Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XVIII

Mr Osborne’s Secret

Osborne and Roger came to the Hall; Molly found Roger established there when she returned after this absence at home. She gathered that Osborne was coming; but very little was said about him in any way. The Squire scarcely ever left his wife’s room now; he sat by her, watching her, and now and then moaning to himself. She was so much under the influence of opiates that she did not often rouse up; but when she did, she almost invariably asked for Molly. On these rare occasions, she would ask after Osborne — where he was, if he had been told, and if he was coming? In her weakened and confused state of intellect she seemed to have retained two strong impressions — one, of the sympathy with which Molly had received her confidence about Osborne; the other, of the anger which her husband entertained against him. Before the squire she never mentioned Osborne’s name; nor did she seem at her ease in speaking about him to Roger; while, when she was alone with Molly, she hardly spoke of any one else. She must have had some sort of wandering idea that Roger blamed his brother, while she remembered Molly’s eager defence, which she had thought hopelessly improbable at the time. At any rate she made Molly her confidante about her first-born. She sent her to ask Roger how soon he would come, for she seemed to know perfectly well that he was coming.

‘Tell me all Roger says. He will tell you.’

But it was several days before Molly could ask Roger any questions; and meanwhile Mrs. Hamley’s state had materially altered. At length Molly came upon Roger sitting in the library, his head buried in his hands. He did not hear her footstep till she was close beside him. Then he lifted up his face, red, and stained with tears, his hair all ruffled up and in disorder.

‘I’ve been wanting to see you alone,’ she began. ‘Your mother does so want some news of your brother Osborne. She told me last week to ask you about him, but I did not like to speak of him before your father.’

‘She has hardly ever named him to me.’

‘I don’t know why; for to me she used to talk of him perpetually. I have seen so little of her this week, and I think she forgets a great deal now. Still, if you don’t mind, I should like to be able to tell her something if she asks me again.’

He put his head again between his hands, and did not answer her for some time.

‘What does she want to know?’ said he, at last. ‘Does she know that Osborne is coming soon — any day?’

‘Yes. But she wants to know where he is.’

‘I can’t tell you. I don’t exactly know. I believe he’s abroad, but I’m not sure.’

‘But you’ve sent papa’s letter to him?’

‘I’ve sent it to a friend of his who will know better than I do where he’s to be found. You must know that he isn’t free from creditors, Molly. You can’t have been one of the family, like a child of the house almost, without knowing that much. For that and for some other reasons I don’t exactly know where he is.’

‘I will tell her so. You are sure he will come?’

‘Quite sure. But, Molly, I think my mother may live some time yet; don’t you? Dr Nicholls said so yesterday when he was here with your father. He said she had rallied more than he had ever expected. You’re not afraid of any change that makes you so anxious for Osborne’s coming?’

‘No. It’s only for her that I asked. She did seem so to crave for news of him. I think she dreamed of him; and then when she wakened it was a relief to her to talk about him to me. She always seemed to associate me with him. We used to speak so much of him when we were together.’

‘I don’t know what we should any of us have done without you. You’ve been like a daughter to my mother.’

‘I do so love her,’ said Molly, softly.

‘Yes; I see. Have you ever noticed that she sometimes calls you “Fanny”? It was the name of a little sister of ours who died. I think she often takes you for her. It was partly that, and partly that at such a time as this one can’t stand on formalities, that made me call you Molly. I hope you don’t mind it?’

‘No; I like it. But will you tell me something more about your brother? She really hungers for news of him.’

‘She’d better ask me herself. Yet, no! I am so involved by promises of secrecy, Molly, that I couldn’t satisfy her if she once began to question me. I believe he’s in Belgium, and that he went there about a fortnight ago, partly to avoid his creditors. You know my father has refused to pay his debts?’

‘Yes; at least, I knew something like it.’

‘I don’t believe my father could raise the money all at once without having recourse to steps which he would exceedingly recoil from. Yet for the time it places Osborne in a very awkward position.’

‘I think what vexes your father a good deal is some mystery as to how the money was spent.’

‘If my mother ever says anything about that part of the affair,’ said Roger, hastily, ‘assure her from me that there’s nothing of vice or wrong-doing about it. I can’t say more: I’m tied. But set her mind at ease on this point.’

‘I’m not sure if she remembers all her painful anxiety about this,’ said Molly. ‘She used to speak a great deal to me about him before you came, when your father seemed so angry. And now, whenever she sees me she wants to talk on the old subject; but she doesn’t remember so clearly. If she were to see him I don’t believe she would recollect why she was uneasy about him while he was absent.’

‘He must be here soon. I expect him every day,’ said Roger, uneasily.

