Wives and Daughters/Chapter VII

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Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
Chapter VII: Foreshadows Of Love Perils
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If Squire Hamley had been unable to tell Molly who had ever been thought of as her father's second wife, fate was all this time preparing an answer of a pretty positive kind to her wondering curiosity. But fate is a cunning hussy, and builds up her plans as imperceptibly as a bird builds her nest; and with much the same kind of unconsidered trifles.' The first 'trifle' of an event was the disturbance which Jenny (Mr. Gibson's cook) chose to make at Bethia's being dismissed. Bethia was a distant relation and protegee of Jenny's, and she chose to say it was Mr. Coxe the tempter who ought to have 'been sent packing,' not Bethia the tempted, the victim. In this view there was quite enough plausibility to make Mr. Gibson feel that he had been rather unjust. He had, however, taken care to provide Bethia with another situation, to the full as good as that which she held in his family. Jenny, nevertheless, chose to give warning; and though Mr. Gibson knew full well from former experience that her warnings were words, not deeds, he hated the discomfort, the uncertainty,—the entire disagreeableness of meeting a woman at any time in his house, who wore a grievance and an injury upon her face as legibly as Jenny took care to do.

Down into the middle of this small domestic trouble came another, and one of greater consequence. Miss Eyre had gone with her old mother, and her orphan nephews and nieces, to the sea-side, during Molly's absence, which was only intended at first to last for a fortnight. After about ten days of this time had elapsed, Mr. Gibson received a beautifully written, beautifully worded, admirably folded, and most neatly sealed letter from Miss Eyre. Her eldest nephew had fallen ill of scarlet fever, and there was every probability that the younger children would be attacked by the same complaint. It was distressing enough for poor Miss Eyre—this additional expense, this anxiety—the long detention from home which the illness involved. But she said not a word of any inconvenience to herself; she only apologized with humble sincerity for her inability to return at the appointed time to her charge in Mr Gibson's family; meekly adding, that perhaps it was as well, for Molly had never had the scarlet fever, and even if Miss Eyre had been able to leave the orphan children to return to her employments, it might not have been a safe or a prudent step.

'To be sure not,' said Mr. Gibson, tearing the letter in two, and throwing it into the hearth, where he soon saw it burnt to ashes. 'I wish I'd a five-pound house and not a woman within ten miles of me. I might have some peace then.' Apparently, he forgot Mr. Coxe's powers of making mischief; but indeed he might have traced that evil back to unconscious Molly. The martyr-cook's entrance to take away the breakfast things, which she announced by a heavy sigh, roused Mr Gibson from thought to action.

'Molly must stay a little longer at Hamley,' he resolved. 'They've often asked for her, and now they'll have enough of her, I think. But I can't have her back here just yet; and so the best I can do for her is to leave her where she is. Mrs. Hamley seems very fond of her, and the child is looking happy, and stronger in health. I'll ride round by Hamley to-day at any rate, and see how the land lies.'

He found Mrs. Hamley lying on a sofa placed under the shadow of the great cedar-tree on the lawn. Molly was flitting about her, gardening away under her directions; tying up the long sea-green stalks of bright budded carnations, snipping off dead roses.

'Oh! here's papa!' she cried out joyfully, as he rode up to the white paling which separated the trim lawn and trimmer flower-garden from the rough park-like ground in front of the house.

'Come in—come here—through the drawing-room window,' said Mrs Hamley, raising herself on her elbow. 'We've got a rose-tree to show you that Molly has budded all by herself. We are both so proud of it.'

So Mr. Gibson rode round to the stables, left his horse there, and made his way through the house to the open-air summer-parlour under the cedar-tree, where there were chairs, a table, books, and tangled work. Somehow, he rather disliked asking for Molly to prolong her visit; so he determined to swallow his bitter first, and then take the pleasure of the delicious day, the sweet repose, the murmurous, scented air. Molly stood by him, her hand on his shoulder. He sate opposite to Mrs. Hamley.

'I have come here to-day to ask for a favour,' he began.

'Granted before you name it. Am not I a bold woman?'

He smiled and bowed, but went straight on with his speech.

'Miss Eyre, who has been Molly's—governess, I suppose I must call her —for many years, writes to-day to say that one of the little nephews she took with her to Newport while Molly was staying here, has caught the scarlet fever.'

'I guess your request. I make it before you do. I beg for dear little Molly to stay on here. Of course Miss Eyre can't come back to you; and of course Molly must stay here!'

'Thank you; thank you very much. That was my request.'

Molly's hand stole down to his, and nestled in that firm compact grasp.

