Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XXXVII

A Fluke, and what Came of it

The honour and glory of having a lover of her own was soon to fall to Molly’s share; though to be sure it was a little deduction to the honour that the man who came with the full intention of proposing to her, ended by making Cynthia an offer. It was Mr. Coxe, who came back to Hollingford to follow out the purpose he had announced to Mr. Gibson nearly two years before, of inducing Molly to become his wife as soon as he should have succeeded to his uncle’s estate. He was now a rich, though still a red-haired, young man. He came to the ‘George’ Inn, bringing his horses and his groom; not that he was going to ride much, but that he thought such outward signs of his riches might help on his suit; and he was so justly modest in his estimation of himself that he believed that he needed all extraneous aid. He piqued himself on his constancy; and indeed, considering that he had been so much restrained by his duty, his affection, and his expectations to his crabbed old uncle, that he had not been able to go much into society, and very rarely indeed into the company of young ladies, such fidelity to Molly was very meritorious, at least in his own eyes. Mr. Gibson too was touched by it, and made it a point of honour to give him a fair field, all the time sincerely hoping that Molly would not be such a goose as to lend a willing ear to a youth who could never remember the difference between apophysis and epiphysis. He thought it as well not to tell his wife more of Mr Coxe’s antecedents than that he had been a former pupil; who had relinquished (all that he knew of, understood) the medical profession because an old uncle had left him enough of money to be idle. Mrs. Gibson, who felt that she had somehow lost her place in her husband’s favour, took it into her head that she could reinstate herself if she was successful in finding a good match for his daughter Molly. She knew that her husband had forbidden her to try for this end, as distinctly as words could express a meaning; but her own words so seldom did express her meaning, or if they did, she held to her opinions so loosely, that she had no idea but that it was the same with other people. Accordingly she gave Mr. Coxe a very sweet and gracious welcome.

‘It is such a pleasure to me to make acquaintance with the former pupils of my husband. He had spoken to me so often of you that I quite feel as if you were one of the family, as indeed I am sure that Mr. Gibson considers you.’

Mr. Coxe felt much flattered, and took the words as a happy omen for his love-affair. ‘Is Miss Gibson in?’ asked he, blushing violently. ‘I knew her formerly, that is to say, I lived in the same house with her, for more than two years, and it would be a great pleasure to — to —’

‘Certainly, I am sure she will be so glad to see you. I sent her and Cynthia — you don’t know my daughter Cynthia, I think, Mr. Coxe? she and Molly are such great friends — out for a brisk walk this frosty day, but I think they will soon come back.’ She went on saying agreeable nothings to the young man, who received her attentions with a certain complacency, but was all the time much more engaged in listening to the well-remembered click at the front door — the shutting it to again with household care, and the sound of the familiar bounding footstep on the stair. At last they came. Cynthia entered first, bright and blooming, fresh colour in her cheeks and lips, fresh brilliance in her eyes. She looked startled at the sight of a stranger, and for an instant she stopped short at the door, as if taken by surprise. Then in came Molly softly behind her, smiling, happy, dimpled; but not such a glowing beauty as Cynthia.

‘Oh, Mr. Coxe, is it you?’ said she, going up to him with an outstretched hand, and greeting him with simple friendliness.

