Wives and Daughters/Chapter XXXVIII

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Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
Chapter XXXVIII: Mr Kirkpatrick, Q.C.
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help, professing a great deal of love for her, and probably feeling as much as she did for any one in the world. But Molly had reached to this superficial depth of affection and intimacy in the first few weeks of Cynthia's residence in her father's house; and if she had been of a nature prone to analyse the character of one whom she loved dearly, she might have perceived that, with all Cynthia's apparent frankness, there were certain limits beyond which her confidence did not go; where her reserve began, and her real self was shrouded in mystery. For instance, her relations with Mr. Preston were often very puzzling to Molly. She was sure that there had been a much greater intimacy between them formerly at Ashcombe, and that the remembrance of this was often very galling and irritating to Cynthia, who was as evidently desirous of forgetting it as he was anxious to make her remember it. But why this intimacy had ceased, why Cynthia disliked him so extremely now, and many other unexplained circumstances connected with these two facts, were Cynthia's secrets; and she effectually baffled all Molly's innocent attempts during the first glow of her friendship for Cynthia, to learn the girlish antecedents of her companion's life. Every now and then Molly came to a dead wall, beyond which she could not pass—at least with the delicate instruments which were all she chose to use. Perhaps Cynthia might have told all there was to tell to a more forcible curiosity, which knew how to improve every slip of the tongue and every fit of temper to its own gratification. But Molly's was the interest of affection, not the coarser desire of knowing everything for a little excitement; and as soon as she saw that Cynthia did not wish to tell her anything about that period of her life, Molly left off referring to it. But if Cynthia had preserved a sweet tranquillity of manner and an unvarying kindness for Molly during the winter of which there is question, at present she was the only person to whom the beauty's ways were unchanged. Mr. Gibson's influence had been good for her as long as she saw that he liked her; she had tried to keep as high a place in his good opinion as she could, and had curbed many a little sarcasm against her mother, and many a twisting of the absolute truth when he was by. Now there was a constant uneasiness about her which made her more cowardly than before; and even her partisan, Molly, could not help being aware of the distinct equivocations she occasionally used when anything in Mr. Gibson's words or behaviour pressed her too hard. Her repartees to her mother were less frequent than they had been, but there was often the unusual phenomenon of pettishness in her behaviour to Mrs. Gibson. These changes in humour and disposition, here described all at once, were in themselves a series of delicate alterations of relative conduct spread over many months—many winter months of long evenings and bad weather, which bring out discords of character, as a dash of cold water brings out the fading colours of an old fresco.

During much of this time Mr. Preston had been at Ashcombe; for Lord Cumnor had not been able to find an agent whom he liked to replace Mr. Preston; and while the inferior situation remained vacant Mr Preston had undertaken to do the duties of both. Mrs. Goodenough had had a serious illness; and the little society at Hollingford did not care to meet while one of their habitual set was scarcely out of danger. So there had been very little visiting; and though Miss Browning said that the absence of the temptations of society was very agreeable to cultivated minds, after the dissipations of the previous autumn, when there were parties every week to welcome Mr Preston, yet Miss Phoebe let out in confidence that she and her sister had fallen into the habit of going to bed at nine o'clock, for they found cribbage night after night, from five o'clock till ten, rather too much of a good thing. To tell the truth, that winter, if peaceful, was monotonous in Hollingford; and the whole circle of gentility there was delighted to be stirred up in March by the intelligence that Mr. Kirkpatrick, the newly-made Q.C., was coming on a visit of a couple of days to his sister-in-law Mrs Gibson. Mrs. Goodenough's room was the very centre of gossip; gossip had been her daily bread through her life, gossip was meat and wine to her now.

'Dear-ah-me!' said the old lady, rousing herself so as to sit upright in her easy chair, and propping herself with her hands on the arms; 'who would ha' thought she'd such grand relations! Why, Mr Ashton told me once that a Queen's counsel was as like to be a judge as a kitten is like to be a cat. And to think of her being as good as a sister to a judge! I saw one oncst; and I know I thought as I should not wish for a better winter-cloak than his old robes would make me, if I could only find out where I could get them second-hand. And I know she'd her silk gowns turned and dyed and cleaned, and, for aught I know, turned again, while she lived at Ashcombe. Keeping a school, too, and so near akin to this Queen's counsel all the time! Well, to be sure, it was not much of a school—only ten young ladies at the best o' times; so perhaps he never heard of it.'

