Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XXVI

A Charity Ball

At the present time there are few people at a public ball besides the dancers and their chaperones, or relations in some degree interested in them. But in the days when Molly and Cynthia were young — before railroads were, and before their consequences, the excursion-trains, which take every one up to London now-a-days, there to see their fill of gay crowds and fine dresses — to go to an annual charity-ball, even though all thought of dancing had passed by years ago, and without any of the responsibilities of a chaperone, was a very allowable and favourite piece of dissipation to all the kindly old maids who thronged the country towns of England. They aired their old lace and their best dresses; they saw the aristocratic magnates of the country side; they gossipped with their coevals, and speculated on the romances of the young around them in a curious yet friendly spirit. The Miss Brownings would have thought themselves sadly defrauded of the gayest event of the year, if anything had prevented their attending the charity-ball, and Miss Browning would have been indignant, Miss Phoebe aggrieved, had they not been asked to Ashcombe and Coreham, by friends at each place, who had, like them, gone through the dancing stage of life some five-and-twenty years before, but who liked still to haunt the scenes of their former enjoyment, and see a younger generation dance on ‘regardless of their doom.’ They had come in one of the two sedan-chairs that yet lingered in use at Hollingford; such a night as this brought a regular harvest of gains to the two old men who, in what was called the ‘town’s livery,’ trotted backwards and forwards with their many loads of ladies and finery. There were some postchaises, and some ‘flys,’ but after mature deliberation Miss Browning had decided to keep to the more comfortable custom of the sedan-chair; ‘which,’ as she said to Miss Piper, one of her visitors, ‘came into the parlour, and got full of the warm air, and nipped you up, and carried you tight and cosy into another warm room, where you could walk out without having to show your legs by going up steps, or down steps.’ Of course only one could go at a time; but here again a little of Miss Browning’s good management arranged everything so very nicely, as Miss Hornblower (their other visitor) remarked. She went first, and remained in the warm cloak-room until her hostess followed; and then the two ladies went arm-inarm into the ball-room, finding out convenient seats whence they could watch the arrivals and speak to their passing friends, until Miss Phoebe and Miss Piper entered, and came to take possession of the seats reserved for them by Miss Browning’s care. These two younger ladies came in, also arm-inarm, but with a certain timid flurry in look and movement very different from the composed dignity of their seniors (by two or three years). When all four were once more assembled together, they took breath, and began to converse.

‘Upon my word, I really do think this is a better room than our Ashcombe Court-house!’

‘And how prettily it is decorated!’ piped out Miss Piper. ‘How well the roses are made! But you all have such taste at Hollingford.’

‘There’s Mrs. Dempster,’ cried Miss Hornblower; ‘she said she and her two daughters were asked to stay at Mr. Sheepshanks’. Mr Preston was to be there, too; but I suppose they could not all come at once. Look! and there is young Roscoe, our new doctor. I declare it seems as if all Ashcombe were here. Mr. Roscoe! Mr. Roscoe! come here and let me introduce you to the Miss Brownings, the friends we are staying with. We think very highly of our young doctor, I can assure you, Miss Browning.’

Mr. Roscoe bowed, and simpered at hearing his own praises. But Miss Browning had no notion of having any doctor praised, who had come to settle even on the very verge of Mr. Gibson’s practice, so she said to Miss Hornblower —

‘You must be glad, I am sure, to have somebody you can call in, if you are in any sudden hurry, or for things that are too trifling to trouble Mr. Gibson about; and I should think Mr. Roscoe would feel it a great advantage to profit, as he will naturally have the opportunity of doing, by witnessing Mr. Gibson’s skill!’

Probably Mr. Roscoe would have felt more aggrieved by this speech than he really was, if his attention had not been called off just then by the entrance of the very Mr. Gibson who was being spoken of. Almost before Miss Browning had ended her severe and depreciatory remarks, he had asked his friend Miss Hornblower —

‘Who is that lovely girl in pink, just come in?’

‘Why, that’s Cynthia Kirkpatrick!’ said Miss Hornblower, taking up a ponderous gold eyeglass to make sure of her fact. ‘How she has grown! To be sure it is two or three years since she left Ashcombe — she was very pretty then — people did say Mr. Preston admired her very much; but she was so young!’

‘Can you introduce me?’ asked the impatient young surgeon. ‘I should like to ask her to dance.’ When Miss Hornblower returned from her greeting to her former acquaintance, Mrs. Gibson, and had accomplished the introduction which Mr. Roscoe had requested, she began her little confidences to Miss Browning.

