was sure that she could bring him round; but what might not happen before he was in her tender care? She was a very capable person in many ways, though so childish and innocent in others. She made up her mind to the course she should pursue when the coach set her down at Feversham. She asked for a man to carry her trunk, and show her the way to Hamley Hall.
'Hamley Hall!' said the innkeeper. 'Eh! there's a deal of trouble there just now.'
'I know, I know,' said she, hastening off after the wheelbarrow in which her trunk was going, and breathlessly struggling to keep up with it, her heavy child asleep in her arms. Her pulses beat all over her body; she could hardly see out of her eyes. To her, a foreigner, the drawn blinds of the house, when she came in sight of it, had no significance; she hurried, stumbled on.
'Back door or front, missus?' asked the boots from the inn.
'The most nearest,' said she. And the front door was 'the most nearest.' Molly was sitting with the squire in the darkened drawing-room, reading out her translations of Aimée's letters to her husband. The squire was never weary of hearing them; the very sound of Molly's voice soothed and comforted him, it was so sweet and low. And he pulled her up, much as a child does, if on a second reading of the same letter she substituted one word for another. The house was very still this afternoon, still as it had been now for several days; every servant in it, however needless, moving about on tiptoe, speaking below the breath, and shutting doors as softly as might be The nearest noise or stir of active life was that of the rooks in the trees, who were beginning their spring chatter of business. Suddenly, through this quiet, there came a ring at the front-door bell that sounded, and went on sounding, through the house, pulled by an ignorant vigorous hand. Molly stopped reading; she and the squire looked at each other in surprised dismay. Perhaps a thought of Roger's sudden (and impossible) return was in the mind of each; but neither spoke. They heard Robinson hurrying to answer the unwonted summons. They listened; but they heard no more. There was little more to hear. When the old servant opened the door, a lady with a child in her arms stood there. She gasped out her ready-prepared English sentence, -
'Can I see Mr Osborne Hamley? He is ill, I know; but I am his wife.'
Robinson had been aware that there was some mystery, long suspected by the servants, and come to light at last to the master, - he had guessed that there was a young woman in the case; but when she stood there before him, asking for her dead husband as if he were living, any presence of mind Robinson might have had forsook him; he could not tell her the truth, - he could only leave the door open, and say to her, 'Wait awhile, I'll come back,' and betake himself to the drawing-room where Molly was, he knew. He went up to her in a flutter and a hurry, and whispered something to her which turned her white with dismay.
'What is it? What is it?' said the squire, trembling with excitement. 'Don't keep it from me. I can bear it. Roger -- ' They both thought he was going to faint; he had risen up and come close to Molly; suspense would be worse than anything.
'Mrs Osborne Hamley is here,' said Molly. 'I wrote to tell her her husband was very ill, and she has come.'
'She does not know what has happened, seemingly,' said Robinson.
'I can't see her - I can't see her,' said the squire, shrinking away into a corner. 'You will go, Molly, won't you? You'll go.'
Molly stood for a moment or two, irresolute. She, too, shrank from the interview. Robinson put in his word, - 'She looks but a weakly thing, and has carried a big baby, choose how far, I did not stop to ask.'
At this instant the door softly opened, and right into the midst of them came the little figure in grey, looking ready to fall with the weight of her child.
'You are Molly,' said she, not seeing the squire at once. 'The lady who wrote the letter; he spoke of you sometimes. You will let me go to him.'
Molly did not answer, except that at such moments the eyes speak solemnly and comprehensively. Aimée read their meaning. All she said was, - 'He is not - oh, my husband - my husband!' Her arms relaxed, her figure swayed, the child screamed and held out his arms for help. That help was given him by his grandfather, just before Aimée fell senseless on the floor.
'Maman, maman!' cried the little fellow, now striving and fighting to get back to her, where she lay; he fought so lustily that the squire had to put him down, and he crawled to the poor inanimate body, behind which sate Molly, holding the head; whilst Robinson rushed away for water, wine, and more womankind.
'Poor thing, poor thing!' said the squire, bending over her, and crying afresh over her suffering. 'She is but young, Molly, and she must ha' loved him dearly.'
'To be sure!' said Molly, quickly. She was untying the bonnet, and taking off the worn, but neatly mended gloves; there was the soft luxuriant black hair, shading the pale, innocent face, - the little notable-looking brown hands, with the wedding-ring for sole ornament. The child clustered his fingers round one of hers, and nestled up against her with his plaintive cry, getting more and more into a burst of wailing: 'Maman, maman!' At the growing acuteness of his imploring, her hand moved, her lips quivered, consciousness came partially back. She did not open her eyes, but great heavy tears stole out from beneath her eyelashes. Molly held her head against her own breast; and they tried to give her wine, - which she shrank from - water, which she did not reject; that was all. At last she tried to speak. 'Take me away,' she said, 'into the dark. Leave me alone.'
So Molly and the woman lifted her up and carried her away, and laid her on the bed, in the best bed-chamber in the house, and darkened the already shaded light. She was like an unconscious corpse herself, in that she offered neither assistance nor resistance to all that they were doing. But just before Molly was leaving the room to take up her watch outside the door, she felt rather than heard that Aimée spoke to her.
'Food - bread and milk for baby.' But when they brought her food herself, she only shrank away and turned her face to the wall without a word. In the hurry the child had been left with Robinson and the squire. For some unknown, but most fortunate reason, he took a dislike to Robinson's red face and hoarse voice, and showed a most decided preference for his grandfather. When Molly came down she found the squire feeding the child, with more of peace upon his face than there had been for all these days. The boy was every now and then leaving off taking his bread and milk to show his dislike to Robinson by word and gesture: a proceeding which only amused the old servant, while it highly delighted the more favoured squire.
'She is lying very still, but she will neither speak nor eat. I don't even think she is crying,' said Molly, volunteering this account, for the squire was for the moment too much absorbed in his grandson to ask many questions.
Robinson put in his word, - 'Dick Hayward, he's Boots at the Hamley Arms, says the coach she come by started at five this morning from London, and the passengers said she'd been crying a deal on the road, when she thought folks were not noticing; and she never came in to meals with the rest, but stopped feeding her child.'
'She'll be tired out; we must let her rest,' said the squire. 'And I do believe this little chap is going to sleep in my arms. God bless him.'
But Molly stole out, and sent off a lad to Hollingford with a note to her father. Her heart had warmed towards the poor stranger, and she felt uncertain as to what ought to be the course pursued in her case.
She went up from time to time to look at the girl, scarce older than herself, who lay there with her eyes open, but as motionless as death. She softly covered her over, and let her feel the sympathetic presence from time to time; and that was all she was allowed to do. The squire was curiously absorbed in the child; but Molly's supreme tenderness was for the mother. Not but what she admired the sturdy, gallant, healthy little fellow, whose every limb, and square inch of clothing, showed the tender and thrifty care that had been taken of him. By-and-by the squire said in a whisper, -
'She is not like a Frenchwoman, is she, Molly?'
'I don't know. I don't know what Frenchwomen are like. People say Cynthia is French.'
'And she did not look like a servant? We won't speak of Cynthia since she's served my Roger so. Why, I began to think, as soon as I could think after that, how I would make Roger and her happy, and have them married at once; and then came that letter! I never wanted her for a daughter-in-law, not I. But he did, it seems; and he was not one for wanting many things for himself. But it's all over now; only we won't talk of her; and maybe, as you say, she was more French than English. The poor thing looks like a gentlewoman, I think. I hope she's got friends who'll take care of her, - she can't be above twenty. I thought she must be older than my poor lad!'
'She's a gentle, pretty creature,' said Molly. 'But - but I sometimes think it has killed her; she lies like one dead.' And Molly could not keep from crying softly at the thought.
'Nay, nay!' said the squire. 'It's not so easy to break one's heart. Sometimes I've wished it were. But one has to go on living - all the appointed days, as it says in the Bible.' But we'll do our best for her. We'll not think of letting her go away till she's fit to travel.'
Molly wondered in her heart about this going away, on which the squire seemed fully resolved. She was sure that he intended to keep the child; perhaps he had a legal right to do so; - but would the mother ever part from it? Her father, however, would solve the difficulty, - her father, whom she always looked to as so clear-seeing and experienced. She watched and waited for his coming. The February evening drew on; the child lay asleep in the squire's arms till his grandfather grew tired, and laid him down on the sofa: the large square-cornered yellow sofa upon which Mrs Hamley used to sit, supported by pillows in a half-reclining position. Since her time it had been placed against the wall, and had served merely as a piece of furniture to fill up the room. But once again a human figure was lying upon it; a little human creature, like a cherub in some old Italian picture. The squire, remembered his wife as he put the child down. He thought of her as he said to Molly, -
'How pleased she would have been!' But Molly thought of the young widow upstairs. Aimée was her 'she' at the first moment. Presently, - but it seemed a long long time first, - she heard the quick prompt sounds, which told of her father's arrival. In he came - to the room as yet only lighted by the fitful blaze of the fire.
Mr Gibson came in rubbing his hands after his frosty ride. Molly judged from the look in his eye that he had been fully informed of the present state of things at the Hall by some one. But he simply went up to and greeted the squire, and waited to hear what was said to him. The squire was fumbling at the taper on the writing-table, and before he answered much he lighted it, and signing to his friend to follow him, he went softly to the sofa and showed him the sleeping child, taking the utmost care not to arouse it by flare or sound.
'Well! this is a fine young gentleman,' said Mr Gibson, returning to the fire rather sooner than the squire expected. 'And you've got the mother here, I understand. Mrs Osborne Hamley, as we must call her, poor thing! It's a sad coming home to her. for I hear she knew nothing of his death.' He spoke without exactly addressing any one, so that either Molly or the squire might answer as they liked. The squire said, -
'Yes! She has felt it a terrible shock. She's upstairs in the best bedroom. I should like you to see her, Gibson, if she'll let you. We must do our duty by her, for my poor lad's sake. I wish he could have seen his boy lying there; I do. I daresay it preyed on him to have to keep it all to himself. He might ha' known me, though. He might ha' known my bark was waur than my bite. It's all over now, though; and God forgive me if I was too sharp. I'm punished now.'
Molly grew impatient on the mother's behalf.
'Papa, I feel as if she was very ill; perhaps worse than we think. Will you go and see her at once?'
Mr Gibson followed her upstairs, and the squire came too, thinking that he would do his duty now, and even feeling some self-satisfaction at conquering his desire to stay with the child. They went into the room where she had been taken. She lay quite still in the same position as at first. Her eyes were open and tearless, fixed on the wall. Mr Gibson spoke to her, but she did not answer; he lifted her hand to feel her pulse; she never noticed.
'Bring me some wine at once, and order some beef-tea,' he said to Molly.
But when he tried to put the wine into her mouth as she lay there on her side, she made no effort to receive or swallow it, and it ran out upon the pillow. Mr Gibson left the room abruptly; Molly chafed the little inanimate hand; the squire stood by in dumb dismay, touched in spite of himself by the death-in-life of one so young, and who must have been so much beloved.
Mr Gibson came back two steps at a time; he was carrying the half-awakened child in his arms. He did not scruple to rouse him into yet further wakefulness - did not grieve to hear him begin to wail and cry. His eyes were on the figure upon the bed, which at that sound quivered all through; and when her child was laid at her back, and began caressingly to scramble yet closer, Aimée turned round, and took him to her arms, and lulled him and soothed him with the soft wont of mother's love.
Before she lost this faint consciousness, which was habit or instinct rather than thought, Mr Gibson spoke to her in French. The child's one word of 'maman' had given him this clue. It was the language sure to be most intelligible to her dulled brain; and as it happened, - only Mr Gibson did not think of that - it was the language in which she had been commanded, and had learnt to obey.
Mr Gibson's tongue was a little stiff at first, but by-and-by he spoke it with all his old readiness. He extorted from her short answers at first, then longer ones, and from time to time he plied her with little drops of wine, until some further nourishment should be at hand. Molly was struck by her father's low tones of comfort and sympathy, although she could not follow what was said quickly enough to catch the meaning of what passed.
By-and-by, however, when her father had done all that he could, and they were once more downstairs, he told them more about her journey than they yet knew. The hurry, the sense of acting in defiance of a prohibition, the over-mastering anxiety, the broken night, and fatigue of the journey, had ill prepared her for the shock at last, and Mr Gibson was seriously alarmed for the consequences. She had wandered strangely in her replies to him; had perceived that she was wandering, and had made great efforts to recall her senses; but Mr Gibson foresaw that some bodily illness was coming on, and stopped late that night, arranging many things with Molly and the squire. One - the only - comfort arising from her state was, the probability that she would be entirely unconscious by the morrow - the day of the funeral. Worn out by the contending emotions of the day, the squire seemed now unable to look beyond the wrench and trial of the next twelve hours. He sate with his head in his hands, declining to go to bed, refusing to dwell on the thought of his grandchild - not three hours ago such a darling in his eyes. Mr Gibson gave some instructions to one of the maid-servants as to the watch she was to keep by Mrs Osborne Hamley, and insisted on Molly's going to bed. When she pleaded the apparent necessity of her staying up, he said, -
'Now, Molly, look how much less trouble the dear old squire would give if he would obey orders. He is only adding to anxiety by indulging himself. One pardons everything to extreme grief, however. But you will have enough to do to occupy all your strength for days to come; and go to bed you must now. I only wish I saw my way as clearly through other things as I do to your nearest duty. I wish I'd never let Roger go wandering off; he'll wish it too, poor fellow! Did I tell you Cynthia is going off in hot haste to her uncle Kirkpatrick's? I suspect a visit to him will stand in lieu of going out to Russia as a governess.'
'I am sure she was quite serious in wishing for that.'
'Yes, yes! at the time. I've no doubt she thought she was sincere in intending to go. But the great thing was to get out of the unpleasantness of the present time and place; and uncle Kirkpatrick's will do this as effectually, and more pleasantly, than a situation at Nishni-Novgorod in an ice-palace.'
He had given Molly's thoughts a turn, which was what he wanted to do. Molly could not help remembering Mr Henderson; and his offer, and all the consequent hints; and wondering, and wishing - what did she wish? or had she been falling asleep? Before she had quite ascertained this point she was asleep in reality.
After this, long days passed over in a monotonous round of care; for no one seemed to think of Molly's leaving the Hall during the woeful illness that befell Mrs Osborne Hamley. It was not that her father allowed her to take much active part in the nursing; the squire gave him carte-blanche, and he engaged two efficient hospital nurses to watch over the unconscious Aimée; but Molly was needed to receive the finer directions as to her treatment and diet. It was not that she was wanted for the care of the little boy; the squire was too jealous of the child's exclusive love for that, and one of the housemaids was employed in the actual physical charge of him; but he needed some one to listen to his incontinence of language, both when his passionate regret for his dead son came uppermost, and also when he had discovered some extraordinary charm in that son's child; and again when he was oppressed with the uncertainty of Aimée's long-continued illness. Molly was not so good or so bewitching a listener to ordinary conversation as Cynthia; but where her heart was interested her sympathy was deep and unfailing. In this case she only wished that the squire could really feel that Aimée was not the encumbrance which he evidently considered her to be. Not that he would have acknowledged the fact, if it had been put before him in plain words. He fought against the dim consciousness of what was in his mind; he spoke repeatedly of patience when no one but himself was impatient; he would often say that when she grew better she must not be allowed to leave the Hall until she was perfectly strong, when no one was even contemplating the remotest chance of her leaving her child, excepting only himself. Molly once or twice asked her father if she might not speak to the squire, and represent the hardship of sending her away - the improbability that she would consent to quit her boy, and so on; but Mr Gibson only replied, -
'Wait quietly. Time enough when nature and circumstance have had their chance, and have failed.'
It was well that Molly was such a favourite with the old servants; for she had frequently to restrain and to control. To be sure, she had her father's authority to back her. and they were aware that where her own comfort, case, or pleasure was concerned she never interfered, but submitted to their will. If the squire had known of the want of attendance to which she submitted with the most perfect meekness, as far as she herself was the only sufferer, he would have gone into a towering rage. But Molly hardly thought of it, so anxious was she to do all she could for others and to remember the various charges which her father gave her in his daily visits. Perhaps he did not spare her enough. she was willing and uncomplaining; but one day after Mrs Osborne Hamley had 'taken the turn,' as the nurses called it, when she was lying weak as a new-born baby, but with her faculties all restored, and her fever gone, when spring buds were blooming out, and spring birds sang merrily, Molly answered to her father's sudden questioning that she felt unaccountably weary; that her head ached heavily, and that she was aware of a sluggishness of thought which it required a painful effort to overcome.
'Don't go on,' said Mr Gibson, with a quick pang of anxiety, almost of remorse. 'Lie down here - with your back to the light. I'll come back and see you before I go.' And off he went in search of the squire. He had a good long walk before he came upon Mr Hamley in a field of spring wheat, where the women were weeding, his little grandson holding to his finger in the intervals of short walks of inquiry into the dirtiest places, which was all his sturdy little limbs could manage.
'Well, Gibson, and how goes the patient? Better! I wish we could get her out of doors, such a fine day as it is. It would make her strong as soon as anything. I used to beg my poor lad to come out more. Maybe, I worried him; but the air is the finest thing for strengthening that I know of, Though, perhaps, she'll not thrive in English air as if she'd been born here; and she'll not be quite right till she gets back to her native place, wherever that is.'
'I don't know. I begin to think we shall get her quite round here; and I don't know that she could be in a better place. But it is not about her. May I order the carriage for my Molly?' Mr Gibson's voice sounded as if he was choking a little as he said these last words.
