Wives and Daughters/Chapter XIX

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Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
Chapter XIX: Cynthia's Arrival
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Molly's father was not at home when she returned; and there was no one to give her a welcome. Mrs. Gibson was out paying calls, the servants told Molly. She went upstairs to her own room, meaning to unpack and arrange her borrowed books, Rather to her surprise she saw the chamber, corresponding to her own, being dusted; water and towels too were being carried in.

'Is any one coming?' she asked of the housemaid.

'Missus's daughter from France. Miss Kirkpatrick is coming to-morrow.'

Was Cynthia coming at last? Oh, what a pleasure it would be to have a companion, a girl, a sister of her own age! Molly's depressed spirits sprang up again with bright elasticity. She longed for Mrs Gibson's return, to ask her all about it: it must be very sudden, for Mr. Gibson had said nothing of it at the Hall the day before. No quiet reading now; the books were hardly put away with Molly's usual neatness. She went down into the drawing-room, and could not settle to anything. At last Mrs. Gibson came home, tired out with her walk and her heavy velvet cloak. Until that was taken off, and she had rested herself for a few minutes, she seemed quite unable to attend to Molly's questions.

'Oh, yes! Cynthia is coming home to-morrow, by the "Umpire," which passes through at ten o'clock. What an oppressive day it is for the time of the year! I really am almost ready to faint. Cynthia heard of some opportunity, I believe, and was only too glad to leave school a fortnight earlier than we planned. She never gave me the chance of writing to say I did, or did not, like her coming so much before the time; and I shall have to pay for her just the same as if she had stopped. And I meant to have asked her to bring me a French bonnet; and then you could have had one made after mine. But I'm very glad she's coming, poor dear.'

'Is anything the matter with her?' asked Molly.

'Oh, no! Why should there be?'

'You called her "poor dear," and it made me afraid lest she might be ill.'

'Oh, no! It's only a way I got into, when Mr. Kirkpatrick died. A fatherless girl—you know one always does call them "poor dears." Oh, no! Cynthia never is ill. She's as strong as a horse. She never would have felt to-day as I have done. Could you get me a glass of wine and a biscuit, my dear? I'm. really quite faint.'

Mr. Gibson was much more excited about Cynthia's arrival than her own mother was. He anticipated her coming as a great pleasure to Molly, on whom, in spite of his recent marriage and his new wife, his interests principally centred. He even found time to run upstairs and see the bedrooms of the two girls; for the furniture of which he had paid a pretty round sum.

'Well, I suppose young ladies like their bedrooms decked out in this way! It's very pretty certainly, but—'

'I liked my own old room better, papa; but perhaps Cynthia is accustomed to such decking up.'

'Perhaps; at any rate, she'll see we've tried to make it pretty. Yours is like hers. That's right. It might have hurt her, if hers had been smarter than yours. Now, good-night in your fine flimsy bed.'

Molly was up betimes—almost before it was light—arranging her pretty Hamley flowers in Cynthia's room. She could hardly eat her breakfast that morning. She ran upstairs and put on her things, thinking that Mrs. Gibson was quite sure to go down to the 'George' Inn, where the 'Umpire' stopped, to meet her daughter after a two years' absence. But to her surprise Mrs. Gibson had arranged herself at her great worsted- work frame, just as usual; and she, in her turn, was astonished at Molly's bonnet and cloak.

'Where are you going so early, child? The fog hasn't cleared away yet.'

'I thought you would go and meet Cynthia; and I wanted to go with you.'

'She will be here in half an hour; and dear papa has told the gardener to take the wheelbarrow down for her luggage. I'm not sure if he is not gone himself.'

'Then are not you going?' asked Molly, with a good deal of disappointment.

'No, certainly not. She will be here almost directly. And, besides, I don't like to expose my feelings to every passer-by in High Street. You forget I have not seen her for two years, and I hate scenes in the market-place.'

She settled herself to her work again; and Molly, after some consideration, gave up her own going, and employed herself in looking out of the downstairs window which commanded the approach from the town.

'Here she is—here she is!' she cried out at last. Her father was walking by the side of a tall young lady; William the gardener was wheeling along a great cargo of luggage. Molly flew to the front-door, and had it wide open to admit the new comer some time before she arrived.

