Wives and Daughters/Chapter LIX

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The conversation ended there for the time. Wedding-cake and wine were brought in, and it was Molly's duty to serve them out. But those last words of Mrs. Goodenough's tingled in her ears, and she tried to interpret them to her own satisfaction in any way but the obvious one. And that, too, was destined to be confirmed; for directly after Mrs. Goodenough took her leave, Mrs. Gibson desired Molly to carry away the tray to a table close to an open corner window, where the things might be placed in readiness for any future callers; and underneath this open window went the path from the house-door to the road. Molly heard Mrs. Goodenough saying to her grand-daughter,—

'That Mrs. Gibson is a deep un. There's Mr. Roger Hamley as like as not to have the Hall estate, and she sends Molly a-visiting—' and then she passed out of hearing. Molly could have burst out crying, with a full sudden conviction of what Mrs. Goodenough had been alluding to: her sense of the impropriety of Molly's going to visit at the Hall when Roger was at home. To be sure Mrs. Goodenough was a commonplace, unrefined woman. Mrs. Gibson did not seem to have even noticed the allusion. Mr. Gibson took it all as a matter of course that Molly should go to the Hall as simply now, as she had done before. Roger had spoken of it in so straightforward a manner as showed he had no conception of its being an impropriety,—this visit,—this visit until now so happy a subject of anticipation. Molly felt as if she could never speak to any one of the idea to which Mrs. Goodenough's words had given rise; as if she could never be the first to suggest the notion of impropriety, which presupposed what she blushed to think of. Then she tried to comfort herself by reasoning. If it had been wrong, forward, or indelicate, really improper in the slightest degree, who would have been so ready as her father to put his veto upon it? But reasoning was of no use after Mrs. Goodenough's words had put fancies into Molly's head. The more she bade these fancies begone the more they answered her (as Daniel O'Rourke did the man in the moon, when he bade Dan get off his seat on the sickle, and go into empty space), 'The more ye ask us the more we won't stir.' One may smile at a young girl's miseries of this description; but they are very real and stinging miseries to her. All that Molly could do was to resolve on a single eye to the dear old squire, and his mental and bodily comforts; to try and heal up any breaches which might have occurred between him and Aimee; and to ignore Roger as much as possible. Good Roger! Kind Roger! Dear Roger! It would be very hard to avoid him as much as was consistent with common politeness; but it would be right to do it; and when she was with him she must be as natural as possible, or he might observe some difference; but what was natural? How much ought she avoid being with him? Would he ever notice if she was more chary of her company, more calculating of her words? Alas! the simplicity of their intercourse was spoilt henceforwards! She made laws for herself; she resolved to devote herself to the squire and to Aimee, and to forget Mrs. Goodenough's foolish speeches; but her perfect freedom was gone; and with it half her chance, that is to say, half her chance would have been lost over any strangers who had not known her before; they would probably have thought her stiff and awkward, and apt to say things and then retract them. But she was so different from her usual self that Roger noticed the change in her as soon as she arrived at the Hall. She had carefully measured out the days of her visit; they were to be exactly the same number as she had spent at the Towers. She feared lest if she stayed at the Hall a shorter time the squire might be annoyed. Yet how charming the place looked in its early autumnal glow as she drove up! And there was Roger at the hall-door waiting to receive her, watching for her coming. And now he retreated, apparently to summon his sister-in-law, who came now timidly forwards in her deep widow's mourning, holding her boy in her arms as if to protect her shyness; but he struggled down, and ran towards the carriage, eager to greet his friend the coachman, and to obtain a promised ride. Roger did not say much himself; he wanted to make Aimee feel her place as daughter of the house; but she was too timid to speak much, and she only took Molly by the hand and led her into the drawing-room, where, as if by a sudden impulse of gratitude for all the tender nursing she had received during her illness, she put her arms round Molly and kissed her long and well. And after that they came to be friends.

It was nearly lunch-time, and the squire always made his appearance at that meal, more for the pleasure of seeing his grandson eat his dinner, than for any hunger of his own. To-day Molly quickly saw the whole state of the family affairs. She thought that even had Roger said nothing about them at the Towers, she should have found out that neither the father nor the daughter-in-law had as yet found the clue to each other's characters, although they had now been living for several months in the same house. Aimee seemed to forget her English in her nervousness, and to watch with the jealous eyes of a dissatisfied mother all the proceedings of the squire towards her little boy. They were not of the wisest kind it must be owned; the child sipped the strong ale with evident relish, and clamoured for everything which he saw the others enjoying. Aimee could hardly attend to Molly for her anxiety as to what her boy was doing and eating; yet she said nothing. Roger took the end of the table opposite to that at which sate grandfather and grandchild. After the boy's first wants were gratified the squire addressed himself to Molly.

