Wives and Daughters/Chapter XXXIV

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Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
Chapter XXXIV: A Lover's Mistake
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It was afternoon. Molly had gone out for a walk. Mrs. Gibson had been paying some calls. Lazy Cynthia had declined accompanying either. A daily walk was not a necessity to her as it was to Molly. On a lovely day, or with an agreeable object, or when the fancy took her, she could go as far as any one; but these were exceptional cases; in general, she was not disposed to disturb herself from her in-door occupations. Indeed, not one of the ladies would have left the house, had they been aware that Roger was in the neighbourhood; for they were aware that he was to come down but once before his departure, and that his stay at home then would be but for a short time, and they were all anxious to wish him good-by before his long absence, But they had understood that he was not coming to the Hall until the following week, and therefore they had felt themselves at full liberty this afternoon to follow their own devices.

Molly chose a walk that had been a favourite with her ever since she was a child. Something or other had happened just before she left home that made her begin wondering how far it was right for the sake of domestic peace to pass over without comment the little deviations from right that people perceive in those whom they live with. Or, whether, as they are placed in families for distinct purposes, not by chance merely, there are not duties involved in this aspect of their lot in life,—whether by continually passing over failings, their own standard is not lowered,—the practical application of these thoughts being a dismal sort of perplexity on Molly's part as to whether her father was quite aware of her stepmother's perpetual lapses from truth; and whether his blindness was wilful or not. Then she felt bitterly enough that although she was sure as could be that there was no real estrangement between her and her father, yet that there were perpetual obstacles thrown in the way of their intercourse; and she thought with a sigh that if he would but come in with authority, he might cut his way clear to the old intimacy with his daughter, and that they might have all the former walks and talks, and quips and cranks, and glimpses of real confidence once again; things that her stepmother did not value, yet which she, like the dog in the manger, prevented Molly enjoying. But after all Molly was a girl, not so far removed from childhood; and in the middle of her grave regrets and perplexities her eye was caught by the sight of some fine ripe blackberries flourishing away high up on the hedge-bank among scarlet hips and green and russet leaves. She did not care much for blackberries herself; but she had heard Cynthia say that she liked them; and besides there was the charm of scrambling and gathering them, so she forgot all about her troubles, and went climbing up the banks, and clutching at her almost inaccessible prizes, and slipping down again triumphant, to carry them back to the large leaf which was to serve her as a basket. One or two of them she tasted, but they were as vapid to her palate as ever. The skirt of her pretty print gown was torn out of the gathers, and even with the fruit she had eaten 'her pretty lips with blackberries were all besmeared and dyed,' when, having gathered as many and more than she could possibly carry, she set off home, hoping to escape into her room and mend her gown before it had offended Mrs. Gibson's neat eye. The front door was easily opened from the outside, and Molly was out of the clear light of the open air and in the shadow of the hall; she saw a face peep out of the dining-room before she quite recognized who it was; and then Mrs Gibson came softly out, sufficiently at least to beckon her into the room. When Molly had entered Mrs. Gibson closed the door. Poor Molly expected a reprimand for her torn gown and untidy appearance, but was soon relieved by the expression of Mrs. Gibson's face—mysterious and radiant.

'I have been watching for you, dear. Don't go upstairs into the drawing-room, love. It might be a little interruption just now. Roger Hamley is there with Cynthia; and I've reason to think,—in fact I did open the door unawares, but I shut it again softly, and I don't think they heard me. Is not it charming? Young love, you know, ah, how sweet it is!'

'Do you mean that Roger has proposed to Cynthia?' asked Molly.

'Not exactly that. But I don't know; of course I know nothing. Only I did hear him say that he had meant to leave England without speaking of his love, but that the temptation of seeing her alone had been too great for him. It was symptomatic, was it not, my dear? And all I wanted was to let it come to a crisis without interruption. So I've been watching for you to prevent your going in and disturbing them.'

'But I may go to my room, mayn't I,' pleaded Molly.

'Of course,' said Mrs. Gibson, a little testily. 'Only I had expected sympathy from you at such an interesting moment.'

