Wives and Daughters/Chapter XIII
Time was speeding on; it was now the middle of August,—if anything was to be done to the house, it must be done at once. Indeed, in several ways Mr. Gibson's arrangements with Miss Browning had not been made too soon. The squire had heard that Osborne might probably return home for a few days before going abroad; and, though the growing intimacy between Roger and Molly did not alarm him in the least, yet he was possessed by a very hearty panic lest the heir might take a fancy to the surgeon's daughter; and he was in such a fidget for her to leave the house before Osborne came home, that his wife lived in constant terror lest he should make it too obvious to their visitor.
Every young girl of seventeen or so, who is at all thoughtful, is very apt to make a Pope out of the first person who presents to her a new or larger system of duty than that by which she has been unconsciously guided hitherto. Such a Pope was Roger to Molly; she looked to his opinion, to his authority on almost every subject, yet he had only said one or two things in a terse manner which gave them the force of precepts—stable guides to her conduct, and had shown the natural superiority in wisdom and knowledge which is sure to exist between a highly educated young man of no common intelligence, and an ignorant girl of seventeen, who yet was well capable of appreciation. Still, although they were drawn together in this very pleasant relationship, each was imagining some one very different for the future owner of their whole heart—their highest and completest love. Roger looked to find a grand woman, his equal, and his empress; beautiful in person, serene in wisdom, ready for counsel, as was Egeria. Molly's little wavering maiden fancy dwelt on the unseen Osborne, who was now a troubadour, and now a knight, such as he wrote about in one of his own poems; some one like Osborne, perhaps, rather than Osborne himself, for she shrank from giving a personal form and name to the hero that was to be. The squire was not unwise in wishing her well out of the house before Osborne came home, if he was considering her peace of mind. Yet, when she went away from the hall he missed her constantly; it had been so pleasant to have her there daily fulfilling all the pretty offices of a daughter; cheering the meals, so often tete-a-tete betwixt him and Roger, with her innocent wise questions, her lively interest in their talk, her merry replies to his banter.
And Roger missed her too. Sometimes her remarks had probed into his mind, and excited him to the deep thought in which he delighted; at other times he had felt himself of real help to her in her hours of need, and in making her take an interest in books, which treated of higher things than the continual fiction and poetry which she had hitherto read. He felt something like an affectionate tutor who was suddenly deprived of his most promising pupil; he wondered how she would go on without him; whether she would be puzzled and disheartened by the books he had lent her to read; how she and her stepmother would get along together? She occupied his thoughts a good deal those first few days after she left the hall. Mrs. Hamley regretted her more, and longer than did the other two. She had given her the place of a daughter in her heart; and now she missed the sweet feminine companionship, the playful caresses, the never-ceasing attentions; the very need of sympathy in her sorrows, that Molly had shown so openly from time to time; all these things had extremely endeared her to the tenderhearted Mrs. Hamley.
Molly, too, felt the change of atmosphere keenly; and she blamed herself for so feeling even more keenly still. But she could not help having a sense of refinement, which had made her appreciate the whole manner of being at the Hall. By her dear old friends the Miss Brownings she was petted and caressed so much that she became ashamed of noticing the coarser and louder tones in which they spoke, the provincialism of their pronunciation, the absence of interest in things, and their greediness of details about persons. They asked her questions which she was puzzled enough to answer about her future stepmother; her loyalty to her father forbidding her to reply fully and truthfully. She was always glad when they began to make inquiries as to every possible affair at the Hall. She had been so happy there; she liked them all, down to the very dogs, so thoroughly, that it was easy work replying: she did not mind telling them everything, even to the style of Mrs. Hamley's invalid dress; nor what wine the squire drank at dinner. Indeed, talking about these things helped her to recall the happiest time in her life. But one evening, as they were all sitting together after tea in the little upstairs drawing-room, looking into the High Street—Molly discoursing away on the various pleasures of Hamley Hall, and just then telling of all Roger's wisdom in natural science, and some of the curiosities he had shown her, she was suddenly pulled up by this little speech,—
'You seem to have seen a great deal of Mr. Roger, Molly!' said Miss Browning, in a way intended to convey a great deal of meaning to her sister and none at all to Molly. But,—
- 'The man recovered of the bite;
- The dog it was that died.'