'Well! here she is. Molly, this is Cynthia. Cynthia, Molly. You're to be sisters, you know.'

Molly saw the beautiful, tall, swaying figure, against the light of the open door, but could not see any of the features that were, for the moment, in shadow. A sudden gush of shyness had come over her just at the instant, and quenched the embrace she would have given a moment before. But Cynthia took her in her arms, and kissed her on both cheeks.

'Here's mamma,' she said, looking beyond Molly on to the stairs where Mrs. Gibson stood, wrapped up in a shawl, and shivering in the cold. She ran past Molly and Mr. Gibson, who rather averted their eyes from this first greeting between mother and child.

Mrs. Gibson said,—

'Why, how you are grown, darling! You look quite a woman.'

'And so I am,' said Cynthia. 'I was before I went away; I've hardly grown since,—except, it is always to be hoped, in wisdom.'

'Yes! That we will hope,' said Mrs. Gibson, in rather a meaning way. Indeed there were evidently hidden allusions in their seeming commonplace speeches. When they all came into the full light and repose of the drawing-room, Molly was absorbed in the contemplation of Cynthia's beauty. Perhaps her features were not regular; but the changes in her expressive countenance gave one no time to think of that. Her smile was perfect; her pouting charming; the play of the face was in the mouth. Her eyes were beautifully shaped, but their expression hardly seemed to vary. In colouring she was not unlike her mother; only she had not so much of the red-haired tints in her complexion; and her long-shaped, serious grey eyes were fringed with dark lashes, instead of her mother's insipid flaxen ones. Molly fell in love with her, so to speak, on the instant. She sate there warming her feet and hands, as much at her ease as if she had been there all her life; not particularly attending to her mother—who, all the time, was studying either her or her dress—measuring Molly and Mr. Gibson with grave observant looks, as if guessing how she should like them.

'There's hot breakfast ready for you in the dining-room, when you are ready for it,' said Mr. Gibson. 'I'm sure you must want it after your night journey.' He looked round at his wife, at Cynthia's mother, but she did not seem inclined to leave the warm room again.

'Molly will take you to your room, darling,' said she; 'it is near hers, and she has got her things to take off. I'll come down and sit in the dining-room while you are having your breakfast, but I really am afraid of the cold now.'

Cynthia rose and followed Molly upstairs.

'I'm so sorry there isn't a fire for you,' said Molly, 'but—I suppose it wasn't ordered; and, of course, I don't give any orders. Here is some hot water, though.'

'Stop a minute,' said Cynthia, getting hold of both Molly's hands, and looking steadily into her face, but in such a manner that she did not dislike the inspection.

'I think I shall like you. I am go glad! I was afraid I should not. We're all in a very awkward position together, aren't we? I like your father's looks, though.'

Molly could not help smiling at the way this was said. Cynthia replied to her smile.

'Ah, you may laugh. But I don't know that I am easy to get on with; mamma and I didn't suit when we were last together. But perhaps we are each of us wiser now. Now, please leave me for a quarter of an hour. I don't want anything more.'

Molly went into her own room, waiting to show Cynthia down to the dining-room. Not that, in the moderate-sized house, there was any difficulty in finding the way. A very little trouble in conjecturing would enable a stranger to discover any room. But Cynthia had so captivated Molly, that she wanted to devote herself to the new comer's service. Ever since she had heard of the probability of her having a sister—(she called her a sister, but whether it was a Scotch sister, or a sister a la mode de Bretagne, would have puzzled most people) —Molly had allowed her fancy to dwell much on the idea of Cynthia's coming; and in the short time since they had met, Cynthia's unconscious power of fascination had been exercised upon her. Some people have this power. Of course, its effects are only manifested in the susceptible. A school-girl may be found in every school who attracts and influences all the others, not by her virtues, nor her beauty, nor her sweetness, nor her cleverness, but by something that can neither be described nor reasoned upon. It is the something alluded to in the old lines:—

'Love me not for comely grace,
For my pleasing eye and face;
No, nor for my constant heart,—
For these may change, and turn to ill,
And thus true love may sever.
But love me on, and know not why,
So hast thou the same reason still
To dote upon me ever.'