‘Well, to be sure! How condescending we are! I remember the time when Mrs. Kirkpatrick wore old black silks, and was thankful and civil as became her place as a schoolmistress, and as having to earn her bread. And now she is in a satin; and she speaks to me as if she just could recollect who I was, if she tried very hard! It isn’t so long ago since Mrs. Dempster came to consult me as to whether Mrs Kirkpatrick would be offended, if she sent her a new breadth for her lilac silk-gown, in place of one that had been spoilt by Mrs Dempster’s servant spilling the coffee over it the night before; and she took it and was thankful, for all she’s dressed in pearl-grey satin now! And she would have been glad enough to marry Mr. Preston in those days.’

‘I thought you said he admired her daughter,’ put in Miss Browning to her irritated friend.

‘Well! perhaps I did, and perhaps it was so; I am sure I can’t tell; he was a great deal at the house. Miss Dixon keeps a school in the same house now, and I am sure she does it a great deal better.’

‘The earl and the countess are very fond of Mrs. Gibson,’ said Miss Browning. ‘I know, for Lady Harriet told us when she came to drink tea with us last autumn; and they desired Mr. Preston to be very attentive to her when she lived at Ashcombe.’

‘For goodness’ sake don’t go and repeat what I’ve been saying about Mr. Preston and Mrs. Kirkpatrick to her ladyship. One may be mistaken, and you know I only said “people talked about it.”’

Miss Hornblower was evidently alarmed lest her gossip should be repeated to the Lady Harriet, who appeared to be on such an intimate footing with her Hollingford friends. Nor did Miss Browning dissipate the illusion. Lady Harriet had drunk tea with them, and might do it again; and, at any rate, the little fright she had put her friend into was not a bad return for that praise of Mr. Roscoe, which had offended Miss Browning’s loyalty to Mr. Gibson.

Meanwhile Miss Piper and Miss Phoebe, who had not the character of esprit-forts to maintain, talked of the dresses of the people present, beginning by complimenting each other.

‘What a lovely turban you have got on, Miss Piper, if I may be allowed to say so: so becoming to your complexion!’

‘Do you think so?’ said Miss Piper, with ill-concealed gratification; it was something to have a ‘complexion’ at forty-five. ‘I got it at Brown’s, at Somerton, for this very ball. I thought I must have something to set off my gown, which isn’t quite so new as it once was; and I have no handsome jewellery like you’— looking with admiring eyes at a large miniature set round with pearls, which served as a shield to Miss Phoebe’s breast.

‘It is handsome,’ that lady replied. ‘It is a likeness of my dear mother; Sally has got my father on. The miniatures were both taken at the same time; and just about then my uncle died and left us each a legacy of fifty pounds, which we agreed to spend on the setting of our miniatures. But because they are so valuable Sally always keeps them locked up with the best silver, and hides the box somewhere; she never will tell me where, because she says I’ve such weak nerves, and that if a burglar, with a loaded pistol at my head, were to ask me where we kept our plate and jewels, I should be sure to tell him; and she says, for her part, she would never think of revealing under any circumstances. (I’m sure I hope she won’t be tried.) But that’s the reason I don’t wear it often; it’s only the second time I’ve had it on; and I can’t even get at it, and look at it, which I should like to do. I shouldn’t have had it on to-night, but that Sally gave it out to me, saying it was but a proper compliment to pay to the Duchess of Menteith, who is to be here in all her diamonds.’

‘Dear-ah-me! Is she really! Do you know I never saw a duchess before.’ And Miss Piper drew herself up and craned her neck, as if resolved to ‘behave herself properly,’ as she had been taught to do at boarding-school thirty years before, in the presence of ‘her grace.’ By-and-by she said to Miss Phoebe, with a sudden jerk out of position — ‘Look, look! that’s our Mr. Cholmley, the magistrate’ (he was the great man of Coreham), ‘and that’s Mrs. Cholmley in red satin, and Mr. George and Mr. Harry from Oxford, I do declare; and Miss Cholmley, and pretty Miss Sophy. I should like to go and speak to them, but then it’s so formidable crossing a room without a gentleman. And there is Coxe the butcher and his wife! Why, all Coreham seems to be here! And how Mrs. Coxe can afford such a gown I can’t make out for one, for I know Coxe had some difficulty in paying for the last sheep he bought of my brother.’

Just at this moment the band, consisting of two violins, a harp, and an occasional clarionet, having finished their tuning, and brought themselves as nearly into accord as was possible, struck up a brisk country-dance, and partners quickly took their places. Mrs. Gibson was secretly a little annoyed at Cynthia’s being one of those to stand up in this early dance, the performers in which were principally the punctual plebeians of Hollingford, who, when a ball was fixed to begin at eight, had no notion of being later, and so losing part of the amusement for which they had paid their money. She imparted some of her feelings to Molly, sitting by her, longing to dance, and beating time to the spirited music with one of her pretty little feet.