'Well! and so you can come here a-visiting though you have been among the grand folks. I thought you were going to cut us, Miss Molly, when I heard you was gone to the Towers—could not find any other place to stay at while father and mother were away, but an earl's, eh?'

'They asked me, and I went,' said Molly; 'now you've asked me, and I've come here.'

'I think you might ha' known you'd be always welcome here, without waiting for asking. Why, Molly! I look upon you as a kind of a daughter more than Madam there!' dropping his voice a little, and perhaps supposing that the child's babble would drown the signification of his words.—'Nay, you need not look at me so pitifully—she does not follow English readily.'

'I think she does!' said Molly, in a low voice, not looking up, however, for fear of catching another glimpse at Aimee's sudden forlornness of expression and deepened colour. She felt grateful, as if for a personal favour, when she heard Roger speaking to Aimee the moment afterwards in the tender tones of brotherly friendliness; and presently these two were sufficiently engaged in a tete-a-tete conversation to allow Molly and the squire to go on talking.

'He's sturdy chap, is not he?' said the squire, stroking the little Roger's curly head. 'And he can puff four puffs at grandpapa's pipe without being sick, can't he?'

'I s'ant puff any more puffs,' said the boy, resolutely. 'Mamma says no. I s'ant.'

'That's just like her!' said the squire, dropping his voice this time however. 'As if it could do the child any harm!'

Molly made a point of turning the conversation from all personal subjects after this, and kept the squire talking about the progress of his drainage during the rest of lunch. He offered to take her to see it; and she acceded to the proposal, thinking, meantime, how little she need have anticipated the being thrown too intimately with Roger, who seemed to devote himself to his sister-in-law. But, in the evening, when Aimee had gone upstairs to put her boy to bed, and the squire was asleep in his easy chair, a sudden flush of memory brought Mrs. Goodenough's words again to her mind. She was virtually tete-a-tete with Roger, as she had been dozens of times before, but now she could not help assuming an air of constraint: her eyes did not meet his in the old frank way; she took up a book at a pause in the conversation, and left him puzzled and annoyed at the change in her manner. And so it went on during all the time of her visit. If sometimes she forgot and let herself go into all her old naturalness, by-and-by she checked herself, and became comparatively cold and reserved. Roger was pained at all this—more pained day after day; more anxious to discover the cause. Aimee, too, silently noticed how different Molly became in Roger's presence. One day she could not help saying to Molly,—

'Don't you like Roger? You would if you only knew how good he was! He is learned, but that is nothing; it is his goodness that one admires and loves.'

'He is very good,' said Molly. 'I have known him long enough to know that.'

'But you don't think him agreeable? He is not like my poor husband, to be sure; and you knew him well, too. Ah! tell me about him once again. When you first knew him? When his mother was alive?'

Molly had grown very fond of Aimee; when the latter was at her ease she had very charming and attaching ways; but feeling uneasy in her position in the squire's house, she was almost repellent to him; and he, too, put on his worst side to her. Roger was most anxious to bring them together, and had several consultations with Molly as to the best means of accomplishing this end. As long as they talked upon this subject she spoke to him in the quiet sensible manner which she inherited from her father; but when their discussions on this point were ended, she fell back into her piquant assumption of dignified reserve. It was very difficult to her to maintain this strange manner, especially when once or twice she fancied that it gave him pain; and she would go into her own room and suddenly burst into tears on these occasions, and wish that her visit was ended, and that she was once again in the eventless tranquillity of her own home. Yet presently her fancy changed, and she clung to the swiftly passing hours, as if she would still retain the happiness of each. For, unknown to her, Roger was exerting himself to make her visit pleasant. He was not willing to appear as the instigator of all the little plans for each day, for he felt as if somehow he did not hold the same place in her regard as formerly. Still, one day Aimee suggested a nutting expedition—another day they gave little Roger the unheard-of pleasure of tea out-of-doors —there was something else agreeable for a third; and it was Roger who arranged all these simple pleasures—such as he knew Molly would enjoy. But to her he only appeared as the ready forwarder of Aimee's devices. The week was nearly gone, when one morning the squire found Roger sitting in the old library—with a book before him, it is true, but so deep in thought that he was evidently startled by his father's unexpected entrance.