‘Yes; it seems such a long time since I saw you. You are so much grown — so much — well, I suppose I must not say what,’ he replied, speaking hurriedly, and holding her hand all the time rather to her discomfiture. Then Mrs. Gibson introduced her daughter, and the two girls spoke of the enjoyment of their walk. Mr. Coxe marred his cause in that very first interview, if indeed he ever could have had any chance, by his precipitancy in showing his feelings, and Mrs. Gibson helped him to mar it by trying to assist him. Molly lost her open friendliness of manner, and began to shrink away from him in a way which he thought was a very ungrateful return for all his faithfulness to her these two years past, and after all she was not the wonderful beauty his fancy or his love had painted her. That Miss Kirkpatrick was far more beautiful and much easier of access. For Cynthia put on all her pretty airs — her look of intent interest in what any one was saying to her, let the subject be what it would, as if it was the thing she cared the most about in the whole world; her unspoken deference; in short, all the unconscious ways she possessed by instinct of tickling the vanity of men. So while Molly quietly repelled him, Cynthia drew him to her by her soft attractive ways; and his constancy fell before her charms. He was thankful that he, had not gone too far with Molly, and grateful to Mr. Gibson for having prohibited all declarations two years ago. For Cynthia, and Cynthia alone, could make him happy. After a fortnight’s time, during which he had entirely veered round in his allegiance, he thought it desirable to speak to Mr. Gibson. He did so with a certain sense of exultation in his own correct behaviour in the affair, but at the same time feeling rather ashamed of the confession of his own changeableness which was naturally involved. Now it had so happened that Mr. Gibson had been unusually little at home during the fortnight that Mr. Coxe had ostensibly lodged at the ‘George’— but in reality had spent the greater part of his time at Mr. Gibson’s house — so that he had seen very little of his former pupil, and on the whole he had thought him improved, especially after Molly’s manner had made her father pretty sure that Mr. Coxe stood no chance in that quarter. But Mr. Gibson was quite ignorant of the attraction which Cynthia had had for the young man. If he had perceived it he would have nipped it in the bud pretty quickly, for he had no notion of any girl, even though only partially engaged to one man, receiving offers from others if a little plain speaking could prevent it. Mr. Coxe had asked for a private interview; they were sitting in the old surgery, now called the consulting-room, but still retaining so much of its former self as to be the last place in which Mr. Coxe could feel himself at ease. He was red up to me very roots of his red Hair, and kept turning his glossy new hat round and round in his fingers, unable to find out the proper way of beginning his sentence, so at length he plunged in, grammar or no grammar.

‘Mr. Gibson, I daresay you’ll be surprised, I’m sure I am at — at what I want to say; but I think it’s the part of an honourable man, as you said yourself, sir, a year or two ago, to — to speak to the father first, and as you, sir, stand in the place of a father to Miss Kirkpatrick, I should like to express my feelings, my hopes, or perhaps I should say wishes, in short —’

‘Miss Kirkpatrick?’ said Mr. Gibson, a good deal surprised.

‘Yes, sir!’ continued Mr. Coxe, rushing on now he had got so far. ‘I know it may appear inconstant and changeable, but I do assure you, I came here with a heart as faithful to your daughter as ever beat in a man’s bosom. I most fully intended to offer myself and all that I had to her acceptance before I left; but really, sir, if you had seen her manner to me every time I endeavoured to press my suit a little — it was more than coy, it was absolutely repellent, there could be no mistaking it — while Miss Kirkpatrick —’ he looked modestly down, and smoothed the nap of his hat, smiling a little while he did so.

‘While Miss Kirkpatrick —?’ repeated Mr. Gibson, in such a stern voice, that Mr. Coxe, landed esquire as he was now, felt as much discomfited as he used to do when he was an apprentice, and Mr Gibson had spoken to him in a similar manner.

‘I was only going to say, sir, that so far as one can judge from manner, and willingness to listen, and apparent pleasure in my visits — altogether I think I may venture to hope that Miss Kirkpatrick is not quite indifferent to me — and I would wait — you have no objection, have you, sir, to my speaking to her, I mean?’ said Mr. Coxe, a little anxious at the expression on Mr. Gibson’s face. ‘I do assure you I have not a chance with Miss Gibson,’ he continued, not knowing what to say, and fancying that his inconstancy was rankling in Mr. Gibson’s mind.

‘No! I don’t suppose you have. Don’t go and fancy it is that which is annoying me. You’re mistaken about Miss Kirkpatrick, however. I don’t believe she could ever have meant to give you encouragement!’

Mr. Coxe’s face grew perceptibly paler. His feelings, if evanescent, were evidently strong.

‘I think, sir, if you could have seen her — I don’t consider myself vain, and manner is so difficult to describe. At any rate, you can have no objection to my taking my chance, and speaking to her.’

‘Of course, if you won’t be convinced otherwise, I can have no objection. But if you’ll take my advice, you will spare yourself the pain of a refusal. I may, perhaps, be trenching on confidence, but I think I ought to tell you that her affections are otherwise engaged.’

‘It cannot be!’ said Mr. Coxe. ‘Mr. Gibson, there must be some mistake. I have gone as far as I dared in expressing my feelings, and her manner has been most gracious. I don’t think she could have misunderstood my meaning. Perhaps she has changed her mind? It is possible that, after consideration, she has learnt to prefer another, is it not?’