‘Do you think your father will be very angry with him?’ asked Molly, with as much timidity as if the squire’s displeasure might be directed against her.

‘I don’t know,’ said Roger. ‘My mother’s illness may alter him; but he didn’t easily forgive us formerly. I remember once — but that is nothing to the purpose. I can’t help fancying that he has put himself under some strong restraint for my mother’s sake, and that he won’t express much. But it doesn’t follow that he will forget it. My father is a man of few affections, but what he has are very strong; he feels anything that touches him on these points deeply and permanently. That unlucky valuing of the property! It has given my father the idea of post-obits —’

‘What are they?’ asked Molly.

‘Raising money to be paid on my father’s death, which, of course, involves calculations as to the duration of his life.’

‘How shocking!’ said she.

‘I’m as sure as I am of my own life that Osborne never did anything of the kind. But my father expressed his suspicions in language that irritated Osborne; and he doesn’t speak out, and won’t justify himself even as much as he might; and, much as he loves me, I’ve but little influence over him, or else he would tell my father all. Well, we must leave it to time,’ he added, sighing. ‘My mother would have brought us all right, if she’d been what she once was.’

He turned away leaving Molly very sad. She knew that every member of the family she cared for so much was in trouble, out of which she saw no exit; and her small power of helping them was diminishing day by day as Mrs. Hamley sank more and more under the influence of opiates and stupefying illness. Her father had spoken to her only this very day of the desirableness of her returning home for good. Mrs. Gibson wanted her — for no particular reason, but for many small fragments of reasons. Mrs. Hamley had ceased to want her much, only occasionally appearing to remember her existence. Her position (her father thought — the idea had not entered her head) in a family of which the only woman was an invalid confined to bed, was becoming awkward. But Molly had begged hard to remain two or three days longer — only that — only till Friday. If Mrs. Hamley should want her (she argued, with tears in her eyes), and should hear that she had left the house, she would think her so unkind, so ungrateful!

‘My dear child, she’s getting past wanting any one! The keenness of earthly feelings is deadened.’

‘Papa, that is worst of all. I cannot bear it. I won’t believe it. She may not ask for me again, and may quite forget me; but I’m sure, to the very last, if the medicines don’t stupefy her, she will look round for the squire and her children. For poor Osborne most of all; because he’s in sorrow.’

Mr. Gibson shook his head, but said nothing in reply. In a minute or two he asked —

‘I don’t like to take you away while you even fancy you can be of use or comfort to one who has been so kind to you. But, if she hasn’t wanted you before Friday, will you be convinced, will you come home willingly?’

‘If I go then, I may see her once again, even if she hasn’t asked for me?’ inquired Molly.

‘Yes, of course. You must make no noise, no step; but you may go in and see her. I must tell you, I’m almost certain she won’t ask for you.’

‘But she may, papa. I will go home on Friday, if she has not. I think she will.’

So Molly hung about the house, trying to do all she could out of the sick-room, for the comfort of those in it. They only came out for meals, or for necessary business, and found little time for talking to her, so her life was solitary enough, waiting for the call that never came. The evening of the day on which she had had the above conversation with Roger, Osborne arrived. He came straight into the drawing-room, where Molly was seated on the rug, reading by firelight, as she did not like to ring for candies merely for her own use. Osborne came in, with a kind of hurry, which almost made him appear as if he would trip himself up, and fall down. Molly rose. He had not noticed her before; now he came forwards, and took hold of both her hands, leading her into the full flickering light, and straining his eyes to look into her face.

‘How is she? You will tell me — you must know the truth! I’ve travelled day and night since I got your father’s letter.’

Before she could frame her answer, he had sate down in the nearest chair, covering his eyes with his hand.

‘She’s very ill,’ said Molly. ‘That you know; but I don’t think she suffers much pain. She has wanted you sadly.’

He groaned aloud. ‘My father forbade me to come.’

‘I know!’ said Molly, anxious to prevent his self-reproach. ‘Your brother was away, too. I think no one knew how ill she was — she had been an invalid for so long.’

‘You know — Yes! she told you a great deal — she was very fond of you. And God knows how I loved her. If I had not been forbidden to come home, I should have told her all. Does my father know of my coming now?’

‘Yes,’ said Molly; ‘I told him papa had sent for you.’

Just at that moment the squire came in. He had not heard of Osborne’s arrival, and was seeking Molly to ask her to write a letter for him.

Osborne did not stand up when his father entered. He was too much exhausted, too much oppressed by his feelings, and also too much estranged by his father’s angry, suspicious letters. If he had come forwards with any manifestation of feeling at this moment, everything might have been different. But he waited for his father to see him before he uttered a word. All that the squire said when his eye fell upon him at last was —

‘You here, sir!’

