Wives and Daughters/Chapter LVIII

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'If you can without fatigue, dear, do come down to dinner to-day; you'll then see the people one by one as they appear, instead of having to encounter a crowd of strangers. Hollingford will be here too. I hope you'll find it pleasant.'

So Molly made her appearance at dinner that day; and got to know, by sight at least, some of the most distinguished of the visitors at the Towers. The next day was Thursday, Cynthia's wedding-day; bright and fine in the country, whatever it might be in London. And there were several letters from the home-people awaiting Molly when she came downstairs to the late breakfast. For every day, every hour, she was gaining strength and health, and she was unwilling to continue her invalid habits any longer than was necessary. She looked so much better that Sir Charles noticed it to Lady Harriet; and several of the visitors spoke of her this morning as a very pretty, lady-like, and graceful girl. This was Thursday; on Friday, as Lady Harriet had told her, some visitors from the more immediate neighbourhood were expected to stay over the Sunday: but she had not mentioned their names, and when Molly went down into the drawing-room before dinner, she was almost startled by perceiving Roger Hamley in the centre of a group of gentlemen, who were all talking together eagerly, and, as it seemed to her, making him the object of their attention. He made a hitch in his conversation, lost the precise meaning of a question addressed to him, answered it rather hastily, and made his way to where Molly was sitting, a little behind Lady Harriet. He had heard that she was staying at the Towers, but he was almost as much surprised as she was by his unexpected appearance, for he had only seen her once or twice since his return from Africa, and then in the guise of an invalid. Now in her pretty evening dress, with her hair beautifully dressed, her delicate complexion flushed a little with timidity, yet her movements and manners bespeaking quiet ease, Roger hardly recognized her, although he acknowledged her identity. He began to feel that admiring deference which most young men experience when conversing with a very pretty girl: a sort of desire to obtain her good opinion in a manner very different to his old familiar friendliness. He was annoyed when Sir Charles, whose especial charge she still was, came up to take her in to dinner. He could not quite understand the smile of mutual intelligence that passed between the two, each being aware of Lady Harriet's plan of sheltering Molly from the necessity of talking, and acting in conformity with her wishes as much as with their own. Roger found himself puzzling, and watching them from time to time during dinner. Again in the evening he sought her out, but found her again preoccupied with one of the young men staying in the house, who had had the advantage of two days of mutual interest, and acquaintance with the daily events and jokes and anxieties of the family-circle. Molly could not help wishing to break off all this trivial talk and to make room for Roger: she had so much to ask him about everything at the Hall; he was, and had been such a stranger to them all for these last two months, and more. But though each wanted to speak to the other more than to any one else in the room, it so happened that everything seemed to conspire to prevent it. Lord Hollingford carried off Roger to the cluster of middle-aged men; he was wanted to give his opinion upon some scientific subject. Mr. Ernulphus Watson, the young man referred to above, kept his place by Molly, as the prettiest girl in the room, and almost dazed her by his never-ceasing flow of clever small-talk. She looked so tired and pale at last that the ever-watchful Lady Harriet sent Sir Charles to the rescue, and after a few words with Lady Harriet, Roger saw Molly quietly leave the room; and a sentence or two which he heard Lady Harriet address to her cousin made him know that it was for the night. Those sentences might bear another interpretation to the obvious one.

'Really, Charles, considering that she is in your charge, I think you might have saved her from the chatter and patter of Mr. Watson; I can only stand it when I am in the strongest health.'

Why was Molly in Sir Charles' charge? why? Then Roger remembered many little things that might serve to confirm the fancy he had got into his head; and he went to bed puzzled and annoyed. It seemed to him such an incongruous, hastily-got-up sort of engagement, if engagement it really was. On Saturday they were more fortunate; they had a long tete-a-tete in the most public place in the house—on a sofa in the hall where Molly was resting at Lady Harriet's command before going upstairs after a walk. Roger was passing through, and saw her, and came to her. Standing before her, and making pretence of playing with the gold-fish in a great marble basin close at hand,—

'I was very unlucky,' said he. 'I wanted to get near you last night, but it was quite impossible. You were so busy talking to Mr. Watson, until Sir Charles Morton came and carried you off—with such an air of authority! Have you known him long?'