‘Your dear papa is always so very punctual! To-night it seems almost a pity, for we really are here before there is any one come that we know.’

‘Oh! I see so many people here that I know. There are Mr. and Mrs Smeaton, and that nice good-tempered daughter.’

‘Oh! booksellers and butchers if you will.’

‘Papa has found a great many friends to talk to.’

‘Patients, my dear — hardly friends. There are some nice-looking people here,’ catching her eye on the Cholmleys; ‘but I daresay they have driven over from the neighbourhood of Ashcombe or Coreham, and have hardly calculated how soon they would get here. I wonder when the Towers’ party will come. Ah! there’s Mr. Ashton, and Mr. Preston. Come, the room is beginning to fill.’

So it was, for this was to be a very good ball, people said; and a large party from the Towers was coming, and a duchess in diamonds among the number. Every great house in the district was expected to be full of guests on these occasions; but, at this early hour, the townspeople had the floor almost entirely to themselves; the county magnates came dropping in later; and chiefest among them all was the lord-lieutenant from the Towers. But to-night they were unusually late, and the aristocratic ozone being absent from the atmosphere, there was a flatness about the dancing of all those who considered themselves above the plebeian ranks of the tradespeople. They, however, enjoyed themselves thoroughly, and sprang and pounded till their eyes sparkled and their cheeks glowed with exercise and excitement. Some of the more prudent parents, mindful of the next day’s duties, began to consider at what hour they ought to go home; but with all there was an expressed or unexpressed curiosity to see the duchess and her diamonds; for the Menteith diamonds were famous in higher circles than that now assembled; and their fame had trickled down to it through the medium of ladies’-maids and housekeepers. Mr. Gibson had had to leave the ball-room for a time, as he had anticipated, but he was to return to his wife as soon as his duties were accomplished; and, in his absence, Mrs. Gibson kept herself a little aloof from the Miss Brownings and those of her acquaintance who would willingly have entered into conversation with her, with the view of attaching herself to the skirts of the Towers’ party, when they should make their appearance. If Cynthia would not be so very ready in engaging herself to every possible partner who asked her to dance, there were sure to be young men staying at the Towers who would be on the look-out for pretty girls: and who could tell to what a dance would lead? Molly, too, though a less good dancer than Cynthia, and, from her timidity, less graceful and easy, was becoming engaged pretty deeply; and, it must be confessed, she was longing to dance every dance, no matter with whom. Even she might not be available for the more aristocratic partners Mrs. Gibson anticipated. She was feeling very much annoyed with the whole proceedings of the evening when she was aware of some one standing by her; and, turning a little to one side, she saw Mr. Preston keeping guard, as it were, over the seats which Molly and Cynthia had just quitted. He was looking so black that, if their eyes had not met, Mrs. Gibson would have preferred not speaking to him; as it was, she thought it unavoidable.

‘The rooms are not well-lighted to-night, are they, Mr. Preston?’

‘No,’ said he; ‘but who could light such dingy old paint as this, loaded with evergreens, too, which always darken a room.’

‘And the company, too! I always think that freshness and brilliancy of dress go as far as anything to brighten up a room. Look what a set of people are here: the greater part of the women are dressed in dark silks, really only fit for a morning. The place will be quite different, by-and-by, when the county families are in a little more force.’

Mr. Preston made no reply. He had put his glass in his eye, apparently for the purpose of watching the dancers. If its exact direction could have been ascertained, it would have been found that he was looking intently and angrily at a flying figure in pink muslin: many a one was gazing at Cynthia with intentness besides himself, but no one in anger. Mrs. Gibson was not so fine an observer as to read all this; but here was a gentlemanly and handsome young man, to whom she could prattle, instead of either joining herself on to objectionable people, or sitting all forlorn until the Towers’ party came. So she went on with her small remarks.

‘You are not dancing, Mr. Preston!’

‘No! The partner I had engaged has made some mistake. I am waiting to have an explanation with her.’

Mrs. Gibson was silent. An uncomfortable tide of recollections appeared to come over her; she, like Mr. Preston, watched Cynthia; the dance was ended, and she was walking round the room in easy unconcern as to what might await her. Presently her partner, Mr Harry Cholmley, brought her back to her seat. She took that vacant next to Mr. Preston, leaving that by her mother for Molly’s occupation. The latter returned a moment afterwards to her place. Cynthia seemed entirely unconscious of Mr. Preston’s neighbourhood. Mrs. Gibson leaned forwards, and said to her daughter —

‘Your last partner was a gentleman, my dear. You are improving in your selection. I really was ashamed of you before, figuring away with that attorney’s clerk. Molly, do you know whom you have been dancing with? I have found out he is the Coreham bookseller.’

