Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XVII

Trouble at Hamley Hall

If Molly thought that peace dwelt perpetually at Hamley Hall she was sorely mistaken. Something was out of tune in the whole establishment; and, for a very unusual thing, the common irritation seemed to have produced a common bond. All the servants were old in their places, and were told by some one of the family, or gathered, from the unheeded conversation carried on before them, everything that affected master or mistress or either of the young gentlemen. Any one of them could have told Molly that the grievance which lay at the root of everything, was the amount of the bills run up by Osborne at Cambridge, and which, now that all chance of his obtaining a fellowship was over, came pouring down upon the squire. But Molly, confident of being told by Mrs. Hamley herself anything which she wished her to hear, encouraged no confidences from any one else.

She was struck with the change in ‘madam’s’ looks as soon as she caught sight of her in the darkened room, lying on the sofa in her dressing-room, all dressed in white, which almost rivalled the white wanness of her face. The squire ushered Molly in with —

‘Here she is at last!’ and Molly had scarcely imagined that he had so much variety in the tones of his voice — the beginning of the sentence was spoken in a loud congratulatory manner, while the last words were scarcely audible. He had seen the death-like pallor on his wife’s face; not a new sight, and one which had been presented to him gradually enough, but which was now always giving him a fresh shock. It was a lovely tranquil winter’s day; every branch and every twig of the trees and shrubs were glittering with drops of the sun-melted hoarfrost; a robin was perched on a holly-bush, piping cheerily; but the blinds were down, and out of Mrs. Hamley’s windows nothing of all this was to be seen. There was even a large screen placed between her and the wood-fire, to keep off that cheerful blaze. Mrs. Hamley stretched out one hand to Molly, and held hers firm; with the other she shaded her eyes.

‘She is not so well this morning,’ said the squire, shaking his head. ‘But never fear, my dear one; here’s the doctor’s daughter, nearly as good as the doctor himself. Have you had your medicine? Your beef-tea?’ he continued, going about on heavy tiptoe and peeping into every empty cup and glass. Then he returned to the sofa; looked at her for a minute or two, and then softly kissed her, and told Molly he would leave her in charge.

As if Mrs. Hamley was afraid of Molly’s remarks or questions, she began in her turn a hasty system of interrogatories.

‘Now, dear child, tell me all; it’s no breach of confidence, for I shan’t mention it again, and I shan’t be here long. How does it all go on — the new mother, the good resolutions? let me help you if I can. I think with a girl I could have been of use — a mother does not know boys. But tell me anything you like and will; don’t be afraid of details.’

Even with Molly’s small experience of illness she saw how much of restless fever there was in this speech; and instinct, or some such gift, prompted her to tell a long story of many things — the wedding-day, her visit to Miss Brownings’, the new furniture, Lady Harriet, &c., all in an easy flow of talk which was very soothing to Mrs. Hamley, inasmuch as it gave her something to think about beyond her own immediate sorrows. But Molly did not speak of her own grievances, nor of the new domestic relationship. Mrs. Hamley noticed this.

‘And you and Mrs. Gibson get on happily together?’

‘Not always,’ said Molly. ‘You know we didn’t know much of each other before we were put to live together.’

‘I didn’t like what the squire told me last night. He was very angry.’

That sore had not yet healed over; but Molly resolutely kept silence, beating her brains to think of some other subject of conversation.

‘Ah! I see, Molly,’ said Mrs. Hamley; ‘you won’t tell me your sorrows, and yet, perhaps, I could have done you some good.’

‘I don’t like,’ said Molly, in a low voice. ‘I think papa wouldn’t like it. And, besides, you have helped me so much — you and Mr. Roger Hamley. I often, often think of the things he said; they come in so usefully, and are such a strength to me.’

‘Ah, Roger! yes. He is to be trusted. Oh, Molly! I’ve a great deal to say to you myself, only not now. I must have my medicine and try to go to sleep. Good girl! You are stronger than I am, and can do without sympathy.’

Molly was taken to another room; the maid who conducted her to it told her that Mrs. Hamley had not wished her to have her nights disturbed, as they might very probably have been if she had been in her former sleeping-room. In the afternoon Mrs. Hamley sent for her, and with the want of reticence common to invalids, especially to those suffering from long and depressing maladies, she told Molly of the family distress and disappointment.

