Wives and Daughters/Chapter XV

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Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
Chapter XV: The New Mamma
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On Tuesday afternoon Molly returned home, to the home which was already strange, and what Warwickshire people would call 'unked,' to her. New paint, new paper, new colours; grim servants dressed in their best, and objecting to every change—from their master's marriage to the new oilcloth in the hall, 'which tripped 'em up, and threw 'em down, and was cold to the feet, and smelt just abominable.' All these complaints Molly had to listen to, and it was not a cheerful preparation for the reception which she already felt to be so formidable.

The sound of their carriage-wheels was heard at last, and Molly went to the front door to meet them. Her father got out first, and took her hand and held it while he helped his bride to alight. Then he kissed her fondly, and passed her on to his wife; but her veil was so securely (and becomingly) fastened down, that it was some time before Mrs. Gibson could get her lips clear to greet her new daughter. Then there was luggage to be seen about; and both the travellers were occupied in this, while Molly stood by, trembling with excitement, unable to help, and only conscious of Betty's rather cross looks, as heavy box after heavy box jammed up the passage.

'Molly, my dear, show—your mamma to her room!'

Mr. Gibson had hesitated, because the question of the name by which Molly was to call her new relation had never occurred to him before. The colour flashed into Molly's face. Was she to call her 'mamma'?—the name long appropriated in her mind to some one else—to her own dead mother. The rebellious heart rose against it, but she said nothing. She led the way upstairs, Mrs. Gibson turning round, from time to time, with some fresh direction as to which bag or trunk she needed most. She hardly spoke to Molly till they were both in the newly-furnished bedroom, where a small fire had been lighted by Molly's orders.

'Now, my love, we can embrace each other in peace. Oh dear, how tired I am!'—(after the embrace had been accomplished.) 'My spirits are so easily affected with fatigue; but your dear papa has been kindness itself. Dear! what an old-fashioned bed! And what a—But it doesn't signify. By-and-by we'll renovate the house—won't we, my dear? And you'll be my little maid to-night, and help me to arrange a few things, for I'm just worn out with the day's journey.'

'I've ordered a sort of tea-dinner to be ready for you,' said Molly. 'Shall I go and tell them to send it in?'

'I'm not sure if I can go down again to-night. It would be very comfortable to have a little table brought in here, and sit in my dressing-gown by this cheerful fire. But, to be sure, there's your dear papa? I really don't think he would eat anything if I were not there. One must not think about oneself, you know. Yes, I'll come down in a quarter of an hour.'

But Mr. Gibson had found a note awaiting him, with an immediate summons to an old patient, dangerously ill; and, snatching a mouthful of food while his horse was being saddled, he had to resume at once his old habits of attention to his profession above everything.

As soon as Mrs. Gibson found that he was not likely to miss her presence—he had eaten a very tolerable lunch of bread and cold meat in solitude, so her fears about his appetite in her absence were not well founded—she desired to have her meal upstairs in her own room; and poor Molly, not daring to tell the servants of this whim, had to carry up first a table, which, however small, was too heavy for her; and afterwards all the choice portions of the meal, which she had taken great pains to arrange on the table, as she had seen such things done at Hamley, intermixed with fruit and flowers that had that morning been sent in from various great houses where Mr. Gibson was respected and valued. How pretty Molly had thought her handiwork an hour or two before! How dreary it seemed as, at last released from Mrs. Gibson's conversation, she sate down in solitude to cold tea and the drumsticks of the chicken! No one to look at her preparations, and admire her left-handedness and taste! She had thought that her father would be gratified by it, and then he had never seen it. She had meant her cares as an offering of good-will to her stepmother, who even now was ringing her bell to have the tray taken away, and Miss Gibson summoned to her bedroom,

Molly hastily finished her meal, and went upstairs again.

'I feel so lonely, darling, in this strange house; do come and be with me, and help me to unpack. I think your dear papa might have put off his visit to Mr. Craven Smith for just this one evening.'

