Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XXXVI

Domestic Diplomacy

The evening of the day on which Mr. Gibson had been to see the squire, the three women were alone in the drawing-room, for Mr Gibson had had a long round and was not as yet come in. They had had to wait dinner for him; and for some time after his return there was nothing done or said but what related to the necessary business of eating. Mr. Gibson was, perhaps, as well satisfied with his day’s work as any of the four; for this visit to the squire had been weighing on his mind ever since he had heard of the state of things between Roger and Cynthia. He did not like the having to go and tell of a love affair so soon after he had declared his belief that no such thing existed; it was a confession of fallibility which is distasteful to most men. If the squire had not been of so unsuspicious and simple a nature, he might have drawn his own conclusions from the apparent concealment of facts, and felt doubtful of Mr. Gibson’s perfect honesty in the business; but being what he was, there was no danger of such unjust misapprehension. Still Mr. Gibson knew the hot hasty temper he had to deal with, and had expected more violence of language than he really encountered; and the last arrangement by which Cynthia, her mother, and Molly — who, as Mr. Gibson thought to himself, and smiled at the thought, was sure to be a peacemaker and a sweetener of intercourse — were to go to the Hall and make acquaintance with the squire, appeared like a great success to Mr. Gibson, for achieving which he took not a little credit to himself. Altogether, he was more cheerful and bland than he had been for many days; and when he came up into the drawing-room for a few minutes after dinner, before going out again to see his town-patients, he whistled a little under his breath, as he stood with his back to the fire, looking at Cynthia, and thinking that he had not done her justice when describing her to the squire. Now this soft, almost tuneless whistling was to Mr. Gibson what purring is to a cat. He could no more have done it with an anxious case on his mind, or when he was annoyed by human folly, or when he was hungry, than he could have flown through the air. Molly knew all this by instinct, and was happy without being aware of it, as soon as she heard the low whistle which was no music after all. But Mrs. Gibson did not like this trick of her husband’s; it was not refined she thought, not even ‘artistic;’ if she could have called it by this fine word it would have compensated her for the want of refinement. To-night it was particularly irritating to her nerves; but since her conversation with Mr. Gibson about Cynthia’s engagement, she had not felt herself in a sufficiently good position to complain.

Mr. Gibson began — ‘Well, Cynthia; I have seen the squire today, and made a clean breast of it.’

Cynthia looked up quickly, questioning with her eyes; Molly stopped her netting to listen; no one spoke.

‘You’re all to go there on Thursday to lunch; he asked you all, and I promised for you.’

Still no reply; natural, perhaps, but very flat.

‘You’ll be glad of that Cynthia, shan’t you?’ asked Mr. Gibson. ‘It may be a little formidable, but I hope it will be the beginning of a good understanding between you.’

‘Thank you!’ said she, with an effort. ‘But — but won’t it make it public? I do so wish not to have it known, or talked about, not till he comes back or close upon the marriage.’

‘I don’t see how it should make it public,’ said Mr. Gibson. ‘My wife goes to lunch with my friend, and takes her daughters with her — there’s nothing in that, is there?’

‘I am not sure that I shall go,’ put in Mrs. Gibson. She did not know why she said it, for she fully intended to go all the time; but having said it she was bound to stick to it for a little while; and, with such a husband as hers, the hard necessity was sure to fall upon her of having to find a reason for her saying. There it came, quick and sharp.

‘Why not?’ said he, turning round upon her.

‘Oh, because — because I think he ought to have called on Cynthia first; I’ve that sort of sensitiveness I can’t bear to think of her being slighted because she is poor.’

‘Nonsense!’ said Mr. Gibson. ‘I do assure you, no slight whatever was intended. He does not wish to speak about the engagement to anyone — not even to Osborne — that’s your wish, too, is it not, Cynthia? Nor does he intend to mention it to any of you when you go there; but, naturally enough, he wants to make acquaintance with his future daughter-inlaw. If he deviated so much from his usual course as to come calling here —’

‘I am sure I don’t want him to come calling here,’ said Mrs. Gibson, interrupting. ‘He was not so very agreeable the only time he did come. But I am that sort of a character that I cannot put up with any neglect of persons I love, just because they are not smiled upon by fortune.’ She sighed a little ostentatiously as she ended her sentence.