But Molly did not hear these last words. She had escaped upstairs, and had shut her door. Instinctively she had carried her leaf full of blackberries—what would blackberries be to Cynthia now? She felt as if she could not understand it all; but as for that matter, what could she understand? Nothing. For a few minutes her brain seemed in too great a whirl to comprehend anything but that she was being carried on in earth's diurnal course, with rocks, and stones, and trees, with as little volition on her part as if she were dead. Then the room grew stifling, and instinctively she went to the open casement window, and leant out, gasping for breath. Gradually the consciousness of the soft peaceful landscape stole into her mind, and stilled the buzzing confusion. There, bathed in the almost level rays of the autumn sunlight, lay the landscape she had known and loved from childhood; as quiet, as full of low humming life as it had been at this hour for many generations. The autumn flowers blazed out in the garden below, the lazy cows were in the meadow beyond, chewing their cud in the green aftermath; the evening fires had just been made up in the cottages beyond, in preparation for the husband's homecoming, and were sending up soft curls of blue smoke into the still air; the children, let loose from school, were shouting merrily in the distance, and she—Just then she heard nearer sounds; an opened door, steps on the lower flight of stairs. He could not have gone without even seeing her. He never, never would have done so cruel a thing—never would have forgotten poor little Molly, however happy he might be. No! there were steps and voices, and the drawing-room door was opened and shut once more. She laid down her head on her arms that rested on the window-sill, and cried,—she had been so distrustful as to have let the idea enter her mind that he could go without wishing her good-by; her, whom his mother had so loved, and called by the name of his little dead sister. And as she thought of the tender love Mrs. Hamley had borne her she cried the more, for the vanishing of such love for her off the face of the earth. Suddenly the drawing-room door opened, and some one was heard coming upstairs; it was Cynthia's step. Molly hastily wiped her eyes, and stood up and tried to look unconcerned; it was all she had time to do before Cynthia, after a little pause at the closed door, had knocked; and on an answer being given, had said, without opening the door,— 'Molly! Mr. Roger Hamley is here, and wants to wish you good-by before he goes.' Then she went downstairs again, as if anxious just at that moment to avoid even so short a tete-a-tete with Molly. With a gulp and a fit of resolution, as a child makes up its mind to swallow a nauseous dose of medicine, Molly went instantly downstairs.

Roger was talking earnestly to Mrs. Gibson in the bay of the window when Molly entered; Cynthia was standing near, listening, but taking no part in the conversation. Her eyes were downcast, and she did not look up as Molly drew shyly near.

Roger was saying,—'I could never forgive myself if I had accepted a pledge from her. She shall be free until my return; but the hope, the words, her sweet goodness, have made me happy beyond description. Oh, Molly!' suddenly becoming aware of her presence, and turning to her, and taking her hand in both of his,—'I think you have long guessed my secret, have you not? I once thought of speaking to you before I left, and confiding it all to you. But the temptation has been too great, I have told Cynthia how fondly I love her, as far as words can tell; and she says—' then he looked at Cynthia with passionate delight and seemed to forget in that gaze that he had left his sentence to Molly half finished.

Cynthia did not seem inclined to repeat her saying, whatever it was, but her mother spoke for her.

'My dear sweet girl values your love as it ought to be valued, I am sure. And I believe,' looking at Cynthia and Roger with intelligent archness, 'I could tell tales as to the cause of her indisposition in the spring.'

'Mother,' said Cynthia suddenly, 'you know it was no such thing. Pray don't invent stories about me. I have engaged myself to Mr Roger Hamley, and that is enough.'

'Enough! more than enough!' said Roger. 'I will not accept your pledge. I am bound, but you are free. I like to feel bound, it makes me happy and at peace, but with all the chances involved in the next two years, you must not shackle yourself by promises.'

Cynthia did not speak at once; she was evidently revolving something in her own mind. Mrs. Gibson took up the word.

'You are very generous, I am sure. Perhaps it will be better not to mention it.'

'I would much rather have it kept a secret,' said Cynthia, interrupting.

'Certainly, my dear love. That was just what I was going to say. I once knew a young lady who heard of the death of a young man in America, whom she had known pretty well; and she immediately said she had been engaged to him, and even went so far as to put on weeds; and it was a false report, for he came back well and merry, and declared to everybody he had never so much as thought about her. So it was very awkward for her. These things had much better be kept secret until the proper time has come for divulging them.'