She made Molly sit down near her on a little stool, and, holding her hand, and looking into her eyes to catch her spoken sympathy from their expression quicker than she could from her words, she said —

‘Osborne has so disappointed us! I cannot understand it yet. And the squire was so terribly angry! I cannot think how all the money was spent — advances through money-lenders, besides bills. The squire does not show me how angry he is now, because he’s afraid of another attack; but I know how angry he is. You see he has been spending ever so much money in reclaiming that land at Upton Common, and is very hard pressed himself. But it would have doubled the value of the estate, and so we never thought anything of economics which would benefit Osborne in the long run. And now the squire says he must mortgage some of the land; and you can’t think how it cuts him to the heart. He sold a great deal of timber to send the two boys to college. Osborne — oh! what a dear, innocent boy he was: he was the heir, you know; and he was so clever, every one said he was sure of honours and a fellowship, and I don’t know what all; and he did get a scholarship, and then all went wrong. I don’t know how. That is the worst. Perhaps the squire wrote too angrily, and that stopped up confidence. But he might have told me. He would have done, I think, Molly, if he had been here, face to face with me. But the squire, in his anger, told him not to show his face at home till he had paid off the debts he had incurred out of his allowance. Out of two hundred and fifty a year to pay off more than nine hundred, one way or another! And not to come home till then! Perhaps Roger will have debts too! He had but two hundred; but, then, he was not the eldest son. The squire has given orders that the men are to be turned off the draining-works; and I lie awake thinking of their poor families this wintry weather. But what shall we do? I’ve never been strong, and, perhaps, I’ve been extravagant in my habits; and there were family traditions as to expenditure, and the reclaiming of this land. Oh! Molly, Osborne was such a sweet little baby, and such a loving boy: so clever, too! You know I read you some of his poetry: now, could a person who wrote like that do anything very wrong? And yet I’m afraid he has.’

‘Don’t you know, at all, how the money has gone?’ asked Molly.

‘No! not at all. That’s the sting. There are tailors’ bills, and bills for book-binding and wine and pictures — that come to four or five hundred; and though this expenditure is extraordinary — inexplicable to such simple folk as we are — yet it may be only the luxury of the present day. But the money for which he will give no account — of which, indeed, we only heard through the squire’s London agents, who found out that certain disreputable attorneys were making inquiries as to the entail of the estate — oh! Molly, worse than all — I don’t know how to bring myself to tell you — as to the age and health of the squire, his dear father’—(she began to sob almost hysterically; yet she would go on talking, in spite of Molly’s efforts to stop her)—‘who held him in his arms, and blessed him, even before I had kissed him; and thought always so much of him as his heir and first-born darling. How he has loved him! How I have loved him! I sometimes have thought of late that we’ve almost done that good Roger injustice.’

‘No! I’m sure you’ve not: only look at the way he loves you. Why, you are his first thought: he may not speak about it, but any one may see it. And dear, dear Mrs. Hamley,’ said Molly, determined to say out all that was in her mind now that she had once got the word, ‘don’t you think that it would be better not to misjudge Mr. Osborne Hamley? We don’t know what he has done with the money: he is so good (is he not?) that he may have wanted it to relieve some poor person — some tradesman, for instance, pressed by creditors — some —’

‘You forget, dear,’ said Mrs. Hamley, smiling a little at the girl’s impetuous romance, but sighing the next instant, ‘that all the other bills come from tradesmen, who complain piteously of being kept out of their money.’

Molly was nonplussed for the moment; but then she said —

‘I daresay they imposed upon him. I’m sure I’ve heard stories of young men being made regular victims of by the shopkeepers in great towns.’

‘You’re a great darling, child,’ said Mrs. Hamley, comforted by Molly’s strong partisanship, unreasonable and ignorant though it was.

‘And, besides,’ continued Molly, ‘some one must be acting wrongly in Osborne’s — Mr. Osborne Hamley’s, I mean — I can’t help saying Osborne sometimes, but, indeed, I always think of him as Mr. Osborne —’

‘Never mind, Molly, what you call him; only go on talking. It seems to do me good to have the hopeful side taken. The squire has been so hurt and displeased: strange-looking men coming into the neighbourhood, too, questioning the tenants, and grumbling about the last fall of timber, as if they were calculating on the squire’s death.’

‘That’s just what I was going to speak about. Doesn’t it show that they are bad men? and would bad men scruple to impose upon him, and to tell lies in his name, and to ruin him?’

‘Don’t you see, you only make him out weak, instead of wicked?’