'I've been wondering what they'll give him to dinner,' said Miss Browning. 'It is an unlucky time for visitors; no game to be had, and lamb so late this year, and chicken hardly to be had for love or money.'

'He'll have to put up with calves-head, that he will,' said Mrs Goodenough, solemnly. 'If I'd ha' got my usual health I'd copy out a receipt of my grandmother's for a rolled calves-head,' and send it to Mrs. Gibson,—the doctor has been very kind to me all through this illness,—I wish my daughter in Combermere would send me some autumn chickens—I'd pass 'em on to the doctor, that I would; but she's been a-killing of 'em all, and a-sending of them to me, and the last she sent she wrote me word was the last.'

'I wonder if they'll give a party for him!' suggested Miss Phoebe. 'I should like to see a Queen's counsel for once in my life. I have seen javelin-men, but that's the greatest thing in the legal line I ever came across.'

'They'll ask Mr. Ashton, of course,' said Miss Browning. 'The three black graces, Law, Physic, and Divinity, as the song calls them.' Whenever there's a second course, there's always the clergyman of the parish invited in any family of gentility.'

'I wonder if he's married!' said Mrs. Goodenough. Miss Phoebe had been feeling the same wonder, but had not thought it maidenly to express it, even to her sister, who was the source of knowledge, having met Mrs. Gibson in the street on her way to Mrs. Goodenough's.

'Yes, he's married, and must have several children, for Mrs. Gibson said that Cynthia Kirkpatrick had paid them a visit in London, to have lessons with her cousins. And she said that his wife was a most accomplished woman, and of good family, though she brought him no fortune.'

'It's a very creditable connection, I'm sure; it's only a wonder to me as how we've heard so little talk of it before,' said Mrs Goodenough. 'At the first look of the thing, I should not ha' thought Mrs. Gibson was one to hide away her fine relations under a bushel; indeed for that matter we're all of us fond o' turning the best breadth o' the gown to the front. I remember, speaking o' breadths, how I've undone my skirts many a time and oft to put a stain or a grease-spot next to poor Mr. Goodenough. He'd a soft kind of heart when first we was married, and he said, says he, "Patty, link thy right arm into my left one, then thou'lt be nearer to my heart;" and so we kept up the habit, when, poor man, he'd a deal more to think on than romancing on which side his heart lay; so as I said I always put my damaged breadths on the right hand, and when we walked arm in arm, as we always did, no one was never the wiser.'

'I should not be surprised if he invited Cynthia to pay him another visit in London,' said Miss Browning. 'If he did it when he was poor, he's twenty times more likely to do it now he's a Queen's counsel.'

'Ay, work it by the rule o' three, and she stands a good chance. I only hope it won't turn her head; going up visiting in London at her age. Why, I was fifty before ever I went!'

'But she has been in France, she's quite a travelled young lady,' said Miss Phoebe.

Mrs. Goodenough shook her head, for a whole minute before she gave vent to her opinion.

'It's a risk,' said she, 'a great risk. I don't like saying so to the doctor, but I should not like having my daughter, if I was him, so cheek-by-jowl with a girl as was brought up in the country where Robespierre and Bonyparte was born.'

'But Buonaparte was a Corsican,' said Miss Browning, who was much farther advanced both in knowledge and in liberality of opinions than Mrs. Goodenough. 'And there's a great opportunity for cultivation of the mind afforded by intercourse with foreign countries. I always admire Cynthia's grace of manner, never too shy to speak, yet never putting herself forwards; she's quite a help to a party; and if she has a few airs and graces, why they're natural at her age! Now as for dear Molly, there's a kind of awkwardness about her—she broke one of our best china cups last time she was at a party at our house, and spilt the coffee on the new carpet; and then she got so confused that she hardly did anything but sit in a corner and hold her tongue all the rest of the evening.'

'She was so sorry for what she'd done, sister,' said Miss Phoebe, in a gentle tone of reproach; she was always faithful to Molly.