'Mr. Craven Smith couldn't put off his dying,' said Molly, bluntly.

'You droll girl!' said Mrs. Gibson, with a faint laugh. 'But if this Mr. Smith is dying, as you say, what's the use of your father's going off to him in such a hurry? Does he expect any legacy, or anything of that kind?'

Molly bit her lips to prevent herself from saying something disagreeable. She only answered,—

'I don't quite know that he is dying. The man said so; and papa can sometimes do something to make the last struggle easier. At any rate, it's always a comfort to the family to have him.'

'What dreary knowledge of death you have learned for a girl of your age! Really, if I had heard all these details of your father's profession, I doubt if I could have brought myself to have him!'

'He doesn't make the illness or the death; he does his best against them. I call it a very fine thing to think of what he does or tries to do. And you will think so, too, when you see how he is watched for, and how people welcome him!'

'Well, don't let us talk any more of such gloomy things to-night! I think I shall go to bed at once, I am so tired, if you will only sit by me till I get sleepy, darling. If you will talk to me, the sound of your voice will soon send me off.'

Molly got a book, and read her stepmother to sleep, preferring that to the harder task of keeping up a continual murmur of speech.

Then she stole down and went into the dining-room, where the fire was gone out; purposely neglected by the servants, to mark their displeasure at their new mistress's having had her tea in her own room. Molly managed to light it, however, before her father came home, and collected and rearranged some comfortable food for him. Then she knelt down again on the hearth-rug, gazing into the fire in a dreamy reverie, which had enough of sadness about it to cause the tears to drop unnoticed from her eyes. But she jumped up, and shook herself into brightness at the sound of her father's step.

'How is Mr. Craven Smith?' said she.

'Dead. He just recognized me. He was one of my first patients on coming to Hollingford.'

Mr. Gibson sate down in the arm-chair made ready for him, and warmed his hands at the fire, seeming neither to need food nor talk, as he went over a train of recollections. Then he roused himself from his sadness, and looking round the room, he said briskly enough,—

'And where's the new mamma?'

'She was tired, and went to bed early. Oh, papa! must I call her "mamma"?'

'I should like it,' replied he, with a slight contraction of the brows.

Molly was silent. She put a cup or tea near him; he stirred it, and sipped it, and then he recurred to the subject.

'Why shouldn't you call her "mamma"? I'm sure she means to do the duty of a mother to you. We all may make mistakes, and her ways may not be quite all at once our ways; but at any rate let us start with a family bond between us.'

What would Roger say was right?—that was the question that rose to Molly's mind. She had always spoken of her father's new wife as Mrs Gibson, and had once burst out at Miss Brownings' with a protestation that she never would call her 'mamma.' She did not feel drawn to her new relation by their intercourse that evening. She kept silence, though she knew her father was expecting an answer. At last he gave up his expectation, and turned to another subject; told about their journey, questioned her as to the Hamleys, the Brownings, Lady Harriet, and the afternoon they had passed together at the Manor House. But there was a certain hardness and constraint in his manner, and in hers a heaviness and absence of mind. All at once she said,—

'Papa, I will call her "mamma"!'

He took her hand, and grasped it tight; but for an instant or two he did not speak. Then he said,—

'You won't be sorry for it, Molly, when you come to lie as poor Craven Smith did to-night.'

For some time the murmurs and grumblings of the two elder servants were confined to Molly's ears, then they spread to her father's, who, to Molly's dismay, made summary work with them.

'You don't like Mrs. Gibson's ringing her bell so often, don't you? You've been spoilt, I'm afraid; but if you don't conform to my wife's desires, you have the remedy in your own hands, you know.'