'Papa!—Mrs. Hamley!—I know you'll both understand me—but mayn't I go home? I am very very happy here; but—oh papa! I think I should like to be at home with you best.'

An uncomfortable suspicion flashed across his mind. He pulled her round, and looked straight and piercingly into her innocent face. Her colour came at his unwonted scrutiny, but her sweet eyes were filled with wonder, rather than with any feeling which he dreaded to find. For an instant he had doubted whether young red-headed Mr Coxe's love might not have called out a response in his daughter's breast; but he was quite clear now.

'Molly, you're rude to begin with. I don't know how you're to make your peace with Mrs. Hamley, I'm sure. And in the next place, do you think you're wiser than I am; or that I don't want you at home, if all other things were conformable? Stay where you are, and be thankful.'

Molly knew him well enough to be certain that the prolongation of her visit at Hamley was quite a decided affair in his mind; and then she was smitten with a sense of ingratitude. She left her father, and went to Mrs. Hamley, and bent over and kissed her; but she did not speak. Mrs. Hamley took hold of her hand, and made room on the sofa for her.

'I was going to have asked for a longer visit the next time you came, Mr. Gibson. We are such happy friends, are not we, Molly? and now that this good little nephew of Miss Eyre's——'

'I wished he was whipped,' said Mr. Gibson.

'—has given us such a capital reason, I shall keep Molly for a real long visitation. You must come over and see us very often. There's a room here for you always, you know; and I don't see why you should not start on your rounds from Hamley every morning, just as well as from Hollingford.'

'Thank you. If you had not been so kind to my little girl, I might be tempted to say something rude in answer to your last speech.'

'Pray say it. You won't be easy till you have given it out, I know.'

'Mrs. Hamley has found out from whom I get my rudeness,' said Molly, triumphantly. 'It's an hereditary quality.'

'I was going to say that proposal of yours that I should sleep at Hamley was just like a woman's idea—all kindness, and no common sense. How in the world would my patients find me out, seven miles from my accustomed place? They'd be sure to send for some other doctor, and I should be ruined in a month.'

'Could not they send on here? A messenger costs very little.'

'Fancy old Goody Henbury struggling up to my surgery, groaning at every step, and then being told to just step on seven miles farther! Or take the other end of society:—I don't think my Lady Cumnor's smart groom would thank me for having to ride on to Hamley every time his mistress wants me.'

'Well, well, I submit. I am a woman. Molly, thou art a woman! Go and order some strawberries and cream for this father of yours. Such humble offices fall within the province of women. Strawberries and cream are all kindness and no common sense, for they'll give him a horrid fit of indigestion.'

'Please speak for yourself, Mrs. Hamley,' said Molly, merrily. 'I ate— oh, such a great basketful yesterday, and the squire went himself to the dairy and brought me out a great bowl of cream when he found me at my busy work. And I'm as well as ever I was, to-day, and never had a touch of indigestion near me.'

'She's a good girl,' said her father, when she had danced out of hearing. The words were not quite an inquiry, he was so certain of his answer. There was a mixture of tenderness and trust in his eyes, as he awaited the reply, which came in a moment.

'She's a darling! I cannot tell you how fond the squire and I are of her; both of us. I am so delighted to think she is not to go away for a long time. The first thing I thought of this morning when I wakened up, was that she would soon have to return to you, unless I could persuade you into leaving her with me a little longer. And now she must stay— oh, two months at least.'

It was quite true that the squire had become very fond of Molly. The charm of having a young girl dancing and singing inarticulate ditties about the house and garden, was indescribable in its novelty to him. And then Molly was so willing and so wise; ready both to talk and to listen at the right times. Mrs. Hamley was quite right in speaking of her husband's fondness for Molly. But either she herself chose a wrong time for telling him of the prolongation of the girl's visit, or one of the fits of temper to which he was liable, but which he generally strove to check in the presence of his wife, was upon him; at any rate, he received the news in anything but a gracious frame of mind.

'Stay longer! Did Gibson ask for it?' 'Yes! I don't see what else is to become of her; Miss Eyre away and all. It's a very awkward position for a motherless girl like her to be at the head of a household with two young men in it.'

'That's Gibson's look-out; he should have thought of it before taking pupils, or apprentices, or whatever he calls them.'

'My dear squire! Why, I thought you'd be as glad as I was—as I am to keep Molly. I asked her to stay for an indefinite time; two months at least.'

'And to be in the house with Osborne! Roger, too, will be at home.'

By the cloud in the squire's eyes, Mrs. Hamley read his mind.

'Oh, she's not at all the sort of girl young men of their age would take to. We like her because we see what she really is; but lads of one or two and twenty want all the accessories of a young woman.'