‘Well, then, you won’t go!’ said Mr. Gibson provoked, but not wishing to have a long discussion, especially as he felt his temper going.

‘Do you wish it, Cynthia?’ said Mrs. Gibson, anxious for an excuse to yield.

But her daughter was quite aware of this motive for the question, and replied quietly — ‘Not particularly, mamma. I am quite willing to refuse the invitation.’

‘It is already accepted,’ said Mr. Gibson, almost ready to vow that he would never again meddle in any affair in which women were concerned, which would effectually shut him out from all love affairs for the future. He had been touched by the squire’s relenting, pleased with what he had thought would give others pleasure, and this was the end of it!

‘Oh, do go, Cynthia!’ said Molly, pleading with her eyes as well as her words. ‘Do; I am sure you will like the squire; and it is such a pretty place, and he’ll be so much disappointed.’

‘I should not like to give up my dignity,’ said Cynthia, demurely. ‘And you heard what mamma said!’ It was very malicious of her. She fully intended to go, and was equally sure that her mother was already planning her dress for the occasion in her own mind. Mr Gibson, however, who, surgeon though he was, had never learnt to anatomize a woman’s heart, took it all literally, and was excessively angry both with Cynthia and her mother; so angry that he did not dare to trust himself to speak. He went quickly to the door, intending to leave the room; but his wife’s voice arrested him; she said —

‘My dear, do you wish me to go? if you do, I will put my own feelings on one side.’

‘Of course I do!’ he said, short and stern, and left the room.

‘Then I’ll go!’ said she, in the voice of a victim — those words were meant for him, but he hardly heard them. ‘And we’ll have a fly from the “George,” and get a livery-coat for Thomas, which I’ve long been wanting, only dear Mr. Gibson did not like it, but on an occasion like this I’m sure he won’t mind; and Thomas shall go on the box, and —’

‘But, mamma, I’ve my feelings too,’ said Cynthia.

‘Nonsense, child! when all is so nicely arranged too.’

So they went on the day appointed. Mr. Gibson was aware of the change of plans, and that they were going after all; but he was so much annoyed by the manner in which his wife had received an invitation which had appeared to him so much kinder than he had expected from his previous knowledge of the squire, and his wishes on the subject of his sons’ marriages, that Mrs. Gibson heard neither interest nor curiosity expressed by her husband as to the visit itself, or the reception they met with. Cynthia’s indifference as to whether the invitation was accepted or not had displeased Mr. Gibson. He was not up to her ways with her mother, and did not understand how much of this said indifference had been assumed in order to countervent Mrs Gibson’s affectation and false sentiment, But for all his annoyance on the subject, he was, in fact, very curious to know how the visit had gone off, and took the first opportunity of being alone with Molly to question her about the lunch of the day before at Hamley Hall.

‘And so you went to Hamley yesterday after all?’

‘Yes; I thought you would have come. The squire seemed quite to expect you.’

‘I thought of going there at first; but I changed my mind like other people. I don’t see why women are to have a monopoly of changeableness. Well! how did it go off? Pleasantly, I suppose, for both your mother and Cynthia were in high spirits last night.’

‘Yes. The dear old squire was in his best dress and on his best behaviour, and was so prettily attentive to Cynthia, and she looked so lovely, walking about with him, and listening to all his talk about the garden and farm. Mamma was tired, and stopped indoors, so they got on very well, and saw a great deal of each other.’

‘And my little girl trotted behind?’

‘Oh, yes. You know I was almost at home, and besides — of course —’ Molly went very red, and left the sentence unfinished.

‘Do you think she’s worthy of him?’ asked her father, just as if she had completed her speech.