‘That accounts for his being so well up in all the books I have been wanting to hear about,’ said Molly, eagerly, but with a spice of malice in her mind. ‘He really was very pleasant, mamma,’ she added; ‘and he looks quite a gentleman, and dances beautifully!’

‘Very well. But remember if you go on this way you will have to shake hands over the counter tomorrow morning with some of your partners of to-night,’ said Mrs. Gibson, coldly.

‘But I really don’t know how to refuse when people are introduced to me and ask me, and I am longing to dance. You know to-night it is a charity-ball, and papa said everybody danced with everybody,’ said Molly, in a pleading tone of voice; for she could not quite and entirely enjoy herself if she was out of harmony with any one. What reply Mrs. Gibson would have made to this speech cannot now be ascertained, for, before she could make reply, Mr. Preston stepped a little forwards, and said, in a tone which he meant to be icily indifferent, but which trembled with anger —

‘If Miss Gibson finds any difficulty in refusing a partner, she has only to apply to Miss Kirkpatrick for instructions.’

Cynthia lifted up her beautiful eyes, and, fixing them on Mr Preston’s face, said, very quietly, as if only stating a matter of fact —

‘You forget, I think, Mr. Preston: Miss Gibson implied that she wished to dance with the person who asked her — that makes all the difference. I can’t instruct her how to act in that difficulty.’

And to the rest of this little conversation, Cynthia appeared to lend no car; and she was almost directly claimed by her next partner. Mr. Preston took the seat now left empty much to Molly’s annoyance. At first she feared lest he should be going to ask her to dance; but, instead, he put out his hand for Cynthia’s nosegay, which she had left on rising, entrusted to Molly. It had suffered considerably from the heat of the room, and was no longer full and fresh; not so much so as Molly’s, which had not, in the first instance, been pulled to pieces in picking out the scarlet flowers which now adorned Molly’s hair, and which had since been cherished with more care. Enough, however, remained of Cynthia’s to show very distinctly that it was not the one Mr. Preston had sent; and it was perhaps to convince himself of this, that he mutely asked to examine it. But Molly, faithful to what she imagined would be Cynthia’s wish, refused to allow him to touch it; she only held it a little nearer.

‘Miss Kirkpatrick has not done me the honour of wearing the bouquet I sent her, I see. She received it, I suppose, and my note?’

‘Yes,’ said Molly, rather intimidated by the tone in which this was said. ‘But we had already accepted these two nosegays.’

Mrs. Gibson was just the person to come to the rescue with her honeyed words on such an occasion as the present. She evidently was rather afraid of Mr. Preston, and wished to keep at peace with him.

‘Oh, yes, we were so sorry! Of course, I don’t mean to say we could be sorry for any one’s kindness; but two such lovely nosegays had been sent from Hamley Hall — you may see how beautiful from what Molly holds in her hand — and they had come before yours, Mr Preston.’

‘I should have felt honoured if you had accepted of mine, since the young ladies were so well provided for. I was at some pains in selecting the flowers at Green’s; I think I may say it was rather more recherche than that of Miss Kirkpatrick’s, which Miss Gibson holds so tenderly and securely in her hand.’

‘Oh, because Cynthia would take out the most effective flowers to put in my hair!’ exclaimed Molly, eagerly.

‘Did she?’ said Mr. Preston’ with a certain accent of pleasure in his voice, as though he were glad she set so little store by the nosegay; and he walked off to stand behind Cynthia in the quadrille that was being danced; and Molly saw him making her reply to him — against her will, Molly was sure. But, somehow, his face and manner implied power over her. She looked grave, deaf, indifferent, indignant, defiant; but, after a half-whispered speech to Cynthia, at the conclusion of the dance, she evidently threw him an impatient consent to what he was asking, for he walked off with a disagreeable smile of satisfaction on his handsome face.

All this time the murmurs were spreading at the lateness of the party from the Towers, and person after person came up to Mrs. Gibson as if she were the accredited authority as to the earl and countess’s plans. In one sense this was flattering; but then the acknowledgment of common ignorance and wonder reduced her to the level of the inquirers. Mrs. Goodenough felt herself particularly aggrieved; she had had her spectacles on for the last hour and a half, in order to be ready for the sight the very first minute any one from the Towers appeared at the door.