'To be sure,' said the squire, setting the child down. He had been holding him in his arms the last few minutes; but now he wanted all his eyes to look into Mr Gibson's face. 'I say,' said he, catching hold of Mr Gibson's arm, 'what's the matter, man? Don't twitch up your face like that, but speak!'
'Nothing's the matter,' said Mr Gibson, hastily. 'Only I want her at home, under my own eye;' and he turned away to go to the house, But the squire left his field and his weeders, and kept at Mr Gibson's side. He wanted to speak, but his heart was so full he did not know what to say. 'I say, Gibson,' he got out at last, 'your Molly is liker a child of mine than a stranger; and I reckon we've all on us been coming too hard upon her. You don't think there's much amiss, do you?'
'How can I tell?' said Mr Gibson, almost savagely. But any hastiness of temper was instinctively understood by the squire; and he was not offended, though he did not speak again till they reached the house. Then he went to order the carriage, and stood by sorrowful enough while the horses were being put in. He felt as if he should not know what to do without Molly; he had never known her value, he thought, till now. But he kept silence on this view of the case; which was a praiseworthy effort on the part of one who usually let by-standers see and hear as much of his passing feelings as if he had had a window in his breast. He stood by while Mr Gibson helped the faintly-smiling, tearful Molly into the carriage. Then the squire mounted on the step and kissed her hand; but when he tried to thank her and bless her, he broke down; and as soon as he was once more safely on the ground Mr Gibson cried out to the coachman to drive on. And so Molly left Hamley Hall. From time to time her father rode up to the window, and made some little cheerful and apparently careless remark. When they came within two miles of Hollingford he put spurs to his horse, and rode briskly past the carriage windows, kissing his hand to the occupant as he did so. He went on to prepare her home for Molly: when she arrived Mrs Gibson was ready to greet her. Mr Gibson had given one or two of his bright, imperative orders, and Mrs Gibson was feeling rather lonely without either of her two dear girls at home, as she phrased it, to herself as well as to others.
'Why, my sweet Molly, this is an unexpected pleasure. Only this morning I said to papa, "When do you think we shall see our Molly back?" He did not say much - he never does, you know; but I am sure he thought directly of giving me this surprise, this pleasure. You're looking a little - what shall I call it? I remember such a pretty line of poetry, "Oh, call her fair, not pale!" - so we'll call you fair.'
'You'd better not call her anything, but let her get to her own room and have a good rest as soon as possible. Haven't you got a trashy novel or two in the house? That's the literature to send her to sleep.'
He did not leave her till he had seen her laid on a sofa in a darkened room, with some slight pretence of reading in her hand. Then he came away, leading his wife, who turned round at the door to kiss her hand to Molly, and make a little face of unwillingness to be dragged away.
'Now, Hyacinth,' said he, as he took his wife into the drawing-room, 'she will need much care. She has been overworked, and I've been a fool. That's all. We must keep her from all worry and care, - but I won't answer for it that she'll not have an illness, for all that!'
'Poor thing! she does look worn out. She is something like me, her feelings are too much for her. But now she is come home she shall find us as cheerful as possible. I can answer for myself; and you really must brighten up your doleful face, my dear - nothing so bad for invalids as the appearance of depression in those around them. I have had such a pleasant letter from Cynthia to-day. Uncle Kirkpatrick really seems to make so much of her, he treats her just like a daughter; he has given her a ticket to the Concerts of Ancient Music; and Mr Henderson has been to call on her, in spite of all that has gone before.'
For an instant, Mr Gibson thought that it was easy enough for his wife to be cheerful, with the pleasant thoughts and evident anticipations she had in her mind, but a little more difficult for him to put off his doleful looks while his own child lay in a state of suffering and illness which might be the precursor of a still worse malady. But he was always a man for immediate action as soon as he had resolved on the course to be taken; and he knew that 'some must watch, while some must sleep; so runs the world away.'
The illness which he apprehended came upon Molly; not violently or acutely, so that there was any immediate danger to be dreaded; but making a long pull upon her strength, which seemed to lessen day by day, until at last her father feared that she might become a permanent invalid. There was nothing very decided or alarming to tell Cynthia, and Mrs Gibson kept the dark side from her in her letters. 'Molly was feeling the spring weather;' or 'Molly had been a good deal overdone with her stay at the Hall, and was resting;' such little sentences told nothing of Molly's real state. But then, as Mrs Gibson said to herself, it would be a pity to disturb Cynthia's pleasure by telling her much about Molly; indeed there was not much to tell, one day was so like another. But it so happened that Lady Harriet, - who came whenever she could to sit awhile with Molly, at first against Mrs Gibson's will, and afterwards with her full consent, for reasons of her own - Lady Harriet wrote a letter to Cynthia, to which she was urged by Mrs Gibson. It fell out in this manner: - One day, when Lady Harriet was sitting in the drawing-room for a few minutes after she had been with Molly, she said, -
'Really, Clare, I spend so much time in your house that I am going to establish a work-basket here. Mary has infected me with her notability, and I am going to work mamma a footstool. It is to be a surprise; and so if I do it here she will know nothing about it. Only I cannot match the gold beads I want for the pansies in this dear little town; and Hollingford, who could send me down stars and planets if I asked him, I make no doubt, could no more match beads than -- '
'My dear Lady Harriet! you forget Cynthia! Think what a pleasure it would be to her to do anything for you.'
'Would it? Then she shall have plenty of it; but, mind, it is you who have answered for her. She shall get me some wool too; how good I am to confer so much pleasure on a fellow-creature. But seriously, do you think I might write and give her a few commissions? Neither Agnes nor Mary are in town -- '
'I am sure she would be delighted,' said Mrs Gibson, who also took into consideration the reflection of aristocratic honour that would fall upon Cynthia if she had a letter from a Lady Harriet while at Mr Kirkpatrick's. So she gave the address, and Lady Harriet wrote. All the first part of the letter was taken up with apology and commissions; but then, never doubting but that Cynthia was aware of Molly's state, she went on to say, -
'I saw Molly this morning. Twice I have been forbidden admittance, as she was too ill to see any one out of her own family. I wish we could begin to perceive a change for the better; but she looks more fading every time, and I fear Mr Gibson considers it a very anxious case.'
The day but one after this letter was despatched, Cynthia walked into the drawing-room at home with as much apparent composure as if she had left it not an hour before. Mrs Gibson was dozing, but believing herself to be reading; she had been with Molly the greater part of the morning, and now after her lunch, and the invalid's pretence of early dinner, she considered herself entitled to some repose. She started up as Cynthia came in.
'Cynthia! Dear child, where have you come from? Why in the world have you come? My poor nerves! My heart is quite fluttering; but, to be sure, it's no wonder with all this anxiety I have to undergo. Why have you come back?'
'Because of the anxiety you speak of, mamma. I never knew, - you never told me how ill Molly was.'
'Nonsense. I beg your pardon, my dear, but it's really nonsense. Molly's illness is only nervous, Mr Gibson says. A nervous fever; but you must remember nerves are mere fancy, and she's getting better. Such a pity for you to have left your uncle's. Who told you about Molly?'
'Lady Harriet. She wrote about some wool -- '
'I know, - I know. But you might have known she always exaggerates things, Not but what I have been almost worn out with nursing. Perhaps after all it is a very good thing you have come, my dear; and now you shall come down into the dining-room and have some lunch, and tell me all the Hyde Park Street news - into my room, - don't go into yours yet - Molly is so sensitive to noise!'
While Cynthia ate her lunch, Mrs Gibson went on questioning. 'And your aunt, how is her cold? And Helen, quite strong again? Margaretta as pretty as ever? The boys are at Harrow, I suppose? And my old favourite, Mr Henderson?' She could not manage to slip in this last inquiry naturally; in spite of herself there was a change of tone, an accent of eagerness. Cynthia did not reply on the instant; she poured herself out some water with great deliberation, and then said, -
'My aunt is quite well; Helen is as strong as she ever is, and Margaretta very pretty. The boys are at Harrow, and I conclude that Mr Henderson is enjoying his usual health, for he was to dine at my uncle's to-day.'
'Take care, Cynthia. Look how you are cutting that gooseberry tart,' said Mrs Gibson, with sharp annoyance; not provoked by Cynthia's present action, although it gave excuse for a little vent of temper. 'I can't think how you could come off in this sudden kind of way; I am sure it must have annoyed your uncle and aunt. I daresay they'll never ask you again.'
'On the contrary, I am to go back there as soon as ever I can be easy to leave Molly.'
'"Easy to leave Molly." Now that really is nonsense, and rather uncomplimentary to me, I must say: nursing her as I have been doing, daily, and almost nightly; for I have been wakened times out of number by Mr Gibson getting up, and going to see if she had had her medicine properly.'
'I am afraid she has been very ill?' asked Cynthia.
'Yes, she has, in one way; but not in another. It was what I call more a tedious, than an interesting illness. There was no immediate danger, but she lay much in the same state from day to day.'
'I wish I had known!' sighed Cynthia. 'Do you think I might go and see her now?'
'I'll go and prepare her. You'll find her a good deal better than she has been. Ah! here's Mr Gibson!' He came into the dining-room, hearing voices. Cynthia thought that he looked much older.
'You here!' said he, coming forward to shake hands. 'Why, how did you come?'
'By the "Umpire." I never knew Molly had been so ill, or I would have come directly.' Her eyes were full of tears. Mr Gibson was touched; he shook her hand again, and murmured, 'You're a good girl, Cynthia.'
'She's heard one of dear Lady Harriet's exaggerated accounts,' said Mrs Gibson, 'and come straight off. I tell her it's very foolish, for really Molly is a great deal better now.'
'Very foolish,' said Mr Gibson, echoing his wife's words, but smiling at Cynthia. 'But sometimes one likes foolish people for their folly, better than wise people for their wisdom.'
'I am afraid folly always annoys me,' said his wife. 'However, Cynthia is here, and what is done, is done.'
'Very true, my dear. And now I'll run up and see my little girl, and tell her the good news. You'd better follow me in a couple of minutes.' This to Cynthia.
Molly's delight at seeing her showed itself first in a few happy tears; and then in soft caresses and inarticulate sounds of love. Once or twice she began, 'It is such a pleasure,' and there she stopped short. But the eloquence of these five words sank deep into Cynthia's heart. She had returned just at the right time, when Molly wanted the gentle fillip of the society of a fresh and yet a familiar person. Cynthia's tact made her talkative or silent, gay or grave, as the varying humour of Molly required. She listened, too, with the semblance, if not the reality, of unwearied interest, to Molly's continual recurrence to all the time of distress and sorrow at Hamley Hall, and to the scenes which had then so deeply impressed themselves upon her susceptible nature. Cynthia instinctively knew that the repetition of all these painful recollections would case the oppressed memory, which refused to dwell on anything but what had occurred at a time of feverish disturbance of health. So she never interrupted Molly, as Mrs Gibson had so frequently done, with, - 'You told me all that before, my dear. Let us talk of something else;' or, 'Really I cannot allow you to be always dwelling on painful thoughts. Try and be a little more cheerful. Youth is gay. You are young, and therefore you ought to be gay. That is put in a famous form of speech; I forget exactly what it is called.'
So Molly's health and spirits improved rapidly after Cynthia's return; and although she was likely to retain many of her invalid habits during the summer, she was able to take drives, and enjoy the fine weather; it was only her as yet tender spirits that required a little management. All the Hollingford people forgot that they had ever thought of her except as the darling of the town; and each in his or her way showed kind interest in her father's child. Miss Browning and Miss Phoebe considered it quite a privilege that they were allowed to see her a fortnight or three weeks before any one else; Mrs Goodenough, spectacles on nose, stirred dainty messes in a silver saucepan for Molly's benefit; the Towers sent books and forced fruit, and new caricatures, and strange and delicate poultry; humble patients of 'the doctor,' as Mr Gibson was usually termed, left the earliest cauliflowers they could grow in their cottage gardens, with 'their duty for Miss.'
And last of all, though strongest in regard, most piteously eager in interest, came Squire Hamley himself. When she was at the worst, he rode over every day to hear the smallest detail, facing even Mrs Gibson (his abomination) if her husband was not at home, to ask and hear, and ask and hear, till the tears were unconsciously stealing down his cheeks. Every resource of his heart, or his house, or his lands was searched and tried, if it could bring a moment's pleasure to her; and whatever it might be that came from him, at her very worst time, it brought out a dim smile upon her face.
And now it was late June; and to Molly's and her father's extreme urgency in pushing, and Mr and Mrs Kirkpatrick's affectionate persistency in pulling, Cynthia had yielded, and had gone back to finish her interrupted visit in London, but not before the bruit of her previous sudden return to nurse Molly, had told strongly in her favour in the fluctuating opinion of the little town. Her affair with Mr Preston was thrust into the shade; while every one was speaking of her warm heart. Under the gleam of Molly's recovery everything assumed a rosy hue, as indeed became the time when actual roses were actually in bloom.
One morning Mrs Gibson brought Molly a great basket of flowers, that bad been sent from the Hall. Molly still breakfasted in bed, but had just come down, and was now well enough to arrange the flowers for the drawing-room, and as she did so with these blossoms, she made some comments on each.
'Ah! these white pinks! They were Mrs Hamley's favourite flower; and so like her! This little bit of sweetbrier, it quite scents the room. It has pricked my fingers, but never mind. Oh, mamma, look at this rose! I forget its name, but it is very rare, and grows up in the sheltered corner of the wall, near the mulberry-tree. Roger bought the tree for his mother with his own money when he was quite a boy; he showed it me, and made me notice it.'
'I daresay it was Roger who got it now. You heard papa say he had seen him yesterday.'
'No! Roger! Roger come home!' said Molly, turning first red, then very white.
'Yes. Oh, I remember you had gone to bed before papa came in, and he was called off early to tiresome Mrs Beale. Yes, Roger turned up at the Hall the day before yesterday.'
But Molly leaned back against her chair, too faint to do more at the flowers for some time. She had been startled by the suddenness of the news. 'Roger come home!'
It happened that Mr Gibson was unusually busy on this particular day, and he did not return until late in the afternoon. But Molly kept her place in the drawing-room all the time, not even going to take her customary siesta, so anxious was she to hear everything about Roger's return, which as yet appeared to her almost incredible. But it was quite natural in reality; the long monotony of her illness had made her lose all count of time. When Roger left England, his idea was to coast round Africa on the eastern side until he reached the Cape; and thence to make what further journey or voyage might seem to him best in pursuit of his scientific objects. To Cape Town all his letters had been addressed of late; and there, two months before, he had received the intelligence of Osborne's death, as well as Cynthia's hasty letter of relinquishment. He did not consider that he was doing wrong in returning to England immediately, and reporting himself to the gentlemen who had sent him out, with a full explanation of the circumstances relating to Osborne's private marriage and sudden death. He offered, and they accepted his offer, to go out again for any time that they might think equivalent to the five months he was yet engaged to them for. They were most of them gentlemen of property, and saw the full importance of proving the marriage of an eldest son, and installing his child as the natural heir to a long-descended estate. This much information, but in a more condensed form, Mr Gibson gave to Molly, in a very few minutes. She sate up on her sofa, looking very pretty with the flush on her cheeks, and the brightness in her eyes.
'Well!' said she, when her father stopped speaking.
'Well! what?' asked he, playfully.
'Oh! why, such a number of things. I've been waiting all day to ask you all about everything. How is he looking?'
'If a young man of twenty-four ever does take to growing taller, I should say that he was taller. As it is, I suppose it is only that he looks broader, stronger - more muscular.'
'Oh! is he changed?' asked Molly, a little disturbed by this account.
'No, not changed; and yet not the same. He is as brown as a berry for one thing; caught a little of the negro tinge, and a beard as fine and sweeping as my bay-mare's tail.'
'A beard! But go on, papa. Does he talk as he used to do? I should know his voice amongst ten thousand.'
'I did not catch any Hottentot twang, if that's what you mean. Nor did he say, "Cæsar and Pompey berry much alike, 'specially Pompey," which is the only specimen of negro language I can remember just at this moment.'
'And which I never could see the wit of,' said Mrs Gibson, who had come into the room after the conversation had begun; and did not understand what it was aiming at. Molly fidgeted; she wanted to go on with her questions and keep her father to definite and matter-of-fact answers, and she knew that when his wife chimed into a conversation, Mr Gibson was very apt to find out that he must go about some necessary piece of business.
'Tell me, how are they all getting on together?' It was an inquiry which she did not make in general before Mrs Gibson, for Molly and her father had tacitly agreed to keep silence on what they knew or had observed, respecting the three who formed the present family at the Hall.
'Oh!' said Mr Gibson, 'Roger is evidently putting everything to rights in his firm, quiet way.'
'"Things to rights." Why, what's wrong?' asked Mrs Gibson quickly. 'The squire and the French daughter-in-law don't get on well together, I suppose? I am always so glad Cynthia acted with the promptitude she did; it would have been very awkward for her to have been mixed up with all these complications. Poor Roger! to find himself supplanted by a child when he comes home!'
'You were not in the room, my dear, when I was telling Molly of the reasons for Roger's return; it was to put his brother's child at once into his rightful and legal place. So now, when he finds the work partly done to his hands, he is happy and gratified in proportion.'
'Then he is not much affected by Cynthia's breaking off her engagement?' (Mrs Gibson could afford to call it an (engagement' now.) 'I never did give him credit for very deep feelings.'
'On the contrary, he feels it very acutely. He and I had a long talk about it, yesterday.'
Both Molly and Mrs Gibson would have liked to have heard something more about this conversation; but Mr Gibson did not choose to go on with the subject. The only point which he disclosed was that Roger had insisted on his right to have a personal interview with Cynthia; and, on hearing that she was in London at present, had deferred any further explanation or expostulation by letter, preferring to await her return.