What servant ever resisted the temptation to give warning after such a speech as that? Betty told Molly she was going to leave, in as indifferent a manner as she could possibly assume towards the girl, whom she had tended and been about for the last sixteen years. Molly had hitherto considered her former nurse as a fixture in the house; she would almost as soon have thought of her father's proposing to sever the relationship between them; and here was Betty coolly talking over whether her next place should be in town or country. But a great deal of this was assumed hardness. In a week or two Betty was in floods of tears at the prospect of leaving her nursling, and would fain have stayed and answered all the bells in the house once every quarter of an hour. Even Mr. Gibson's masculine heart was touched by the sorrow of the old servant, which made itself obvious to him every time he came across her by her broken voice and her swollen eyes.

One day he said to Molly, 'I wish you'd ask your mamma if Betty might not stay, if she made a proper apology, and all that sort of thing.'

'I don't much think it will be of any use,' said Molly, in a mournful voice. 'I know she is writing, or has written, about some under- housemaid at the Towers.'

'Well!—all I want is peace and a decent quantity of cheerfulness when I come home. I see enough of tears in other people's houses. After all, Betty has been with us sixteen years—a sort of service of the antique world. But the woman may be happier elsewhere. Do as you like about asking mamma; only if she agrees, I shall be quite willing.'

So Molly tried her hand at making a request to that effect to Mrs Gibson. Her instinct told her she should be unsuccessful; but surely favour was never refused in so soft a tone.

'My dear girl, I should never have thought of sending an old servant away,—one who has had the charge of you from your birth, or nearly so. I could not have had the heart to do it. She might have stayed for ever for me, if she had only attended to all my wishes; and I am not unreasonable, am I? But, you see, she complained; and when your dear papa spoke to her, she gave warning; and it is quite against my principles ever to take an apology from a servant who has given warning.'

'She is so sorry,' pleaded Molly; 'she says she will do anything you wish, and attend to all your orders, if she may only stay.'

'But, sweet one, you seem to forget that I cannot go against my principles, however much I may be sorry for Betty. She should not have given way to ill-temper. As I said before, although I never liked her, and considered her a most inefficient servant, thoroughly spoilt by having had no mistress for so long, I should have borne with her—at least, I think I should—as long as I could. Now I have all but engaged Maria, who was under-housemaid at the Towers, so don't let me hear any more of Betty's sorrow, or anybody else's sorrow, for I'm sure, what with your dear papa's sad stories and other things, I'm getting quite low.'

Molly was silent for a moment or two.

'Have you quite engaged Maria?' asked she.

'No—I said "all but engaged." Sometimes one would think you did not hear things, dear Molly!' replied Mrs. Gibson, petulantly. 'Maria is living in a place where they don't give her as much wages as she deserves. Perhaps they can't afford it, poor things! I'm always sorry for poverty, and would never speak hardly of those who are not rich; but I have offered her two pounds more than she gets at present, so I think she'll leave. At any rate, if they increase her wages, I shall increase my offer in proportion; so I think I'm sure to get her. Such a genteel girl!—always brings in a letter on a salver!'

'Poor Betty!' said Molly, softly.

'Poor old soul! I hope she'll profit by the lesson, I'm sure,' sighed out Mrs. Gibson; 'but it's a pity we hadn't Maria before the county families began to call.'

Mrs. Gibson had been highly gratified by the circumstances of so many calls 'from county families.' Her husband was much respected; and many ladies from various halls, courts, and houses, who had profited by his services towards themselves and their families, thought it right to pay his new wife the attention of a call when they drove into Hollingford to shop. The state of expectation into which these calls threw Mrs. Gibson rather diminished Mr. Gibson's domestic comfort. It was awkward to be carrying hot, savoury-smelling dishes from the kitchen to the dining-room at the very time when high-born ladies, with noses of aristocratic refinement, might be calling. Still more awkward was the accident which happened in consequence of clumsy Betty's haste to open the front door to a lofty footman's ran-tan, which caused her to set down the basket containing the dirty plates right in his mistress's way, as she stepped gingerly through the comparative darkness of the hall; and then the young men, leaving the dining-room quietly enough, but bursting with long-repressed giggle, or no longer restraining their tendency to practical joking, no matter who might be in the passage when they made their exit. The remedy proposed by Mrs. Gibson for all these distressing grievances was a late dinner. The luncheon for the young men, as she observed to her husband, might be sent into the surgery. A few elegant cold trifles for herself and Molly would not scent the house, and she would always take care to have some little dainty ready for him. He acceded, but unwillingly, for it was an innovation on the habits of a lifetime, and he felt as if he should never be able to arrange his rounds aright with this newfangled notion of a six o'clock dinner.