'Well, and did I say she wasn't? but was there any need for her to be stupid all the evening after?'

'But you were rather sharp,—rather displeased—'

'And I think it my duty to be sharp, ay, and cross too, when I see young folks careless. And when I see my duty clear I do it; I'm not one to shrink from it, and they ought to be grateful to me. It's not every one that will take the trouble of reproving them, as Mrs Goodenough knows. I'm very fond of Molly Gibson, very, for her own sake and for her mother's too; I'm not sure if I don't think she's worth half-a- dozen Cynthias, but for all that she should not break my best china tea-cup, and then sit doing nothing for her livelihood all the rest of the evening.'

By this time Mrs. Goodenough gave evident signs of being tired; Molly's misdemeanors and Miss Browning's broken teacup were not as exciting subjects of conversation as Mrs. Gibson's newly-discovered good luck in having a successful London lawyer for a relation.

Mr. Kirkpatrick had been, like many other men, struggling on in his profession, and encumbered with a large family of his own; he was ready to do a good turn for his connections, if it occasioned him no loss of time, and if (which was, perhaps, a primary condition) he remembered their existence. Cynthia's visit to Doughty Street nine or ten years ago had not made much impression upon him after he had once suggested its feasibility to his good-natured wife. He was even rather startled every now and then by the appearance of a pretty little girl amongst his own children, as they trooped in to dessert, and had to remind himself who she was. But as it was his custom to leave the table almost immediately and to retreat into a small back-room called his study, to immerse himself in papers for the rest of the evening, the child had not made much impression upon him; and probably the next time he remembered her existence was when Mrs. Kirkpatrick wrote to him to beg him to receive Cynthia for a night on her way to school at Boulogne. The same request was repeated on her return; but it so happened that he had not seen her either time; and only dimly remembered some remarks which his wife had made on one of these occasions, that it seemed to her rather hazardous to send so young a girl so long a journey without making more provision for her safety than Mrs. Kirkpatrick had done. He knew that his wife would fill up all deficiencies in this respect as if Cynthia had been her own daughter; and thought no more about her until he received an invitation to attend Mrs. Kirkpatrick's wedding with Mr. Gibson, the highly-esteemed surgeon of Hollingford, &c. &c.—an attention which irritated instead of pleasing him. 'Does the woman think I have nothing to do but run about the country in search of brides and bridegrooms, when this great case of Houghton v. Houghton is coming on, and I have not a moment to spare?' he asked of his wife.

'Perhaps she never heard of it,' suggested Mrs. Kirkpatrick.

'Nonsense! the case has been in the papers for days.'

'But she mayn't know you are engaged in it.'

'She mayn't,' said he, meditatively—such ignorance was possible.

But now the great case of Houghton v. Houghton was a thing of the past; the hard struggle was over, the comparative table-land of Q. C.-dom gained, and Mr. Kirkpatrick had leisure for family feeling and recollection. One day in the Easter vacation he found himself near Hollingford; he had a Sunday to spare, and he wrote to offer himself as a visitor to the Gibsons from Friday to Monday, expressing strongly (what he really felt, in a less degree,) his wish to make Mr. Gibson's acquaintance. Mr. Gibson, though often overwhelmed with professional business, was always hospitable; and moreover, it was always a pleasure to him to get out of the somewhat confined mental atmosphere which he had breathed over and over again, and have a whiff of fresh air: a glimpse of what was passing in the great world beyond his daily limits of thought and action. So he was ready to give a cordial welcome to his unknown relation. Mrs. Gibson was in a flutter of sentimental delight, which she fancied was family affection, but which might not have been quite so effervescent if Mr Kirkpatrick had remained in his former position of struggling lawyer, with seven children, living in Doughty Street.