Molly went on with her questions on other subjects. 'And Mrs Osborne Hamley? How is she?'
'Wonderfully brightened up by Roger's presence. I don't think I have ever seen her smile before; but she gives him the sweetest smiles from time to time. They are evidently good friends; and she loses her strange startled look when she speaks to him. I suspect she has been quite aware of the squire's wish that she should return to France; and has been hard put to it to decide whether to leave her child or not. The idea that she would have to make some such decision came upon her when she was completely shattered by grief and illness, and she has not had any one to consult as to her duty until Roger came, upon whom she has evidently firm reliance. He told me something of this himself.'
'You seem to have had quite a long conversation with him, papa!'
'Yes. I was going to see old Abraham, when the squire called to me over the hedge, as I was jogging along. He told me the news; and there was no resisting his invitation to come back and lunch with them. Besides, one gets a great deal of meaning out of Roger's words; it did not take so very long a time to hear this much.'
'I should think he would come and call upon us soon,' said Mrs Gibson to Molly; 'and then we shall see how much we can manage to hear.'
'Do you think he will, papa?' said Molly, more doubtfully. She remembered the last time he was in that very room, and the hopes with which he left it; and she fancied that she could see traces of this thought in her father's countenance at his wife's speech.
'I cannot tell, my dear. Until he is quite convinced of Cynthia's intentions, it cannot be very pleasant for him to come on mere visits of ceremony to the house in which he has known her; but he is one who will always do what he thinks right, whether pleasant or not.'
Mrs Gibson could hardly wait till her husband had finished his sentence before she testified against a part of it.
'"Convinced of Cynthia's intentions!" I should think she had made them pretty clear! What more does the man want?'
'He is not as yet convinced that the letter was not written in a fit of temporary feeling. I have told him that this was true; although I did not feel it my place to explain to him the causes of that feeling. He believes that he can induce her to resume the former footing. I do not; and I have told him so; but of course he needs the full conviction that she alone can give him.'
'Poor Cynthia! My poor child!' said Mrs Gibson, plaintively. 'What she has exposed herself to by letting herself be over-persuaded by that man!'
Mr Gibson's eyes flashed fire. But he kept his lips tight closed; and only said, '"That man," indeed!' quite below his breath.
Molly, too, had been damped by an expression or two in her father's speech. 'Mere visits of ceremony!' Was it so, indeed? A 'mere visit of ceremony!' Whatever it was, the call was paid before many days were over. That he felt all the awkwardness of his position towards Mrs Gibson - that he was in reality suffering pain all the time - was but too evident to Molly; but of course Mrs Gibson saw nothing of this in her gratification at the proper respect paid to her by one whose name was already in the newspapers that chronicled his return, and about whom already Lord Cumnor and the Towers family had been making inquiry.
Molly was sitting in her pretty white invalid's dress, half reading, half dreaming, for the June air was so clear and ambient, the garden so full of bloom, the trees so full of leaf, that reading by the open window was only a pretence at such a time; besides which Mrs Gibson continually interrupted her with remarks about the pattern of her worsted-work. It was after lunch - orthodox calling time, when Maria ushered in Mr Roger Hamley. Molly started up; and then stood shyly and quietly in her place while a bronzed, bearded, grave man came into the room, in whom she at first had to seek for the merry boyish face she knew by heart only two years ago. But months in the climates in which Roger had been travelling age as much as years in more temperate districts. And constant thought and anxiety while in daily peril of life deepen the lines of character upon a face. Moreover, the circumstances that had of late affected him personally were not of a nature to make him either buoyant or cheerful. But his voice was the same; that was the first point of the old friend Molly caught, when he addressed her in a tone far softer than he used in speaking conventional politenesses to her stepmother.
'I was so sorry to hear how ill you had been! You are looking but delicate!' letting his eyes rest upon her face with affectionate examination. Molly felt herself colour all over with the consciousness of his regard. To do something to put an end to it, she looked up, and showed him her beautiful soft grey eyes, which he never remembered to have noticed before. She smiled at him as she blushed still deeper, and said, -
'Oh! I am quite strong now to what I was. It would be a shame to be ill when everything is in its full summer beauty.'
'I have heard how deeply we - I am indebted to you - my father can hardly praise you -- '
'Please don't,' said Molly, the tears coming into her eyes in spite of herself. He seemed to understand her at once; he went on as if speaking to Mrs Gibson, - 'Indeed my little sister-in-law is never weary of talking about Monsieur le Docteur, as she calls your husband!'
'I have not had the pleasure of making Mrs Osborne Hamley's acquaintance yet,' said Mrs Gibson, suddenly aware of a duty which might have been expected from her, 'and I must beg you to apologize to her for my remissness. But Molly has been such a care and anxiety to me - for, you know, I look upon her quite as my own child - that I really have not gone anywhere, excepting to the Towers perhaps I should say, which is just like another home to me. And then I understood that Mrs Osborne Hamley was thinking of returning to France before long? Still it was very remiss.'
The little trap thus set for news of what might be going on in the Hamley family was quite successful. Roger answered her thus, -
'I am sure Mrs Osborne Hamley will be very glad to see any friends of the family, as soon as she is a little stronger. I hope she will not go back to France at all. She is an orphan, and I trust we shall induce her to remain with my father. But at present nothing is arranged.' Then, as if glad to have got over his 'visit of ceremony,' he got up and took leave. When he was at the door he looked back, having, as he thought, a word more to say; but he quite forgot what it was, for he surprised Molly's intent gaze, and sudden confusion at discovery, and went away as soon as he could.
'Poor Osborne was right!' said he. 'She had grown into delicate fragrant beauty just as he said she would: or is it the character which has formed the face? Now the next time I enter these doors it will be to learn my fate!'
Mr Gibson had told his wife of Roger's desire to have a personal interview with Cynthia, rather with a view to her repeating what he said to her daughter. He did not see any exact necessity for this, it is true; but he thought that it might be advisable that she should know all the truth in which she was concerned, and he told his wife this. But she took the affair into her own management, and, although she apparently agreed with Mr Gibson, she never named the affair to Cynthia; all that she said to her was, -
'Your old admirer, Roger Hamley, has come home in a great hurry in consequence of poor dear Osborne's unexpected decease. He must have been rather surprised to find the widow and her little boy established at the Hall. He came to call here the other day, and made himself really rather agreeable, although his manners are not improved by the society he has kept on his travels. Still I prophesy he will be considered as a fashionable "lion," and perhaps the very uncouthness which jars against my sense of refinement, may even become admired in a scientific traveller, who has been into more desert places, and eaten more extraordinary food, than any other Englishman of the day. I suppose he has given up all chance of inheriting the estate, for I hear he talks of returning to Africa, and becoming a regular wanderer. Your name was not mentioned, but I believe he inquired about you from Mr Gibson.'
'There!' said she to herself, as she folded up and directed this letter; 'that can't disturb her, or make her uncomfortable. And it's all the truth too, or very near it. Of course he'll want to see her when she comes back; but by that time I do hope Mr Henderson will have proposed again, and that that affair will be all settled.'
But Cynthia returned to Hollingford one Tuesday morning, and in answer to her mother's anxious inquiries on the subject, would only say that Mr Henderson had not offered again. 'Why should he? She had refused him once,' and he did not know the reason of her refusal, at least one of the reasons. She did not know if she should have taken him if there had been no such person as Roger Hamley in the world. No! Uncle and aunt Kirkpatrick had never heard anything about Roger's offer, - nor had her cousins. She had always declared her wish to keep it a secret, and she had not mentioned it to any one, whatever other people might have done.' Underneath this light and careless vein there were other feelings; but Mrs Gibson was not one to probe beneath the surface. She had set her heart on Mr Henderson's marrying Cynthia very early in their acquaintance: and to know, firstly, that the same wish had entered into his head, and that Roger's attachment to Cynthia, with its consequences, had been the obstacle; and secondly, that Cynthia herself with all the opportunities of propinquity that she had lately had, had failed to provoke a repetition of the offer, - it was, as Mrs Gibson said, 'enough to provoke a saint.' All the rest of the day she alluded to Cynthia as a disappointing and ungrateful daughter; Molly could not make out why, and resented it for Cynthia, until the latter said, bitterly, 'Never mind, Molly. Mamma is only vexed because Mr -- because I have not come back an engaged young lady.'
'Yes; and I am sure you might have done, - there's the ingratitude! I am not so unjust as to want you to do what you can't do!' said Mrs Gibson, querulously.
'But where's the ingratitude, mamma? I am very much tired, and perhaps that makes me stupid; but I cannot see the ingratitude.' Cynthia spoke very wearily, leaning her head back on the sofa-cushions, as if she did not much care to have an answer.
'Why, don't you see we are doing all we can for you; dressing you well, and sending you to London; and when you might relieve us of the expense of all this, you don't.'
'No! Cynthia, I will speak,' said Molly, all crimson with indignation, and pushing away Cynthia's restraining hand. 'I am sure papa does not feel, and does not mind, any expense he incurs about his daughters. And I know quite well that he does not wish us to marry, unless -- ' She faltered and stopped.
'Unless what?' said Mrs Gibson, half-mocking.
'Unless we love some one very dearly indeed,' said Molly, in a low, firm tone.
'Well, after this tirade - really rather indelicate, I must say - I have done. I will neither help nor hinder any love-affairs of you two young ladies. In my days we were glad of the advice of our elders.' And she left the room to put into fulfilment an idea which had just struck her: to write a confidential letter to Mrs Kirkpatrick, giving her her version of Cynthia's 'unfortunate entanglement' and 'delicate sense of honour,' and hints of her entire indifference to all the masculine portion of the world, Mr Henderson being dexterously excluded from the category.
'Oh, dear!' said Molly, throwing herself back in a chair, with a sigh of relief, as Mrs Gibson left the room; 'how cross I do get since I have been ill. But I could not bear her to speak as if papa grudged you anything.'
'I am sure he does not, Molly. You need not defend him on my account. But I am sorry mamma still looks upon me as "an encumbrance," as the advertisements in The Times always call us unfortunate children. But I have been an encumbrance to her all my life. I am getting very much into despair about everything, Molly. I shall try my luck in Russia. I have heard of a situation as English governess at Moscow, in a family owning whole provinces of land, and serfs by the hundred. I put off writing my letter till I came home; I shall be as much out of the way there as if I was married. Oh, dear! travelling all night is not good for the spirits. How is Mr Preston?'
'Oh, he has taken Cumnor Grange, three miles away, and he never comes in to the Hollingford tea-parties now. I saw him once in the street, but it's a question which of us tried the hardest to get out of the other's way.'
'You've not said anything about Roger, yet.'
'No; I did not know if you would care to hear. He is very much older-looking; quite a strong grown-up man. And papa says he is much graver. Ask me any questions, if you want to know, but I have only seen him once.'
'I was in hopes he would have left the neighbourhood by this time. Mamma said he was going to travel again.'
'I can't tell,' said Molly. 'I suppose you know,' she continued, but hesitating a little before she spoke, 'that he wishes to see you.'
'No! I never heard. I wish he would have been satisfied with my letter. It was as decided as I could make it. If I say I won't see him, I wonder if his will or mine will be the strongest?'
'His,' said Molly. 'But you must see him, you owe it to him. He will never be satisfied without it.'
'Suppose he talks me round into resuming the engagement? I should only break it off again.'
'Surely you can't be "talked round" if your mind is made up. But perhaps it is not really, Cynthia?' asked she, with a little wistful anxiety betraying itself in her face.
'It is quite made up. I am going to teach little Russian girls; and am never going to marry nobody.'
'You are not serious, Cynthia. And yet it is a very serious thing.'
But Cynthia went into one of her wild moods, and no more reason or sensible meaning was to be got out of her at the time.
The next morning saw Mrs Gibson in a much more contented frame of mind. She had written and posted her letter, and the next thing was to keep Cynthia in what she called a reasonable state, or, in other words, to try and cajole her into docility. But it was so much labour lost. Cynthia had already received a letter from Mr Henderson before she came down to breakfast, - a declaration of love, a proposal of marriage as clear as words could make it; together with an intimation that, unable to wait for the slow delays of the post, he was going to follow her down to Hollingford, and would arrive at the same time that she had done herself on the previous day. Cynthia said nothing about this letter to any one. She came late into the breakfast-room, after Mr and Mrs Gibson had finished the actual business of the meal; but her unpunctuality was quite accounted for by the fact that she had been travelling all the night before. Molly was not as yet strong enough to get up so early. Cynthia hardly spoke, and did not touch her food. Mr Gibson went about his daily business, and Cynthia and her mother were left alone.
'My dear,' said Mrs Gibson, 'you are not eating your breakfast as you should do. I am afraid our meals seem very plain and homely to you after those in Hyde Park Street?'
'No,' said Cynthia; 'I am not hungry, that's all.'
'If we were as rich as your uncle, I should feel it to be both a duty and a pleasure to keep an elegant table; but limited means are a sad clog to one's wishes. I don't suppose that, work as he will, Mr Gibson can earn more than he does at present; while the capabilities of the law are boundless. Lord Chancellor! Titles as well as fortune!'
Cynthia was almost too much absorbed in her own reflections to reply, but she did say, -
'Hundreds of briefless barristers. Take the other side, mamma.'
'Well; but I have noticed that many of these have private fortunes.'
'Perhaps. Mamma, I expect Mr Henderson will come and call this morning.'
'Oh, my precious child! But how do you know? My darling Cynthia, am I to congratulate you?'
'No! I suppose I must tell you. I have had a letter this morning from him, and he is coming down by the "Umpire" to-day.'
'But he has offered? He surely must mean to offer, at any rate?'
Cynthia played with her teaspoon before she replied; then she looked up, like one startled from a dream, and caught the echo of her mother's question.
'Offered! yes, I suppose he has.'
'And you accept him? Say yes, Cynthia, and make me happy!'
'I shan't say "yes" to make any one happy except myself, and the Russian scheme has great charms for me.' She said this to plague her mother, and lessen Mrs Gibson's exuberance of joy, it must be confessed; for her mind was pretty well made up. But it did not affect Mrs Gibson, who affixed even less truth to it than there really was. The idea of a residence in a new, strange country, among new, strange people, was not without allurement to Cynthia.
'You always look nice, dear; but don't you think you had better put on that pretty lilac silk?'
'I shall not vary a thread or a shred from what I have got on now.'
'You dear wilful creature! you know you always look lovely in whatever you put on.' So, kissing her daughter, Mrs Gibson left the room, intent on the lunch which should impress Mr Henderson at once with an idea of family refinement.
Cynthia went upstairs to Molly; She was inclined to tell her about Mr Henderson, but she found it impossible to introduce the subject naturally, so she left it to time to reveal the future as gradually as it might. Molly was tired with a bad night; and her father, in his flying visit to his darling before going out, had advised her to stay upstairs for the greater part of the morning, and to keep quiet in her own room till after her early dinner, so Time had not a fair chance of telling her what he had in store in his budget. Mrs Gibson sent an apology to Molly for not paying her her usual morning visit, and told Cynthia to give Mr Henderson's probable coming as a reason for her occupation downstairs. But Cynthia did no such thing. She kissed Molly, and sate silently by her, holding her hand; till at length she jumped up, and said, 'You shall be left alone now, little one. I want you to be very well and very bright this afternoon: so rest now.' And Cynthia left her, and went to her own room, locked the door, and began to think.
Some one was thinking about her at the same time, and it was not Mr Henderson. Roger had heard from Mr Gibson that Cynthia had come home, and he was resolving to go to her at once, and have one strong, manly attempt to overcome the obstacles, whatever they might be - and of their nature he was not fully aware - that she had conjured up against the continuance of their relation to each other. He left his father - he left them all - and went off into the woods, to be alone until the time came when he might mount his horse and ride over to put his fate to the touch. He was as careful as ever not to interfere with the morning hours that were tabooed to him of old; but waiting was very hard work when he knew that she was so near, and the time so near at hand.
Yet he rode slowly, compelling himself to quietness and patience when he was once really on the way to her.
'Mrs Gibson at home? Miss Kirkpatrick?' he asked of the servant, Maria, who opened the door. She was confused, but he did not notice it.
'I think so; I am not sure! Will you walk up into the drawing-room, sir? Miss Gibson is there, I know.'
So he went upstairs, all his nerves on one strain for the coming interview with Cynthia. It was either a relief or a disappointment, he was not sure which, to find only Molly in the room. Molly, half lying on the couch in the bow-window which commanded the garden; draped in soft white drapery, very white herself, and a laced half-handkerchief tied over her head to save her from any ill effects of the air that blew in through the open window. He was so ready to speak to Cynthia that he hardly knew what to say to any one else.
'I am afraid you are not so well,' he said to Molly, who sate up to receive him, and who suddenly began to tremble with emotion.
'I am a little tired, that's all,' said she; and then she was quite silent, hoping that he might go, and yet somehow wishing him to stay. But he took a chair and placed it near her, opposite to the window. He thought that surely Maria would tell Miss Kirkpatrick that she was wanted, and that at any moment he might hear her light quick footstep on the stairs. He thought he ought to talk, but he could not think of anything to say. The pink flush came out on Molly's cheeks; once or twice she was on the point of speaking, but again she thought better of it; and the pauses between the faint disjointed remarks became longer and longer. Suddenly, in one of these pauses, the merry murmur of distant happy voices in the garden came nearer and nearer; Molly looked more and more uneasy and flushed, and in spite of herself kept watching Roger's face. He could see over her into the garden. A sudden deep colour overspread him, as if his heart had sent its blood out coursing at full gallop. Cynthia and Mr Henderson had come in sight; he eagerly talking to her as he bent forward to look into her face; she, her looks half averted in pretty shyness, was evidently coquetting about some flowers, which she either would not give, or would not take. Just then, for the lovers had emerged from the shrubbery into comparatively public life, Maria was seen approaching; apparently she had feminine tact enough to induce Cynthia to leave her present admirer, and go a few steps to meet her to receive the whispered message that Mr Roger Hamley was there, and wished to speak to her. Roger could see her startled gesture, she turned back to say something to Mr Henderson before coming towards the house. Now Roger spoke to Molly - spoke hurriedly, spoke hoarsely.