‘Yes; perhaps I do. But I don’t think he is weak. You know yourself, dear Mrs. Hamley, how very clever he really is. Besides, I would rather he was weak than wicked. Weak people may find themselves all at once strong in heaven, when they see things quite clearly; but I don’t think the wicked will turn themselves into virtuous people all at once.’

‘I think I’ve been very weak, Molly,’ said Mrs. Hamley, stroking Molly’s curls affectionately. ‘I’ve made such an idol of my beautiful Osborne; and he turns out to have feet of clay, not strong enough to stand firm on the ground. And that’s the best view of his conduct, too!’

What with his anger against his son, and his anxiety about his wife: the difficulty of raising the money immediately required, and his irritation at the scarce-concealed inquiries made by strangers as to the value of his property, the poor squire was in a sad state. He was angry and impatient with every one who came near him; and then was depressed at his own violent temper and unjust words. The old servants, who, perhaps, cheated him in many small things, were beautifully patient under his upbraidings. They could understand bursts of passion, and knew the cause of his variable moods as well as he did himself. The butler, who was accustomed to argue with his master about every fresh direction as to his work, now nudged Molly at dinner-time to make her eat of some dish which she had just been declining, and explained his conduct afterwards as follows —

‘You see, miss, me and cook had planned a dinner as would tempt master to eat; but when you say, “No, thank you,” when I hand you anything, master never so much as looks at it. But if you takes a thing, and eats with a relish, why first he waits, and then he looks, and by-and-by he smells; and then he finds out as he’s hungry, and falls to eating as natural as a kitten takes to mewing. That’s the reason, miss, as I gave you a nudge and a wink, which no one knows better nor me was not manners.’

Osborne’s name was never mentioned during these tete-a-tete meals. The squire asked Molly questions about Hollingford people, but did not seem much to attend to her answers. He used also to ask her every day how she thought that his wife was; but if Molly told the truth — that every day seemed to make her weaker and weaker — he was almost savage with the girl. He could not bear it; and he would not. Nay, once he was on the point of dismissing Mr. Gibson because he insisted on a consultation with Dr Nicholls, the great physician of the county.

‘It’s nonsense thinking her so ill as that — you know it’s only the delicacy she’s had for years; and if you can’t do her any good in such a simple case — no pain — only weakness and nervousness — it is a simple case, eh? — don’t look in that puzzled way, man! — you’d better give her up altogether, and I’ll take her to Bath or Brighton,’ or somewhere for change, for in my opinion it’s only moping and nervousness.’

But the squire’s bluff florid face was pinched with anxiety, and worn with the effort of being deaf to the footsteps of fate as he said these words which belied his fears.

Mr. Gibson replied very quietly —

‘I shall go on coming to see her, and I know you will not forbid my visits. But I shall bring Dr Nicholls with me the next time I come. I may be mistaken in my treatment; and I wish to God he may say I am mistaken in my apprehensions.’

‘Don’t tell me them! I cannot hear them!’ cried the squire. ‘Of course we must all die; and she must too. But not the cleverest doctor in England shall go about coolly meting out the life of such as her. I dare say I shall die first. I hope I shall. But I’ll knock any one down who speaks to me of the death sitting within me. And, besides, I think all doctors are ignorant quacks, pretending to knowledge they haven’t got. Ay, you may smile at me. I don’t care. Unless you can tell me I shall die first, neither you nor your Dr Nicholls shall come prophesying and croaking about this house.’

Mr. Gibson went away, heavy at heart at the thought of Mrs. Hamley’s approaching death, but thinking little enough of the squire’s speeches. He had almost forgotten them, in fact, when about nine o’clock that evening, a groom rode in from Hamley Hall in hot haste, with a note from the squire.

DEAR GIBSON — For God’s sake forgive me if I was rude today. She is much worse. Come and spend the night here. Write for Nicholls, and all the physicians you want. Write before you start off here. They may give her ease. There were Whitworth doctors much talked of in my youth for curing people given up by the regular doctors; can’t you get one of them? I put myself in your hands. Sometimes I think it is the turning point, and she’ll rally after this bout. I trust all to you.

Yours ever,

R. HAMLEY.

P.S. — Molly is a treasure. — God help me!

Of course Mr. Gibson went; for the first time since his marriage cutting short Mrs. Gibson’s querulous lamentations over her life, as involved in that of a doctor called out at all hours of day and night.