A woman will have this charm, not only over men but over her own sex; it cannot be defined, or rather it is so delicate a mixture of many gifts and qualities that it is impossible to decide on the proportions of each. Perhaps it is incompatible with very high principle; as its essence seems to consist in the most exquisite power of adaptation to varying people and still more various moods; 'being all things to all men.' At any rate, Molly might soon have been aware that Cynthia was not remarkable for unflinching morality; but the glamour thrown over her would have prevented Molly from any attempt at penetrating into and judging her companion's character, even had such processes been the least in accordance with her own disposition.

Cynthia was very beautiful, and was so well aware of this fact that she had forgotten to care about it; no one with such loveliness ever appeared so little conscious of it. Molly would watch her perpetually as she moved about the room, with the free stately step of some wild animal of the forest—moving almost, as it were, to the continual sound of music. Her dress, too, though now to our ideas it would be considered ugly and disfiguring, was suited to her complexion and figure, and the fashion of it subdued within due bounds by her exquisite taste. It was inexpensive enough, and the changes in it were but few. Mrs. Gibson professed herself shocked to find that Cynthia had but four gowns, when she might have stocked herself so well, and brought over so many useful French patterns, if she had but patiently awaited her mother's answer to the letter which she had sent announcing her return by the opportunity madame had found for her. Molly was hurt for Cynthia at all these speeches; she thought they implied that the pleasure which her mother felt in seeing her a fortnight sooner after her two years' absence was inferior to that which she would have received from a bundle of silver-paper patterns. But Cynthia took no apparent notice of the frequent recurrence of these small complaints. Indeed, she received much of what her mother said with a kind of complete indifference, that made Mrs. Gibson hold her rather in awe; and she was much more communicative to Molly than to her own child. With regard to dress, however, Cynthia soon showed that she was her mother's own daughter in the manner in which she could use her deft and nimble fingers. She was a capital workwoman; and, unlike Molly, who excelled in plain sewing, but had no notion of dressmaking or millinery, she could repeat the fashions she had only seen in passing along the streets of Boulogne, with one or two pretty rapid movements of her hands, as she turned and twisted the ribbons and gauze her mother furnished her with. So she refurbished Mrs. Gibson's wardrobe; doing it all in a sort of contemptuous manner, the source of which Molly could not quite make out.

Day after day the course of these small frivolities was broken in upon by the news Mr. Gibson brought of Mrs. Hamley's nearer approach to death. Molly—very often sitting by Cynthia, and surrounded by ribbon, and wire, and net—heard the bulletins like the toll of a funeral bell at a marriage feast. Her father sympathized with her. It was the loss of a dear friend to him too; but he was so accustomed to death, that it seemed to him but as it was, the natural end of all things human. To Molly, the death of some one she had known so well and loved so much, was a sad and gloomy phenomenon. She loathed the small vanities with which she was surrounded, and would wander out into the frosty garden, and pace the walk, which was both sheltered and concealed by evergreens.

At length—and yet it was not so long, not a fortnight since Molly had left the Hall—the end came. Mrs. Hamley had sunk out of life as gradually as she had sunk out of consciousness and her place in this world. The quiet waves closed over her, and her place knew her no more.

'They all sent their love to you, Molly,' said her father. 'Roger Hamley said he knew how you would feel it.'

Mr. Gibson had come in very late, and was having a solitary dinner in the dining-room. Molly was sitting near him to keep him company. Cynthia and her mother were upstairs. The latter was trying on a head- dress which Cynthia had made for her.

Molly remained downstairs after her father had gone out afresh on his final round among his town patients. The fire was growing very low, and the lights were waning. Cynthia came softly in, and taking Molly's listless hand, that hung down by her side, sate at her feet on the rug, chafing her chilly fingers without speaking. The tender action thawed the tears that had been gathering heavily at Molly's heart, and they came dropping down her cheeks.

'You loved her dearly, did you not, Molly?'

'Yes,' sobbed Molly; and then there was a silence.

'Had you known her long?'

'No, not a year. But I had seen a great deal of her. I was almost like a daughter to her; she said so. Yet I never bid her good-by, or anything. Her mind became weak and confused.'

'She had only sons, I think?'