When the two gentlemen met they were attracted towards each other by a similarity of character, with just enough difference in their opinions to make the experience of each, on which such opinions were based, valuable to the other. Mrs. Gibson, although the bond between them, counted for very little in their intercourse. Mr. Kirkpatrick paid her very polite attention; and was, in fact, very glad that she had done so well for herself as to marry a sensible and agreeable man, who was able to keep her in comfort, and to behave to her daughter in so liberal a manner. Molly struck him as a delicate-looking girl, who might be very pretty if she had had a greater look of health and animation: indeed, looking at her critically, there were beautiful points about her face— long soft grey eyes, black curling eyelashes, rarely-showing dimples, perfect teeth; but there was a languor over all, a slow depression of manner, which contrasted unfavourably with the brightly-coloured Cynthia, sparkling, quick, graceful, and witty. As Mr. Kirkpatrick expressed it afterwards to his wife, he was quite in love with that girl; and Cynthia, as ready to captivate strangers as any little girl of three or four, rose to the occasion, forgot all her cares and despondencies, remembered no longer her regret at having lost something of Mr. Gibson's good opinion, and listened eagerly and made soft replies, intermixed with naive sallies of droll humour, till Mr. Kirkpatrick was quite captivated. He left Hollingford, almost surprised to have performed a duty, and found it a pleasure. For Mrs. Gibson and Molly he had a general friendly feeling; but he did not care if he never saw them again. But for Mr. Gibson he had a warm respect, a strong personal liking, which he should be glad to have ripen into a friendship, if there was time for it in this bustling world. And he fully resolved to see more of Cynthia; his wife must know her; they must have her up to stay with them in London, and show her something of the world. But, on returning home, Mr. Kirkpatrick found so much work awaiting him that he had to lock up embryo friendships and kindly plans in some safe closet of his mind, and give himself up, body and soul, to the immediate work of his profession. But, in May, he found time to take his wife to the Academy Exhibition,' and some portrait there, striking him as being like Cynthia, he told his wife more about her and his visit to Hollingford than he had ever had leisure to do before; and the result was that on the next day a letter was sent off to Mrs. Gibson, inviting Cynthia to pay a visit to her cousins in London, and reminding her of many little circumstances that had occurred when she was with them as a child, so as to carry on the clue of friendship from that time to the present.

On its receipt this letter was greeted in various ways by the four people who sate round the breakfast-table. Mrs. Gibson read it to herself first. Then, without telling what its contents were, so that her auditors were quite in the dark as to what her remarks applied, she said,—

'I think they might have remembered that I am a generation nearer to them than she is, but nobody thinks of family affection now-a-days; and I liked him so much, and bought a new cookery-book, all to make it pleasant and agreeable and what he was used to.' She said all this in a plaintive, aggrieved tone of voice; but as no one knew to what she was referring, it was difficult to offer her consolation. Her husband was the first to speak.

'If you want us to sympathize with you, tell us what is the nature of your woe.'

'Why, I daresay it's what he means as a very kind attention, only I think I ought to have been asked before Cynthia,' said she, reading the letter over again.

'Who's he? and what's meant for a "kind attention"?'

'Mr. Kirkpatrick, to be sure. This letter is from him; and he wants Cynthia to go and pay them a visit, and never says anything about you or me, my dear. And I'm sure we did our best to make it pleasant; and he should have asked us first, I think.'

'As I could not possibly have gone, it makes very little difference to me.'

'But I could have gone; and, at any rate, he should have paid us the compliment: it's only a proper mark of respect, you know. So ungrateful, too, when I gave up my dressing-room on purpose for him!'

'And I dressed for dinner every day he was here, if we are each to recapitulate all our sacrifices on his behalf. But for all that I did not expect to be invited to his house. I shall be only too glad if he will come again to mine.'

'I've a great mind not to let Cynthia go,' said Mrs. Gibson, reflectively.

'I can't go, mamma,' said Cynthia, colouring. 'My gowns are all so shabby, and my old bonnet must do for this summer.'

'Well, but you can buy a new one; and I'm sure it is high time you should get yourself another silk-gown. You must have been saving up a great deal, for I don't know when you've had any new clothes.'

Cynthia began to say something, but stopped short. She went on buttering her toast, but she held it in her hand without eating it; without looking up either, as, after a minute or two of silence, she spoke again,—

'I cannot go. I should like it very much; but I really cannot go. Please, mamma, write at once, and refuse it.'

'Nonsense, child! When a man in Mr. Kirkpatrick's position comes forward to offer a favour, it does not do to decline it without giving a sufficient reason. So kind of him as it is, too!'