'Molly, tell me! It is too late for me to speak to Cynthia? I came on purpose. Who is that man?'
'Mr Henderson. He only came to-day - but now he is her accepted lover. Oh, Roger, forgive me the pain!'
'Tell her I have been, and am gone. Send out word to her. Don't let her be interrupted.'
And Roger ran downstairs at full speed, and Molly heard the passionate clang of the outer door. He had hardly left the house before Cynthia entered the room, pale and resolute.
'Where is he?' she said, looking around, as if he might yet be hidden.
'Gone!' said Molly, very faint.
'Gone. Oh, what a relief! It seems to be my fate never to be off with the old lover before I am on with the new, and yet I did write as decidedly as I could. Why, Molly, what's the matter?' for now Molly had fainted away utterly. Cynthia flew to the bell, summoned Maria, water, salts, wine, everything; and as soon as Molly, gasping and miserable, became conscious again, she wrote a little pencil-note to Mr Henderson, bidding him return to the "George," whence he had come in the morning, and saying that if he obeyed her at once, he might be allowed to call again in the evening, otherwise she would not see him till the next day. This she sent down by Maria, and the unlucky man never believed but that it was Miss Gibson's sudden indisposition in the first instance that had deprived him of his charmer's company. He comforted himself for the long solitary afternoon by writing to tell all his friends of his happiness, and amongst them uncle and aunt Kirkpatrick, who received his letter by the same post as that discreet epistle of Mrs Gibson's, which she had carefully arranged to reveal as much as she wished, and no more.
'Was he very terrible?' asked Cynthia, as she sate with Molly in the stillness of Mrs Gibson's dressing-room.
'Oh, Cynthia, it was such pain to see him, he suffered so!'
'I don't like people of deep feelings,' said Cynthia, pouting. 'They don't suit me. Why could not he let me go without this fuss. I'm not worth his caring for!'
'You have the happy gift of making people love you. Remember Mr Preston, - he too would not give up hope.'
'Now I won't have you classing Roger Hamley and Mr Preston together in the same sentence. One was as much too bad for me, as the other is too good. Now I hope that maxi in the garden is the juste milieu, - I'm that myself, for I don't think I'm vicious, and I know I'm not virtuous.'
'Do you really like him enough to marry him?' asked Molly earnestly. 'Do think, Cynthia. It won't do to go on throwing your lovers off; you give pain that I am sure you do not mean to do, - that you cannot understand.'
'Perhaps I can't. I'm not offended. I never set up for what I am not, and I know I'm not constant. I have told Mr Henderson so -- ' She stopped, blushing and smiling at the recollection.
'You have! and what did he say?'
'That he liked me just as I was; so you see he's fairly warned. Only he is a little afraid, I suppose, - for he wants me to be married very soon, almost directly in fact. But I don't know if I shall give way, - you hardly saw him, Molly, - but he's coming again to-night, and mind, I'll never forgive you if you don't think him very charming. I believe I cared for him when he offered all those months ago, but I tried to think I didn't; only sometimes I really was so unhappy, I thought I must put an iron-band round my heart to keep it from breaking, like the Faithful John of the German story,' - do you remember, Molly? - how when his master came to his crown and his fortune, and his lady-love, after innumerable trials and disgraces, and was driving away from the church where he'd been married in a coach and six, with Faithful John behind, the happy couple heard three great cracks in succession, and on inquiring, they were the iron-bands round his heart, that Faithful John had worn all during the time of his master's tribulation, to keep it from breaking.'
In the evening Mr Henderson came. Molly had been very curious to see him; and when she saw him she was not sure whether she liked him or not. He was handsome, without being conceited; gentlemanly, without being foolishly fine. He talked easily, and never said a silly thing. He was perfectly well-appointed, yet never seemed to have given a thought to his dress. He was good-tempered and kind; not without some of the cheerful flippancy of repartee which belonged to his age and profession, and which his age and profession are apt to take for wit. But he wanted something in Molly's eyes, at any rate in this first interview, and in her heart of hearts she thought him rather commonplace. But of course she said nothing of this to Cynthia, who was evidently as happy as she could be. Mrs Gibson, too, was in the seventh heaven of ecstasy and spoke but little; but what she did say, expressed the highest sentiments in the finest language. Mr Gibson was not with them for long, but while he was there he was evidently studying the unconscious Mr Henderson with his dark penetrating eyes. Mr Henderson behaved exactly as he ought to have done to everybody; respectful to Mr Gibson, deferential to Mrs Gibson, friendly to Molly, devoted to Cynthia. The next time Mr Gibson found Molly alone, he began, -
'Well! and how do you like the new relation that is to be?'
'It is difficult to say. I think he is very nice in all his bits, but - rather dull on the whole.'
'I think him perfection,' said Mr Gibson, to Molly's surprise; but in an instant afterwards she saw that he had been speaking ironically. He went on. 'I don't wonder she preferred him to Roger Hamley. Such scents! such gloves! And then his hair and his cravat!'
'Now, papa, you are not fair. He is a great deal more than that. One could see that he had very good feeling; and he is very handsome, and very much attached to her.'
'So was Roger. However, I must confess I shall only be too glad to have her married. She is a girl who will always have some love-affair on hand, and will always be apt to slip through a man's fingers if he does not look sharp; as I was saying to Roger -- '
'You have seen him, then, since he was here?'
'Met him in the street.'
'How was he?'
'I don't suppose he had been going through the pleasantest thing in the world; but he'll get over it before long. He spoke with sense and resignation, and did not say much about it; but one could see that he was feeling it pretty sharply. He's had three months to think it over, remember. The squire, I should guess, is showing more indignation. He is boiling over, that any one should reject his son! The enormity of the sin never seems to have been apparent to him till now, when he sees how Roger is affected by it. Indeed, with the exception of myself, I don't know one reasonable father; eh, Molly?'
Whatever else Mr Henderson might be, he was an impatient lover; he wanted to marry Cynthia directly - next week - the week after. At any rate before the long vacation, so that they could go abroad at once. Trousseaux, and preliminary ceremonies, he gave to the winds. Mr Gibson, generous as usual, called Cynthia aside a morning or two after her engagement, and put a hundred-pound note into her hands.
'There! that's to pay your expenses to Russia and back. I hope you'll find your pupils obedient.'
To his surprise, and rather to his discomfiture, Cynthia threw her arms round his neck and kissed him.
'You are the kindest person I know,' said she; 'and I don't know how to thank you in words.'
'If you tumble my shirt-collars again in that way, I'll charge you for the washing. Just now, too, when I'm trying so hard to be trim and elegant, like your Mr Henderson.'
'But you do like him, don't you?' said Cynthia, pleadingly. 'He does so like you.'
'Of course. We are all angels just now, and you are an arch-angel. I hope he'll wear as well as Roger.'
Cynthia looked grave. 'That was a very silly affair,' she said. 'We were two as unsuitable people -- '
'It has ended, and that's enough. Besides, I've no more time to waste; and there is your smart young man coming here in all haste.'
Mr and Mrs Kirkpatrick sent all manner of congratulations; and, in a private letter, assured Mrs Gibson that her ill-timed confidence about Roger should be considered as quite private. For as soon as Mr Henderson had made his appearance in Hollingford, she had written a second letter, entreating them not to allude to anything she might have said in her first; which she said was written in such excitement on discovering the real state of her daughter's affections, that she had hardly known what she had said, and had exaggerated some things, and misunderstood others; all that she did know now was, that Mr Henderson had just proposed to Cynthia, and was accepted, and that they were as happy as the day was long, and ('excuse the vanity of a mother,') made a most lovely couple. So Mr and Mrs Kirkpatrick wrote back an equally agreeable letter, praising Mr Henderson, admiring Cynthia, and generally congratulatory; insisting into the bargain that the marriage should take place from their house in Hyde Park Street, and that Mr and Mrs Gibson and Molly should all come up and pay them a visit. There was a little postscript at the end. 'Surely you do not mean the famous traveller, Hamley, about whose discoveries all our scientific men are so much excited. You speak of him as a young Hamley, who went to Africa. Answer this question, pray, for Helen is most anxious to know.' This P.S. being in Helen's handwriting. In her exultation at the general success of everything, and desire for sympathy, Mrs Gibson read parts of this letter to Molly; the postscript among the rest. It made a deeper impression on Molly than even the proposed kindness of the visit to London.
There were some family consultations; but the end of them all was that the Kirkpatrick invitation was accepted. There were many small reasons for this, which were openly acknowledged; but there was one general and unspoken wish to have the ceremony performed out of the immediate neighbourhood of the two men whom Cynthia had previously - rejected; that was the word now to be applied to her treatment of them. So Molly was ordered and enjoined and entreated to become strong as soon as possible, in order that her health might not prevent her attending the marriage. Mr Gibson himself, though he thought it his duty to damp the exultant anticipations of his wife and her daughter, was not at all averse to the prospect of going to London, and seeing half-a-dozen old friends, and many scientific exhibitions, independently of the very fair amount of liking which he had for his host, Mr Kirkpatrick himself
The whole town of Hollingford came to congratulate and inquire into particulars. Some indeed - Mrs Goodenough at the head of this class of malcontents - thought that they were defrauded of their right to a fine show by Cynthia's being married in London. Even Lady Cumnor was moved into action. She, who had hardly ever paid calls 'out of her own sphere,' who had only once been to see 'Clare' in her own house, - she came to congratulate after her fashion. Maria had only just time to run up into the drawing-room, one morning, and say, -
'Please, ma'am, the great carriage from the Towers is coming up to the gate, and my lady the Countess is sitting inside.' It was but eleven o'clock, and Mrs Gibson would have been indignant at any commoner who had ventured to call at such an untimely hour, but in the case of the Peerage the rules of domestic morality were relaxed.
The family 'stood at arms,' as it were, till Lady Cumnor appeared in the drawing-room; and then she had to be settled in the best chair, and the light adjusted before anything like conversation began. She was the first to speak; and Lady Harriet, who had begun a few words to Molly, dropped into silence.
'I have been taking Mary - Lady Cuxhaven - to the railway station on this new line between Birmingham and London,' and I thought I would come on here, and offer you my congratulations. Clare, which is the young lady?' - putting up her glasses, and looking at Cynthia and Molly, who were dressed pretty much alike. 'I did not think it would be amiss to give you a little. advice, my dear,' said she, when Cynthia had been properly pointed out to her as bride elect. 'I have heard a good deal about you; and I am only too glad, for your mother's sake, - your mother is a very worthy woman, and did her duty very well while she was in our family - I am truly rejoiced, I say, to hear that you are going to make so creditable a marriage. I hope it will efface your former errors of conduct - which, we will hope, were but trivial in reality - and that you will live to be a comfort to your mother, - for whom both Lord Cumnor and I entertain a very sincere regard. But you must conduct yourself with discretion in whatever state of life it pleases God to place you, whether married or single. You must reverence your husband, and conform to his opinion in all things. Look up to him as your head, and do nothing without consulting him.' - It was as well that Lord Cumnor was not amongst the audience; or he might have compared precept with practice. - 'Keep strict accounts; and remember your station in life. I understand that Mr -- ' looking about for some help as to the name she had forgotten - 'Anderson - Henderson is in the law. Although there is a general prejudice against attorneys, I have known of two or three who were very respectable men; and I am sure Mr Henderson is one, or your good mother and our old friend Gibson would not have sanctioned the engagement.'
'He is a barrister,' put in Cynthia, unable to restrain herself any longer. 'Barrister-at-law.'
'Ah, yes. Attorney-at-law. Barrister-at-law. I understand without your speaking so loud, my dear. What was I going to say before you interrupted me? When you have been a little in society you will find that it is reckoned bad manners to interrupt. I had a great deal more to say to you, and you have put it all out of my head. There was something else your father wanted me to ask - what was it, Harriet?'
'I suppose you mean about Mr Hamley!'
'Oh, yes! we are intending to have the house full of Lord Hollingford's friends next month, and Lord Cumnor is particularly anxious to secure Mr Hamley.'
'The squire?' asked Mrs Gibson in some surprise. Lady Cumnor bowed slightly, as much as to say, 'If you did not interrupt me I should explain.'
'The famous traveller - the scientific Mr Hamley, I mean. I imagine he is son to the squire. Lord Hollingford knows him well; but when we asked him before, he declined coming, and assigned no reason.'
Had Roger indeed been asked to the Towers and declined? Mrs Gibson could not understand it. Lady Cumnor went on, -
'Now this time we are particularly anxious to secure him, and my son Lord Hollingford will not return to England until the very week before the Duke of Atherstone is coming to us. I believe Mr Gibson is very intimate with Mr Hamley; do you think he could induce him to favour us with his company?'
And this from the proud Lady Cumnor; and the object of it Roger Hamley, whom she had all but turned out of her drawing-room two years ago for calling at an untimely hour; and whom Cynthia had turned out of her heart. Mrs Gibson was surprised, and could only murmur out that she was sure Mr Gibson would do all that her ladyship wished.
'Thank you. You know me well enough to be aware that I am not the person, nor is the Towers the house, to go about soliciting guests. But in this instance I bend my head; high rank should always be the first to honour those who have distinguished themselves by art or science.'
'Besides, mamma,' said Lady Harriet, 'papa was saying that the Hamleys have been on their land since before the Conquest; while we only came into the county a century ago; and there is a tale that the first Cumnor began his fortune through selling tobacco in King James's reign.'
If Lady Cumnor did not exactly shift her trumpet and take snuff there on the spot, she behaved in an equivalent manner. She began a low-toned but nevertheless authoritative conversation with Clare about the details of the wedding, which lasted until she thought it fit to go, when she abruptly plucked Lady Harriet up, and carried her off in the very midst of a description she was giving to Cynthia about the delights of Spa, which was to be one of the resting-places of the newly-married couple on their wedding-tour.
Nevertheless she prepared a handsome present for the bride: a Bible and a Prayer-book bound in velvet with silver-clasps; and also a collection of household account-books, at the beginning of which Lady Cumnor wrote down with her own hand the proper weekly allowance of bread, butter, eggs, meat, and groceries per head, with the London prices of the articles, so that the most inexperienced housekeeper might ascertain if her expenditure exceeded her means, as she expressed herself in the note which she sent with the handsome, dull present.
'If you are driving into Hollingford, Harriet, perhaps you will take these books to Miss Kirkpatrick,' said Lady Cumnor, after she had sealed her note with all the straightness and correctness befitting a countess of her immaculate character. 'I understand they are all going up to London to-morrow for this wedding, in spite of what I said to Clare of the duty of being married in one's own parish-church. She told me at the time that she entirely agreed with me, but that her husband had such a strong wish for a visit to London, that she did not know how she could oppose him consistently with her wifely duty. I advised her to repeat to him my reasons for thinking that they would be ill-advised to have the marriage in town; but I am afraid she has been overruled. That was her one great fault when she lived with us; she was always so yielding, and never knew how to say "No."
'Mamma!' said Lady Harriet, with a little sly coaxing in her tone. 'Do you think you would have been so fond of her, if she had opposed you, and said "No," when you wished her
'To be sure I should, my dear. I like everybody to have an opinion of their own; only when my opinions are based on thought and experience, which few people have had equal opportunities of acquiring, I think it is but proper deference in others to allow themselves to be convinced. In fact, I think it is only obstinacy which keeps them from acknowledging that they are. I am not a despot, I hope?' she asked, with some anxiety.
'If you are, dear mamma,' said Lady Harriet, kissing the stern uplifted face very fondly, 'I like a despotism better than a republic, and I must be very despotic over my ponies, for it is already getting very late for my drive round by Ash-holt.' But when she arrived at the Gibsons', she was detained so long there by the state of the family, that she had to give up her going to Ash-holt.
Molly was sitting in the drawing-room pale and trembling, and keeping herself quiet only by a strong effort. She was the only person there when Lady Harriet entered; the room was all in disorder, strewed with presents and paper, and pasteboard boxes, and half-displayed articles of finery.
'You look like Marius sitting amidst the ruins of Carthage, my dear! What's the matter? Why have you got on that woe-begone face? This marriage is not broken off, is it? Though nothing would surprise me where the beautiful Cynthia is concerned.'
'Oh, no! that's all right. But I have caught a fresh cold, and papa says he thinks I had better not go to the wedding.'
'Poor little one! And it's the first visit to London too!'
'Yes. But what I most care for is the not being with Cynthia to the last; and then, papa' - she stopped, for she could hardly go on without open crying, and she did not want to do that. Then she cleared her voice. 'Papa,' she continued, 'has so looked forward to this holiday, - and seeing - and - , and going - oh! I can't tell you where; but he has quite a list of people and sights to be seen, - and now he says he should not be comfortable to leave me all alone for more than three days, - two for travelling, and one for the wedding.' Just then Mrs Gibson came in, ruffled too after her fashion, though the presence of Lady Harriet was wonderfully smoothing.