Molly was perfectly aware of Miss Browning's emphatic tone, though at first she was perplexed as to its cause; while Miss Phoebe was just then too much absorbed in knitting the heel of her stocking to be fully alive to her sister's nods and winks.
'Yes; he was very kind to me,' said Molly, slowly, pondering over Miss Browning's manner, and unwilling to say more until she had satisfied herself to what the question tended.
'I dare say you will soon be going to Hamley Hall again? He's not the eldest son, you know, Phoebe! Don't make my head ache with your eternal "eighteen, nineteen," but attend to the conversation. Molly is telling us how much she saw of Mr. Roger, and how kind he was to her. I've always heard he was a very nice young man, my dear. Tell us some more about him! Now, Phoebe, attend! How was he kind to you, Molly?'
'Oh, he told me what books to read; and one day he made me notice how many bees I saw—'
'Bees, child! What do you mean? Either you or he must have been crazy!'
'No, not at all. There are more than two hundred kinds of bees in England, and he wanted me to notice the difference between them and flies. Miss Browning, I can't help seeing what you fancy,' said Molly, as red as fire, 'but it is very wrong; it is all a mistake. I won't speak another word about Mr. Roger or Hamley at all, if it puts such silly notions into your head.'
'Highty-tighty! Here's a young lady to be lecturing her elders! Silly notions, indeed! They are in your head, it seems. And let me tell you, Molly, you are too young to let your mind be running on lovers.'
Molly had been once or twice called saucy and impertinent, and certainly a little sauciness came out now.
'I never said what the "silly notion" was, Miss Browning; did I now, Miss Phoebe? Don't you see, dear Miss Phoebe, it is all her own interpretation, and according to her own fancy, this foolish talk about lovers?'
Molly was flaming with indignation; but she had appealed to the wrong person for justice. Miss Phoebe tried to make peace after the fashion of weak-minded persons, who would cover over the unpleasant sight of a sore, instead of trying to heal it.
'I'm sure I don't know anything about it, my dear. It seems to me that what Sally was saying was very true—very true indeed; and I think, love, you misunderstood her; or, perhaps, she misunderstood you; or I may be misunderstanding it altogether; so we'd better not talk any more about it. What price did you say you were going to give for the drugget in Mr. Gibson's dining-room, sister?'
So Miss Browning and Molly went on till evening, each chafed and angry with the other. They wished each other good-night, going through the usual forms in the coolest manner possible. Molly went up to her little bedroom, clean and neat as a bedroom could be, with draperies of small delicate patchwork—bed-curtains, window-curtains, and counter-pane; a japanned toilette-table, full of little boxes, with a small looking- glass affixed to it, that distorted every face that was so unwise as to look in it. This room had been to the child one of the most dainty and luxurious places ever seen, in comparison with her own bare, white- dimity bedroom; and now she was sleeping in it, as a guest, and all the quaint adornments she had once peeped at as a great favour, as they were carefully wrapped up in cap-paper, were set out for her use. And yet how little she had deserved this hospitable care; how impertinent she had been; how cross she had felt ever since! She was crying tears of penitence and youthful misery when there came a low tap to the door. Molly opened it, and there stood Miss Browning, in a wonderful erection of a nightcap, and scantily attired in a coloured calico jacket over her scrimpy and short white petticoat.
'I was afraid you were asleep, child,' said she, coming in and shutting the door. 'But I wanted to say to you we've got wrong to-day, somehow; and I think it was perhaps my doing. It's as well Phoebe shouldn't know, for she thinks me perfect; and when there's only two of us, we get along better if one of us thinks the other can do no wrong. But I rather think I was a little cross. We'll not say any more about it, Molly; only we'll go to sleep friends,—and friends we'll always be, child, won't we? Now give me a kiss, and don't cry and swell your eyes up;—and put out your candle carefully.'
'I was wrong—it was my fault,' said Molly, kissing her.
'Fiddlestick-ends! Don't contradict me! I say it was my fault, and I won't hear another word about it.'