'No; only Mr. Osborne and Mr. Roger Hamley. She had a daughter once— "Fanny." Sometimes, in her illness, she used to call me "Fanny."'

The two girls were silent for some time, both gazing into the fire. Cynthia spoke first,—

'I wish I could love people as you do, Molly!'

'Don't you?' said the other, in surprise.

'No. A good number of people love me, I believe, or at least they think they do; but I never seem to care much for any one. I do believe I love you, little Molly, whom I have only known for ten days, better than any one.'

'Not than your mother?' said Molly, in grave astonishment.

'Yes, than my mother!' replied Cynthia, half-smiling. 'It's very shocking, I daresay; but it is so. Now, don't go and condemn me. I don't think love for one's mother quite comes by nature; and remember how much I have been separated from mine! I loved my father, if you will,' she continued, with the force of truth in her tone, and then she stopped; 'but he died when I was quite a little thing, and no one believes that I remember him. I heard mamma say to a caller, not a fortnight after his funeral, "Oh, no, Cynthia is too young; she has quite forgotten him"—and I bit my lips, to keep from crying out, "Papa! papa! have I?" But it's of no use. Well, then mamma had to go out as a governess; she couldn't help it, poor thing! but she didn't much care for parting with me. I was a trouble, I daresay. So I was sent to school at four years old; first one school, and then another; and in the holidays, mamma went to stay at grand houses, and I was generally left with the schoolmistresses. Once I went to the Towers; and mamma lectured me continually, and yet I was very naughty, I believe. And so I never went again; and I was very glad of it, for it was a horrid place.'

'That it was,' said Molly, who remembered her own day of tribulation there.

'And once I went to London, to stay with my uncle Kirkpatrick. He is a lawyer, and getting on now; but then he was poor enough, and had six or seven children. It was wintertime, and we were all shut up in a small house in Doughty Street. But, after all, that wasn't so bad.'

'But then you lived with your mother when she began school at Ashcombe. Mr. Preston told me that, when I stayed that day at the Manor-house.'

'What did he tell you?' asked Cynthia, almost fiercely.

'Nothing but that. Oh, yes! He praised your beauty, and wanted me to tell you what he had said.'

'I should have hated you if you had,' said Cynthia.

'Of course I never thought of doing such a thing,' replied Molly. 'I didn't like him; and Lady Harriet spoke of him the next day as if he wasn't a person to be liked.'

Cynthia was quite silent. At length she said,—

'I wish I was good!'

'So do I,' said Molly, simply. She was thinking again of Mrs Hamley,—

'Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in the dust'

—and 'goodness' just then seemed to her to be the only enduring thing in the world.

'Nonsense, Molly! You are good. At least, if you're not good, what am I? There's a rule-of-three sum for you to do! But it's no use talking; I am not good, and I never shall be now. Perhaps I might be a heroine still, but I shall never be a good woman, I know.'

'Do you think it easier to be a heroine?'

'Yes, as far as one knows of heroines from history. I'm capable of a great jerk, an effort, and then a relaxation—but steady every-day goodness is beyond me. I must be a moral kangaroo!'

Molly could not follow Cynthia's ideas; she could not distract herself from the thoughts of the sorrowing group at the Hall.

'How I should like to see them all! and yet one can do nothing at such a time! Papa says the funeral is to be on Tuesday, and that, after that, Roger Hamley is to go back to Cambridge. It will seem as if nothing had happened! I wonder how the squire and Mr. Osborne Hamley will get on together.'

'He's the eldest son, is he not? Why shouldn't he and his father get on well together?'

'Oh! I don't know. That is to say, I do know, but I think I ought not to tell.'

'Don't be so pedantically truthful, Molly. Besides, your manner shows when you speak truth and when you speak falsehood, without troubling yourself to use words. I knew exactly what your "I don't know" meant. I never consider myself bound to be truthful, so I beg we may be on equal terms.'

Cynthia might well say she did not consider herself bound to be truthful; she literally said what came uppermost, without caring very much whether it was accurate or not. But there was no ill-nature, and, in a general way, no attempt at procuring any advantage for herself in all her deviations; and there was often such a latent sense of fun in them that Molly could not help being amused with them in fact, though she condemned them in theory. Cynthia's playfulness of manner glossed such failings over with a kind of charm; and yet, at times, she was so soft and sympathetic that Molly could not resist her, even when she affirmed the most startling things. The little account she made of her own beauty pleased Mr. Gibson extremely; and her pretty deference to him won his heart. She was restless too, till she had attacked Molly's dress, after she had remodelled her mother's.