'My dear Lady Harriet - how kind of you! Ah, yes, I see this poor unfortunate child has been telling you of her ill-luck; just when everything was going on so beautifully; I am sure it was that open window at your back, Molly, - you know you would persist that it could do you no harm, and now you see the mischief I am sure I shan't be able to enjoy myself - and at my only child's wedding too - without you; for I can't think of leaving you without Maria. I would rather sacrifice anything myself than think of you, uncared for, and dismal at home.'
'I am sure Molly is as sorry as any one,' said Lady Harriet.
'No. I don't think she is,' said Mrs Gibson, with happy disregard of the chronology of events, 'or she would not have sate with her back to an open window the day before yesterday, when I told her not. But it can't be helped now. Papa too - but it is my duty to make the best of everything, and look at the cheerful side of life. I wish I could persuade her to do the same' (turning and addressing Lady Harriet). 'But you see it is a great mortification to a girl of her age to lose her first visit to London.'
'It is not that,' began Molly; but Lady Harriet made her a little sign to be silent while she herself spoke.
'Now, Clare! you and I can manage it all, I think, if you will but help me in a plan I have got in my head. Mr Gibson shall stay as long as ever he can in London; and Molly shall be well cared for, and have some change of air and scene too, which is really what she needs as much as anything, in my poor opinion. I can't spirit her to the wedding and give her a sight of London; but I can carry her off to the Towers, and nurse her myself; and send daily bulletins up to London, so that Mr Gibson may feel quite at case, and stay with you as long as you like, What do you say to it, Clare?'
'Oh, I could not go,' said Molly; 'I should only be a trouble to everybody.'
'Nobody asked you for your opinion, little one. If we wise elders decide that you are to go, you must submit in silence.'
Meanwhile Mrs Gibson was rapidly balancing advantages and disadvantages. Amongst the latter, jealousy came in predominant. Amongst the former, - it would sound well; Maria could then accompany Cynthia and herself as 'their maid,' - Mr Gibson would stay longer with her, and it was always desirable to have a man at her beck and call in such a place as London; besides that, this identical man was gentlemanly and good-looking, and a favourite with her prosperous brother-in-law. The ayes had it.
'What a charming plan! I cannot think of anything kinder or pleasanter for this poor darling. Only - what will Lady Cumnor say? I am modest for my family as much as for myself. She won't - '
'You know mamma's sense of hospitality is never more gratified than when the house is quite full; and papa is just like her. Besides she is fond of you, and grateful to our good Mr Gibson, and will be fond of you, little one, when she knows you as I do.'
Molly's heart sank within her at the prospect. Excepting on the one evening of her father's wedding-day, she had never even seen the outside of the Towers since that unlucky day in her childhood when she had fallen asleep on Clare's bed. She had a dread of the countess, a dislike to the house, only it seemed as if it was a solution to the problem of what to do with her, which had been perplexing every one all morning, and so evidently that it had caused her much distress. She kept silence, though her lips quivered from time to time. Oh, if the Miss Brownings had not chosen this very time of all others to pay their monthly visit to Miss Hornblower! if she could only have gone there, and lived with them in their quaint, quiet, primitive way, instead of having to listen, without remonstrance, to hearing plans discussed about her, as if she was an inanimate chattel.
'She shall have the south pink room, opening out of mine by one door, you remember; and the dressing-room shall be made into a cozy little sitting-room for her, in case she likes to be by herself. Parkes shall attend upon her, and I am sure Mr Gibson must know Parkes's powers as a nurse by this time. We shall have all manner of agreeable people in the house to amuse her downstairs; and when she has got rid of this access of cold, I will drive her out every day, and write daily bulletins, as I said. Pray tell Mr Gibson all that, and let it be considered as settled. I will come for her in the close carriage to-morrow, at eleven. And now may I see the lovely bride elect, and give her mamma's present, and my own good wishes?'
So Cynthia came in, and demurely received the very proper present, and the equally correct congratulations, without testifying any very great delight or gratitude at either; for she was quite quick enough to detect that there was no great afflux. of affection accompanying either. But when she heard her mother quickly recapitulating all the details of the plan for Molly, Cynthia's eyes did sparkle with gladness; and almost to Lady Harriet's surprise, she thanked her as if she had conferred a personal favour upon her, Cynthia. Lady Harriet saw, too, that in a very quiet way, she had taken Molly's hand, and was holding it all the time, as if loth to think of their approaching separation - somehow, she and Lady Harriet were brought nearer together by this little action than they had ever been before.
If Molly had hoped that her father might have raised some obstacles to the project, she was disappointed. But, indeed, she did not when she perceived how he seemed to feel that, by placing her under the care of Lady Harriet and Parkes, he should be relieved from anxiety; and how he spoke of this change of air and scene as being the very thing he had been wishing to secure for her; country air, and absence of excitement as this would be; for the only other place where he could have secured her these advantages, and at the same time sent her as an invalid, was to Hamley Hall; and he dreaded the associations there with the beginning of her present illness.
So Molly was driven off in state the next day, leaving her own home all in confusion with the assemblage of boxes and trunks in the hall, and all the other symptoms of the approaching departure of the family for London and the wedding. All the morning Cynthia had been with her in her room, attending to the arrangement of Molly's clothes, instructing her what to wear with what, and rejoicing over the pretty smartnesses, which, having been prepared for her as bridesmaid, were now to serve as adornments for her visit to the Towers. Both Molly and Cynthia spoke about dress as if it was the very object of their lives; for each dreaded the introduction of more serious subjects; Cynthia more for Molly than herself. Only when the carriage was announced, and Molly was preparing to go downstairs, Cynthia said, -
'I am not going to thank you, Molly, or to tell you how I love you.'
'Don't,' said Molly, 'I can't bear it.'
'Only you know you're to be my first visitor, and if you wear brown ribbons to a green gown, I'll turn you out of the house!' So they parted. Mr Gibson was there in the hall to hand Molly in. He had ridden hard; and was now giving her two or three last injunctions as to her health.
'Think of us on Thursday,' said he. 'I declare I don't know which of her three lovers she may not summon at the very last moment to act the part of bridegroom. I'm determined to be surprised at nothing; and will give her away with a good grace to whoever comes.'
They drove away, and until they were out of sight of the house, Molly had enough to do to keep returning the kisses of the hand wafted to her by her stepmother out of the drawing-room window, while at the same time her eyes were fixed on a white handkerchief fluttering out of the attic from which she herself had watched Roger's departure nearly two years before. What changes time had brought!
When Molly arrived at the Towers she was convoyed into Lady Cumnor's presence by Lady Harriet. It was a mark of respect to the lady of the house, which the latter knew that her mother would expect; but she was anxious to get it over, and take Molly up into the room which she had been so busy in arranging for her. Lady Cumnor was, however, very kind, if not positively gracious.
'You are Lady Harriet's visitor, my dear,' said she, 'and I hope she will take good care of you. If not, come and complain of her to me.' It was as near an approach to a joke as Lady Cumnor ever perpetrated, and from it Lady Harriet knew that her mother was pleased by Molly's manners and appearance.
'Now, here you are in your own kingdom; and into this room I shan't venture to come without express permission. Here is the last new Quarterly, and the last new novel, and the last new essays. Now, my dear, you need not come down again to-day unless you like it. Parkes shall bring you everything and anything you want. You must get strong as fast, as you can, for all sorts of great and famous people are coming to-morrow and the next day, and I think you'll like to see them. Suppose for to-day you only come down to lunch, and if you like it, in the evening. Dinner is such a wearily long meal, if one is not strong; and you would not miss much, for there is only my cousin Charles in the house now, and he is the personification of sensible silence.'
Molly was only too glad to allow Lady Harriet to decide everything for her. It had begun to rain, and was, altogether, a gloomy day for August; and there was a small fire of scented wood burning cheerfully in the sitting-room appropriated to her. High up, it commanded a wide and pleasant view over the park, and from it could be seen the spire of Hollingford Church, which gave Molly a pleasant idea of neighbourhood to home. She was left alone, lying on the sofa - books near her, wood crackling and blazing, wafts of wind bringing the beating rain against the window, and so enhancing the sense of indoor comfort by the outdoor contrast. Parkes was unpacking for her. Lady Harriet had introduced Parkes to Molly by saying, 'Now, Molly, this is Mrs Parkes, the only person I ever am afraid of. She scolds me if I dirty myself with my paints, just as if I was a little child; and she makes me go to bed when I want to sit up,' - Parkes was smiling grimly all the time; - 'so to get rid of her tyranny I give her you as victim. Parkes, rule over Miss Gibson with a rod of iron; make her eat and drink, and rest and sleep, and dress as you think wisest and best.'
Parkes had begun her reign by putting Molly on the sofa, and saying, 'If you will give me your keys, Miss, I will unpack your things, and let you know when it is time for me to arrange your hair, preparatory to luncheon.' For if Lady Harriet used familiar colloquialisms from time to time, she certainly had not learnt it from Parkes, who piqued herself on the correctness of her language.
When Molly went down to lunch she found 'cousin Charles,' with his aunt, Lady Cumnor. He was a certain Sir Charles Morton, the son of Lady Cumnor's only sister: a plain, sandy-haired man of thirty-five or so; immensely rich, very sensible, awkward, and reserved. He had had a chronic attachment, of many years' standing, to his cousin, Lady Harriet, who did not care for him in the least, although it was the marriage very earnestly desired for her by her mother. Lady Harriet was, however, on friendly terms with him, ordered him about, and told him what to do, and what to leave undone, without having even a doubt as to the willingness of his obedience. She had given him his cue about Molly.
'Now, Charles, the girl wants to be interested and amused without having to take any trouble for herself; she is too delicate to be very active either in mind or body. Just look after her when the house gets full, and place her where she can hear and see everything and everybody, without any fuss and responsibility.'
So Sir Charles began this day at luncheon by taking Molly under his quiet protection. He did not say much to her; but what he did say was thoroughly friendly and sympathetic; and Molly began, as he and Lady Harriet intended that she should, to have a kind of pleasant reliance upon him. Then in the evening while the rest of the family were at dinner - after Molly's tea and hour of quiet repose, Parkes came and dressed her in some of the new clothes prepared for the Kirkpatrick visit, and did her hair in some new and pretty way, so that when Molly looked at herself in the cheval-glass, she scarcely knew the elegant reflection to be that of herself. She was fetched down by Lady Harriet into the great long formidable drawing-room, which, as an interminable place of pacing, had haunted her dreams ever since her childhood. At the further end sate Lady Cumnor at her tapestry work; the light of fire and candle seemed all concentrated on that one bright part where presently Lady Harriet made tea, and Lord Cumnor went to sleep, and Sir Charles read passages aloud from the Edinburgh Review to the three ladies at their work.
When Molly went to bed she was constrained to admit that staying at the Towers as a visitor was rather pleasant than otherwise; and she tried to reconcile old impressions with new ones, until she fell asleep. There was another comparatively quiet day before the expected guests began to arrive in the evening. Lady Harriet took Molly a drive in her little pony-carriage; and for the first time for many weeks Molly began to feel the delightful spring of returning health; the dance of youthful spirits in the fresh air cleared by the previous day's rain.
'If you can without fatigue, dear, do come down to dinner to-day; you'll then see the people one by one as they appear, instead of having to encounter a crowd of strangers. Hollingford will be here too. I hope you'll find it pleasant.'
So Molly made her appearance at dinner that day; and got to know, by sight at least, some of the most distinguished of the visitors at the Towers. The next day was Thursday, Cynthia's wedding-day; bright and fine in the country, whatever it might be in London. And there were several letters from the home-people awaiting Molly when she came downstairs to the late breakfast. For every day, every hour, she was gaining strength and health, and she was unwilling to continue her invalid habits any longer than was necessary. She looked so much better that Sir Charles noticed it to Lady Harriet; and several of the visitors spoke of her this morning as a very pretty, lady-like, and graceful girl. This was Thursday; on Friday, as Lady Harriet had told her, some visitors from the more immediate neighbourhood were expected to stay over the Sunday: but she had not mentioned their names, and when Molly went down into the drawing-room before dinner, she was almost startled by perceiving Roger Hamley in the centre of a group of gentlemen, who were all talking together eagerly, and, as it seemed to her, making him the object of their attention. He made a hitch in his conversation, lost the precise meaning of a question addressed to him, answered it rather hastily, and made his way to where Molly was sitting, a little behind Lady Harriet. He had heard that she was staying at the Towers, but he was almost as much surprised as she was by his unexpected appearance, for he had only seen her once or twice since his return from Africa, and then in the guise of an invalid. Now in her pretty evening dress, with her hair beautifully dressed, her delicate complexion flushed a little with timidity, yet her movements and manners bespeaking quiet ease, Roger hardly recognized her, although he acknowledged her identity. He began to feel that admiring deference which most young men experience when conversing with a very pretty girl: a sort of desire to obtain her good opinion in a manner very different to his old familiar friendliness. He was annoyed when Sir Charles, whose especial charge she still was, came up to take her in to dinner. He could not quite understand the smile of mutual intelligence that passed between the two, each being aware of Lady Harriet's plan of sheltering Molly from the necessity of talking, and acting in conformity with her wishes as much as with their own. Roger found himself puzzling, and watching them from time to time during dinner. Again in the evening he sought her out, but found her again preoccupied with one of the young men staying in the house, who had had the advantage of two days of mutual interest, and acquaintance with the daily events and jokes and anxieties of the family-circle. Molly could not help wishing to break off all this trivial talk and to make room for Roger: she had so much to ask him about everything at the Hall; he was, and had been such a stranger to them all for these last two months, and more. But though each wanted to speak to the other more than to any one else in the room, it so happened that everything seemed to conspire to prevent it. Lord Hollingford carried off Roger to the cluster of middle-aged men; he was wanted to give his opinion upon some scientific subject. Mr Ernulphus Watson, the young man referred to above, kept his place by Molly, as the prettiest girl in the room, and almost dazed her by his never-ceasing flow of clever small-talk. She looked so tired and pale at last that the ever-watchful Lady Harriet sent Sir Charles to the rescue, and after a few words with Lady Harriet, Roger saw Molly quietly leave the room; and a sentence or two which he heard Lady Harriet address to her cousin made him know that it was for the night. Those sentences might bear another interpretation to the obvious one.
'Really, Charles, considering that she is in your charge, I think you might have saved her from the chatter and patter of Mr Watson; I can only stand it when I am in the strongest health.'
Why was Molly in Sir Charles' charge? why? Then Roger remembered many little things that might serve to confirm the fancy he had got into his head; and he went to bed puzzled and annoyed. It seemed to him such an incongruous, hastily-got-up sort of engagement, if engagement it really was. On Saturday they were more fortunate; they had a long tête-à-tête in the most public place in the house - on a sofa in the hall where Molly was resting at Lady Harriet's command before going upstairs after a walk. Roger was passing through, and saw her, and came to her. Standing before her, and making pretence of playing with the gold-fish in a great marble basin close at hand, -
'I was very unlucky,' said he. 'I wanted to get near you last night, but it was quite impossible. You were so busy talking to Mr Watson, until Sir Charles Morton came and carried you off - with such an air of authority! Have you known him long?'
Now this was not at all the manner in which Roger had predetermined that he would speak of Sir Charles to Molly; but the words came out in spite of himself.
'No! not long. I never saw him before I came here - on Tuesday. But Lady Harriet told him to see that I did not get tired, for I wanted to come down; but you know I have not been strong. He is a cousin of Lady Harriet's, and does all she tells him to do.'
'Oh! he is not handsome; but I believe he is a very sensible man.'
'Yes! I should think so. He is so silent though, that I can hardly judge.'
'He bears a very high character in the county,' said Roger, willing now to give him his full due.
Molly stood up.
'I must go upstairs,' she said; 'I only sate down here for a minute or two because Lady Harriet bade me.'
'Stop a little longer,' said he. 'This is really the pleasantest place; this basin of water-lilies gives one the idea, if not the sensation, of coolness; besides - it seems so long since I saw you, and I have a message from my father to give you. He is very angry with you.'
'Angry with me?' said Molly, in surprise.
'Yes! He heard that you had come here for change of air; and he was offended that you had not come to us - to the Hall, instead. He said that you should have remembered old friends!'
Molly took all this quite gravely, and did not at first notice the smile on his face.
'Oh! I am so sorry!' said she. 'But will you please tell him how it all happened. Lady Harriet called the very day when it was settled that I was not to go to - ' Cynthia's wedding she was going to add, but she suddenly stopped short, and, blushing deeply, changed the expression, - 'go to London, and she planned it all in a minute, and convinced mamma and papa, and had her own way. There was really no resisting her.'
'I think you will have to tell all this to my father yourself, if you mean to make your peace. Why can you not come on to the Hall when you leave the Towers?'
To go in the cool manner suggested from one house to another, after the manner of a royal progress, was not at all according to Molly's primitive home-keeping notions. She made answer, -
'I should like it very much, some time. But I must go home first. They will want me more than ever now -- '
Again she felt herself touching on a sore subject, and stopped short. Roger became annoyed at her so constantly conjecturing what he must be feeling on the subject of Cynthia's marriage. With sympathetic perception she had discerned that the idea must give him pain; and perhaps she also knew that he would dislike to show the pain: but she had not the presence of mind or ready wit to give a skilful turn to the conversation. All this annoyed Roger, he could hardly tell why. He determined to take the metaphorical bull by the horns. Until that was done, his footing with Molly would always be insecure; as it always is between two friends, who mutually avoid a subject to which their thoughts perpetually recur.
'Ah, yes!' said he. 'Of course you must be of double importance now Miss Kirkpatrick has left you. I saw her marriage in The Times yesterday.'
His tone of voice was changed in speaking of her, but her name had been named between them, and that was the great thing to accomplish.