The next day Molly went with Miss Browning to see the changes going on in her father's house. To her they were but dismal improvements. The faint grey of the dining-room walls, which had harmonized well enough with the deep crimson of the moreen curtains, and which when well cleaned looked thinly coated rather than dirty, was now exchanged for a pink salmon-colour of a very glowing hue; and the new curtains were of that pale sea-green just coming into fashion. 'Very bright and pretty,' Miss Browning called it; and in the first renewing of their love Molly could not bear to contradict her. She could only hope that the green and brown drugget would tone down the brightness and prettiness. There was scaffolding here, scaffolding there, and Betty scolding everywhere.
'Come up now, and see your papa's bedroom. He's sleeping upstairs in yours, that everything may be done up afresh in his.'
Molly could just remember, in faint clear lines of distinctness, the being taken into this very room to bid farewell to her dying mother. She could see the white linen, the white muslin, surrounding the pale, wan wistful face, with the large, longing eyes, yearning for one more touch of the little soft warm child, whom she was too feeble to clasp in her arms, already growing numb in death. Many a time when Molly had been in this room since that sad day, had she seen in vivid fancy that same wan wistful face lying on the pillow, the outline of the form beneath the clothes; and the girl had not shrunk from such visions, but rather cherished them, as preserving to her the remembrance of her mother's outward semblance. Her eyes were full of tears, as she followed Miss Browning into this room to see it under its new aspect. Nearly everything was changed—the position of the bed and the colour of the furniture; there was a grand toilette-table now, with a glass upon it, instead of the primitive substitute of the top of a chest of drawers, with a mirror above upon the wall, sloping downwards; these latter things had served her mother during her short married life.
'You see we must have all in order for a lady who has passed so much of her time in the countess's mansion,' said Miss Browning, who was now quite reconciled to the marriage, thanks to the pleasant employment of furnishing that had devolved upon her in consequence. 'Cromer, the upholsterer, wanted to persuade me to have a sofa and a writing-table. These men will say anything is the fashion, if they want to sell an article. I said, "No, no, Cromer: bedrooms are for sleeping in, and sitting-rooms are for sitting in. Keep everything to its right purpose, and don't try and delude me into nonsense." Why, my mother would have given us a fine scolding if she had ever caught us in our bedrooms in the daytime. We kept our outdoor things in a closet downstairs; and there was a very tidy place for washing our hands, which is as much as one wants in the day-time. Stuffing up a bedroom with sofas and tables! I never heard of such a thing. Besides, a hundred pounds won't last for ever. I shan't be able to do anything for your room, Molly!'
'I'm right down glad of it,' said Molly. 'Nearly everything in it was what mamma had when she lived with my great-uncle. I wouldn't have had it changed for the world; I am so fond of it.'
'Well, there's no danger of it, now the money is run out. By the way, Molly, who's to buy you a bridesmaid's dress?'
'I don't know,' said Molly;'I suppose I am to be a bridesmaid; but no one has spoken to me about my dress.'
'Then I shall ask your papa.'
'Please, don't. He must have to spend a great deal of money just now. Besides, I would rather not be at the wedding, if they'll let me stay away.'
'Nonsense, child. Why, all the town would be talking of it. You must go, and you must be well dressed, for your father's sake.'
But Mr. Gibson had thought of Molly's dress, although he had said nothing about it to her. He had commissioned his future wife to get her what was requisite; and presently a very smart dressmaker came over from the county-town to try on a dress, which was both so simple and so elegant as at once to charm Molly. When it came home all ready to put on, Molly had a private dressing-up for the Miss Brownings' benefit; and she was almost startled when she looked into the glass, and saw the improvement in her appearance. 'I wonder if I'm pretty,' thought she. 'I almost think I am—in this kind of dress I mean, of course. Betty would say, "Fine feathers make fine birds."'
When she went downstairs in her bridal attire, and with shy blushes presented herself for inspection, she was greeted with a burst of admiration.
'Well, upon my word! I shouldn't have known you.' ('Fine feathers,' thought Molly, and checked her rising vanity.)
'You are really beautiful—isn't she, sister?' said Miss Phoebe. 'Why, my dear, if you were always dressed, you would be prettier than your dear mamma, whom we always reckoned so very personable.'
'You're not a bit like her. You favour your father, and white always sets off a brown complexion.'
'But isn't she beautiful?' persevered Miss Phoebe.
'Well! and if she is, Providence made her, and not she herself. Besides, the dressmaker must go shares. What a fine India muslin it is! it'll have cost a pretty penny!'