'I thought I should find thee here, my lad! We'll have the old room done up again before winter; it smells musty enough, and yet I see it's the place for thee! I want thee to go with me round the five-acre. I'm thinking of laying it down in grass. It's time for you to be getting into the fresh air, you look quite woebegone over books, books, books; there never was a thing like 'em for stealing a man's health out of him!'

So Roger went out with his father, without saying many words till they were at some distance from the house. Then he brought out a sentence with such abruptness that he repaid his father for the start the latter had given him a quarter of an hour before.

'Father, you remember I'm going out again to the Cape next month! You spoke of doing up the library. If it is for me, I shall be away all the winter.'

'Can't you get off it?' pleaded his father. 'I thought maybe you'd forgotten all about it—'

'Not likely!' said Roger, half-smiling.

'Well, but they might have found another man to finish up your work.'

'No one can finish it but myself. Besides, an engagement is an engagement. When I wrote to Lord Hollingford to tell him I must come home, I promised to go out again for another six months.'

'Ay. I know. And perhaps it will put it out of thy mind. It will always be hard on me to part from thee. But I daresay it's best for you.'

Roger's colour deepened. 'You are alluding to—to Miss Kirkpatrick— Mrs. Henderson, I mean. Father, let me tell you once for all I think that was rather a hasty affair. I am pretty sure now that we were not suited to each other. I was wretched when I got her letter—at the Cape I mean—but I believe it was for the best.'

'That's right. That's my own boy,' said the squire, turning round and shaking hands with his son with vehemence. 'And now I'll tell you what I heard the other day, when I was at the magistrates' meeting. They were all saying she had jilted Preston.'

'I don't want to hear anything against her: she may have her faults, but I can never forget how I once loved her.'

'Well, well! Perhaps it's right. I was not so bad about it, was I, Roger? Poor Osborne need not ha' been so secret with me. I asked your Miss Cynthia out here—and her mother and all—my bark is worse than my bite. For if I had a wish on earth it was to see Osborne married as befitted one of an old stock, and he went and chose out this French girl, of no family at all, only a—'

'Never mind what she was; look at what she is! I wonder you are not more taken with her humility and sweetness, father!'

'I don't even call her pretty,' said the squire, uneasily, for he dreaded a repetition of the arguments which Roger had often used to make him give Aimee her proper due of affection and position. 'Now your Miss Cynthia was pretty, I will say that for her, the baggage! and to think that when you two lads flew right in your father's face, and picked out girls below you in rank and family, you should neither of you have set your fancies on my little Molly there. I daresay I should ha' been angry enough at the time, but the lassie would ha' found her way to my heart, as never this French lady, nor t' other one, could ha' done.'

Roger did not answer.

'I don't see why you might not put up for her still. I'm humble enough now, and you're not heir as Osborne was who married a servant-maid. Don't you think you could turn your thoughts upon Molly Gibson, Roger.'

'No!' said Roger, shortly. 'It's too late—too late. Don't let us talk any more of my marrying. Is not this the five-acre field?' And soon he was discussing the relative values of meadow, arable and pasture land with his father, as heartily as if he had never known Molly, or loved Cynthia. But the squire was not in such good spirits, and went but heavily into the discussion. At the end of it he said apropos de bottes,—

'But don't you think you could like her if you tried, Roger?'

Roger knew perfectly well to what his father was alluding, but for an instant he was on the point of pretending to misunderstand. At length, however, he said, in a low voice,—

'I shall never try, father. Don't let us talk any more about it. As I said before, it is too late.'

The squire was like a child to whom some toy has been refused; from time to time the thought of his disappointment in this matter recurred to his mind; and then he took to blaming Cynthia as the primary cause of Roger's present indifference to womankind.

It so happened that on Molly's last morning at the Hall, she received her first letter from Cynthia—Mrs. Henderson. It was just before breakfast-time: Roger was out of doors, Aimee had not as yet come down; Molly was alone in the dining-room, where the table was already laid. She had just finished reading her letter when the squire came in, and she immediately and joyfully told him what the morning had brought to her. But when she saw the squire's face she could have bitten her tongue out for having named Cynthia's name to him. He looked vexed and depressed.