'Still,' he continued, 'I think I must urge my father's claim for a short visit, and all the more, because I can really see the apparent improvement in your health since I came, - only yesterday. Besides, Molly,' it was the old familiar Roger of former days who spoke now, 'I think you could help us at home. Aimée is shy and awkward with my father, and he has never taken quite kindly to her, - yet I know they would like and value each other, if some one could but bring them together, - and it would be such a comfort to me if this could take place before I have to leave.'
'To leave - are you going away again?'
'Yes. Have you not heard? I did not complete my engagement. I am going again in September for six months.'
'I remember. But somehow I fancied - you seemed to have settled down into the old ways at the Hall.'
'So my father appears to think. But it is not likely I shall ever make it my home again; and that is partly the reason why I want my father to adopt the notion of Aimée's living with him. Ah, here are all the people coming back from their walk. However, I shall see you again: perhaps this afternoon we may get a little quiet time, for I have a great deal to consult you about.'
They separated then, and Molly went upstairs very happy, very full and warm at her heart; it was so pleasant to have Roger talking to her in this way, like a friend; she had once thought that she could never look upon the great brown-bearded celebrity in the former light of almost brotherly intimacy, but now it was all coming right. There was no opportunity for renewed confidences that afternoon. Molly went a quiet decorous drive as fourth with two dowagers and one spinster; but it was very pleasant to think that she should see him again at dinner, and again to-morrow. On the Sunday evening, as they all were sitting and loitering on the lawn before dinner, Roger went on with what he had to say about the position of his sister-in-law in his father's house: the mutual bond between the mother and grandfather being the child; who was also, through jealousy, the bone of contention and the severance. There were many little details to be given in order to make Molly quite understand the difficulty of the situations on both sides; and the young man and the girl became absorbed in what they were talking about, and wandered away into the shade of the long avenue. Lady Harriet separated herself from a group and came up to Lord Hollingford, who was sauntering a little apart, and putting her arm within his with the familiarity of a favourite sister, she said, -
'Don't you think that your pattern young man, and my favourite young woman are finding out each other's good qualities?'
He had not been observing as she had been.
'Who do you mean?' said he.
'Look along the avenue; who are those?'
'Mr Hamley and - is it not Miss Gibson? I can't quite make out. Oh! if you're letting your fancy run off in that direction, I can tell you it's quite waste of time. Roger Hamley is a man who will soon have an European reputation!'
'That's very possible, and yet it does not make any difference in my opinion. Molly Gibson is capable of appreciating him.'
'She is a very pretty, good little country-girl. I don't mean to say anything against her, but -- '
'Remember the Charity Ball; you called her "unusually intelligent" after you had danced with her there. But after all we are like the genie and the fairy in the Arabian Nights' Entertainment, who each cried up the merits of the Prince Caramalzaman and the Princess Badoura.'
'Hamley is not a marrying man.'
'How do you know?'
'I know that he has very little private fortune, and I know that science is not a remunerative profession, if profession it can be called.'
'Oh, if that's all - a hundred things may happen - some one may leave him a fortune - or this tiresome little heir that nobody wanted, may die.'
'Hush, Harriet, that's the worst of allowing yourself to plan far ahead for the future; you are sure to contemplate the death of some one, and to reckon upon the contingency as affecting events.'
'As if lawyers were not always doing something of the kind!'
'Leave it to those to whom it is necessary. I dislike planning marriages or looking forward to deaths about equally.'
'You are getting very prosaic and tiresome, Hollingford!'
'Only getting!' said he smiling. 'I thought you had always looked upon me as a tiresome matter-of-fact fellow.'
'Now, if you're going to fish for a compliment, I am gone. Only remember my prophecy when my vision comes to pass; or make a bet, and whoever wins shall spend the money on a present to Prince Caramalzaman or Princess Badoura, as the case may be.'
Lord Hollingford remembered his sister's words as he heard Roger say to Molly as he was leaving the Towers on the following day, -
'Then I may tell my father that you will come and pay him a visit next week? You don't know what pleasure it will give him.' He had been on the point of saying 'will give us,' but he had an instinct which told him it was as well to consider Molly's promised visit as exclusively made to his father.
The next day Molly went home; she was astonished at herself for being so sorry to leave the Towers; and found it difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile the long-fixed idea of the house as a place wherein to suffer all a child's tortures of dismay and forlornness with her new and fresh conception. She had gained health, she had had pleasure, the faint fragrance of a new and unacknowledged hope had stolen into her life. No wonder that Mr Gibson was struck with the improvement in her looks, and Mrs Gibson impressed with her increased grace.
'Ah, Molly,' said she, 'it's really wonderful to see what a little good society will do for a girl. Even a week of association with such people as one meets with at the Towers is, as somebody said of a lady of rank whose name I have forgotten, "a polite education in itself." There is something quite different about you - a je ne sçais quoi - that would tell me at once that you have been mingling with the aristocracy. With all her charms, it was what my darling Cynthia wanted; not that Mr Henderson thought so, for a more devoted lover can hardly be conceived. He absolutely bought her a parure of diamonds, I was obliged to say to him that I had studied to preserve her simplicity of taste, and that he must not corrupt her with too much luxury. But I was rather disappointed at their going off without a maid. It was the one blemish in the arrangements, the spot in the sun. Dear Cynthia, when I think of her, I do assure you, Molly, I make it my nightly prayer that I may be able to find you just such another husband. And all this time you have never told me who you met at the Towers?'
Molly ran over a list of names. Roger Hamley's came last.
'Upon my word! That young man is pushing his way up!'
'The Hamleys are a far older family than the Cumnors,' said Molly, flushing up.
'Now, Molly, I can't have you democratic. Rank is a great distinction. It is quite enough to have dear papa with democratic tendencies. But we won't begin to quarrel. Now that you and I are left alone we ought to be bosom friends, and I hope we shall be. Roger Hamley did not say much about that unfortunate little Osborne Hamley, I suppose.'
'On the contrary. He says his father dotes on the child; and he seemed very proud of him, himself.'
'I thought the squire must be getting very much infatuated with something. I daresay the French mother takes care of that. Why! he has scarcely taken any notice of you for this month or more, and before that you were everything.'
It was about six weeks since Cynthia's engagement had become publicly known, and that might have had something to do with the squire's desertion, Molly thought. But she said, -
'The squire has sent me an invitation to go and stay there next week if you have no objection, mamma. They seem to want a companion for Mrs Osborne Hamley, who is not very strong.'
'I can hardly tell what to say, - I don't like your having to associate with a Frenchwoman of doubtful rank; and I can't bear the thought of losing my child - my only daughter now. I did ask Helen Kirkpatrick, but she can't come for some time; and the house is going to be altered. Papa has consented to build me another room at last, for Cynthia and Mr Henderson will, of course, come and see us; we shall have many more visitors, I expect, and your bedroom will make a capital lumber-room; and Maria wants a week's holiday. I am always so unwilling to put any obstacles in the way of any one's pleasure, - weakly unwilling, I believe, - but it certainly would be very convenient to have you out of the house for a few days; so, for once, I will waive my own wish for your companionship, and plead your cause with papa.'
The Miss Brownings came to call and hear the double batch of news. Mrs Goodenough had come the very day on which they had returned from Miss Hornblower's, to tell them the astounding fact of Molly Gibson having gone on a visit to the Towers; not to come back at night, but to sleep there, to be there for two or three days, just as if she was a young lady of quality. So the Miss Brownings came to hear all the details of the wedding from Mrs Gibson, and the history of Molly's visit at the Towers as well. But Mrs Gibson did not like this divided interest, and some of her old jealousy of Molly's intimacy at the Towers had returned.
'Now, Molly,' said Miss Browning, 'let us hear how you behaved among the great folks. You must not be set up with all their attention; remember that they pay it to you for your good father's sake.'
'Molly is, I think, quite aware,' put in Mrs Gibson, in her most soft and languid tone, 'that she owes her privilege of visiting at such a house to Lady Cumnor's kind desire to set my mind quite at liberty at the time of Cynthia's marriage. As soon as ever I had returned home, Molly came back; indeed I should not have thought it right to let her intrude upon their kindness beyond what was absolutely necessary.'
Molly felt extremely uncomfortable at all this, although perfectly aware of the entire inaccuracy of the statement.
'Well, but, Molly!' said Miss Browning, 'never mind whether you went there on your own merits, or your worthy father's merits, or Mrs Gibson's merits; but tell us what you did when you were there.'
So Molly began an account of their sayings and doings, which she could have made far more interesting to Miss Browning and Miss Phoebe if she had not been conscious of her stepmother's critical listening. She had to tell it all with a mental squint; the surest way to spoil a narration. She was also subject to Mrs Gibson's perpetual corrections of little statements which she knew to be facts. But what vexed her most of all was Mrs Gibson's last speech before the Miss Brownings left.
'Molly had fallen into rambling ways with this visit of hers, of which she makes so much, as if nobody had ever been in a great house but herself. She is going to Hamley Hall next week, - getting quite dissipated in fact.'
Yet to Mrs Goodenough, the next caller on the same errand of congratulation, Mrs Gibson's tone was quite different. There had always been a tacit antagonism between the two, and the conversation now ran as follows: -
Mrs Goodenough began, -
'Well! Mrs Gibson, I suppose I must wish you joy of Miss Cynthia's marriage; I should condole with some mothers as had lost their daughters; but you're not one of that sort, I reckon.'
Now, as Mrs Gibson was not quite sure to which 'sort' of mothers the greatest credit was to be attached, she found it a little difficult how to frame her reply.
'Dear Cynthia!' she said. 'One can't but rejoice in her happiness! And yet -- ' she ended her sentence by sighing.
'Ay. She was a young woman as would always have her followers; for, to tell the truth, she was as pretty a creature as ever I saw in my life. And all the more she needed skilful guidance. I am sure I, for one, am as glad as can be she's done so well by herself. Folks say Mr Henderson has a handsome private fortune over and above what he makes by the law.' 'There is no fear but that my Cynthia will have everything this world can give!' said Mrs Gibson with dignity.
'Well, well! she was always a bit of a favourite of mine; and as I was saying to my grand-daughter there' (for she was accompanied by a young lady, who looked keenly to the prospect of some wedding-cake), 'I was never one of those who ran her down and called her a flirt and a jilt. I'm glad to hear she's like to be so well off. And now, I suppose, you'll be turning your mind to doing something for Miss Molly there?'
'If you mean by that, doing anything that can, by hastening her marriage, deprive me of the company of one who is like my own child, you are very much mistaken, Mrs Goodenough. And pray remember, I am the last person in the world to match-make. Cynthia made Mr Henderson's acquaintance at her uncle's in London.'
'Ay! I thought her cousin was very often ill, and needing her nursing, and you were very keen she should be of use. I am not saying but what it is right in a mother; I'm only putting in a word for Miss Molly.'
'Thank you, Mrs Goodenough,' said Molly, half-angry, half-laughing. 'When I want to be married, I'll not trouble mamma. I'll look out for myself.'
'Molly is becoming so popular, I hardly know how we shall keep her at home,' said Mrs Gibson. 'I miss her sadly; but, as I said to Mr Gibson, let young people have change, and see a little of the world while they are young. It has been a great advantage to her being at the Towers while so many clever and distinguished people were there. I can already see a difference in her tone of conversation: an elevation in her choice of subjects. And now she is going to Hamley Hall. I can assure you I feel quite a proud mother, when I see how she is sought after. And my other daughter - my Cynthia - writing such letters from Paris!'
'Things is a deal changed since my days, for sure,' said Mrs Goodenough. 'So, perhaps, I'm no judge. When I was married first, him and me went in a postchaise to his father's house, a matter of twenty mile off at the outside; and sate down to as good a supper amongst his friends and family as you'd wish to see. And that was my first wedding jaunt. My second was when I better knowed my worth as a bride, and thought that now or never I must see London. But I were reckoned a very extravagant sort of a body to go so far, and spend my money, though Harry had left me uncommon well off. But now young folks go off to Paris, and think nothing of the cost: and it's well if wilful waste don't make woeful want before they die. But I'm thankful somewhat is being done for Miss Molly's chances, as I said afore. It's not quite what I should have liked to have done for my Bessy though. But times are changed, as I said just now.'
The conversation ended there for the time. Wedding-cake and wine were brought in, and it was Molly's duty to serve them out. But those last words of Mrs Goodenough's tingled in her ears, and she tried to interpret them to her own satisfaction in any way but the obvious one. And that, too, was destined to be confirmed; for directly after Mrs Goodenough took her leave, Mrs Gibson desired Molly to carry away the tray to a table close to an open corner window, where the things might be placed in readiness for any future callers; and underneath this open window went the path from the house-door to the road. Molly heard Mrs Goodenough saying to her grand-daughter, -
'That Mrs Gibson is a deep un. There's Mr Roger Hamley as like as not to have the Hall estate, and she sends Molly a-visiting - ' and then she passed out of hearing. Molly could have burst out crying, with a full sudden conviction of what Mrs Goodenough had been alluding to: her sense of the impropriety of Molly's going to visit at the Hall when Roger was at home. To be sure Mrs Goodenough was a commonplace, unrefined woman. Mrs Gibson did not seem to have even noticed the allusion. Mr Gibson took it all as a matter of course that Molly should go to the Hall as simply now, as she had done before. Roger had spoken of it in so straightforward a manner as showed he had no conception of its being an impropriety, - this visit, - this visit until now so happy a subject of anticipation. Molly felt as if she could never speak to any one of the idea to which Mrs Goodenough's words had given rise; as if she could never be the first to suggest the notion of impropriety, which presupposed what she blushed to think of. Then she tried to comfort herself by reasoning. If it had been wrong, forward, or indelicate, really improper in the slightest degree, who would have been so ready as her father to put his veto upon it? But reasoning was of no use after Mrs Goodenough's words had put fancies into Molly's head. The more she bade these fancies begone the more they answered her (as Daniel O'Rourke did the man in the moon, when he bade Dan get off his seat on the sickle, and go into empty space), 'The more ye ask us the more we won't stir.' One may smile at a young girl's miseries of this description; but they are very real and stinging miseries to her. All that Molly could do was to resolve on a single eye to the dear old squire, and his mental and bodily comforts; to try and heal up any breaches which might have occurred between him and Aimée; and to ignore Roger as much as possible. Good Roger! Kind Roger! Dear Roger! It would be very hard to avoid him as much as was consistent with common politeness; but it would be right to do it; and when she was with him she must be as natural as possible, or he might observe some difference; but what was natural? How much ought she avoid being with him? Would he ever notice if she was more chary of her company, more calculating of her words? Alas! the simplicity of their intercourse was spoilt henceforwards! She made laws for herself; she resolved to devote herself to the squire and to Aimée, and to forget Mrs Goodenough's foolish speeches; but her perfect freedom was gone; and with it half her chance, that is to say, half her chance would have been lost over any strangers who had not known her before: they would probably have thought her stiff and awkward, and apt to say things and then retract them. But she was so different from her usual self that Roger noticed the change in her as soon as she arrived at the Hall. She had carefully measured out the days of her visit; they were to be exactly the same number as she had spent at the Towers. She feared lest if she stayed at the Hall a shorter time the squire might be annoyed. Yet how charming the place looked in its early autumnal glow as she drove up! And there was Roger at the hall-door waiting to receive her, watching for her coming. And now he retreated, apparently to summon his sister-in-law, who came now timidly forwards in her deep widow's mourning, holding her boy in her arms as if to protect her shyness; but he struggled down, and ran towards the carriage, eager to greet his friend the coachman, and to obtain a promised ride. Roger did not say much himself: he wanted to make Aimée feel her place as daughter of the house; but she was too timid to speak much, And she only took Molly by the hand and led her into the drawing-room, where, as if by a sudden impulse of gratitude for all the tender nursing she had received during her illness, she put her arms round Molly and kissed her long and well. And after that they came to be friends.
It was nearly lunch-time, and the squire always made his appearance at that meal, more for the pleasure of seeing his grandson eat his dinner, than for any hunger of his own. To-day Molly quickly saw the whole state of the family affairs. She thought that even had Roger said nothing about them at the Towers, she should have found out that neither the father nor the daughter-in-law had as yet found the clue to each other's characters, although they had now been living for several months in the same house. Aimée seemed to forget her English in her nervousness; and to watch with the jealous eyes of a dissatisfied mother all the proceedings of the squire towards her little boy. They were not of the wisest kind it must be owned; the child sipped the strong ale with evident relish, and clamoured for everything which he saw the others enjoying. Aimée could hardly attend to Molly for her anxiety as to what her boy was doing and eating; yet she said nothing. Roger took the end of the table opposite to that at which sate grandfather and grandchild. After the boy's first wants were gratified the squire addressed himself to Molly.
'Well! and so you can come here a-visiting though you have been among the grand folks. I thought you were going to cut us, Miss Molly, when I heard you was gone to the Towers - could not find any other place to stay at while father and mother were away, but an earl's, eh?'
'They asked me, and I went,' said Molly; 'now you've asked me, and I've come here.'
'I think you might ha' known you'd be always welcome here, without waiting for asking. Why, Molly! I look upon you as a kind of a daughter more than Madam there!' dropping his voice a little, and perhaps supposing that the child's babble would drown the signification of his words. - 'Nay, you need not look at me so pitifully - she does not follow English readily.'
'I think she does!' said Molly, in a low voice, not looking up, however, for fear of catching another glimpse at Aimée's sudden forlornness of expression and deepened colour. She felt grateful, as if for a personal favour, when she heard Roger speaking to Aimée the moment afterwards in the tender tones of brotherly friendliness; and presently these two were sufficiently engaged in a tête-à-tête conversation to allow Molly and the squire to go on talking.
