Wives and Daughters/Chapter XLIV
It seemed curious enough, after the storms of the night, to meet in smooth tranquillity at breakfast. Cynthia was pale; but she talked as quietly as usual about all manner of indifferent things, while Molly sate silent, watching and wondering, and becoming convinced that Cynthia must have gone through a long experience of concealing her real thoughts and secret troubles before she could have been able to put on such a semblance of composure. Among the letters that came in that morning was one from the London Kirkpatricks; but not from Helen, Cynthia's own particular correspondent. Her sister wrote to apologize for Helen, who was not well, she said: had had the influenza, which had left her very weak and poorly.
'Let her come down here for change of air,' said Mr. Gibson. 'The country at this time of the year is better than London, excepting when the place is surrounded by trees. Now our house is well drained, high up, gravel soil, and I'll undertake to doctor her for nothing.'
'It would be charming,' said Mrs. Gibson, rapidly revolving in her mind the changes necessary in her household economy before receiving a young lady accustomed to such a household as Mr. Kirkpatrick's, and calculating the consequent inconveniences in her own mind, weighing them against the probable advantages even while she spoke.
'Should not you like it, Cynthia? and Molly too. You too, dear, would become acquainted with one of the girls, and I have no doubt you would be asked back again, which would be so very nice!'
'And I should not let her go,' said Mr. Gibson, who had acquired an unfortunate facility of reading his wife's thoughts.
'Dear Helen!' went on Mrs. Gibson, 'I should so like to nurse her, we would make your consulting-room into her own private sitting-room, my dear.'—(It is hardly necessary to say that the scales had been weighed down by the inconveniences of having a person behind the scenes for several weeks). 'For with an invalid so much depends on tranquillity. In the drawing-room, for instance, she might constantly be disturbed by callers; and the dining-room is so—so what shall I call it? so dinnery,—the smell of meals never seems to leave it; it would have been different if dear papa had allowed me to throw out that window—'
'Why can't she have the dressing-room for her bed-room, and the little room opening out of the drawing-room for her sitting-room?' asked Mr. Gibson.
'The library,' for by this name Mrs. Gibson chose to dignify what had formerly been called the book-closet,—'why, it would hardly hold a sofa, besides the books and the writing-table, and there are draughts everywhere. No, my dear, we had better not ask her at all, her own home is comfortable at any rate!'
'Well, well!' said Mr. Gibson, seeing that he was to be worsted, and not caring enough about the matter to show fight. 'Perhaps you are right. It's a case of luxury versus fresh air. Some people suffer more from the want of one than from want of the other. You know I shall be glad to see her if she likes to come, and take us as we are, but I can't give up the consulting-room. It's a necessity; our daily bread!'
'I'll write and tell them how kind Mr. Gibson is,' said his wife in high contentment, as her husband left the room. 'They'll be just as much obliged to him as if she had come!'
Whether it was Helen's illness, or from some other cause, after breakfast Cynthia became very flat and absent, and this lasted all day long; Molly understood now why her moods had been so changeable for many months, and was tender and forbearing with her accordingly. Towards evening when the two girls were left alone, Cynthia came and stood over Molly, so that her face could not be seen.
'Molly,' said she, 'will you do it? Will you do what you said last night? I have been thinking of it all day, and sometimes I believe he would give you back the letters if you asked him; he might fancy—at any rate it's worth trying, if you don't very much dislike it.'
Now it so happened that with every thought she had given to it, Molly disliked the idea of the proposed interview with Mr. Preston more and more; but it was after all her own offer, and she neither could nor would draw back from it; it might do good; she did not see how it could possibly do harm. So she gave her consent, and tried to conceal her distaste, which grew upon her more and more as Cynthia hastily arranged the details.
'You shall meet him in the avenue leading from the park lodge up to the Towers. He can come in one way, from the Towers, where he has often business—he has pass-keys everywhere—you can go in as we have often done by the lodge—you need not go far.'
It did strike Molly that Cynthia must have had some experience in making all these arrangements; and she did venture to ask how he was to be informed of all this? Cynthia only reddened, and replied, 'Oh! never mind! He will only be too glad to come; you heard him say he wished to discuss the affair more; it is the first time the appointment has come from my side. If I can but once be free—oh, Molly, I will love you, and be grateful to you all my life!'
Molly thought of Roger, and that thought prompted her next speech.
'It must be horrible—I think I'm very brave—but I don't think I could have—could have accepted even Roger, with a half-cancelled engagement hanging over me.' She blushed as she spoke.
