Wives and Daughters/Chapter LI
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 ears, 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.