‘I had a headache,’ she complained, ‘and I should have sent my money, and never stirred out o’ doors to-night; for I’ve seen a many of these here balls, and my lord and my lady too, when they were better worth looking at nor they are now; but every one was talking of the duchess, and the duchess and her diamonds, and I thought I shouldn’t like to be behindhand, and never ha’ seen neither the duchess nor her diamonds; so I’m here, and coal and candlelight wasting away at home, for I told Sally to sit up for me; and, above everything, I cannot abide waste. I took it from my mother, who was such a one against waste as you never see now-a-days. She was a manager, if ever there was a one, and brought up nine children on less than any one else could do, I’ll be bound. Why! She wouldn’t let us be extravagant — not even in the matter of colds. Whenever any on us had got a pretty bad cold, she took the opportunity and cut our hair; for she said, said she, it was of no use having two colds when one would do — and cutting of our hair was sure to give us a cold. But, for all that, I wish the duchess would come.’

‘Ah! but fancy what it is to me,’ sighed out Mrs. Gibson; ‘so long as I have been without seeing the dear family — and seeing so little of them the other day when I was at the Towers (for the duchess would have my opinion on Lady Alice’s trousseau, and kept asking me so many questions it took up all the time)— and Lady Harriet’s last words were a happy anticipation of our meeting to-night. It’s nearly twelve o’clock.’

Every one of any pretensions to gentility was painfully affected by the absence of the family from the Towers; the very fiddlers seemed unwilling to begin playing a dance that might be interrupted by the entrance of the great folks. Miss Phoebe Browning had apologized for them — Miss Browning had blamed them with calm dignity; it was only the butchers and bakers and candlestick-makers who rather enjoyed the absence of restraint, and were happy and hilarious.

At last, there was a rumbling, and a rushing, and a whispering, and the music stopped, so the dancers were obliged to do so too, and in came Lord Cumnor in his state dress, with a fat, middle-aged woman on his arm; she was dressed almost like a girl — in a sprigged muslin, with natural flowers in her hair, but not a vestige of a jewel or a diamond. Yet it must be the duchess; but what was a duchess without diamonds? — and in a dress which farmer Hodson’s daughter might have worn! Was it the duchess? Could it be the duchess? The little crowd of inquirers around Mrs. Gibson thickened, to hear her confirm their disappointing surmise. After the duchess came Lady Cumnor, looking like Lady Macbeth in black velvet — a cloud upon her brow, made more conspicuous by the lines of age rapidly gathering on her handsome face; and Lady Harriet, and other ladies, amongst whom there was one dressed so like the duchess as to suggest the idea of a sister rather than a daughter, as far as dress went. There was Lord Hollingford, plain in face, awkward in person, gentlemanly in manner; and half-a-dozen younger men, Lord Albert Monson, Captain James, and others of their age and standing, who came in looking anything if not critical. This long-expected party swept up to the seats reserved for them at the head of the room, apparently regardless of the interruption they caused; for the dancers stood aside, and almost dispersed back to their seats, and when “Money-musk” struck up again, not half the former set of people stood up to finish the dance.

Lady Harriet, who was rather different to Miss Piper, and no more minded crossing the room alone than if the lookers-on were so many cabbages, spied the Gibson party pretty quickly out, and came across to them.

‘Here we are at last. How d’ye do, dear? Why, little one’ (to Molly), ‘how nice you’re looking! Aren’t we shamefully late?’

‘Oh! it’s only just past twelve,’ said Mrs. Gibson; ‘and I daresay you dined very late.’

‘It was not that; it was that ill-mannered woman, who went to her own room after we came out from dinner, and she and Lady Alice stayed there invisible, till we thought they were putting on some splendid attire — as they ought to have done — and at half-past ten when mamma sent up to them to say the carriages were at the door, the duchess sent down for some beef-tea, and at last appeared a l’enfant as you see her. Mamma is so angry with her, and some of the others are annoyed at not coming earlier, and one or two are giving themselves airs about coming at all. Papa is the only one who is not affected by it.’ Then turning to Molly Lady Harriet asked —

‘Have you been dancing much, Miss Gibson?’

‘Yes; not every dance, but nearly all.’

It was a simple question enough; but Lady Harriet’s speaking at all to Molly had become to Mrs. Gibson almost like shaking a red rag at a bull; it was the one thing sure to put her out of temper. But she would not have shown this to Lady Harriet for the world; only she contrived to baffle any endeavours at further conversation between the two, by placing herself between Lady Harriet and Molly, whom the former asked to sit down in the absent Cynthia’s room.