'You forget how I detest Mr. Preston!' said Cynthia. 'It was that, more than any excess of love for Roger, that made me thankful to be at least as securely pledged to some one else. He did not want to call it an engagement, but I did; because it gave me the feeling of assurance that I was free from Mr. Preston. And so I am! all but these letters. Oh! if you can but make him take back his abominable money, and get me my letters. Then we would bury it all in oblivion, and he could marry somebody else, and I would marry Roger, and no one would be the wiser. After all it was only what people call "youthful folly." And you may tell Mr. Preston that as soon as he makes my letters public, shows them to your father or anything, I'll go away from Hollingford, and never come back—'
Loaded with many such messages, which she felt that she should never deliver, not really knowing what she should say, hating the errand, not satisfied with Cynthia's manner of speaking about her relations to Roger, oppressed with shame and complicity in conduct which appeared to her deceitful, yet willing to bear all and brave all, if she could once set Cynthia in a straight path—in a clear space, and almost more pitiful to her friend's great distress and possible disgrace, than able to give her that love which involves perfect sympathy, Molly set out on her walk towards the appointed place. It was a cloudy blustering day, and the noise of the blowing wind among the nearly leafless branches of the great trees filled her ears, as she passed through the park-gates and entered the avenue. She walked quickly, instinctively wishing to get her blood up, and have no time for thought. But there was a bend in the avenue about a quarter of a mile from the lodge; after that bend it was a straight line up to the great house, now emptied of its inhabitants. Molly did not like going quite out of sight of the lodge, and she stood facing it, close by the trunk of one of the trees. Presently she heard a step coming over the grass. It was Mr. Preston. He saw a woman's figure, half-behind the trunk of a tree, and made no doubt that it was Cynthia. But when he came nearer, almost close, the figure turned round, and, instead of the brilliantly coloured face of Cynthia, he met the pale resolved look of Molly. She did not speak to greet him, but though he felt sure from the general aspect of pallor and timidity that she was afraid of him, her steady grey eyes met his with courageous innocence.
'Is Cynthia unable to come?' asked he, perceiving that she expected him.
'I did not know you thought that you should meet her,' said Molly, a little surprised. In her simplicity she had believed that Cynthia had named that it was she, Molly Gibson, who would meet Mr. Preston at a given time and place; but Cynthia had been too worldly-wise for that, and had decoyed him thither by a vaguely worded note, which, while avoiding actual falsehood, had led him to believe that she herself would give him the meeting.
'She said she should be here,' said Mr. Preston, extremely annoyed at being entrapped as he now felt that he had been, into an interview with Miss Gibson. Molly hesitated a little before she spoke. He was determined not to break the silence; as she had intruded herself into the affair, she should find her situation as awkward as possible.
'At any rate she sent me here to meet you,' said Molly. 'She has told me exactly how matters stand between you and her.'
'Has she?' sneered he. 'She is not always the most open or reliable person in the world!'
Molly reddened. She perceived the impertinence of the tone; and her temper was none of the coolest. But she mastered herself and gained courage by so doing.
'You should not speak so of the person you profess to wish to have for your wife. But putting all that aside, you have some letters of hers that she wishes to have back again.'
'I dare say.'
'And that you have no right to keep.'
'No legal, or no moral right? which do you mean?'
'I do not know; simply you have no right at all, as a gentleman, to keep a girl's letters when she asks for them back again, much less to hold them over her as a threat.'
'I see you do know all, Miss Gibson,' said he, changing his manner to one of more respect. 'At least she has told you her story from her point of view, her side; now you must hear mine. She promised me as solemnly as ever woman—'
'She was not a woman, she was only a girl, barely sixteen.'
'Old enough to know what she was doing; but I'll call her a girl if you like. She promised me solemnly to be my wife, making the one stipulation of secrecy, and a certain period of waiting; she wrote me letters repeating this promise, and confidential enough to prove that she considered herself bound to me by such an implied relation. I don't give in to humbug—I don't set myself up as a saint—and in most ways I can look after my own interests pretty keenly; you know enough of her position as a penniless girl, and at that time, with no influential connections to take the place of wealth, and help me on in the world, it was as sincere and unworldly a passion as ever man felt; she must say so herself. I might have married two or three girls with plenty of money; one of them was handsome enough, and not at all reluctant.'
Molly interrupted him; she was chafed at the conceit of his manner. 'I beg your pardon, but I do not want to hear accounts of young ladies whom you might have married; I come here simply on behalf of Cynthia, who does not like you, and who does not wish to marry you.'