He brought Mrs. Hamley through this attack; and for a day or two the squire’s alarm and gratitude made him docile in Mr. Gibson’s hands. Then he returned to the idea of its being a crisis through which his wife had passed; and that she was now on the way to recovery. But the day after the consultation with Dr Nicholls, Mr. Gibson said to Molly —

‘Molly! I’ve written to Osborne and Roger. Do you know Osborne’s address?’

‘No, papa. He’s in disgrace. I don’t know if the squire knows; and she has been too ill to write.’

‘Never mind. I’ll enclose it to Roger; whatever those lads may be to others, there’s as strong brotherly love as ever I saw, between the two. Roger will know. And, Molly, they are sure to come home as soon as they hear my report of their mother’s state. I wish you’d tell the squire what I’ve done. It’s not a pleasant piece of work; and I’ll tell madam myself in my own way. I’d have told him if he’d been at home; but you say he was obliged to go to Ashcombe on business.’

‘Quite obliged. He was so sorry to miss you. But, papa, he will be so angry! You don’t know how mad he is against Osborne.’

Molly dreaded the squire’s anger when she gave him her father’s message. She had seen quite enough of the domestic relations of the Hamley family to understand that, underneath his old-fashioned courtesy, and the pleasant hospitality he showed to her as a guest, there was a strong will, and a vehement passionate temper, along with that degree of obstinacy in prejudices (or ‘opinions,’ as he would have called them) so common to those who have, neither in youth nor in manhood, mixed largely with their kind. She had listened, day after day, to Mrs. Hamley’s plaintive murmurs as to the deep disgrace in which Osborne was being held by his father — the prohibition of his coming home; and she hardly knew how to begin to tell him that the letter summoning Osborne had already been sent off.

Their dinners were tete-a-tete. The squire tried to make them pleasant to Molly, feeling deeply grateful to her for the soothing comfort she was to his wife. He made merry speeches, which sank away into silence, and at which they each forgot to smile. He ordered up rare wines, which she did not care for, but tasted out of complaisance. He noticed that one day she had eaten some brown buerre pears as if she liked them; and as his trees had not produced many this year, he gave directions that this particular kind should be sought for through the neighbourhood. Molly felt that, in many ways, he was full of good-will towards her; but it did not diminish her dread of touching on the one sore point in the family. However, it had to be done, and that without delay.

The great log was placed on the after-dinner fire, the hearth swept up, the ponderous candles snuffed, and then the door was shut, and Molly and the squire were left to their dessert. She sate at the side of the table in her old place. That at the head was vacant; yet as no orders had been given to the contrary, the plate and glasses and napkin were always arranged as regularly and methodically as if Mrs. Hamley would come in as usual. Indeed, sometimes, when the door by which she used to enter was opened by any chance, Molly caught herself looking round as if she expected to see the tall, languid figure in the elegant draperies of rich silk and soft lace, which Mrs. Hamley was wont to wear of an evening.

This evening, it struck her, as a new thought of pain, that into that room she would come no more. She had fixed to give her father’s message at this very point of time; but something in her throat choked her, and she hardly knew how to govern her voice. The squire got up and went to the broad fire-place, to strike into the middle of the great log, and split it up into blazing, sparkling pieces. His back was towards her. Molly began, ‘When papa was here today, he bade me tell you he had written to Mr. Roger Hamley to say that — that he thought he had better come home; and he enclosed a letter to Mr. Osborne Hamley to say the same thing.’

The squire put down the poker, but he still kept his back to Molly.

‘He sent for Osborne and Roger?’ he asked, at length.

Molly answered, ‘Yes.’

Then there was a dead silence, which Molly thought would never end. The squire had placed his two hands on the high chimney-piece, and stood leaning over the fire.

‘Roger would have been down from Cambridge on the 18th,’ said he. ‘And he has sent for Osborne, too! Did he know,’— he continued, turning round to Molly, with something of the fierceness she had anticipated in voice and look. In another moment he had dropped his voice. ‘It is right, quite right. I understand. It has come at length. Come! come! Osborne has brought it on, though,’ with a fresh access of anger in his tones. ‘She might have’ (some word Molly could not hear — she thought it sounded like ‘lingered’) ‘but for that. I cannot forgive him; I cannot.’

And then he suddenly left the room. While Molly sate there still, very sad in her sympathy with all, he put his head in again —

‘Go to her, my dear; I cannot — not just yet. But I will soon. Just this bit; and after that I won’t lose a moment. You are a good girl. God bless you!’