'Now for you, sweet one,' said she as she began upon one of Molly's gowns. 'I've been working as connoisseur until now. Now I begin as amateur.'

She brought down her pretty artificial flowers, plucked out of her own best bonnet to put into Molly's, saying they would suit her complexion, and that a knot of ribbons would do well enough for her. All the time she worked, she sang; she had a sweet voice in singing, as well as in speaking, and used to run up and down her gay French chansons without any difficulty; so flexible in the art was she. Yet she did not seem to care for music. She rarely touched the piano, on which Molly practised with daily conscientiousness. Cynthia was always willing to answer questions about her previous life, though, after the first, she rarely alluded to it of herself; but she was a most sympathetic listener to all Molly's innocent confidences of joys and sorrows; sympathizing even to the extent of wondering how she could endure Mr. Gibson's second marriage, and why she did not take some active steps of rebellion.

In spite of all this agreeable and pungent variety of companionship at home, Molly yearned after the Hamleys. If there had been a woman in that family she would probably have received many little notes, and heard of numerous details which were now lost to her, or summed up in condensed accounts of her father's visits at the Hall, which, since his dear patient was dead, were only occasional.

'Yes! The squire is a good deal changed; but he's better than he was. There's an unspoken estrangement between him and Osborne; one can see it in the silence and constraint of their manners; but outwardly they are friendly—civil at any rate. The squire will always respect Osborne as his heir, and the future representative of the family. Osborne doesn't look well; he says he wants change. I think he's weary of the domestic tete-a-tete, or domestic dissension. But he feels his mother's death acutely. It's a wonder that he and his father are not drawn together by their common loss. Roger's away at Cambridge too— examination for the mathematical tripos. Altogether the aspect of both people and place is changed; it is but natural!'

Such is perhaps the summing-up of the news of the Hamleys, as contained in many bulletins. They always ended in some kind message to Molly.

Mrs. Gibson generally said, as a comment upon her husband's account of Osborne's melancholy,—

'My dear! why don't you ask him to dinner here? A little quiet dinner, you know. Cook is quite up to it; and we would all of us wear blacks and lilacs;' he couldn't consider that as gaiety.'

Mr. Gibson took no more notice of these suggestions than by shaking his head. He had grown accustomed to his wife by this time, and regarded silence on his own part as a great preservative against long inconsequential arguments. But every time that Mrs. Gibson was struck by Cynthia's beauty, she thought it more and more advisable that Mr. Osborne Hamley should be cheered up by a quiet little dinner-party. As yet no one but the ladies of Hollingford and Mr Ashton, the vicar—that hopeless and impracticable old bachelor—had seen Cynthia; and what was the good of having a lovely daughter, if there were none but old women to admire her?

Cynthia herself appeared extremely indifferent upon the subject, and took very little notice of her mother's constant talk about the gaieties that were possible, and the gaieties that were impossible, in Hollingford. She exerted herself just as much to charm the two Miss Brownings as she would have done to delight Osborne Hamley, or any other young heir. That is to say, she used no exertion, but simply followed her own nature, which was to attract every one of those she was thrown amongst. The exertion seemed rather to be to refrain from doing so, and to protest, as she so often did, by slight words and expressive looks against her mother's words and humours—alike against her folly and her caresses. Molly was almost sorry for Mrs. Gibson, who seemed so unable to gain influence over her child. One day Cynthia read Molly's thought.

'I am not good, and I told you so. Somehow I cannot forgive her for her neglect of me as a child, when I would have clung to her. Besides, I hardly ever heard from her when I was at school. And I know she put a stop to my coming over to her wedding. I saw the letter she wrote to Madame Lefevre. A child should be brought up with its parents, if it is to think them infallible when it grows up.'

'But though it may know that there must be faults,' replied Molly, 'it ought to cover them over and try to forget their existence.'

'It ought. But don't you see I have grown up outside the pale of duty and "oughts." Love me as I am, sweet one, for I shall never be better.'