Now this was not at all the manner in which Roger had predetermined that he would speak of Sir Charles to Molly; but the words came out in spite of himself.

'No! not long. I never saw him before I came here—on Tuesday. But Lady Harriet told him to see that I did not get tired, for I wanted to come down; but you know I have not been strong. He is a cousin of Lady Harriet's, and does all she tells him to do.'

'Oh! he is not handsome; but I believe he is a very sensible man.'

'Yes! I should think so. He is so silent though, that I can hardly judge.'

'He bears a very high character in the county,' said Roger, willing now to give him his full due.

Molly stood up.

'I must go upstairs,' she said; 'I only sate down here for a minute or two because Lady Harriet bade me.'

'Stop a little longer,' said he. 'This is really the pleasantest place; this basin of water-lilies gives one the idea, if not the sensation, of coolness; besides—it seems so long since I saw you, and I have a message from my father to give you. He is very angry with you.'

'Angry with me?' said Molly, in surprise.

'Yes! He heard that you had come here for change of air; and he was offended that you had not come to us—to the Hall, instead. He said that you should have remembered old friends!'

Molly took all this quite gravely, and did not at first notice the smile on his face.

'Oh! I am so sorry!' said she. 'But will you please tell him how it all happened. Lady Harriet called the very day when it was settled that I was not to go to—' Cynthia's wedding she was going to add, but she suddenly stopped short, and, blushing deeply, changed the expression,— 'go to London, and she planned it all in a minute, and convinced mamma and papa, and had her own way. There was really no resisting her.'

'I think you will have to tell all this to my father yourself, if you mean to make your peace. Why can you not come on to the Hall when you leave the Towers?'

To go in the cool manner suggested from one house to another, after the manner of a royal progress, was not at all according to Molly's primitive home-keeping notions. She made answer,—

'I should like it very much, some time. But I must go home first. They will want me more than ever now—'

Again she felt herself touching on a sore subject, and stopped short. Roger became annoyed at her so constantly conjecturing what he must be feeling on the subject of Cynthia's marriage. With sympathetic perception she had discerned that the idea must give him pain; and perhaps she also knew that he would dislike to show the pain: but she had not the presence of mind or ready wit to give a skilful turn to the conversation. All this annoyed Roger, he could hardly tell why. He determined to take the metaphorical bull by the horns. Until that was done, his footing with Molly would always be insecure; as it always is between two friends, who mutually avoid a subject to which their thoughts perpetually recur.

'Ah, yes!' said he. 'Of course you must be of double importance now Miss Kirkpatrick has left you. I saw her marriage in The Times yesterday.'

His tone of voice was changed in speaking of her, but her name had been named between them, and that was the great thing to accomplish.

'Still,' he continued, 'I think I must urge my father's claim for a short visit, and all the more, because I can really see the apparent improvement in your health since I came,—only yesterday. Besides, Molly,' it was the old familiar Roger of former days who spoke now, 'I think you could help us at home. Aimee is shy and awkward with my father, and he has never taken quite kindly to her,—yet I know they would like and value each other, if some one could but bring them together,—and it would be such a comfort to me if this could take place before I have to leave.'

'To leave—are you going away again?'

'Yes. Have you not heard? I did not complete my engagement. I am going again in September for six months.'

'I remember. But somehow I fancied—you seemed to have settled down into the old ways at the Hall.'

'So my father appears to think. But it is not likely I shall ever make it my home again; and that is partly the reason why I want my father to adopt the notion of Aimee's living with him. Ah, here are all the people coming back from their walk. However, I shall see you again: perhaps this afternoon we may get a little quiet time, for I have a great deal to consult you about.'