And, breaking off in the directions he was giving to Molly, he abruptly left the room. All the time his heart was yearning after his first-born; but mutual pride kept them asunder. Yet he went straight to the butler, and asked of him when Mr. Osborne had arrived, and how he had come and if he had had any refreshment — dinner or what — since his arrival?

‘For I think I forget everything now!’ said the poor squire, putting his hand up to his head. ‘For the life of me, I can’t remember whether we’ve had dinner or not; these long nights, and all this sorrow and watching, quite bewilder me.’

‘Perhaps, sir, you will take some dinner with Mr. Osborne. Mrs. Morgan is sending up his directly. You hardly sate down at dinner-time, sir, you thought my mistress wanted something.’

‘Ay! I remember now. No! I won’t have any more. Give Mr. Osborne what wine he chooses. Perhaps he can eat and drink.’ So the squire went away upstairs with bitterness as well as sorrow in his heart.

When lights were brought, Molly was struck with the change in Osborne. He looked haggard and worn; perhaps with travelling and anxiety. Not quite such a dainty gentleman either, as Molly had thought him, when she had last seen him calling on her stepmother, two months before. But she liked him better now. The tone of his remarks pleased her more. He was simpler, and less ashamed of showing his feelings. He asked after Roger in a warm, longing kind of way. Roger was out: he had ridden to Ashcombe to transact some business for the squire. Osborne evidently wished for his return; and hung about restlessly in the drawing-room after he had dined.

‘You are sure I may not see her to-night?’ he asked Molly, for the third or fourth time. ‘No, indeed. I will go up again if you like it. But Mrs. Jones, the nurse Dr Nicholls sent, is a very decided person. I went up while you were at dinner, and Mrs. Hamley had just taken her drops, and was on no account to be disturbed by seeing any one, much less by any excitement.’

Osborne kept walking up and down the long drawing-room, half talking to himself, half to Molly.

‘I wish Roger would come. He seems to be the only one to give me a welcome. Does my father always live upstairs in my mother’s rooms, Miss Gibson?’

‘He has done since her last attack. I believe he reproaches himself for not having been enough alarmed before.’

‘You heard all the words he said to me: they were not much of a welcome, were they? And my dear mother, who always — whether I was to blame or not — I suppose Roger is sure to come home to-night?’

‘Quite sure.’

‘You are staying here, are you not? Do you often see my mother, or does this omnipotent nurse keep you out too?’

‘Mrs. Hamley hasn’t asked for me for three days now, and I don’t go into her room unless she asks. I’m leaving on Friday, I believe.’

‘My mother was very fond of you, I know.’

After a while he said, in a voice that had a great deal of sensitive pain in its tone —

‘I suppose — do you know whether she is quite conscious — quite herself?’

‘Not always conscious,’ said Molly, tenderly. ‘She has to take so many opiates. But she never wanders, only forgets, and sleeps.’

‘Oh, mother, mother!’ said he, stopping suddenly, and hanging over the fire, his hands on the chimney-piece.

When Roger came home, Molly thought it time to retire. Poor girl! it was getting to be time for her to leave this scene of distress in which she could be of no use. She sobbed herself to sleep this Tuesday night. Two days more, and it would be Friday; and she would have to wrench up the roots she had shot down into this ground. The weather was bright the next morning; and morning and sunny weather cheer up young hearts. Molly sate in the dining-room making tea for the gentlemen as they came down. She could not help hoping that the squire and Osborne might come to a better understanding before she left; for after all, in the discussion between father and son, lay a bitterer sting than in the illness sent by God. But though they met at the breakfast-table, they purposely avoided addressing each other. Perhaps the natural subject of conversation between the two, at such a time, would have been Osborne’s long journey the night before; but he had never spoken of the place he had come from, whether north, south, east, or west, and the squire did not choose to allude to anything that might bring out what his son wished to conceal. Again, there was an unexpressed idea in both their minds that Mrs. Hamley’s present illness was much aggravated, if not entirely brought on, by the discovery of Osborne’s debts; so, many inquiries and answers on that head were tabooed. In fact, their attempts at easy conversation were limited to local subjects, and principally addressed to Molly or Roger. Such intercourse was not productive of pleasure, or even of friendly feeling, though there was a thin outward surface of politeness and peace. Long before the day was over, Molly wished that she had acceded to her father’s proposal, and gone home with him. No one seemed to want her. Mrs Jones, the nurse, assured her time after time that Mrs. Hamley had never named her name; and her small services in the sickroom were not required since there was a regular nurse. Osborne and Roger seemed all in all to each other; and Molly now felt how much the short conversations she had had with Roger had served to give her something to think about, all during the remainder of her solitary days. Osborne was extremely polite, and even expressed his gratitude to her for her attentions to his mother in a very pleasant manner; but he appeared to be unwilling to show her any of the deeper feelings of his heart, and almost ashamed of his exhibition of emotion the night before. He spoke to her as any agreeable young man speaks to any pleasant young lady; but Molly almost resented this. It was only the squire who seemed to make her of any account. He gave her letters to write, small bills to reckon up; and she could have kissed his hands for thankfulness.