‘I won’t go back to those people, I am so mad with them; and, besides, I hardly saw you the other day, and I must have some gossip with you.’ So she sat down by Mrs. Gibson, and as Mrs. Goodenough afterwards expressed it, ‘looked like anybody else.’ Mrs. Goodenough said this to excuse herself for a little misadventure she fell into. She had taken a deliberate survey of the grandees at the upper end of the room, spectacles on nose, and had inquired, in no very measured voice, who everybody was, from Mr. Sheepshanks, my lord’s agent, and her very good neighbour, who in vain tried to check her loud ardour for information by replying to her in whispers. But she was rather deaf as well as blind, so his low tones only brought upon him fresh inquiries. Now, satisfied as far as she could be, and on her way to departure, and the extinguishing of fire and candlelight, she stopped opposite to Mrs. Gibson, and thus addressed her by way of renewal of their former subject of conversation —

‘Such a shabby thing for a duchess I never saw; not a bit of a diamond near her. They’re none of them worth looking at except the countess, and she’s always a personable woman, and not so lusty as she was. But they’re not worth waiting up for till this time o’ night.’

There was a moment’s pause. Then Lady Harriet put her hand out, and said —

‘You don’t remember me, but I know you from having seen you at the Towers. Lady Cumnor is a good deal thinner than she was, but we hope her health is better for it.’

‘It’s Lady Harriet,’ said Mrs. Gibson to Mrs. Goodenough, in reproachful dismay.

‘Deary me, your ladyship! I hope I’ve given no offence! But, you see — that is to say, your ladyship sees, that it’s late hours for such folks as me, and I only stayed out of my bed to see the duchess, and I thought she’d come in diamonds and a coronet; and it puts one out at my age, to be disappointed in the only chance I’m like to have of so fine a sight.’

‘I’m put out too,’ said Lady Harriet. ‘I wanted to have come early, and here we are as late as this. I’m so cross and ill-tempered, I should be glad to hide myself in bed as soon as you will do.’

She said this so sweetly that Mrs. Goodenough relaxed into a smile, and her crabbedness into a compliment.

‘I don’t believe as ever your ladyship can be cross and ill-tempered with that pretty face. I’m an old woman, so you must let me say so.’ Lady Harriet stood up, and made a low curtsey. Then holding out her hand, she said —

‘I won’t keep you up any longer; but I’ll promise one thing in return for your pretty speech: if ever I am a duchess, I’ll come and show myself to you in all my robes and gewgaws. Good-night, madam!’

‘There! I knew how it would be!’ said she, not resuming her seat. ‘And on the eve of a county election too.’

‘Oh! you must not take old Mrs. Goodenough as a specimen, dear Lady Harriet. She is always a grumbler! I am sure no one else would complain of your all being as late as you liked,’ said Mrs. Gibson.

‘What do you say, Molly?’ said Lady Harriet, suddenly turning her eyes on Molly’s face. ‘Don’t you think we’ve lost some of our popularity — which at this time means votes — by coming so late. Come, answer me! you used to be a famous little truth-teller.’

‘I don’t know about popularity or votes,’ said Molly, rather unwillingly. ‘But I think many people were sorry you did not come sooner; and isn’t that rather a proof of popularity?’ she added.

‘That’s a very neat and diplomatic answer,’ said Lady Harriet, smiling, and tapping Molly’s cheek with her fan.’

‘Molly knows nothing about it,’ said Mrs. Gibson, a little off her guard. ‘It would be very impertinent if she or any one else questioned Lady Cumnor’s perfect right to come when she chose.’

‘Well, all I know is, I must go back to mamma now, but I shall make another raid into these regions by-and-by, and you must keep a place for me. Ah! there are — the Miss Brownings; you see I don’t forget my lesson, Miss Gibson.’

‘Molly, I cannot have you speaking so to Lady Harriet,’ said Mrs Gibson, as soon as she was left alone with her step-daughter. ‘You would never have known her at all if it had not been for me, and don’t be always putting yourself into our conversation.’

‘But I must speak if she asks me questions,’ pleaded Molly.

‘Well! if you must, you must, I acknowledge. I’m candid about that at any rate. But there’s no need for you to set up to have an opinion at your age.’

‘I don’t know how to help it,’ said Molly.

‘She’s such a whimsical person; look there, if she’s not talking to Miss Phoebe; and Miss Phoebe is so weak she’ll be easily led away into fancying she is hand and glove with Lady Harriet. If there is one thing I hate more than another, it is the trying to make out an intimacy with great people.’

