Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XXIV

Mrs Gibson’s Little Dinner

All this had taken place before Roger’s first meeting with Molly and Cynthia at Miss Brownings’; and the little dinner on the Friday at Mr. Gibson’s, which followed in due sequence.

Mrs. Gibson intended the Hamleys to find this dinner pleasant; and they did. Mr. Gibson was fond of these two young men, both for their parents’ sake and their own, for he had known them since boyhood; and to those whom he liked Mr. Gibson could be remarkably agreeable. Mrs. Gibson really gave them a welcome — and cordiality in a hostess is a very becoming mantle for any other deficiencies there may be. Cynthia and Molly looked their best, which was all the duty Mrs Gibson absolutely required of them, as she was willing enough to take her full share in the conversation. Osborne fell to her lot, of course, and for some time he and she prattled on with all the ease of manner and commonplaceness of meaning which go far to make the ‘art of polite conversation.’ Roger, who ought to have made himself agreeable to one or the other of the young ladies, was exceedingly interested in what Mr. Gibson was telling him of a paper on comparative osteology in some foreign journal of science, which Lord Hollingford was in the habit of forwarding to his friend the country surgeon. Yet every now and then while he listened he caught his attention wandering to the face of Cynthia, who was placed between his brother and Mr. Gibson. She was not particularly occupied with attending to anything that was going on; her eyelids were carelessly dropped, as she crumbled her bread on the tablecloth, and her beautiful long eyelashes were seen on the clear tint of her oval cheek. She was thinking of something else; Molly was trying to understand with all her might. Suddenly Cynthia looked up, and caught Roger’s gaze of intent admiration too fully for her to be unaware that he was staring at her. She coloured a little, but after the first moment of rosy confusion at his evident admiration of her, she flew to the attack, diverting his confusion at thus being caught, to the defence of himself from her accusation.

‘It is quite true!’ she said to him. ‘I was not attending: you see I don’t know even the A B C of science. But, please, don’t look so severely at me, even if I am a dunce!’

‘I did not know — I did not mean to look severely, I am sure,’ replied he, not knowing well what to say.

‘Cynthia is not a dunce either,’ said Mrs. Gibson, afraid lest her daughter’s opinion of herself might be taken seriously. ‘But I have always observed that some people have a talent for one thing and some for another. Now Cynthia’s talents are not for science and the severer studies. Do you remember, love, what trouble I had to teach you the use of the globes?’

‘Yes; and I don’t know longitude from latitude now; and I’m always puzzled as to which is perpendicular and which is horizontal.’

‘Yet, I do assure you,’ her mother continued, rather addressing herself to Osborne ‘that her memory for poetry is prodigious. I have heard her repeat the “Prisoner of Chillon” from beginning to end.’

‘It would be rather a bore to have to hear her, I think,’ said Mr Gibson, smiling at Cynthia, who gave him back one of her bright looks of mutual understanding.

‘Ah, Mr. Gibson, I have found out before now that you have no soul for poetry; and Molly there is your own child. She reads such deep books — all about facts and figures: she’ll be quite a blue-stocking by and by.’

‘Mamma,’ said Molly, reddening, ‘you think it was a deep book because there were the shapes of the different cells of bees in it; but it was not at all deep. It was very interesting.’

‘Never mind, Molly,’ said Osborne. ‘I stand up for blue-stockings!’

‘And I object to the distinction implied in what you say,’ said Roger. ‘It was not deep, ergo, it was very interesting. Now, a book may be both deep and interesting.’

‘Oh, if you are going to chop logic and use Latin words, I think it is time for us to leave the room,’ said Mrs. Gibson.

‘Don’t let us run away as if we were beaten, mamma,’ said Cynthia. ‘Though it may be logic, I, for one, can understand what Mr. Roger Hamley said just now; and I read some of Molly’s book; and whether it was deep or not I found it very interesting — more so than I should think the “Prisoner of Chillon” now-a-days. I’ve displaced the Prisoner to make room for Johnnie Gilpin as my favourite poem.’

‘How could you talk such nonsense, Cynthia?’ said Mrs. Gibson, as the girls followed her upstairs. ‘You know you are not a dunce. It is all very well not to be a blue-stocking, because gentle-people don’t like that kind of woman; but running yourself down, and contradicting all I said about your liking for Byron, and poets and poetry — to Osborne Hamley of all men, too!’