'Well, then I must make her "like" me, as you call it. She did "like" me once, and made promises which she will find it requires the consent of two people to break. I don't despair of making her love me as much as ever she did, according to her letters, at least, when we are married.'
'She will never marry you,' said Molly, firmly.
'Then if she ever honours any one else with her preference, he shall be allowed the perusal of her letters to me.'
Molly almost could have laughed; she was so secure and certain that Roger would never read letters offered to him under these circumstances; but then she thought that he would feel such pain at the whole affair, and at the contact with Mr. Preston, especially if he had not heard of it from Cynthia first, and if she, Molly, could save him pain she would. Before she could settle what to say, Mr Preston spoke again.
'You said the other day that Cynthia was engaged. May I ask whom to?'
'No,' said Molly, 'you may not. You heard her say it was not an engagement. It is not exactly; and if it were a full engagement, do you think, after what you last said, I should tell you to whom? But you may be sure of this, he would never read a line of your letters. He is too—No! I won't speak of him before you. You could never understand him.'
'It seems to me that this mysterious "he" is a very fortunate person to have such a warm defender in Miss Gibson, to whom he is not at all engaged,' said Mr. Preston, with so disagreeable a look on his face that Molly suddenly found herself on the point of bursting into tears. But she rallied herself, and worked on—for Cynthia first, and for Roger as well.
'No honourable man or woman will read your letters, and if any people do read them, they will be so much ashamed of it that they won't dare to speak of them. What use can they be of to you?'
'They contain Cynthia's reiterated promises of marriage,' replied he.
'She says she would rather leave Hollingford for ever, and go out to earn her bread, than marry you.'
His face fell a little. He looked so bitterly mortified that Molly was almost sorry for him.
'Does she say that to you in cold blood? Do you know you are telling me very hard truths, Miss Gibson?—if they are truths, that is to say,' he continued, recovering himself a little. 'Young ladies are very fond of the words "hate" and "detest." I have known many who have applied them to men whom they were all the time hoping to marry.'
'I cannot tell about other people,' said Molly, 'I only know that Cynthia does—' Here she hesitated for a moment; she fell for his pain, and so she hesitated; but then she brought it out,—'does as nearly hate you as anybody like her ever does hate.'
'Like her?' said he, repeating the words almost unconsciously, seizing on anything to try and hide his mortification.
'I mean, I should hate worse,' said Molly in a low voice.
But he did not attend much to her answer. He was working the point of his stick into the turf, and his eyes were bent on it.
'So now would you mind sending her back the letters by me? I do assure you that you cannot make her marry you.'
'You are very simple, Miss Gibson,' said he, suddenly lifting up his head. 'I suppose that you don't know that there is any other feeling that can be gratified, excepting love. Have you never heard of revenge? Cynthia had cajoled me with promises, and little as you or she may believe me—well, it's of no use speaking of that. I don't mean to let her go unpunished. You may tell her that. I shall keep the letters, and make use of them as I see fit when the occasion arises.'
Molly was miserably angry with herself for her mismanagement of the affair. She had hoped to succeed: she had only made matters worse. What new argument could she use? Meanwhile he went on, lashing himself up as he thought how the two girls must have talked him over, bringing in wounded vanity to add to the rage of disappointed love.
'Mr. Osborne Hamley may hear of their contents, though he may be too honourable to read them. Nay, even your father may hear whispers; and if I remember them rightly, Miss Cynthia Kirkpatrick does not always speak in the most respectful terms of the lady who is now Mrs Gibson. There are—'
'Stop,' said Molly. 'I won't hear anything out of these letters, written, when she was almost without friends, to you whom she looked upon as a friend! But I have thought of what I will do next. I give you fair warning. If I had not been foolish I should have told my father, but Cynthia made me promise that I would not. So I will tell it all, from beginning to end, to Lady Harriet, and ask her to speak to her father. I feel sure that she will do it; and I don't think you will dare to refuse Lord Cumnor.'
He felt at once that he should not dare; that, clever land-agent as he was, and high up in the earl's favour on that account, yet that the conduct of which he had been guilty about these letters, and the threats which he had held out about them, were just what no gentleman, no honourable man, no manly man, could put up with in any one about him. He knew that much, and he wondered how she, the girl standing before him, had been clever enough to find it out. He forgot himself for an instant in admiration of her. There she stood, frightened, yet brave, not letting go her hold on what she meant to do, even when things seemed most against her; and besides, there was something that struck him most of all perhaps, and which shows the kind of man he was—he perceived that Molly was as unconscious that he was a young man, and she a young woman, as if she had been a pure angel of heaven. Though he felt that he would have to yield, and give up the letters, he was not going to do it at once; and while he was thinking what to say so as still to evade making any concession till he had had time to think over it, he, with his quick senses all about him, heard the trotting of a horse cranching quickly along over the gravel of the drive. A moment afterwards, Molly's perception overtook his. He could see the startled look overspread her face; and in an instant she would have run away, but before the first rush was made, Mr. Preston laid his hand firmly on her arm.