‘Of Roger, papa? oh, who is? But she is very sweet, and very, very charming.’

‘Very charming if you will, but somehow I don’t quite understand her. Why does she want all this secrecy? Why was she not more eager to go and pay her duty to Roger’s father? She took it as coolly as if I’d asked her to go to church!’

‘I don’t think she did take it coolly; I believe I don’t quite understand her either, but I love her dearly all the same.’

‘Umph; I like to understand people thoroughly, but I know it’s not necessary to women. D’ye really think she’s worthy of him?’

‘Oh, papa —’ said Molly, and then she stopped; she wanted to speak in favour of Cynthia, but somehow she could form no reply that pleased her to this repeated inquiry. He did not seem much to care if he got an answer or not, for he went on with his own thoughts, and the result was that he asked Molly if Cynthia had heard from Roger.

‘Yes; on Wednesday morning.’

‘Did she show it to you? But of course not. Besides, I read the squire’s letter, which told all about him.’

Now Cynthia, rather to Molly’s surprise, had told her that she might read the letter if she liked, and Molly had shrunk from availing herself of the permission, for Roger’s sake. She thought that he would probably have poured out his heart to the one sole person, and that it was not fair to listen, as it were, to his confidences.

‘Was Osborne at home?’ asked Mr. Gibson. ‘The squire said he did not think he would have come back; but the young fellow is so uncertain —’

‘No, he was still from home.’ Then Molly blushed all over crimson, for it suddenly struck her that Osborne was probably with his wife — that mysterious wife, of whose existence she was cognizant, but of whom she knew so little, and of whom her father knew nothing. Mr. Gibson noticed the blush with anxiety. What did it mean? It was troublesome enough to find that one of the squire’s precious sons had fallen in love within the prohibited ranks; and what would not have to be said and done if anything fresh were to come out between Osborne and Molly? He spoke out at once to relieve himself of this new apprehension.

‘Molly, I was taken by surprise by this affair between Cynthia and Roger Hamley — if there’s anything more on the tapis let me know at once, honestly and openly. I know it’s an awkward question for you to reply to; but I would not ask it unless I had good reasons.’ He took her hand as he spoke. She looked up at him with clear, truthful eyes which filled with tears as she spoke. She did not know why the tears came; perhaps it was because she was not so strong as formerly.

‘If you mean that you’re afraid that Osborne thinks of me as Roger thinks of Cynthia, papa, you are quite mistaken. Osborne and I are friends and nothing more, and never can be anything more. That’s all I can tell you.’

‘It’s quite enough, little one. It’s a great relief. I don’t want to have my Molly carried off by any young man just yet; I should miss her sadly.’ He could not help saying this in the fulness of his heart just then, but he was surprised at the effect these few tender words produced. Molly threw her arms round his neck, and began to sob bitterly, her head lying on his shoulder. ‘There, there!’ said he, patting her on the back, and leading her to the sofa, ‘that will do. I get quite enough of tears in the day, shed for real causes, not to want them at home, where, I hope, they are shed for no cause at all. There’s nothing really the matter, is there, my dear?’ he continued, holding her a little away from him that he might look in her face. She smiled at him through her tears; and he did not see the look of sadness which returned to her face after he had left her.

‘Nothing, dear, dear papa — nothing now. It is such a comfort to have you all to myself — it makes me happy.’

Mr. Gibson knew all implied in these words, and felt that there was no effectual help for the state of things which had arisen from his own act. It was better for them both that they should not speak out more fully. So he kissed her, and said —

‘That’s right, dear! I can leave you in comfort now, and indeed I’ve stayed too long already gossiping. Go out and have a walk — take Cynthia with you, if you like. I must be off. Good-by, little one.’

His commonplace words acted like an astringent on Molly’s relaxed feelings. He intended that they should do so; it was the truest kindness to her; but he walked away from her with a sharp pang at his heart, which he stunned into numbness as soon as he could by throwing himself violently into the affairs and cares of others.

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