'Suppose you offer to go instead of me?' proposed Cynthia.

'No, no! that won't do,' said Mr. Gibson, decidedly. 'You can't transfer invitations in that way. But really this excuse about your clothes does appear to be very trivial, Cynthia, if you have no other reason to give.'

'It is a real, true reason to me,' said Cynthia, looking up at him as she spoke. 'You must let me judge for myself. It would not do to go there in a state of shabbiness, for even in Doughty Street, I remember, my aunt was very particular about dress; and now that Margaret and Helen are grown up, and they visit so much,—pray don't say anything more about it, for I know it would not do.'

'What have you done with all your money, I wonder?' said Mrs. Gibson. 'You've twenty pounds a year, thanks to Mr. Gibson and me; and I'm sure you haven't spent more than ten.'

'I had not many things when I came back from France,' said Cynthia, in a low voice, and evidently troubled by all this questioning. 'Pray let it be decided at once; I can't go, and there's an end of it.' She got up, and left the room rather suddenly.

'I don't understand it at all,' said Mrs. Gibson. 'Do you, Molly?'

'No. I know she does not like spending money on her dress, and is very careful.' Molly said this much, and then was afraid she had made mischief.

'But then she must have got the money somewhere. It always has struck me that if you have not extravagant habits, and do not live up to your income, you must have a certain sum to lay by at the end of the year. Have I not often said so, Mr. Gibson?'

'Probably.'

'Well, then, apply the same reasoning to Cynthia's case; and then, I ask, what has become of the money?'

'I cannot tell,' said Molly, seeing that she was appealed to. 'She may have given it away to some one who wants it.'

Mr. Gibson put down his newspaper.

'It is very clear that she has neither got the dress nor the money necessary for this London visit, and that she does not want any more inquiries to be made on the subject. She likes mysteries, in fact, and I detest them. Still, I think it is a desirable thing for her to keep up the acquaintance, or friendship, or whatever it is to be called, with her father's family; and I shall gladly give her ten pounds; and if that's not enough, why, either you must help her out, or she must do without some superfluous article of dress or another.'

'I'm sure there never was such a kind, dear, generous man as you are, Mr. Gibson,' said his wife. 'To think of your being a stepfather! and so good to my poor fatherless girl! But, Molly my dear, I think you'll acknowledge that you too are very fortunate in your stepmother. Are not you, love? And what happy tete-a-tetes we shall have together when Cynthia goes to London. I'm not sure if I don't get on better with you even than with her, though she is my own child; for, as dear papa says so truly, there is a love of mystery about her; and if I hate anything, it is the slightest concealment or reserve. Ten pounds! Why, it will quite set her up, buy her a couple of gowns and a new bonnet, and I don't know what all! Dear Mr. Gibson, how generous you are!'

Something very like 'Pshaw!' was growled out from behind the newspaper.

'May I go and tell her?' said Molly, rising up.

'Yes, do, love. Tell her it would be so ungrateful to refuse; and tell her that your father wishes her to go; and tell her, too, that it would be quite wrong not to avail herself of an opening which may by-and-by be extended to the rest of the family. I am sure if they ask me—which certainly they ought to do—I won't say before they asked Cynthia, because I never think of myself, and am really the most forgiving person in the world, in forgiving slights;—but when they do ask me, which they are sure to do, I shall never be content till, by putting in a little hint here and a little hint there, I've induced them to send you an invitation. A month or two in London would do you so much good, Molly.'

Molly had left the room before this speech was ended, and Mr. Gibson was occupied with his newspaper; but Mrs. Gibson finished it to herself very much to her own satisfaction; for, after all, it was better to have some one of the family going on the visit, though she might not be the right person, than to refuse it altogether, and never to have the opportunity of saying anything about it. As Mr Gibson was so kind to Cynthia, she too would be kind to Molly, and dress her becomingly, and invite young men to the house; do all the things, in fact, which Molly and her father did not want to have done, and throw the old stumbling- blocks in the way of their unrestrained intercourse, which was the one thing they desired to have, free and open, and without the constant dread of her jealousy.