It is not to be supposed that Molly had remained all this time at the Hall without interruption. Once or twice her father had brought her a summons home. Molly thought she could perceive that he had brought it unwillingly; in fact, it was Mrs. Gibson that had sent for her, almost, as it were, to preserve a ‘right of way’ through her actions.

‘You shall come back tomorrow, or the next day,’ her father had said. ‘But mamma seems to think people will put a bad construction on your being so much way from home so soon after our marriage.’

‘Oh, papa, I’m afraid Mrs. Hamley will miss me! I do so like being with her.’

‘I don’t think it is likely she will miss you as much as she would have done a month or two ago. She sleeps so much now, that she is scarcely conscious of the lapse of time. I’ll see that you come back here again in a day or two.’

So out of the silence and the soft melancholy of the Hall Molly returned into the all-pervading element of chatter and gossip at Hollingford. Mrs. Gibson received her kindly enough. Once’ she had a smart new winter bonnet ready to give her as a present; but she did not care to hear any particulars about the friends whom Molly had just left; and her few remarks on the state of affairs at the Hall jarred terribly on the sensitive Molly.

‘What a time she lingers! Your papa never expected she would last half so long after that attack. It must be very wearing work to them all; I declare you look quite another creature since you went there. One can only wish it mayn’t last, for their sakes.’

‘You don’t know how the squire values every minute,’ said Molly.

‘Why, you say she sleeps a great deal, and doesn’t talk much when she’s awake, and there’s not the slightest hope for her. And yet, at such times, people are kept on the tenterhooks with watching and waiting. I know it by my dear Kirkpatrick. There really were days when I thought it never would end. But we won’t talk any more of such dismal things; you’ve had quite enough of them, I’m sure, and it always makes me melancholy to hear of illness and death; and yet your papa seems sometimes as if he could talk of nothing else. I’m going to take you out to-night, though, and that will give you something of a change; and I’ve been getting Miss Rose to trim up one of my old gowns for you; it’s too tight for me. There’s some talk of dancing — it’s at Mrs. Edward’s.’

‘Oh, mamma, I cannot go!’ cried Molly. ‘I’ve been so much with her; and she may be suffering so, or even dying — and I to be dancing!’

‘Nonsense! You’re no relation, so you need not feel it so much. I wouldn’t urge you, if she was likely to know about it and be hurt; but as it is, it’s all fixed that you are to go; and don’t let us have any nonsense about it. We might sit twirling our thumbs, and repeating hymns all our lives long, if we were to do nothing else when people were dying.’

‘I cannot go,’ repeated Molly. And, acting upon impulse, and almost to her own surprise, she appealed to her father, who came into the room at this very time. He contracted his dark eyebrows, and looked annoyed as both wife and daughter poured their different sides of the argument into his ears. He sate down in desperation of patience. When his turn came to pronounce a decision, he said —

‘I suppose I can have some lunch? I went away at six this morning, and there’s nothing in the dining-room. I have to go off again directly.’

Molly started to the door; Mrs. Gibson made haste to ring the bell.

‘Where are you going, Molly?’ said she, sharply.

‘Only to see about papa’s lunch.’

‘There are servants to do it; and I don’t like your going into the kitchen.’

‘Come, Molly! sit down and be quiet,’ said her father. ‘One comes home wanting peace and quietness — and food too. If I am to be appealed to, which I beg I may not be another time, I settle that Molly stops home this evening. I shall come back late and tired. See that I have something ready to eat, goosey, and then I’ll dress myself up in my best, and go and fetch you home, my dear. I wish all these wedding festivities were well over. Ready, is it? Then I’ll go into the dining-room and gorge myself. A doctor ought to be able to eat like a camel, or like Major Dugald Dalgetty.’

It was well for Molly that callers came in just at this time, for Mrs. Gibson was extremely annoyed. They told her some little local piece of news, however, which filled up her mind; and Molly found that, if she only expressed wonder enough at the engagement they had both heard of from the departed callers, the previous discussion as to her accompanying her stepmother or not might be entirely passed over. Not entirely though; for the next morning she had to listen to a very brilliantly touched-up account of the dance and the gaiety which she had missed; and also to be told that Mrs. Gibson had changed her mind about giving her the gown, and thought now that she should reserve it for Cynthia, if only it was long enough; but Cynthia was so tall — quite overgrown, in fact. The chances seemed equally balanced as to whether Molly might not have the gown after all.

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:18