They separated then, and Molly went upstairs very happy, very full and warm at her heart; it was so pleasant to have Roger talking to her in this way, like a friend; she had once thought that she could never look upon the great brown-bearded celebrity in the former light of almost brotherly intimacy, but now it was all coming right. There was no opportunity for renewed confidences that afternoon. Molly went a quiet decorous drive as fourth with two dowagers and one spinster; but it was very pleasant to think that she should see him again at dinner, and again to-morrow. On the Sunday evening, as they all were sitting and loitering on the lawn before dinner, Roger went on with what he had to say about the position of his sister-in-law in his father's house: the mutual bond between the mother and grandfather being the child; who was also, through jealousy, the bone of contention and the severance. There were many little details to be given in order to make Molly quite understand the difficulty of the situations on both sides; and the young man and the girl became absorbed in what they were talking about, and wandered away into the shade of the long avenue. Lady Harriet separated herself from a group and came up to Lord Hollingford, who was sauntering a little apart, and putting her arm within his with the familiarity of a favourite sister, she said,—

'Don't you think that your pattern young man, and my favourite young woman are finding out each other's good qualities?'

He had not been observing as she had been.

'Who do you mean?' said he.

'Look along the avenue; who are those?'

'Mr. Hamley and—is it not Miss Gibson? I can't quite make out. Oh! if you're letting your fancy run off in that direction, I can tell you it's quite waste of time. Roger Hamley is a man who will soon have an European reputation!'

'That's very possible, and yet it does not make any difference in my opinion. Molly Gibson is capable of appreciating him.'

'She is a very pretty, good little country-girl. I don't mean to say anything against her, but—'

'Remember the Charity Ball; you called her "unusually intelligent" after you had danced with her there. But after all we are like the genie and the fairy in the Arabian Nights' Entertainment, who each cried up the merits of the Prince Caramalzaman and the Princess Badoura.'

'Hamley is not a marrying man.'

'How do you know?'

'I know that he has very little private fortune, and I know that science is not a remunerative profession, if profession it can be called.'

'Oh, if that's all—a hundred things may happen—some one may leave him a fortune—or this tiresome little heir that nobody wanted, may die.'

'Hush, Harriet, that's the worst of allowing yourself to plan far ahead for the future; you are sure to contemplate the death of some one, and to reckon upon the contingency as affecting events.'

'As if lawyers were not always doing something of the kind!'

'Leave it to those to whom it is necessary. I dislike planning marriages or looking forward to deaths about equally.'

'You are getting very prosaic and tiresome, Hollingford!'

'Only getting!' said he smiling. 'I thought you had always looked upon me as a tiresome matter-of-fact fellow.'

'Now, if you're going to fish for a compliment, I am gone. Only remember my prophecy when my vision comes to pass; or make a bet, and whoever wins shall spend the money on a present to Prince Caramalzaman or Princess Badoura, as the case may be.'

Lord Hollingford remembered his sister's words as he heard Roger say to Molly as he was leaving the Towers on the following day,—

'Then I may tell my father that you will come and pay him a visit next week? You don't know what pleasure it will give him.' He had been on the point of saying 'will give us,' but he had an instinct which told him it was as well to consider Molly's promised visit as exclusively made to his father.

The next day Molly went home; she was astonished at herself for being so sorry to leave the Towers; and found it difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile the long-fixed idea of the house as a place wherein to suffer all a child's tortures of dismay and forlornness with her new and fresh conception. She had gained health, she had had pleasure, the faint fragrance of a new and unacknowledged hope had stolen into her life. No wonder that Mr. Gibson was struck with the improvement in her looks, and Mrs. Gibson impressed with her increased grace.