The last afternoon of her stay at the Hall came. Roger had gone out on the squire’s business. Molly went into the garden, thinking over the last summer, when Mrs. Hamley’s sofa used to be placed under the old cedar-tree on the lawn, and when the warm air seemed to be scented with roses and sweetbrier. Now, the trees were leafless — there was no sweet odour in the keen frosty air; and looking up at the house, there were the white sheets of blinds, shutting out the pale winter sky from the invalid’s room. Then she thought of the day her father had brought her the news of his second marriage: the thicket was tangled with dead weeds and rime and hoarfrost; and the beautiful fine articulation of branches and boughs and delicate twigs were all intertwined in leafless distinctness against the sky. Could she ever be so passionately unhappy again? Was it goodness, or was it numbness, that made her feel as though life was too short to be troubled much about anything? death seemed the only reality. She had neither energy nor heart to walk far or briskly; and turned back towards the house. The afternoon sun was shining brightly on the windows; and, stirred up to unusual activity by some unknown cause, the housemaids had opened the shutters and windows of the generally unused library. The middle window was also a door; the white-painted wood went half-way up. Molly turned along the little flag-paved path that led past the library windows to the gate in the white railings at the front of the house, and went in at the opened doors. She had had leave given to choose out any books she wished to read, and to take them home with her; and it was just the sort of half-dawdling employment suited to her taste this afternoon. She mounted on the ladder to get to a particular shelf high up in dark corner of the room; and finding there some volume that looked interesting, she sate down on the step to read part of it. There she sate, in her bonnet and cloak, when Osborne suddenly came in. He did not see her at first; indeed, he seemed in such a hurry that he probably might not have noticed her at all, if she had not spoken.

‘Am I in your way? I only came here for a minute to look for some books.’ She came down the steps as she spoke, still holding the book in her hand.

‘Not at all. It is I who am disturbing you. I must just write a letter for the post, and then I shall be gone. Is not this open door too cold for you?’

‘Oh, no. It is so fresh and pleasant.’

She began to read again, sitting on the lowest step of the ladder; he to write at the large old-fashioned writing-table close to the window. There was a minute or two of profound silence, in which the rapid scratching of Osborne’s pen upon the paper was the only sound. Then came a click of the gate, and Roger stood at the open door. His face was towards Osborne, sitting in the light; his back to Molly, crouched up in her corner. He held out a letter, and said in hoarse breathlessness —

‘Here’s a letter from your wife, Osborne. I went past the post-office and thought —’

Osborne stood up, angry dismay upon his face.

‘Roger! what have you done! Don’t you see her?’

Roger looked round, and Molly stood up in her corner, red, trembling, miserable, as though she were a guilty person. Roger entered the room. All three seemed to be equally dismayed. Molly was the first to speak; she came forwards and said —

‘I am so sorry! You didn’t wish me to hear it, but I couldn’t help it. You will trust me, won’t you?’ and turning to Roger she said to him with tears in her eyes — ‘Please say you know I shall not tell.’

‘We can’t help it,’ said Osborne, gloomily. ‘Only Roger, who knew of what importance it was, ought to have looked round him before speaking.’

‘So I should,’ said Roger. ‘I’m more vexed with myself than you can conceive. Not but what I’m sure of you as of myself,’ continued he, turning to Molly.

‘Yes; but,’ said Osborne, ‘you see how many chances there are that even the best-meaning persons may let out what it is of such consequence to me to keep secret.’

‘I know you think it so,’ said Roger.

‘Well, don’t let us begin that old discussion again — at any rate, not before a third person.’

Molly had had hard work all this time to keep from crying. Now that she was alluded to as the third person before whom conversation was to be restrained, she said —

‘I’m going away. Perhaps I ought not to have been here. I’m very sorry — very. But I will try and forget what I’ve heard.’

‘You can’t do that,’ said Osborne, still ungraciously. ‘But will you promise me never to speak about it to any one — not even to me, or to Roger? Will you try to act and speak as if you had never heard it? I’m sure, from what Roger has told me about you, that if you give me this promise I may rely upon it.’