Molly felt innocent enough, so she offered no justification of herself, and made no reply. Indeed she was more occupied in watching Cynthia. She could not understand the change that seemed to have come over the latter. She was dancing, it was true, with the same lightness and grace as before, but the smooth bounding motion as of a feather blown onwards by the wind was gone. She was conversing with her partner, but without the soft animation that usually shone out upon her countenance. And when she was brought back to her seat Molly noticed her changed colour, and her dreamily abstracted eyes.

‘What is the matter, Cynthia?’ asked she, in a very low voice.

‘Nothing,’ said Cynthia, suddenly looking up, and in an accent of what was, in her, sharpness. ‘Why should there be?’

‘I don’t know; but you look different to what you did — tired or something.’

‘There is nothing the matter, or, if there is, don’t talk about it. It is all your fancy.’

This was a rather contradictory speech, to be interpreted by intuition rather than by logic. Molly understood that Cynthia wished for quietness and silence. But what was her surprise, after the speeches that had passed before, and the implication of Cynthia’s whole manner to Mr. Preston, to see him come up, and, without a word, offer his arm to Cynthia and lead her off to dance. It appeared to strike Mrs. Gibson as something remarkable, for, forgetting her late passage at arms with Molly, she asked, wanderingly, as if almost distrusting the evidence of her senses —

‘Is Cynthia going to dance with Mr. Preston?’

Molly had scarcely time to answer before she herself was led off by her partner. She could hardly attend to him or to the figures of the quadrille for watching for Cynthia among the moving forms.

Once she caught a glimpse of her standing still — downcast — listening to Mr. Preston’s eager speech. Again she was walking languidly among the dancers, almost as if she took no notice of those around her. When she and Molly joined each other again, the shade on Cynthia’s face had deepened to gloom. But, at the same time, if a physiognomist had studied her expression, he would have read in it defiance and anger, and perhaps also a little perplexity. While this quadrille had been going on, Lady Harriet had been speaking to her brother.

‘Hollingford!’ she said, laying her hand on his arm, and drawing him a little apart from the well-born crowd amid which he stood, silent and abstracted, ‘you don’t know how these good people here have been hurt and disappointed with our being so late, and with the duchess’s ridiculous simplicity of dress.’

‘Why should they mind it?’ asked he, taking advantage of her being out of breath with eagerness.

‘Oh, don’t be so wise and stupid; don’t you see, we’re a show and a spectacle — it’s like having a pantomime with harlequin and columbine in plain clothes.’

‘I don’t understand how —’ he began.

‘Then take it upon trust. They really are a little disappointed, whether they are logical or not in being so, and we must try and make it up to them; for one thing, because I can’t bear our vassals to look dissatisfied and disloyal, and then there’s the election in June.’

‘I really would as soon be out of the House as in it.’

‘Nonsense; it would grieve papa beyond measure — but there is no time to talk about that now. You must go and dance with some of the townspeople, and I’ll ask Sheepshanks to introduce me to a respectable young farmer. Can’t you get Captain James to make himself useful? There he goes with Lady Alice! If I don’t get him introduced to the ugliest tailor’s daughter I can find for the next dance!’ She put her arm in her brother’s as she spoke, as if to lead him to some partner. He resisted, however — resisted piteously.

‘Pray don’t, Harriet. You know I can’t dance. I hate it; I always did. I don’t know how to get through a quadrille.’

‘It’s a country dance!’ said she, resolutely.

‘It’s all the same. And what shall I say to my partner? I haven’t a notion: I shall have no subject in common. Speak of being disappointed, they’ll be ten times more disappointed when they find I can neither dance nor talk!’

‘I’ll be merciful; don’t be so cowardly. In their eyes a lord may dance like a bear — as some lords not very far from me are — if he likes, and they’ll take it for grace. And you shall begin with Molly Gibson, your friend the doctor’s daughter. She’s a good, simple, intelligent little girl, which you’ll think a great deal more of, I suppose, than of the frivolous fact of her being very pretty, Clare! will you allow me to introduce my brother to Miss Gibson? he hopes to engage her for this dance. Lord Hollingford, Miss Gibson!’

Poor Lord Hollingford! there was nothing for it but for him to follow his sister’s very explicit lead, and Molly and he walked off to their places, each heartily wishing their dance together well over. Lady Harriet flew off to Mr. Sheepshanks to secure her respectable young farmer, and Mrs. Gibson remained alone, wishing that Lady Cumnor would send one of her attendant gentlemen for her. It would be so much more agreeable to be sitting even at the fag-end of nobility than here on a bench with everybody; hoping that everybody would see Molly dancing away with a lord, yet vexed that the chance had so befallen that Molly instead of Cynthia was the young lady singled out; wondering if simplicity of dress was now become the highest fashion, and pondering on the possibility of cleverly inducing Lady Harriet to introduce Lord Albert Monson to her own beautiful daughter, Cynthia.