'I wish I might never hear of her again. I do. She's been the bane of my Roger, that's what she has. I have not slept half the night, and it's all her fault. Why, there's my boy saying now that he has no heart for ever marrying, poor lad! I wish it had been you, Molly, my lads had taken a fancy for. I told Roger so t'other day, and I said that for all you were beneath what I ever thought to see them marry,—well—it's of no use—it's too late, now, as he said. Only never let me hear that baggage's name again, that's all. And no offence to you, either, lassie. I know you love the wench; but if you'll take an old man's word, you're worth a score of her. I wish young men would think so too,' he muttered as he went to the side-table to carve the ham, while Molly poured out the tea—her heart very hot all the time, and effectually silenced for a space. It was with the greatest difficulty that she could keep tears of mortification from falling. She felt altogether in a wrong position in that house, which had been like a home to her until this last visit. What with Mrs. Goodenough's remarks, and now this speech of the squire's, implying—at least to her susceptible imagination—that his father had proposed her as a wife to Roger, and that she had been rejected, she was more glad than she could express, or even think, that she was going home this very morning. Roger came in from his walk while she was in this state of feeling. He saw in an instant that something had distressed Molly; and he longed to have the old friendly right of asking her what it was. But she had effectually kept him at too great a distance during the last few days for him to feel at liberty to speak to her in the old straightforward brotherly way; especially now, when he perceived her efforts to conceal her feelings, and the way in which she drank her tea in feverish haste, and accepted bread only to crumble it about her plate, untouched. It was all that he could do to make talk under these circumstances; but he backed up her efforts as well as he could until Aimee came down, grave and anxious; her boy had not had a good night, and did not seem well; he had fallen into a feverish sleep now, or she could not have left him. Immediately the whole table was in a ferment. The squire pushed away his plate, and could eat no more; Roger was trying to extract a detail or a fact out of Aimee, who began to give way to tears. Molly quickly proposed that the carriage, which had been ordered to take her home at eleven, should come round immediately—she had everything ready packed up, she said,—and bring back her father at once. By leaving directly, she said it was probable they might catch him after he had returned from his morning visits in the town, and before he had set off on his more distant round. Her proposal was agreed to, and she went upstairs to put on her things. She came down all ready into the drawing-room, expecting to find Aimee and the squire there; but during her absence word had been brought to the anxious mother and grandfather that the child had wakened up in a panic, and both had rushed up to their darling. But Roger was in the drawing-room awaiting Molly, with a large bunch of the choicest flowers.

'Look, Molly!' said he, as she was on the point of leaving the room again, on finding him there alone. 'I gathered these flowers for you before breakfast.' He came to meet her reluctant advance.

'Thank you!' said she. 'You are very kind. I am very much obliged to you.'

'Then you must do something for me,' said he, determined not to notice the restraint of her manner, and making the rearrangement of the flowers which she held a sort of link between them, so that she could not follow her impulse, and leave the room.—'Tell me,—honestly as I know you will if you speak at all,—have not I done something to vex you since we were so happy at the Towers together?'

His voice was so kind and true,—his manner so winning yet wistful, that Molly would have been thankful to tell him all; she believed that he could have helped her more than any one to understand how she ought to behave rightly; he would have disentangled her fancies,—if only he himself had not lain at the very core and centre of all her perplexity and dismay. How could she tell him of Mrs. Goodenough's words troubling her maiden modesty? How could she ever repeat what his father had said that morning, and assure him that she, no more than he, wished that their old friendliness should be troubled by the thought of a nearer relationship?

'No, you never vexed me in my whole life, Roger,' said she, looking straight at him for the first time for many days.

'I believe you, because you say so. I have no right to ask further. Molly, will you give me back one of those flowers, as a pledge of what you have said?'

'Take whichever you like,' said she, eagerly offering him the whole nosegay to choose from.

'No; you must choose, and you must give it me.'

Just then the squire came in. Roger would have been glad if Molly had not gone on so eagerly to ransack the bunch for the choicest flower in his father's presence; but she exclaimed,—

'Oh, please, Mr. Hamley, do you know which is Roger's favourite flower?'

'No. A rose, I daresay. The carriage is at the door, and, Molly my dear, I don't want to hurry you, but—'

'I know. Here, Roger,—here is a rose!

('And red as a rose was she.')

I will find papa as soon as ever I get home. How is the little boy?'

'I'm afraid he's beginning of some kind of a fever.'

And the squire took her to the carriage, talking all the way of the little boy; Roger following, and hardly heeding what he was doing in the answer to the question he kept asking himself: 'Too late—or not? Can she ever forget that my first foolish love was given to one so different?'

While she, as the carriage rolled away, kept saying to herself,—'We are friends again. I don't believe he will remember what the dear squire took it into his head to suggest, for many days. It is so pleasant to be on the old terms again; and what lovely flowers!'