Wives and Daughters/Chapter LIV

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Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
Chapter LIV: Molly Gibson's Worth Is Discovered
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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, Aimee 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 Aimee; 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 Aimee'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 Aimee 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, ease, 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 ease 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.