Even then and there Cynthia could not resist the temptation of saying,—

'Mamma, I will promise you I won't put on weeds, whatever reports come of Mr. Roger Hamley.'

'Roger, please!' he put in, in a tender whisper.

'And you will all be witnesses that he has professed to think of me, if he is tempted afterwards to deny the fact. But at the same time I wish it to be kept a secret until his return—and I am sure you will all be so kind as to attend to my wish. Please, Roger! Please, Molly! Mamma! I must especially beg it of you!'

Roger would have granted anything when she asked him by that name, and in that tone. He took her hand in silent pledge of his reply. Molly felt as if she could never bring herself to name the affair as a common piece of news. So it was only Mrs. Gibson answered aloud,—

'My dear child! why "especially" to poor me! You know I'm the most trustworthy person alive!'

The little pendule on the chimney-piece struck the half-hour.

'I must go!' said Roger, in dismay. 'I had no idea it was so late. I shall write from Paris. The coach will be at the "George" by this time, and will only stay five minutes. Dearest Cynthia—' he took her hand, and then, as if the temptation was irresistible, he drew her to him and kissed her. 'Only remember you are free!' said he, as he released her and passed on to Mrs. Gibson.

'If I had considered myself free,' said Cynthia, blushing a little, but ready with her repartee to the last,—'if I had thought myself free, do you think I would have allowed that?'

Then Molly's turn came; and the old brotherly tenderness came back into his look, his voice, his bearing.

'Molly! you won't forget me, I know; I shall never forget you, nor your goodness to—her.' His voice began to quiver, and it was best to be gone. Mrs. Gibson was pouring out, unheard and unheeded, words of farewell; Cynthia was rearranging some flowers in a vase on the table, the defects in which had caught her artistic eye, without the consciousness penetrating to her mind. Molly stood, numb to the heart; neither glad nor sorry, nor anything but stunned. She felt the slackened touch of the warm grasping hand; she looked up—for till now her eyes had been downcast, as if there were heavy weights to their lids—and the place was empty where he had been; his quick step was heard on the stair, the front door was opened and shut; and then as quick as lightning Molly ran up to the front attic—the lumber-room, whose window commanded the street down which he must pass. The window- clasp was unused and stiff, Molly tugged at it—unless it was open, and her head put out, that last chance would be gone.

'I must see him again; I must! I must!' she wailed out, as she was pulling. There he was, running hard to catch the London coach; his luggage had been left at the 'George' before he came up to wish the Gibsons good-by. In all his hurry, Molly saw him turn round and shade his eyes from the level rays of the westering sun, and rake the house with his glances—in hopes, she knew, of catching one more glimpse of Cynthia. But apparently he saw no one, not even Molly at the attic casement, for she had drawn back when he had turned, and kept herself in shadow; for she had no right to put herself forward as the one to watch and yearn for farewell signs. None came—another moment—he was out of sight for years.

She shut the window softly, and shivered all over. She left the attic and went to her own room; but she did not begin to take off her out-of- door things till she heard Cynthia's foot on the stairs. Then she hastily went to the toilet-table, and began to untie her bonnet- strings; but they were in a knot, and took time to undo. Cynthia's step stopped at Molly's door; she opened it a little and said,—'May I come in, Molly?'

'Certainly,' said Molly, longing to be able to say 'No' all the time. Molly did not turn to meet her, so Cynthia came up behind her, and putting her two hands round Molly's waist, peeped over her shoulder, putting out her lips to be kissed. Molly could not resist the action— the mute entreaty for a caress. But in the moment before she had caught the reflection of the two faces in the glass; her own, red-eyed, pale, with lips dyed with blackberry juice, her curls tangled, her bonnet pulled awry, her gown torn—and contrasted it with Cynthia's brightness and bloom, and the trim elegance of her dress. 'Oh! it is no wonder!' thought poor Molly, as she turned round, and put her arms round Cynthia, and laid her head for an instant on her shoulder—the weary, aching head that sought a loving pillow in that supreme moment! The next she had raised herself, and taken Cynthia's two hands, and was holding her off a little, the better to read her face.

'Cynthia! you do love him dearly, don't you?'

Cynthia winced a little aside from the penetrating steadiness of those eyes.