Mr. Gibson and Molly drove over to Ashcombe, the night before the wedding, in the one yellow post-chaise that Hollingford possessed. They were to be Mr. Preston's, or, rather, my lord's, guests at the Manor- house. The Manor-house came up to its name, and delighted Molly at first sight. It was built of stone, had many gables and mullioned windows, and was covered over with Virginian creeper and late-blowing roses. Molly did not know Mr. Preston, who stood in the doorway to greet her father. She took standing with him as a young lady at once, and it was the first time she had met with the kind of behaviour—half complimentary, half flirting—which some men think it necessary to assume with every woman under five-and-twenty. Mr Preston was very handsome, and knew it. He was a fair man, with light-brown hair and whiskers; grey, roving, well-shaped eyes, with lashes darker than his hair; and a figure rendered easy and supple by the athletic exercises in which his excellence was famous, and which had procured him admission into much higher society than he was otherwise entitled to enter. He was a capital cricketer; was so good a shot, that any house desirous of reputation for its bags on the 12th or the 1st, was glad to have him for a guest. He taught young ladies to play billiards on a wet day, or went in for the game in serious earnest when required, He knew half the private theatrical plays off by heart, and was invaluable in arranging impromptu charades and tableaux. He had his own private reasons for wishing to get up a flirtation with Molly just at this time; he had amused himself so much with the widow when she first came to Ashcombe, that he fancied that the sight of him, standing by her less polished, less handsome, middle-aged husband, might be too much of a contrast to be agreeable. Besides, he had really a strong passion for some one else; some one who would be absent; and that passion it was necessary for him to conceal. So that, altogether, he had resolved, even had 'the little Gibson-girl' (as he called her) been less attractive than she was, to devote himself to her for the next sixteen hours.
They were taken by their host into a wainscoted parlour, where a wood fire crackled and burnt, and the crimson curtains shut out the waning day and the outer chill. Here the table was laid for dinner; snowy table-linen, bright silver, clear sparkling glass, wine and an autumnal dessert on the sideboard. Yet Mr. Preston kept apologizing to Molly for the rudeness of his bachelor home, for the smallness of the room, the great dining-room being already appropriated by his housekeeper, in preparation for the morrow's breakfast. And then he rang for a servant to show Molly to her room. She was taken into a most comfortable chamber: a wood fire on the hearth, candles lighted on the toilette- table, dark woollen curtains surrounding a snow-white bed, great vases of china standing here and there.
'This is my Lady Harriet's room when her ladyship comes to the Manor- house with my lord the earl,' said the housemaid, striking out thousands of brilliant sparks by a well-directed blow at a smouldering log. 'Shall I help you to dress, miss? I always helps her ladyship.'
Molly, quite aware of the fact that she had but her white muslin gown for the wedding besides that she had on, dismissed the good woman, and was thankful to be left to herself.
'Dinner' was it called? Why it was nearly eight o'clock; and preparations for bed seemed a more natural employment than dressing at this hour of night. All the dressing she could manage was the placing of a red damask rose or two in the band of her grey stuff gown, there being a great nosegay of choice autumnal flowers on the toilette- table. She did try the effect of another crimson rose in her black hair, just above her ear; it was very pretty, but too coquettish, and so she put it back again. The dark-oak panels and wainscoting of the whole house seemed to glow in warm light; there were so many fires in different rooms, in the hall, and even one on the landing of the staircase. Mr. Preston must have heard her step, for he met her in the hall, and led her into a small drawing-room, with closed folding-doors on one side, opening into the larger drawing-room, as he told her. This room into which she entered reminded her a little of Hamley—yellow- satin upholstery of seventy or a hundred years ago, all delicately kept and scrupulously clean; great Indian cabinets, and china jars, emitting spicy odours; a large blazing fire, before which her father stood in his morning dress, grave and thoughtful, as he had been all day.
'This room is that which Lady Harriet uses when she comes here with her father for a day or two,' said Mr. Preston. And Molly tried to save her father by being ready to talk herself.
'Does she often come here?'
'Not often. But I fancy she likes being here when she does. Perhaps she finds it an agreeable change after the more formal life she leads at the Towers.'
'I should think it was a very pleasant house to stay at,' said Molly, remembering the look of warm comfort that pervaded it. But a little to her dismay Mr. Preston seemed to take it as a compliment to himself.