'He's sturdy chap, is not he?' said the squire, stroking the little Roger's curly head. 'And he can puff four puffs at grandpapa's pipe without being sick, can't he?'
'I s'ant puff any more puffs,' said the boy, resolutely. 'Mamma says no. I s'ant.'
'That's just like her!' said the squire, dropping his voice this time however. 'As if it could do the child any harm!'
Molly made a point of turning the conversation from all personal subjects after this, and kept the squire talking about the progress of his drainage during the rest of lunch. He offered to take her to see it; and she acceded to the proposal, thinking, meantime, how little she need have anticipated the being thrown too intimately with Roger, who seemed to devote himself to his sister-in-law. But, in the evening, when Aimée had gone upstairs to put her boy to bed, and the squire was asleep in his easy chair, a sudden flush of memory brought Mrs Goodenough's words again to her mind. She was virtually tête-à-tête with Roger, as she had been dozens of times before, but now she could not help assuming an air of constraint: her eyes did not meet his in the old frank way; she took up a book at a pause in the conversation, and left him puzzled and annoyed at the change in her manner. And so it went on during all the time of her visit. If sometimes she forgot and let herself go into all her old naturalness, by-and-by she checked herself, and became comparatively cold and reserved. Roger was pained at all this - more pained day after day; more anxious to discover the cause. Aimée, too, silently noticed how different Molly became in Roger's presence. One day she could not help saying to Molly, -
'Don't you like Roger? You would if you only knew how good he was! He is learned, but that is nothing: it is his goodness that one admires and loves.'
'He is very good,' said Molly. 'I have known him long enough to know that.'
'But you don't think him agreeable? He is not like my poor husband, to be sure; and you knew him well, too. Ah! tell me about him once again. When you first knew him? When his mother was alive?'
Molly had grown very fond of Aimée: when the latter was at her case she had very charming and attaching ways; but feeling uneasy in her position in the squire's house, she was almost repellent to him; and he, too, put on his worst side to her. Roger was most anxious to bring them together, and had several consultations with Molly as to the best means of accomplishing this end. As long as they talked upon this subject she spoke to him in the quiet sensible manner which she inherited from her father; but when their discussions on this point were ended, she fell back into her piquant assumption of dignified reserve. It was very difficult to her to maintain this strange manner, especially when once or twice she fancied that it gave him pain; and she would go into her own room and suddenly burst into tears on these occasions, and wish that her visit was ended, and that she was once again in the eventless tranquillity of her own home. Yet presently her fancy changed, and she clung to the swiftly passing hours, as if she would still retain the happiness of each. For, unknown to her, Roger was exerting himself to make her visit pleasant. He was not willing to appear as the instigator of all the little plans for each day, for he felt as if somehow he did not hold the same place in her regard as formerly. Still, one day Aimée suggested a nutting expedition - another day they gave little Roger the unheard-of pleasure of tea out-of-doors - there was something else agreeable for a third; and it was Roger who arranged all these simple pleasures - such as he knew Molly would enjoy. But to her he only appeared as the ready forwarder of Aimée's devices. The week was nearly gone, when one morning the squire found Roger sitting in the old library - with a book before him, it is true, but so deep in thought that he was evidently startled by his father's unexpected entrance.
'I thought I should find thee here, my lad! We'll have the old room done up again before winter; it smells musty enough, and yet I see it's the place for thee! I want thee to go with me round the five-acre. I'm thinking of laying it down in grass. It's time for you to be getting into the fresh air, you look quite woebegone over books, books, books; there never was a thing like 'em for stealing a man's health out of him!'
So Roger went out with his father, without saying many words till they were at some distance from the house. Then he brought out a sentence with such abruptness that he repaid his father for the start the latter had given him a quarter of an hour before.
'Father, you remember I'm going out again to the Cape next month! You spoke of doing up the library. If it is for me, I shall be away all the winter.'
'Can't you get off it?' pleaded his father. 'I thought maybe you'd forgotten all about it - '
'Not likely!' said Roger, half-smiling.
'Well, but they might have found another man to finish up your work.'
'No one can finish it but myself. Besides, an engagement is an engagement. When I wrote to Lord Hollingford to tell him I must come home, I promised to go out again for another six months.'
'Ay. I know. And perhaps it will put it out of thy mind. It will always be hard on me to part from thee. But I daresay it's best for you.'
Roger's colour deepened. 'You are alluding to - to Miss Kirkpatrick - Mrs Henderson, I mean. Father, let me tell you once for all I think that was rather a hasty affair. I am pretty sure now that we were not suited to each other. I was wretched when I got her letter - at the Cape I mean - but I believe it was for the best.'
'That's right. That's my own boy,' said the squire, turning round and shaking hands with his son with vehemence. 'And now I'll tell you what I heard the other day, when I was at the magistrates' meeting. They were all saying she had jilted Preston.'
'I don't want to hear anything against her: she may have her faults, but I can never forget how I once loved her.'
'Well, well! Perhaps it's right. I was not so bad about it, was I, Roger? Poor Osborne need not ha' been so secret with me. I asked your Miss Cynthia out here - and her mother and all - my bark is worse than my bite. For if I had a wish on earth it was to see Osborne married as befitted one of an old stock, and he went and chose out this French girl, of no family at all, only a -- '
'Never mind what she was; look at what she is! I wonder you are not more taken with her humility and sweetness, father!'
'I don't even call her pretty,' said the squire, uneasily, for he dreaded a repetition of the arguments which Roger had often used to make him give Aimée her proper due of affection and position. 'Now your Miss Cynthia was pretty, I will say that for her, the baggage! and to think that when you two lads flew right in your father's face, and picked out girls below you in rank and family, you should neither of you have set your fancies on my little Molly there. I daresay I should ha' been angry enough at the time, but the lassie would ha' found her way to my heart, as never this French lady, nor t' other one, could ha' done.'
Roger did not answer.
'I don't see why you might not put up for her still. I'm humble enough now, and you're not heir as Osborne was who married a servant-maid. Don't you think you could turn your thoughts upon Molly Gibson, Roger.'
'No!' said Roger, shortly. 'It's too late - too late. Don't let us talk any more of my marrying. Is not this the five-acre field?' And soon he was discussing the relative values of meadow, arable and pasture land with his father, as heartily as if he had never known Molly, or loved Cynthia. But the squire was not in such good spirits, and went but heavily into the discussion. At the end of it he said àpropos de bottes, -
'But don't you think you could like her if you tried, Roger?'
Roger knew perfectly well to what his father was alluding, but for an instant he was on the point of pretending to misunderstand. At length, however, he said, in a low voice, -
'I shall never try, father. Don't let us talk any more about it. As I said before, it is too late.'
The squire was like a child to whom some toy has been refused; from time to time the thought of his disappointment in this matter recurred to his mind; and then he took to blaming Cynthia as the primary cause of Roger's present indifference to womankind.
It so happened that on Molly's last morning at the Hall, she received her first letter from Cynthia - Mrs Henderson. It was just before breakfast-time: Roger was out of doors, Aimée had not as yet come down; Molly was alone in the dining-room, where the table was already laid. She had just finished reading her letter when the squire came in, and she immediately and joyfully told him what the morning had brought to her. But when she saw the squire's face she could have bitten her tongue out for having named Cynthia's name to him. He looked vexed and depressed.
'I wish I might never hear of her again. I do. She's been the bane of my Roger, that's what she has. I have not slept half the night, and it's all her fault. Why, there's my boy saying now that he has no heart for ever marrying, poor lad! I wish it had been you, Molly, my lads had taken a fancy for. I told Roger so t'other day, and I said that for all you were beneath what I ever thought to see them marry, - well - it's of no use - it's too late, now, as he said. Only never let me hear that baggage's name again, that's all. And no offence to you, either, lassie. I know you love the wench; but if you'll take an old man's word, you're worth a score of her. I wish young men would think so too,' he muttered as he went to the side-table to carve the ham, while Molly poured out the tea - her heart very hot all the time, and effectually silenced for a space. It was with the greatest difficulty that she could keep tears of mortification from falling. She felt altogether in a wrong position in that house, which had been like a home to her until this last visit. What with Mrs Goodenough's remarks, and now this speech of the squire's, implying - at least to her susceptible imagination - that his father had proposed her as a wife to Roger, and that she had been rejected, she was more glad than she could express, or even think, that she was going home this very morning. Roger came in from his walk while she was in this state of feeling. He saw in an instant that something had distressed Molly; and he longed to have the old friendly right of asking her what it was. But she had effectually kept him at too great a distance during the last few days for him to feel at liberty to speak to her in the old straightforward brotherly way; especially now, when he perceived her efforts to conceal her feelings, and the way in which she drank her tea in feverish haste, and accepted bread only to crumble it about her plate, untouched. It was all that he could do to make talk under these circumstances; but he backed up her efforts as well as he could until Aimée came down, grave and anxious; her boy had not had a good night, and did not seem well; he had fallen into a feverish sleep now, or she could not have left him. Immediately the whole table was in a ferment. The squire pushed away his plate, and could eat no more; Roger was trying to extract a detail or a fact out of Aimée, who began to give way to tears. Molly quickly proposed that the carriage, which had been ordered to take her home at eleven, should come round immediately - she had everything ready packed up, she said, - and bring back her father at once. By leaving directly, she said it was probable they might catch him after he had returned from his morning visits in the town, and before he had set off on his more distant round. Her proposal was agreed to, and she went upstairs to put on her things. She came down all ready into the drawing-room, expecting to find Aimée and the squire there; but during her absence word had been brought to the anxious mother and grandfather that the child had wakened up in a panic, and both had rushed up to their darling. But Roger was in the drawing-room awaiting Molly, with a large bunch of the choicest flowers.
'Look, Molly!' said he, as she was on the point of leaving the room again, on finding him there alone. 'I gathered these flowers for you before breakfast.' He came to meet her reluctant advance.
'Thank you!' said she. 'You are very kind. I am very much obliged to you.'
'Then you must do something for me,' said he, determined not to notice the restraint of her manner, and making the rearrangement of the flowers which she held a sort of link between them, so that she could not follow her impulse, and leave the room. - 'Tell me, - honestly as I know you will if you speak at all, - have not I done something to vex you since we were so happy at the Towers together?'
His voice was so kind and true, - his manner so winning yet wistful, that Molly would have been thankful to tell him all; she believed that he could have helped her more than any one to understand how she ought to behave rightly; he would have disentangled her fancies, - if only he himself had not lain at the very core and centre of all her perplexity and dismay. How could she tell him of Mrs Goodenough's words troubling her maiden modesty? How could she ever repeat what his father had said that morning, and assure him that she, no more than he, wished that their old friendliness should be troubled by the thought of a nearer relationship?
'No, you never vexed me in my whole life, Roger,' said she, looking straight at him for the first time for many days.
'I believe you, because you say so. I have no right to ask further. Molly, will you give me back one of those flowers, as a pledge of what you have said?'
'Take whichever you like,' said she, eagerly offering him the whole nosegay to choose from.
'No; you must choose, and you must give it me.'
Just then the squire came in. Roger would have been glad if Molly had not gone on so eagerly to ransack the bunch for the choicest flower in his father's presence; but she exclaimed, -
'Oh, please, Mr Hamley, do you know which is Roger's favourite flower?'
'No. A rose, I daresay. The carriage is at the door, and, Molly my dear, I don't want to hurry you, but -- '
'I know. Here, Roger, - here is a rose!
I will find papa as soon as ever I get home. How is the little boy?'
'I'm afraid he's beginning of some kind of a fever.'
And the squire took her to the carriage, talking all the way of the little boy; Roger following, and hardly heeding what he was doing in the answer to the question he kept asking himself: 'Too late - or not? Can she ever forget that my first foolish love was given to one so different?'
While she, as the carriage rolled away, kept saying to herself, - 'We are friends again. I don't believe he will remember what the dear squire took it into his head to suggest, for many days. It is so pleasant to be on the old terms again; and what lovely flowers!'
Roger had a great deal to think of as he turned away from looking after the carriage as long as it could be seen. The day before, he had believed that Molly had come to view all the symptoms of his growing love for her, - symptoms which he thought had been so patent, - as disgusting inconstancy to the inconstant Cynthia; that she had felt that an attachment which could be so soon transferred to another was not worth having; and that she had desired to mark all this by her changed treatment of him, and so to nip it in the bud. But this morning her old sweet, frank manner had returned - in their last interview, at any rate. He puzzled himself hard to find out what could have distressed her at breakfast-time. He even went so far as to ask Robinson whether Miss Gibson had received any letters that morning; and when he heard that she had had one, he tried to believe that the letter was in some way the cause of her sorrow. So far so good. They were friends again after their unspoken difference; but that was not enough for Roger. He felt every day more and more certain that she, and she alone, could make him happy. He had felt this, and had partly given up all hope, while his father had been urging upon him the very course he most desired to take. No need for 'trying' to love her, he said to himself, - that was already done. And yet he was very jealous on her behalf. Was that love worthy of her which had once been given to Cynthia? Was not this affair too much a mocking mimicry of the last? Again just on the point of leaving England for a considerable time! If he followed her now to her own home, - in the very drawing-room where he had once offered to Cynthia! And then by a strong resolve he determined on this course. They were friends now, and he kissed the rose that was her pledge of friendship. If he went to Africa, he ran some deadly chances; he knew better what they were now than he had done when he went before. Until his return he would not even attempt to win more of her love than he already had. But once safe home again, no weak fancies as to what might or might not be her answer should prevent his running all chances to gain the woman who was to him the one who excelled all. His was not the poor vanity that thinks more of the possible mortification of a refusal than of the precious jewel of a bride that may be won. Somehow or another, please God to send him back safe, he would put his fate to the touch. And till then he would be patient. He was no longer a boy to rush at the coveted object; he was a man capable of judging and abiding.
Molly sent her father, as soon as she could find him, to the Hall; and then sate down to the old life in the home drawing-room, where she missed Cynthia's bright presence at every turn. Mrs Gibson was in rather a querulous mood, which fastened itself upon the injury of Cynthia's letter being addressed to Molly, and not to herself.
'Considering all the trouble I had with her trousseau, I think she might have written to me.'
'But she did - her first letter was to you, mamma,' said Molly, her real thoughts still intent upon the Hall - upon the sick child - upon Roger, and his begging for the flower.
'Yes, just a first letter, three pages long, with an account of her crossing; while to you she can write about fashions, and how the bonnets are worn in Paris, and all sorts of interesting things. But poor mothers must never expect confidential letters, I have found that out.'
'You may see my letter, mamma,' said Molly, 'there is really nothing in it.'
'And to think of her writing, and crossing to you who don't value it, while my poor heart is yearning after my lost child! Really life is somewhat hard to bear at times.'
Then there was a silence - for a while.
'Do tell me something about your visit, Molly. Is Roger very heartbroken? Does he talk much about Cynthia?'
'No. He does not mention her often; hardly ever, I think.'
'I never thought he had much feeling. If he had had, he would not have let her go so easily.'
'I don't see how he could help it. When he came to see her after his return, she was already engaged to Mr Henderson - he had conic down that very day,' said Molly, with perhaps more heat than the occasion required.
'My poor head!' said Mrs Gibson, putting her hands up to her head. 'One may see you've been stopping with people of robust health, and - excuse my saying it, Molly, of your friends - of unrefined habits, you've got to talk in so loud a voice. But do remember my head, Molly. So Roger has quite forgotten Cynthia, has he? Oh! what inconstant creatures men are! He will be falling in love with some grandee next, mark my words! They are making a pet and a lion of him, and he's just the kind of weak young man to have his head turned by it all; and to propose to some fine lady of rank, who would no more think of marrying him than of marrying her footman.'
'I don't think it is likely,' said Molly, stoutly. 'Roger is too sensible for anything of the kind.'
'That's just the fault I always found with him; sensible and cold-hearted! Now, that's a kind of character which may be very valuable, but which revolts me. Give me warmth of heart, even with a little of that extravagance of feeling which misleads the judgment, and conducts into romance. Poor Mr Kirkpatrick! That was just his character. I used to tell him that his love for me was quite romantic. I think I have told you about his walking five miles in the rain to get me a muffin once when I was ill?'
'Yes!' said Molly. 'It was very kind of him.'
'So imprudent, too! Just what one of your sensible, cold-hearted, commonplace people would never have thought of doing. With his cough and all.'
'I hope he didn't suffer for it?' replied Molly, anxious at any cost to keep off the subject of the Hamleys, upon which she and her stepmother always disagreed, and on which she found it difficult to keep her temper.
'Yes, indeed, he did! I don't think he ever got over the cold he caught that day. I wish you had known him, Molly. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if you had been my real daughter, and Cynthia dear papa's, and Mr Kirkpatrick and your own dear mother had all lived. People talk a good deal about natural affinities. It would have been a question for a philosopher.' She began to think on the impossibilities she had suggested.
'I wonder how the poor little boy is?' said Molly, after a pause, speaking out her thoughts.
'Poor little child! When one thinks how little his prolonged existence is to be desired, one feels that his death would be a boon.'
'Mamma! what do you mean?' asked Molly, much shocked. 'Why every one cares for his life as the most precious thing! You have never seen him! He is the bonniest, sweetest little fellow that can be! What do you mean?'
'I should have thought that the squire would have desired a better-born heir than the offspring of a servant, - with all his ideas about descent, and blood, and family. And I should have thought that it was a little mortifying to Roger - who must naturally have looked upon himself as his brother's heir - to find a little interloping child, half French, half English, stepping into his shoes!'
'You don't know how fond they are of him, - the squire looks upon him as the apple of his eye.'