‘Yes; I will promise,’ said Molly, putting out her hand as a kind of pledge. Osborne took it, but rather as if the action was superfluous. She added, ‘I think I should have done so, even without a promise. But it is, perhaps, better to bind oneself. I will go away now. I wish I’d never come into this room.’

She put down her book on the table very softly, and turned to leave the room, choking down her tears until she was in the solitude of her own chamber. But Roger was at the door before her, holding it open for her, and reading — she felt that he was reading — her face. He held out his band for hers, and his firm grasp expressed both sympathy and regret for what had occurred.

She could hardly keep back her sobs till she reached her bedroom. Her feelings had been overwrought for some time past, without finding the natural vent in action. The leaving Hamley Hall had seemed so sad before; and now she was troubled with having to bear away a secret which she ought never to have known, and the knowledge of which had brought out a very uncomfortable responsibility. Then there would arise a very natural wonder as to who was Osborne’s wife. Molly had not stayed so long and so intimately in the Hamley family without being well aware of the manner in which the future lady of Hamley was planned for. The squire, for instance, partly in order to show that Osborne, his heir, was above the reach of Molly Gibson, the doctor’s daughter, in the early days before he knew Molly well, had often alluded to the grand, the high, and the wealthy marriage which Hamley of Hamley, as represented by his clever, brilliant, handsome son Osborne, might be expected to make. Mrs. Hamley, too, unconsciously on her part, showed the projects that she was constantly devising for the reception of the unknown daughter-inlaw that was to be.

‘The drawing-room must be refurnished when Osborne marries’— or ‘Osborne’s wife will like to have the west suite of rooms to herself; it will perhaps be a trial to her to live with the old couple; but we must arrange it so that she will feel it as little as possible’—‘Of course, when Mrs. Osborne comes we must try and give her a new carriage; the old one does well enough for us’— these, and similar speeches had given Molly the impression of the future Mrs Osborne as of some beautiful grand young lady, whose very presence would make the old Hall into a stately, formal mansion, instead of the pleasant, unceremonious home that it was at present. Osborne, too, who had spoken with such languid criticism to Mrs. Gibson about various country belles, and even in his own home was apt to give himself airs — only at home his airs were poetically fastidious, while with Mrs. Gibson they had been socially fastidious — what unspeakably elegant beauty had he chosen for his wife? Who had satisfied him; and yet satisfying him, had to have her marriage kept in concealment from his parents? At length Molly tore herself up from her wanderings. It was of no use: she could not find out; she might not even try. The blank wall of her promise blocked up the way. Perhaps it was not even right to wonder, and endeavour to remember slight speeches, casual mentions of a name, so as to piece them together into something coherent. Molly dreaded seeing either of the brothers again; but they all met at dinner-time as if nothing had happened. The squire was taciturn, either from melancholy or displeasure. He had never spoken to Osborne since his return, excepting about the commonest trifles, when intercourse could not be avoided; and his wife’s state oppressed him like a heavy cloud coming over the light of his day. Osborne put on an indifferent manner to his father, which Molly felt sure was assumed; but it was not conciliatory, for all that. Roger, quiet, steady, and natural, talked more than all the others; but he too was uneasy, and in distress on many accounts. To-day he principally addressed himself to Molly; entering into rather long narrations of late discoveries in natural history, which kept up the current of talk without requiring much reply from any one, Molly had expected Osborne to look something different from usual — conscious, or ashamed, or resentful, or even ‘married’— but he was exactly the Osborne of the morning — handsome, elegant, languid in manner and in look; cordial with his brother, polite towards her, secretly uneasy at the state of things between his father and himself. She would never have guessed the concealed romance which lay perdu under that every-day behaviour. She had always wished to come into direct contact with a love-story: here she was, and she only found it very uncomfortable; there was a sense of concealment and uncertainty about it all; and her honest straightforward father, her quiet life at Hollingford, which, even with all its drawbacks, was above-board, and where everybody knew what everybody was doing, seemed secure and pleasant in comparison. Of course she felt great pain at quitting the Hall, and at the mute farewell she had taken of her sleeping and unconscious friend. But leaving Mrs. Hamley now was a different thing to what it had been a fortnight ago. Then she was wanted at any moment, and felt herself to be of comfort. Now her very existence seemed forgotten by the poor lady whose body appeared to be living so long after her soul.

She was sent home in the carriage, loaded with true thanks from every one of the family. Osborne ransacked the houses for flowers for her; Roger had chosen her out books of every kind. The squire himself kept shaking her hand, without being able to speak his gratitude, till at last he had taken her in his arms, and kissed her as he would have done a daughter.

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