Mrs. Gibson spoke quite crossly for her.

‘But, mamma,’ Cynthia replica, ‘I am either a dunce, or I am not. If I am, I did right to own it; if I am not, he’s a dunce if he doesn’t find out I was joking.’

‘Well,’ said Mrs. Gibson, a little puzzled by this speech, and wanting some elucidatory addition.

‘Only that if he’s a dunce his opinion of me is worth nothing. So, any way, it doesn’t signify.’

‘You really bewilder me with your nonsense, child. Molly is worth twenty of you.’

‘I quite agree with you, mamma,’ said Cynthia, turning round to take Molly’s hand.

‘Yes; but she ought not to be,’ said Mrs. Gibson, still irritated. ‘Think of the advantages you’ve had.’

‘I’m afraid I had rather be a dunce than a blue-stocking,’ said Molly; for the term had a little annoyed her, and the annoyance was rankling still.

‘Hush; here they are coming: I hear the dining-room door! I never meant you were a blue-stocking, dear, so don’t look vexed. — Cynthia, my love, where did you get those lovely flowers — anemones, are they? They suit your complexion so exactly.’

‘Come, Molly, don’t look so grave and thoughtful,’ exclaimed Cynthia. ‘Don’t you perceive mamma wants us to be smiling and amiable?’

Mr. Gibson had had to go out to his evening round; and the young men were all too glad to come up into the pretty drawing-room; the bright little wood fire; the comfortable easy chairs which, with so small a party, might be drawn round the hearth; the good-natured hostess; the pretty, agreeable girls. Roger sauntered up to the corner where Cynthia was standing, playing with a hand-screen.

‘There is a charity ball in Hollingford soon, isn’t there?’ asked he.

‘Yes; on Easter Tuesday,’ she replied.

‘Are you going? I suppose you are?’

‘Yes; mamma is going to take Molly and me.’

‘You will enjoy it very much — going together?’

For the first time during this little conversation she glanced up at him — real honest pleasure shining out of her eyes.

‘Yes; going together will make the enjoyment of the thing. It would be dull without her.’

‘You are great friends, then?’ he asked.

‘I never thought I should like any one so much — any girl I mean.’

She put in the final reservation in all simplicity of heart; and in all simplicity did he understand it. He came ever so little nearer, and dropped his voice a little.

‘I was so anxious to know. I am so glad. I have often wondered how you two were getting on.’

‘Have you?’ said she, looking up again. ‘At Cambridge? You must be very fond of Molly!’

‘Yes, I am. She was with us so long; and at such a time! I look upon her almost as a sister.’

‘And she is very fond of all of you. I seem to know you all from hearing her talk about you so much. — All of you!’ said she, laying an emphasis on ‘all’ to show that it included the dead as well as the living. Roger was silent for a minute or two.

‘I didn’t know you, even by hearsay. So you mustn’t wonder that I was a little afraid. But as soon as I saw you, I knew how it must be; and it was such a relief!’

‘Cynthia,’ said Mrs. Gibson, who thought that the younger son had had quite his share of low, confidential conversation, ‘come here, and sing that little French ballad to Mr. Osborne Hamley.’

‘Which do you mean, mamma? “Tu t’en repentiras, Colin”?’

‘Yes; such a pretty, playful little warning to young men,’ said Mrs Gibson, smiling up at Osborne. ‘The refrain is —

“Tu t’en repentiras, Colin,
Tu t’en repentiras,
Car si tu prends une femme, Colin,
Tu t’en repentiras.”

The advice may apply very well when there is a French wife in the case; but not, I am sure, to an Englishman who is thinking of an English wife.’

This choice of a song was exceedingly mal-apropos, had Mrs Gibson but known it. Osborne and Roger knowing that the wife of the former was a Frenchwoman, and, conscious of each other’s knowledge, felt doubly awkward, while Molly was as much confused as though she herself were secretly married. However, Cynthia carolled the saucy ditty out, and her mother smiled at it, in total ignorance of any application it might have. Osborne had instinctively gone to stand behind Cynthia, as she sate at the piano, so as to be ready to turn over the leaves of her music if she required it. He kept his hands in his pockets and his eyes fixed on her fingers; his countenance clouded with gravity at all the merry quips which she so playfully sang. Roger looked grave as well, but was much more at his ease than his brother; indeed, he was half-amused by the awkwardness of the situation. He caught Molly’s troubled eyes and heightened colour, and he saw that she was feeling this contretemps more seriously than she needed to do. He moved to a seat by her, and half whispered, ‘Too late a warning, is it not?’