'Don't get any dainties for me, my dear; bread and cheese is the chief of my diet, like it was that of the old woman's.'

'I know nothing of your old woman,' replied his wife; 'but really I cannot allow cheese to come beyond the kitchen.'

'Then I'll eat it there,' said he. 'It's close to the stable-yard, and if I come in in a hurry I can get it in a moment.'

'Really, Mr. Gibson, it is astonishing to compare your appearance and manners with your tastes. You look such a gentleman, as dear Lady Cumnor used to say.'

Then the cook left; also an old servant, though not so old a one as Betty. The cook did not like the trouble of late dinners; and, being a Methodist, she objected on religious grounds to trying any of Mrs Gibson's new receipts for French dishes. It was not scriptural, she said. There was a deal of mention of food in the Bible; but it was of sheep ready dressed, which meant mutton, and of wine, and of bread, and milk, and figs and raisins, of fatted calves, a good well-browned fillet of veal, and such like; but it had always gone against her conscience to cook swine-flesh and make raised pork-pies, and now if she was to be set to cook heathen dishes after the fashion of the Papists, she'd sooner give it all up together. So the cook followed in Betty's track, and Mr. Gibson had to satisfy his healthy English appetite on badly made omelettes, rissoles, vol-au-vents, croquets, and timbales; never being exactly sure what he was eating.

He had made up his mind before his marriage to yield in trifles, and be firm in greater things. But the differences of opinion about trifles arose every day, and were perhaps more annoying than if they had related to things of more consequence. Molly knew her father's looks as well as she knew her alphabet; his wife did not; and being an unperceptive person, except when her own interests were dependent upon another person's humour, never found out how he was worried by all the small daily concessions which he made to her will or her whims. He never allowed himself to put any regret into shape, even in his own mind; he repeatedly reminded himself of his wife's good qualities, and comforted himself by thinking they should work together better as time rolled on; but he was very angry at a bachelor great-uncle of Mr. Coxe's, who, after taking no notice of his red-headed nephew for years, suddenly sent for him, after the old man had partially recovered from a serious attack of illness, and appointed him his heir, on condition that his great-nephew remained with him during the remainder of his life. This had happened almost directly after Mr. and Mrs. Gibson's return from their wedding journey, and once or twice since that time Mr. Gibson had found himself wondering why the deuce old Benson could not have made up his mind sooner, and so have rid his house of the unwelcome presence of the young lover. To do Mr. Coxe justice, in the very last conversation he had as a pupil with Mr. Gibson he had said, with hesitating awkwardness, that perhaps the new circumstances in which he should be placed might make some difference with regard to Mr Gibson's opinion on—

'Not at all,' said Mr. Gibson, quickly. 'You are both of you too young to know your own minds; and if my daughter was silly enough to be in love, she should never have to calculate her happiness on the chances of an old man's death. I dare say he'll disinherit you after all. He may do, and then you'd be worse off than ever. No! go away, and forget all this nonsense; and when you've done, come back and see us!'

So Mr. Coxe went away, with an oath of unalterable faithfulness in his heart; and Mr. Gibson had unwillingly to fulfil an old promise made to a gentleman farmer in the neighbourhood a year or two before, and to take the second son of Mr. Browne in young Coxe's place. He was to be the last of the race of pupils, and as he was rather more than a year younger than Molly, Mr. Gibson trusted that there would be no repetition of the Coxe romance.