'Keep quiet. You must be seen. You, at any rate, have done nothing to be ashamed of.'
As he spoke Mr. Sheepshanks came round the bend of the road and was close upon them. Mr. Preston saw, if Molly did not, the sudden look of intelligence that dawned upon the shrewd ruddy face of the old gentleman—saw, but did not much heed. He went forwards and spoke to Mr. Sheepshanks, who made a halt right before them.
'Miss Gibson! your servant! Rather a blustering day for a young lady to be out, and cold, I should say, for standing still too long; eh, Preston?' poking his whip at the latter in a knowing manner.
'Yes,' said Mr. Preston; 'and I'm afraid I have kept Miss Gibson too long standing.'
Molly did not know what to say or do; so she only bowed a silent farewell, and turned away to go home, feeling very heavy at heart at the non-success of her undertaking. For she did not know how she had conquered, in fact, although Mr. Preston might not as yet acknowledge it even to himself. Before she was out of hearing, she heard Mr Sheepshanks say,—
'Sorry to have disturbed your tete-a-tete, Preston,' but though she heard the words, their implied sense did not sink into her mind; she was only feeling how she had gone out glorious and confident, and was coming back to Cynthia defeated.
Cynthia was on the watch for her return, and, rushing downstairs, dragged Molly into the dining-room.
'Well, Molly? Oh! I see you have not got them. After all, I never expected it.' She sate down, as if she could get over her disappointment better in that position, and Molly stood like a guilty person before her.
'I am so sorry; I did all I could; we were interrupted at last—Mr Sheepshanks rode up.'
'Provoking old man! Do you think you should have persuaded him to give up the letters if you had had more time?'
'I don't know. I wish Mr. Sheepshanks had not come just then. I did not like his finding me standing talking to Mr. Preston.'
'Oh! I daresay he would never think anything about it. What did he—Mr. Preston—say?'
'He seemed to think you were fully engaged to him, and that these letters were the only proof he had. I think he loves you in his way.'
'His way, indeed!' said Cynthia, scornfully.
'The more I think of it, the more I see it would be better for papa to speak to him. I did say I would tell it all to Lady Harriet, and get Lord Cumnor to make him give up the letters. But it would be very awkward.'
'Very!' said Cynthia, gloomily. 'But he would see it was only a threat.'
'But I will do it in a moment, if you like. I meant what I said; only I feel that papa would manage it best of all, and more privately.'
'I'll tell you what, Molly; you're bound by a promise, you know, and cannot tell Mr. Gibson without breaking your solemn word; but it's just this. I'll leave Hollingford and never come back again, if ever your father hears of this affair; there!' Cynthia stood up now, and began to fold up Molly's shawl, in her nervous excitement.
'Oh, Cynthia—Roger!' was all that Molly said.
'Yes, I know! you need not remind me of him. But I'm not going to live in the house with any one who may be always casting up in his mind the things he had heard against me—things—faults, perhaps—which sound so much worse than they really are. I was so happy when I first came here: you all liked me, and admired me, and thought well of me, and now—Why, Molly, I can see the difference in you already. You carry your thoughts in your face—I have read them there these two days—you've been thinking, "How Cynthia must have deceived me; keeping up a correspondence all this time—having half-engagements to two men." You've been more full of that than of pity for me as a girl who has always been obliged to manage for herself, without any friend to help her and protect her.'
Molly was silent. There was a great deal of truth in what Cynthia was saying; and yet a great deal of falsehood. For, through all this long forty-eight hours, Molly had loved Cynthia dearly; and had been more weighed down by the position the latter was in than Cynthia herself. She also knew—but this was a second thought following on the other— that she had suffered much pain in trying to do her best in this interview with Mr. Preston. She had been tried beyond her strength; and the great tears welled up into her eyes, and fell slowly down her cheeks.
'Oh! what a brute I am,' said Cynthia, kissing them away. 'I see—I know it is the truth, and I deserve it—but I need not reproach you.'
'You did not reproach me!' said Molly, trying to smile. 'I have thought some of what you said—but I do love you dearly—dearly, Cynthia—I should have done just the same as you did.'
'No, you would not. Your grain is different, somehow.'