Molly found Lord Hollingford, the wise and learned Lord Hollingford, strangely stupid in understanding the mystery of ‘Cross hands and back again, down the middle and up again.’ He was constantly getting hold of the wrong hands, and as constantly stopping when he had returned to his place, quite unaware that the duties of society and the laws of the dance required that he should go on capering till he had arrived at the bottom of the room. He perceived that he had performed his part very badly, and apologized to Molly when once they had arrived at that haven of comparative peace, and he expressed his regret so simply and heartily that she felt at her ease with him at once, especially when he had confided to her his reluctance at having to dance at all, and his only doing it under his sister’s compulsion. To Molly he was an elderly widower, almost as old as her father, and by-and-by they got into very pleasant conversation. She learnt from him that Roger Hamley had just been publishing a paper in some scientific periodical, which had excited considerable attention, as it was intended to confute some theory of a great French physiologist, and Roger’s article proved the writer to be possessed of a most unusual amount of knowledge on the subject. This piece of news was of great interest to Molly, and, in her questions, she herself evinced so much intelligence, and a mind so well prepared for the reception of information, that Lord Hollingford at any rate would have felt his quest of popularity a very easy affair indeed, if he might have gone on talking quietly to Molly during the rest of the evening. When he took her back to her place, he found Mr. Gibson there, and fell into talk with him, until Lady Harriet once more came to stir him up to his duties. Before very long, however, he returned to Mr. Gibson’s side, and began telling him of this paper of Roger Hamley’s, of which Mr. Gibson had not yet heard. In the midst of their conversation, as they stood close by Mrs. Gibson, Lord Hollingford saw Molly in the distance, and interrupted himself to say, ‘What a charming little lady that daughter of yours is! Most girls of her age are so difficult to talk to; but she is intelligent and full of interest in all sorts of sensible things; well read, too — she was up in Le Regne Animal — and very pretty!’

Mr. Gibson bowed, much pleased at such a compliment from such a man, was he lord or not. It is very likely that if Molly had been a stupid listener, Lord Hollingford would not have discovered her beauty, or the converse might be asserted — if she had not been young and pretty he would not have exerted himself to talk on scientific subjects in a manner which she could understand. But in whatever manner Molly had won his approbation and admiration, there was no doubt that she had earned it somehow. And, when she next returned to her place, Mrs. Gibson greeted her with soft words and a gracious smile; for it does not require much reasoning power to discover that if it is a very fine thing to be mother-inlaw to a very magnificent three-tailed bashaw, it presupposes that the wife who makes the connection between the two parties is in harmony with her mother. And so far had Mrs. Gibson’s thoughts wandered into futurity. She only wished that the happy chance had fallen to Cynthia’s instead of to Molly’s lot. But Molly was a docile, sweet creature, very pretty, and remarkably intelligent, as my lord had said. It was a pity that Cynthia preferred making millinery to reading; but perhaps that could be rectified. And there was Lord Cumnor coming to speak to her, and Lady Cumnor nodding to her, and indicating a place by her side.

It was not an unsatisfactory ball upon the whole to Mrs. Gibson, although she paid the usual penalty for sitting up beyond her usual hour in perpetual glare and movement. The next morning she awoke irritable and fatigued; and a little of the same feeling oppressed both Cynthia and Molly. The former was lounging in the window-seat, holding a three-days-old newspaper in her hand, which she was making a pretence of reading, when she was startled by her mother’s saying —

‘Cynthia! can’t you take up a book and improve yourself. I am sure your conversation will never be worth listening to, unless you read something better than newspapers. Why don’t you keep up your French? There was some French book that Molly was reading — Le Regne Animal, I think.’

‘No! I never read it!’ said Molly, blushing. ‘Mr. Roger Hamley sometimes read pieces out of it when I was first at the Hall, and told me what it was about.’

‘Oh! well. Then I suppose I was mistaken. But it comes to all the same thing. Cynthia, you really must learn to settle yourself to some improving reading every morning.’

Rather to Molly’s surprise, Cynthia did not reply a word; but dutifully went and brought down from among her Boulogne school-books, Le Siecle de Louis XIV. But after a while Molly saw that this ‘improving reading’ was just as much a mere excuse for Cynthia’s thinking her own thoughts as the newspaper had been.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gaskell/elizabeth/wives/chapter26.html

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