'Molly! Molly! pray don't let me hear you using such vulgar expressions. When shall I teach you true refinement - that refinement which consists in never even thinking a vulgar, commonplace thing? Proverbs and idioms are never used by people of education. "Apple of his eye!" I am really shocked.'
'Well, mamma, I'm very sorry; but after all, what I wanted to say as strongly as I could was, that the squire loves the little boy as much as his own child; and that Roger - oh! what a shame to think that Roger -- ' And she stopped suddenly short, as if she were choked.
'I don't wonder at your indignation, my dear!' said Mrs Gibson. 'It is just what I should have felt at your age. But one learns the baseness of human nature with advancing years. I was wrong, though, to undeceive you so early - but depend upon it, the thought I alluded to has crossed Roger Hamley's mind!'
'All sorts of thoughts cross one's mind - it depends upon whether one gives them harbour and encouragement,' said Molly.
'My dear, if you must have the last word, don't let it be a truism. But let us talk on some more interesting subject. I asked Cynthia to buy me a silk gown in Paris, and I said I would send her word what colour I fixed upon - I think dark blue is the most becoming to my complexion; what do you say?'
Molly agreed, sooner than take the trouble of thinking about the thing at all; she was far too full of her silent review of all the traits in Roger's character which had lately come under her notice, and that gave the lie direct to her stepmother's supposition. Just then they heard Mr Gibson's step downstairs. But it was some time before he made his entrance into the room where they were sitting.
'How is little Roger?' said Molly, eagerly.
'Beginning with scarlet fever, I'm afraid. It's well you left when you did, Molly. You've never had it. We must stop up all intercourse with the Hall for a time. If there's one illness I dread, it is this.'
'But you go and come back to us, papa.'
'Yes. But I always take plenty of precautions. However, no need to talk about risks that lie in the way of one's duty. It is unnecessary risks that we must avoid.'
'Will he have it badly?' asked Molly.
'I can't tell. I shall do my best for the wee laddie.'
Whenever Mr Gibson's feelings were touched, he was apt to recur to the language of his youth. Molly knew now that he was much interested in the case.
For some days there was imminent danger to the little boy; for some weeks there was a more chronic form of illness to contend with; but when the immediate danger was over and the warm daily interest was past, Molly began to realize that, from the strict quarantine her father evidently thought it necessary to establish between the two houses, she was not likely to see Roger again before his departure for Africa. Oh! if she had but made more of the uncared-for days that she had passed with him at the Hall! Worse than uncared for; days on which she had avoided him; refused to converse freely with him; given him pain by her change of manner; for she had read in his eyes, heard in his voice, that he had been perplexed and pained, and now her imagination dwelt on and exaggerated the expression of his tones and looks.
One evening after dinner, her father said, -
'As the country-people say, I've done a stroke of work to-day. Roger Hamley and I have laid our heads together, and we have made a plan by which Mrs Osborne and her boy will leave the Hall.'
'What did I say the other day, Molly?' said Mrs Gibson, interrupting, and giving Molly a look of extreme intelligence.
'And go into lodgings at Jennings' farm; not four hundred yards from the Park-field gate,' continued Mr Gibson. 'The squire and his daughter-in-law have got to be much better friends over the little fellow's sick-bed; and I think he sees now how impossible it would be for the mother to leave her child, and go and be happy in France, which has been the notion running in his head all this time. To buy her off, in fact. But that one night, when I was very uncertain whether I could bring him through, they took to crying together, and condoling with each other; and it was just like tearing down a curtain that had been between them; they have been rather friends than otherwise ever since. Still Roger' - (Molly's cheeks grew warm and her eyes soft and bright; it was such a pleasure to hear his name) - 'and I both agree that his mother knows much better how to manage the boy than his grandfather does. I suppose that was the one good thing she got from that hardhearted mistress of hers. She certainly has been well trained in the management of children. And it makes her impatient, and annoyed, and unhappy, when she sees the squire giving the child nuts and ale, and all sorts of silly indulgences, and spoiling him in every possible way. Yet she's a coward, and doesn't speak out her mind. Now by being in lodgings, and having her own servants - nice pretty rooms they are, too; we went to see them, and Mrs Jennings promises to attend well to Mrs Osborne Hamley, and is very much honoured, and all that sort of thing - not ten minutes' walk from the Hall, too, so that she and the little chap may easily go backwards and forwards as often as they like, and yet she may keep the control over her child's discipline and diet. In short, I think I've done a good day's work,' he continued, stretching himself a little; and then with a shake rousing himself, and making ready to go out again; to see a patient who had sent for him in his absence.
'A good day's work!' he repeated to himself as he ran downstairs. 'I don't know when I have been so happy!' For he had not told Molly all that had passed between him and Roger. Roger had begun a fresh subject of conversation just as Mr Gibson was hastening away from the Hall, after completing the new arrangement for Aimée and her child.
'You know that I set off next Tuesday, Mr Gibson, don't you?' said Roger, a little abruptly.
'To be sure. I hope you'll be as successful in all your scientific objects as you were the last time, and have no sorrows awaiting you when you come back.'
'Thank you. Yes. I hope so. You don't think there's any danger of infection now, do you?'
'No! If the disease were to spread through the household, I think we should have had some signs of it before now. One is never sure, remember, with scarlet fever.
Roger was silent for a minute or two. 'Should you be afraid,' he said at length, 'of seeing me at your house?'
'Thank you; but I think I would rather decline the pleasure of your society there at present. It's only three weeks or a month since the child began. Besides, I shall be over here again before you go. I'm always on my guard against symptoms of dropsy. I have known it supervene.'
'Then I shall not see Molly again!' said Roger, in a tone and with a look of great disappointment.
Mr Gibson turned his keen, observant eyes upon the young man, and looked at him in as penetrating a manner as if he had been beginning with an unknown illness. Then the doctor and the father compressed his lips and gave vent to a long intelligent whistle. 'Whew!' said he.
Roger's bronzed cheeks took a deeper shade.
'You will take a message to her from me, won't you? A message of farewell?' he pleaded.
'Not I. I'm not going to be a message-carrier between any young man and young woman. I'll tell my womankind I forbade you to come near the house, and that you're sorry to go away without bidding good-by. That's all I shall say.'
'But you do not disapprove? - I see you guess why. Oh! Mr Gibson, just speak to me one word of what must be in your heart, though you are pretending not to understand why I would give worlds to see Molly again before I go.'
'My dear boy!' said Mr Gibson, more affected than he liked to show, and laying his hand on Roger's shoulder. Then he pulled himself up, and said gravely enough, -
'Mind, Molly is not Cynthia. If she were to care for you, she is not one who could transfer her love to the next corner.'
'You mean not as readily as I have done,' replied Roger. 'I only wish you could know what a different feeling this is to my boyish love for Cynthia.'
'I wasn't thinking of you when I spoke; but, however, as I might have remembered afterwards that you were not a model of constancy, let us hear what you have to say for yourself.'
'Not much. I did love Cynthia very much. Her manners and her beauty bewitched me; but her letters, - short, hurried letters, - sometimes showing that she really hadn't taken the trouble to read mine through, - I cannot tell you the pain they gave me! Twelve months' solitude, in frequent danger of one's life - face to face with death - sometimes ages a man like many years' experience. Still I longed for the time when I should see her sweet face again, and hear her speak. Then the letter at the Cape! - and still I hoped. But you know how I found her, when I went to have the interview which I trusted might end in the renewal of our relations, - engaged to Mr Henderson. I saw her walking with him in your garden, coquetting with him about a flower, just as she used to do with me. I can see the pitying look in Molly's eyes as she watched me; I can see it now. And I could beat myself for being such a blind fool as to -- What must she think of me? how she must despise me, choosing the false Duessa.'
'Come, come! Cynthia isn't so bad as that. She's a very fascinating, faulty creature.'
'I know! I know! I will never allow any one to say a word against her. If I called her the false Duessa it was because I wanted to express my sense of the difference between her and Molly as strongly as I could. You must allow for a lover's exaggeration. Besides, all I wanted to say was, - Do you think that Molly, after seeing and knowing that I had loved a person so inferior to herself, could ever be brought to listen to me?'
'I don't know. I can't tell. And even if I could, I would not. Only if it's any comfort to you, I may say what my experience has taught me. Women are queer, unreasoning creatures, and are just as likely as not to love a man who has been throwing away his affection.'
'Thank you, sir!' said Roger, interrupting him. 'I see you mean to give me encouragement. And I had resolved never to give Molly a hint of what I felt till I returned, - and then to try and win her by every means in my power. I determined not to repeat the former scene in the former place, - in your drawing-room, - however I might be tempted. And perhaps, after all, she avoided me when she was here last.'
'Now, Roger, I've listened to you long enough. If you've nothing better to do with your time than to talk about my daughter, I have. When you come back it will be time enough to enquire how far your father would approve of such an engagement.'
'He himself urged it upon me the other day - but then I was in despair - I thought it was too late.'
'And what means you are likely to have of maintaining a wife, - I always thought that point was passed too lightly over when you formed your hurried engagement to Cynthia. I'm not mercenary, - Molly has some money independently of me, - that she by the way knows nothing of, - not much; - and I can allow her something. But all these things must be left till your return.'
'Then you sanction my attachment?'
'I don't know what you mean by sanctioning it. I can't help it. I suppose losing one's daughter is a necessary evil. Still,' - seeing the disappointed expression on Roger's face - 'it is but fair to you to say I'd rather give my child, - my only child, remember! - to you, than to any man in the world!'
'Thank you!' said Roger, shaking hands with Mr Gibson, almost against the will of the latter. 'And I may see her, just once, before I go?'
'Decidedly not. There I come in as doctor as well as father. No!'
'But you will take a message, at any rate?'
'To my wife and to her conjointly. I will not separate them. I will not in the slightest way be a go-between.'
'Very well,' said Roger. 'Tell them both as strongly as you can how I regret your prohibition. I see I must submit. But if I don't come back, I'll haunt you for having been so cruel.'
'Come, I like that. Give me a wise man of science in love! No one beats him in folly. Good-by.'
'Good-by, You will see Molly this afternoon!'
'To be sure. And you will see your father. But I don't heave such portentous sighs at the thought.'
Mr Gibson gave Roger's message to his wife and to Molly that evening at dinner. It was but what the latter had expected, after all her father had said of the very great danger of infection; but now that her expectation came in the shape of a final decision, it took away her appetite. She submitted in silence; but her observant father noticed that after this speech of his, she only played with the food on her plate, and concealed a good deal of it under her knife and fork.
'Lover versus father!' thought he, half sadly. 'Lover wins.' And he, too, became indifferent to all that remained of his dinner. Mrs Gibson pattered on; and nobody listened.
The day of Roger's departure came. Molly tried hard to forget it in working away at a cushion she was preparing as a present to Cynthia; people did worsted-work in those days. One, two, three. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven; all wrong; she was thinking of something else, and had to unpick it. It was a rainy day, too; and Mrs Gibson, who had planned to go out and pay some calls, had to stay indoors. This made her restless and fidgety. She kept going backwards and forwards to different windows in the drawing-room to look at the weather, as if she imagined that while it rained at one window, it might be fine weather at another.
'Molly - come here! who is that man wrapped up in a cloak, - there, - near the Park wall, under the beech-tree - he has been there this half-hour and more, never stirring, and looking at this house all the time! I think it's very suspicious.'
Molly looked, and in an instant recognized Roger under all his wraps. Her first instinct was to draw back. The next to come forwards, and say, - 'Why, mamma, it's Roger Hamley! Look now - he's kissing his hand; he's wishing us good-by in the only way he can!' And she responded to his sign; but she was not sure if he perceived her modest quiet movement, for Mrs Gibson became immediately so demonstrative that Molly fancied that her eager foolish pantomimic motions must absorb all his attention.
'I call this so attentive of him,' said Mrs Gibson, in the midst of a volley of kisses of her hand. 'Really it is quite romantic. It reminds me of former days - but he will be too late! I must send him away; it is half-past twelve!' And she took out her watch and held it up, tapping it with her forefinger, and occupying the very centre of the window. Molly could only peep here and there, dodging now up, now down, now on this side, now on that, of the perpetually-moving arms. She fancied she saw something of a corresponding movement on Roger's part. At length he went away, slowly, slowly, and often looking back, in spite of the tapped watch. Mrs Gibson at last retreated, and Molly quietly moved into her place to see his figure once more before the turn of the road hid it from her view. He, too, knew where the last glimpse of the Gibsons' house was to be obtained, and once more he turned, and his white handkerchief floated on the air. Molly waved hers high up, with eager longing that it should be seen. And then, he was gone! and Molly returned to her worsted-work, happy, glowing, sad, content, and thinking to herself how sweet is - friendship!
When she came to a sense of the present, Mrs Gibson was saying, -
'Upon my word, though Roger Hamley has never been a great favourite of mine, this little attention of his has reminded me very forcibly of a very charming young man - a soupirant, as the French would call him - Lieutenant Harper - you must have heard me speak of him, Molly?'
'I think I have!' said Molly, absently.
'Well, you remember how devoted he was to me when I was at Mrs Duncombe's, my first situation, and I only seventeen. And when the recruiting party was ordered to another town, poor Mr Harper came and stood opposite the schoolroom window for nearly an hour, and I know it was his doing that the band played "The girl I left behind me," when they marched out the next day. Poor Mr Harper! It was before I knew dear Mr Kirkpatrick! Dear me. How often my poor heart has had to bleed in this life of mine! not but what dear papa is a very worthy man, and makes me very happy. He would spoil me, indeed, if I would let him. Still he is not as rich as Mr Henderson.'
That last sentence contained the germ of Mrs Gibson's present grievance. Having married. Cynthia, as her mother put it - taking credit to herself as if she had had the principal part in the achievement - she now became a little envious of her daughter's good fortune in being the wife of a young, handsome, rich and moderately fashionable man, who lived in London. She naïvely expressed her feelings on this subject to her husband one day when she was really not feeling quite well, and when consequently her annoyances were much more present to her mind than her sources of happiness.
'It is such a pity!' said she, 'that I was born when I was. I should so have liked to belong to this generation.'
'That's sometimes my own feeling,' said he. 'So many new views seem to be opened in science, that I should like, if it were possible, to live till their reality was ascertained, and one saw what they led to. But I don't suppose that's your reason, my dear, for wishing to be twenty or thirty years younger.'
'No, indeed. And I did not put it in that hard unpleasant way; I only said I should like to belong to this generation. To tell the truth, I was thinking of Cynthia. Without vanity, I believe I was as pretty as she is - when I was a girl, I mean; I had not her dark eye-lashes, but then my nose was straighter. And now look at the difference! I have to live in a little country town with three servants, and no carriage; and she with her inferior good looks will live in Sussex Place,' and keep a man and a brougham, and I don't know what. But the fact is, in this generation there are so many more rich young men than there were when I was a girl.'
'Oh, ho! so that's your reason, is it, my dear. If you had been young now you might have married somebody as well off as Walter?'
'Yes!' said she. 'I think that was my idea. Of course I should have liked him to be you. I always think if you had gone to the bar you might have succeeded better, and lived in London, too. I don't think Cynthia cares much where she lives, yet you see it has come to her.'
'What has - London?'
'Oh, you dear, facetious man. Now that's just the thing to have captivated a jury. I don't believe Walter will ever be so clever as you are. Yet he can take Cynthia to Paris, and abroad, and everywhere. I only hope all this indulgence won't develope the faults in Cynthia's character. It's a week since we heard from her, and I did write so particularly to ask her for the autumn fashions before I bought my new bonnet. But riches are a great snare.'
'Be thankful you are spared temptation, my dear.'
'No, I'm not. Every body likes to be tempted. And, after all, it's very easy to resist temptation, if one wishes.'
'I don't find it so easy,' said her husband.
'Here's medicine for you, mamma,' said Molly, entering with a letter held up in her hand. 'A letter from Cynthia.'
'Oh, you dear little messenger of good news! There was one of the heathen deities in Mangnall's Questions whose office that was. The letter is dated from Calais. They're coming home! She's bought me a shawl and a bonnet! The dear creature! Always thinking of others before herself. good fortune cannot spoil her. They've a fortnight left of their holiday! Their house is not quite ready; they're coming here. Oh, now, Mr Gibson, we must have the new dinner service at Watts's I've set my heart on so long! "Home" Cynthia calls this house. I'm sure it has been a home to her, poor darling! I doubt if there is another man in the world who would have treated his stepdaughter like dear papa! And, Molly, you must have a new gown.'
'Come, come! Remember I belong to the last generation,' said Mr Gibson.
'And Cynthia will not notice what I wear,' said Molly, bright with pleasure at the thought of seeing her again.
'No! but Walter will. He has such a quick eye for dress, and I think I rival papa; if he is a good stepfather, I'm a good stepmother, and I could not bear to see my Molly shabby, and not looking her best, I must have a new gown too. It won't do to look as if we had nothing but the dresses which we wore at the wedding!'
But Molly stood against the new gown for herself, and urged that if Cynthia and Walter were to come to visit them often, they had better see them as they really were, in dress, habits, and appointments. When Mr Gibson had left the room, Mrs Gibson softly reproached Molly for her obstinacy.
'You might have allowed me to beg for a new gown for you, Molly, when you knew how much I had admired that figured silk at Brown's the other day. And now, of course, I can't be so selfish as to get it for myself, and you to have nothing. You should learn to understand the wishes of other people. Still, on the whole, you are a dear, sweet girl, and I only wish - well, I know what I wish; only dear papa does not like it to be talked about. And now cover me up close, and let me go to sleep, and dream about my dear Cynthia and my new shawl!'