'Ah, Molly,' said she, 'it's really wonderful to see what a little good society will do for a girl. Even a week of association with such people as one meets with at the Towers is, as somebody said of a lady of rank whose name I have forgotten, "a polite education in itself." There is something quite different about you—a je ne scais quoi—that would tell me at once that you have been mingling with the aristocracy. With all her charms, it was what my darling Cynthia wanted; not that Mr. Henderson thought so, for a more devoted lover can hardly be conceived. He absolutely bought her a parure of diamonds, I was obliged to say to him that I had studied to preserve her simplicity of taste, and that he must not corrupt her with too much luxury. But I was rather disappointed at their going off without a maid. It was the one blemish in the arrangements, the spot in the sun. Dear Cynthia, when I think of her, I do assure you, Molly, I make it my nightly prayer that I may be able to find you just such another husband. And all this time you have never told me who you met at the Towers?'

Molly ran over a list of names. Roger Hamley's came last.

'Upon my word! That young man is pushing his way up!'

'The Hamleys are a far older family than the Cumnors,' said Molly, flushing up.

'Now, Molly, I can't have you democratic. Rank is a great distinction. It is quite enough to have dear papa with democratic tendencies. But we won't begin to quarrel. Now that you and I are left alone we ought to be bosom friends, and I hope we shall be. Roger Hamley did not say much about that unfortunate little Osborne Hamley, I suppose.'

'On the contrary. He says his father dotes on the child; and he seemed very proud of him, himself.'

'I thought the squire must be getting very much infatuated with something. I daresay the French mother takes care of that. Why! he has scarcely taken any notice of you for this month or more, and before that you were everything.'

It was about six weeks since Cynthia's engagement had become publicly known, and that might have had something to do with the squire's desertion, Molly thought. But she said,—

'The squire has sent me an invitation to go and stay there next week if you have no objection, mamma. They seem to want a companion for Mrs. Osborne Hamley, who is not very strong.'

'I can hardly tell what to say,—I don't like your having to associate with a Frenchwoman of doubtful rank; and I can't bear the thought of losing my child—my only daughter now. I did ask Helen Kirkpatrick, but she can't come for some time; and the house is going to be altered. Papa has consented to build me another room at last, for Cynthia and Mr. Henderson will, of course, come and see us; we shall have many more visitors, I expect, and your bedroom will make a capital lumber-room; and Maria wants a week's holiday. I am always so unwilling to put any obstacles in the way of any one's pleasure,—weakly unwilling, I believe,—but it certainly would be very convenient to have you out of the house for a few days; so, for once, I will waive my own wish for your companionship, and plead your cause with papa.'

The Miss Brownings came to call and hear the double batch of news. Mrs. Goodenough had come the very day on which they had returned from Miss Hornblower's, to tell them the astounding fact of Molly Gibson having gone on a visit to the Towers; not to come back at night, but to sleep there, to be there for two or three days, just as if she was a young lady of quality. So the Miss Brownings came to hear all the details of the wedding from Mrs. Gibson, and the history of Molly's visit at the Towers as well. But Mrs. Gibson did not like this divided interest, and some of her old jealousy of Molly's intimacy at the Towers had returned.

'Now, Molly,' said Miss Browning, 'let us hear how you behaved among the great folks. You must not be set up with all their attention; remember that they pay it to you for your good father's sake.'

'Molly is, I think, quite aware,' put in Mrs. Gibson, in her most soft and languid tone, 'that she owes her privilege of visiting at such a house to Lady Cumnor's kind desire to set my mind quite at liberty at the time of Cynthia's marriage. As soon as ever I had returned home, Molly came back; indeed I should not have thought it right to let her intrude upon their kindness beyond what was absolutely necessary.'

Molly felt extremely uncomfortable at all this, although perfectly aware of the entire inaccuracy of the statement.

'Well, but, Molly!' said Miss Browning, 'never mind whether you went there on your own merits, or your worthy father's merits, or Mrs Gibson's merits; but tell us what you did when you were there.'