'Want what?' growled the squire.

'Such things as becoming dress, style of manner. They would not at their age even see that she is pretty; their ideas of beauty would include colour.'

'I suppose all that's very clever; but I don't understand it. All I know is, that it's a very dangerous thing to shut two young men of one and three and twenty up in a country-house like this, with a girl of seventeen—choose what her gowns may be like, or her hair, or her eyes. And I told you particularly I didn't want Osborne, or either of them, indeed, to be falling in love with her. I'm very much annoyed.'

Mrs. Hamley's face fell; she became a little pale.

'Shall we make arrangements for their stopping away while she is here; staying up at Cambridge, or reading with some one? going abroad for a month or two?'

'No; you've been reckoning this ever so long on their coming home. I've seen the marks of the weeks on your almanack. I'd sooner speak to Gibson, and tell him he must take his daughter away, for it's not convenient to us——'

'My dear Roger! I beg you will do no such thing. It will be so unkind; it will give the lie to all I said yesterday. Don't, please, do that. For my sake, don't speak to Mr. Gibson!'

'Well, well, don't put yourself in a flutter,' for he was afraid of her becoming hysterical; 'I'll speak to Osborne when he comes home, and tell him how much I should dislike anything of the kind.'

'And Roger is always far too full of his natural history and comparative anatomy, and messes of that sort, to be thinking of falling in love with Venus herself, He has not the sentiment and imagination of Osborne.'

'Ah, you don't know; you never can be sure about a young man! But with Roger it wouldn't so much signify. He would know he couldn't marry for years to come.'

All that afternoon the squire tried to steer clear of Molly, to whom he felt himself to have been an inhospitable traitor. But she was so perfectly unconscious of his shyness of her, and so merry and sweet in her behaviour as a welcome guest, never distrusting him for a moment, however gruff he might be, that by the next morning she had completely won him round, and they were quite on the old terms again. At breakfast this very morning, a letter was passed from the squire to his wife, and back again, without a word as to its contents; but—

'Fortunate!'

'Yes! very!'

Little did Molly apply these expressions to the piece of news Mrs Hamley told her in the course of the day; namely, that her son Osborne had received an invitation to stay with a friend in the neighbourhood of Cambridge, and perhaps to make a tour on the Continent with him subsequently; and that, consequently, he would not accompany his brother when Roger came home.

Molly was very sympathetic.

'Oh, dear! I am so sorry!'

Mrs. Hamley was thankful her husband was not present, Molly spoke the words so heartily.

'You have been thinking so long of his coming home. I am afraid it is a great disappointment.'

Mrs. Hamley smiled—relieved.

'Yes! it is a disappointment certainly, but we must think of Osborne's pleasure. And with his poetical mind, he will write us such delightful travelling letters. Poor fellow! He must be going into the examination to-day! Both his father and I feel sure, though, that he will be a high wrangler.' Only—I should like to have seen him, my own dear boy. But it is best as it is.'

Molly was a little puzzled by this speech, but soon put it out of her head. It was a disappointment to her, too, that she should not see this beautiful, brilliant young man, his mother's hero. From time to time her maiden fancy had dwelt upon what he would be like; how the lovely boy of the picture in Mrs. Hamley's dressing-room would have changed in the ten years that had elapsed since the likeness was taken; if he would read poetry aloud; if he would even read his own poetry. However, in the never-ending feminine business of the day, she soon forgot her own disappointment; it only came back to her on first wakening the next morning, as a vague something that was not quite so pleasant as she had anticipated, and then was banished as a subject of regret. Her days at Hamley were well filled up with the small duties that would have belonged to a daughter of the house had there been one. She made breakfast for the lonely squire, and would willingly have carried up madam's, but that daily piece of work belonged to the squire, and was jealously guarded by him. She read the smaller print of the newspapers aloud to him, city articles, money and corn-markets included. She strolled about the gardens with him, gathering fresh flowers, meanwhile, to deck the drawing-room against Mrs. Hamley should come down. She was her companion when she took her drives in the close carriage; they read poetry and mild literature together in Mrs. Hamley's sitting-room upstairs. She was quite clever at cribbage now, and could beat the squire if she took pains. Besides these things, there were her own independent ways of employing herself. She used to try to practise a daily hour on the old grand piano in the solitary drawing-room, because she had promised Miss Eyre she would do so. And she had found her way into the library, and used to undo the heavy bars of the shutters if the housemaid had forgotten this duty, and mount the ladder, sitting on the steps, for an hour at a time, deep in some book of the old English classics. The summer days were very short to this happy girl of seventeen.