Molly looked up at him as he leant towards her, and replied in the same tone — ‘Oh, I am so sorry!’

‘You need not be. He won’t mind it long; and a man must take the consequences when he puts himself in a false position.’

Molly could not tell what to reply to this, so she hung her head and kept silence. Yet she could see that Roger did not change his attitude or remove his hand from the back of his chair, and, impelled by curiosity to find out the cause of his stillness, she looked up at him at length, and saw his gaze fixed on the two who were near the piano. Osborne was saying something eagerly to Cynthia, whose grave eyes were upturned to him with soft intentness of expression, and her pretty mouth half-open, with a sort of impatience for him to cease speaking, that she might reply.

‘They are talking about France,’ said Roger, in answer to Molly’s unspoken question. ‘Osborne knows it well, and Miss Kirkpatrick has been at school there, you know. It sounds very interesting; shall we go nearer and hear what they are saying?’

It was all very well to ask this civilly, but Molly thought it would have been better to wait for her answer. Instead of waiting, however, Roger went to the piano, and, leaning on it, appeared to join in the light merry talk, while he feasted his eyes as much as he dared by looking at Cynthia. Molly suddenly felt as if she could scarcely keep from crying — a minute ago he had been so near to her, and talking so pleasantly and confidentially; and now he almost seemed as if he had forgotten her existence. She thought that all this was wrong; and she exaggerated its wrongness to herself; ‘mean,’ and ‘envious of Cynthia,’ and ‘ill-natured,’ and ‘selfish,’ were the terms she kept applying to herself; but it did no good, she was just as naughty at the last as at the first.

Mrs. Gibson broke into the state of things which Molly thought was to endure for ever. Her work had been intricate up to this time, and had required a great deal of counting; so she had had no time to attend to her duties, one of which she always took to be to show herself to the world as an impartial stepmother. Cynthia had played and sung, and now she must give Molly her turn of exhibition. Cynthia’s singing and playing was light and graceful, but anything but correct; but she herself was so charming, that it was only fanatics for music who cared for false chords and omitted notes. Molly, on the contrary, had an excellent ear, if she had ever been well taught; and both from inclination and conscientious perseverance of disposition, she would go over an incorrect passage for twenty times. But she was very shy of playing in company; and when forced to do it, she went through her performance heavily, and hated her handiwork more than any one.

‘Now, you must play a little, Molly,’ said Mrs. Gibson; ‘play us that beautiful piece of Kalkbrenner’s,’ my dear.’

Molly looked up at her stepmother with beseeching eyes, but it only brought out another form of request, still more like a command.

‘Go at once, my dear. You may not play it quite rightly; and I know you are very nervous; but you’re quite amongst friends.’

So there was a disturbance made in the little group at the piano, and Molly sate down to her martyrdom.

‘Please, go away!’ said she to Osborne, who was standing behind her ready to turn over. ‘I can quite well do it for myself. And oh! if you would but talk!’

Osborne remained where he was in spite of her appeal, and gave her what little approval she got; for Mrs. Gibson, exhausted by her previous labour of counting her stitches, fell asleep in her comfortable sofa-corner near the fire; and Roger, who began at first to talk a little in compliance with Molly’s request, found his tete-a-tete with Cynthia so agreeable, that Molly lost her place several times in trying to catch a sudden glimpse of Cynthia sitting at her work, and Roger by her, intent on catching her low replies to what he was saying.

‘There, now I’ve done!’ said Molly, standing up quickly as soon as she had finished the eighteen dreary pages; ‘and I think I will never sit down to play again!’

Osborne laughed at her vehemence. Cynthia began to take some part in what was being said, and thus made the conversation general. Mrs Gibson wakened up gracefully, as was her way of doing all things, and slid into the subjects they were talking about so easily, that she almost succeeded in making them believe she had never been asleep at all.

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