'You speak with all the solemnity of an adjuration, Molly!' said she, laughing a little at first to cover her nervousness, and then looking up at Molly. 'Don't you think I have given a proof of it? But you know I've often told you I've not the gift of loving; I said pretty much the same thing to him. I can respect, and I fancy I can admire, and I can like, but I never feel carried off my feet by love for any one, not even for you, little Molly, and I am sure I love you more than—'

'No, don't!' said Molly, putting her hand before Cynthia's mouth, in almost a passion of impatience. 'Don't, don't—I won't hear you—I ought not to have asked you—it makes you tell lies!'

'Why, Molly!' said Cynthia, in her turn seeking to read Molly's face, 'what's the matter with you? One might think you cared for him yourself.'

'I?' said Molly, all the blood rushing to her heart suddenly; then it returned, and she had courage to speak, and she spoke the truth as she believed it, though not the real actual truth.

'I do care for him; I think you have won the love of a prince amongst men. Why, I am proud to remember that he has been to me as a brother, and I love him as a sister, and I love you doubly because he has honoured you with his love.'

'Come, that's not complimentary!' said Cynthia, laughing, but not ill- pleased to hear her lover's praises, and even willing to depreciate him a little in order to hear more. 'He's well enough, I daresay, and a great deal too learned and clever for a stupid girl like me; but even you must acknowledge he is very plain and awkward; and I like pretty things and pretty people.'

'Cynthia, I won't talk to you about him. You know you don't mean what you are saying, and you only say it out of contradiction, because I praise him. He shan't be run down by you, even in joke.'

'Well, then, we won't talk of him at all. I was so surprised when he began to speak—so—' and Cynthia looked very lovely, blushing and dimpling up as she remembered his words and looks. Suddenly she recalled herself to the present time, and her eye caught on the leaf full of blackberries—the broad green leaf, so fresh and crisp when Molly had gathered it an hour or so ago, but now soft and flabby, and dying. Molly saw it, too, and felt a strange kind of sympathetic pity for the poor inanimate leaf.

'Oh! what blackberries! you've gathered them for me, I know!' said Cynthia, sitting down and beginning to feed herself daintily, touching them lightly with the ends of her taper fingers, and dropping each ripe berry into her open mouth. When she had eaten about half she stopped suddenly short.

'How I should like to have gone as far as Paris with him,' she exclaimed. 'I suppose it would not have been proper; but how pleasant it would have been. I remember at Boulogne' (another blackberry) 'how I used to envy the English who were going to Paris; it seemed to me then as if nobody stopped at Boulogne, but dull, stupid school-girls.'

'When will he be there?' asked Molly.

'On Wednesday, he said. I'm to write to him there; at any rate he is going to write to me.'

Molly went about the adjustment of her dress in a quiet, business-like manner, not speaking much; Cynthia, although sitting still, seemed very restless. Oh! how much Molly wished that she would go.

'Perhaps, after all,' said Cynthia, after a pause of apparent meditation, 'we shall never be married.'

'Why do you say that?' said Molly, almost bitterly. 'You have nothing to make you think so. I wonder how you can bear to think you won't, even for a moment.'

'Oh!' said Cynthia; 'you must not go and take me au grand serieux. I daresay I don't mean what I say, but you see everything seems a dream at present. Still, I think the chances are equal—the chances for and against our marriage, I mean. Two years! it's a long time; he may change his mind, or I may; or some one else may turn up, and say I'm engaged to him: what should you think of that, Molly? I'm putting such a gloomy thing as death quite on one side, you see; yet in two years how much may happen.'

'Don't talk so, Cynthia, please don't,' said Molly, piteously. 'One would think you did not care for him, and he cares so much for you!'

'Why, did I say I did not care for him! I was only calculating chances. I am sure I hope nothing will happen to prevent the marriage. Only, you know it may, and I thought I was taking a step in wisdom, in looking forward to all the evils that might befall. I am sure all the wise people I have ever known thought it a virtue to have gloomy prognostics of the future. But you're not in a mood for wisdom or virtue, I see; so I'll go and get ready for dinner, and leave you to your vanities of dress.'

She took Molly's face in both her hands, before Molly was aware of her intention, and kissed it playfully. Then she left Molly to herself.