'I was afraid a young lady like you might perceive all the incongruities of a bachelor's home. I am very much obliged to you, Miss Gibson. In general I live pretty much in the room in which we shall dine; and I have a sort of agent's office in which I keep books and papers, and receive callers on business.'
Then they went in to dinner. Molly thought everything that was served was delicious, and cooked to the point of perfection; but they did not seem to satisfy Mr. Preston, who apologized to his guests several times for the bad cooking of this dish, or the omission of a particular sauce to that; always referring to bachelor's housekeeping, bachelor's this and bachelor's that, till Molly grew quite impatient at the word. Her father's depression, which was still continuing and rendering him very silent, made her uneasy; yet she wished to conceal it from Mr. Preston; and so she talked away, trying to obviate the sort of personal bearing which their host would give to everything. She did not know when to leave the gentlemen, but her father made a sign to her; and she was conducted back to the yellow drawing-room by Mr. Preston, who made many apologies for leaving her there alone. She enjoyed herself extremely, however, feeling at liberty to prowl about, and examine all the curiosities the room contained. Among other things was a Louis Quinze cabinet with lovely miniatures in enamel let into the fine woodwork. She carried a candle to it, and was looking intently at these faces when her father and Mr. Preston came in. Her father looked still careworn and anxious; he came up and patted her on the back, looked at what she was looking at, and then went off to silence and the fire. Mr. Preston took the candle out of her hand, and threw himself into her interests with an air of ready gallantry.
'That is said to be Mademoiselle de St Quentin, a great beauty at the French Court. This is Madame du Barri. Do you see any likeness in Mademoiselle de St Quentin to any one you know?' He had lowered his voice a little as he asked this question.
'No!' said Molly, looking at it again. 'I never saw any one half so beautiful.'
'But don't you see a likeness—in the eyes particularly?' he asked again, with some impatience.
Molly tried hard to find out a resemblance, and was again unsuccessful.
'It constantly reminds me of—of Miss Kirkpatrick.'
'Does it?' said Molly, eagerly. 'Oh! I am so glad—I've never seen her, so of course I couldn't find out the likeness. You know her, then, do you? Please tell me all about her.'
He hesitated a moment before speaking. He smiled a little before replying.
'She's very beautiful; that of course is understood when I say that this miniature does not come up to her for beauty.'
'And besides?—Go on, please.'
'What do you mean by "besides"?'
'Oh! I suppose she's very clever and accomplished?'
That was not in the least what Molly wanted to ask; but it was difficult to word the vague vastness of her unspoken inquiry.
'She is clever naturally; she has picked up accomplishments. But she has such a charm about her, one forgets what she herself is in the halo that surrounds her. You ask me all this, Miss Gibson, and I answer truthfully; or else I should not entertain one young lady with my enthusiastic praises of another.'
'I don't see why not,' said Molly. 'Besides, if you wouldn't do it in general, I think you ought to do it in my case; for you, perhaps, don't know, but she is coming to live with us when she leaves school, and we are very nearly the same age; so it will be almost like having a sister.'
'She is to live with you, is she?' said Mr. Preston, to whom this intelligence was news. 'And when is she to leave school? I thought she would surely have been at this wedding; but I was told she was not to come. When is she to leave school?'
'I think it is to be at Easter. You know she's at Boulogne, and it's a long journey for her to come alone; or else papa wished for her to be at the marriage very much indeed.'
'And her mother prevented it?—I understand.'
'No, it wasn't her mother; it was the French schoolmistress, who didn't think it desirable.'
'It comes to pretty much the same thing. And she's to return and live with you after Easter?'
'I believe so. Is she a grave or a merry person?'
'Never very grave, as far as I have seen of her. Sparkling would be the word for her, I think. Do you ever write to her? If you do, pray remember me to her, and tell her how we have been talking about her— you and I.'
'I never write to her,' said Molly, rather shortly.
Tea came in; and after that they all went to bed, Molly heard her father exclaim at the fire in his bedroom, and Mr. Preston's reply,—
'I pique myself on my keen relish for all creature comforts, and also on my power of doing without them, if need be. My lord's woods are ample, and I indulge myself with a fire in my bedroom for nine months in the year; yet I could travel in Iceland without wincing from the cold.'