So Molly began an account of their sayings and doings, which she could have made far more interesting to Miss Browning and Miss Phoebe if she had not been conscious of her stepmother's critical listening. She had to tell it all with a mental squint; the surest way to spoil a narration. She was also subject to Mrs. Gibson's perpetual corrections of little statements which she knew to be facts. But what vexed her most of all was Mrs. Gibson's last speech before the Miss Brownings left.

'Molly had fallen into rambling ways with this visit of hers, of which she makes so much, as if nobody had ever been in a great house but herself. She is going to Hamley Hall next week,—getting quite dissipated in fact.'

Yet to Mrs. Goodenough, the next caller on the same errand of congratulation, Mrs. Gibson's tone was quite different. There had always been a tacit antagonism between the two, and the conversation now ran as follows:—

Mrs. Goodenough began,—

'Well! Mrs. Gibson, I suppose I must wish you joy of Miss Cynthia's marriage; I should condole with some mothers as had lost their daughters; but you're not one of that sort, I reckon.'

Now, as Mrs. Gibson was not quite sure to which 'sort' of mothers the greatest credit was to be attached, she found it a little difficult how to frame her reply.

'Dear Cynthia!' she said. 'One can't but rejoice in her happiness! And yet—' she ended her sentence by sighing.

'Ay. She was a young woman as would always have her followers; for, to tell the truth, she was as pretty a creature as ever I saw in my life. And all the more she needed skilful guidance. I am sure I, for one, am as glad as can be she's done so well by herself. Folks say Mr. Henderson has a handsome private fortune over and above what he makes by the law.' 'There is no fear but that my Cynthia will have everything this world can give!' said Mrs. Gibson with dignity.

'Well, well! she was always a bit of a favourite of mine; and as I was saying to my grand-daughter there' (for she was accompanied by a young lady, who looked keenly to the prospect of some wedding-cake), 'I was never one of those who ran her down and called her a flirt and a jilt. I'm glad to hear she's like to be so well off. And now, I suppose, you'll be turning your mind to doing something for Miss Molly there?'

'If you mean by that, doing anything that can, by hastening her marriage, deprive me of the company of one who is like my own child, you are very much mistaken, Mrs. Goodenough. And pray remember, I am the last person in the world to match-make. Cynthia made Mr Henderson's acquaintance at her uncle's in London.'

'Ay! I thought her cousin was very often ill, and needing her nursing, and you were very keen she should be of use. I am not saying but what it is right in a mother; I'm only putting in a word for Miss Molly.'

'Thank you, Mrs. Goodenough,' said Molly, half-angry, half-laughing. 'When I want to be married, I'll not trouble mamma. I'll look out for myself.'

'Molly is becoming so popular, I hardly know how we shall keep her at home,' said Mrs. Gibson. 'I miss her sadly; but, as I said to Mr Gibson, let young people have change, and see a little of the world while they are young. It has been a great advantage to her being at the Towers while so many clever and distinguished people were there. I can already see a difference in her tone of conversation: an elevation in her choice of subjects. And now she is going to Hamley Hall. I can assure you I feel quite a proud mother, when I see how she is sought after. And my other daughter—my Cynthia—writing such letters from Paris!'

'Things is a deal changed since my days, for sure,' said Mrs Goodenough. 'So, perhaps, I'm no judge. When I was married first, him and me went in a postchaise to his father's house, a matter of twenty mile off at the outside; and sate down to as good a supper amongst his friends and family as you'd wish to see. And that was my first wedding jaunt. My second was when I better knowed my worth as a bride, and thought that now or never I must see London. But I were reckoned a very extravagant sort of a body to go so far, and spend my money, though Harry had left me uncommon well off. But now young folks go off to Paris, and think nothing of the cost: and it's well if wilful waste don't make woeful want before they die. But I'm thankful somewhat is being done for Miss Molly's chances, as I said afore. It's not quite what I should have liked to have done for my Bessy though. But times are changed, as I said just now.'