‘By “another,” you mean yourself, I suppose. I can believe in such inconstancy’ (he could not help, in his own mind, giving a slight sneer at the instance before him), ‘but I should be very sorry to think that Miss Kirkpatrick could be guilty of it.’

‘But she may — it is a chance. Will you allow me to see her?’

‘Certainly, my poor fellow’— for, intermingled with a little contempt, was a good deal of respect for the simplicity, the unworldliness, the strength of feeling, even though the feeling was evanescent —‘I will send her to you directly.’

‘Thank you, sir. God bless you for a kind friend!’

Mr. Gibson went upstairs to the drawing-room, where he was pretty sure he should find Cynthia. There she was, as bright and careless as usual, making up a bonnet for her mother, and chattering to Molly as she worked.

‘Cynthia, you will oblige me by going down into my consulting-room at once. Mr. Coxe wants to speak to you!’

‘Mr. Coxe?’ said Cynthia. ‘What can he want with me?’

Evidently, she answered her own question as soon as it was asked, for she coloured, and avoided meeting Mr. Gibson’s severe, uncompromising look. As soon as she had left the room, Mr. Gibson sate down, and took up a new Edinburgh lying on the table, as an excuse for conversation. Was there anything in the article that made him say, after a minute or two, to Molly, who sate silent and wondering —

“Molly, you must never trifle with the love of an honest man. You don’t know what pain you may give.”

Presently Cynthia came back into the drawing-room, looking very much confused. Most likely she would not have returned if she had known that Mr. Gibson was still there; but it was such an unheard-of thing for him to be sitting in that room in the middle of the day, reading or making pretence to read, that she had never thought of his remaining. He looked up at her the moment she came in, so there was nothing for it but putting a bold face on it, and going back to her work.

‘Is Mr. Coxe still downstairs?’ asked Mr. Gibson.

‘No. He is gone. He asked me to give you both his kind regards. I believe he is leaving this afternoon.’ Cynthia tried to make her manner as commonplace as possible; but she did not look up, and her voice trembled a little.

Mr. Gibson went on looking at his book for a few minutes; but Cynthia felt that more was coming, and only wished it would come quickly, for the severe silence was very hard to bear. It came at last.

‘I trust this will never occur again, Cynthia!’ said he, in grave displeasure. ‘I should not feel satisfied with the conduct of any girl, however free, who could receive marked attentions from a young man with complacency, and so lead him on to make an offer which she never meant to accept. But what must I think of a young woman in your position, engaged — yet “accepting most graciously,” for that was the way Coxe expressed it — the overtures of another man? Do you consider what unnecessary pain you have given him by your thoughtless behaviour? I call it “thoughtless,” but it is the mildest epithet I can apply to it. I beg that such a thing may not occur again, or I shall be obliged to characterize it more severely.’

Molly could not imagine what “more severely” could be, for her father’s manner appeared to her almost cruel in its sternness. Cynthia coloured up extremely, then went pale, and at length raised her beautiful appealing eyes full of tears to Mr. Gibson. He was touched by that look, but he resolved immediately not to be mollified by any of her physical charms of expression, but to keep to his sober judgment of her conduct.

‘Please, Mr. Gibson, hear my side of the story before you speak so hardly to me. I did not mean to — to flirt. I merely meant to make myself agreeable — I can’t help doing that — and that goose of a Mr Coxe seems to have fancied I meant to give him encouragement.’

‘Do you mean that you were not aware that he was falling in love with you?’ Mr. Gibson was melting into a readiness to be convinced by that sweet voice, and pleading face.

‘Well, I suppose I must speak truly.’ Cynthia blushed and smiled — ever so little — but it was a smile, and it hardened Mr Gibson’s heart again. ‘I did think once or twice that he was becoming a little more complimentary than the occasion required; but I hate throwing cold water on people, and I never thought he could take it into his silly head to fancy himself seriously in love, and to make such a fuss at the last, after only a fortnight’s acquaintance.’

‘You seem to have been pretty well aware of his silliness (I should rather call it simplicity). Don’t you think you should have remembered that it might lead him to exaggerate what you were doing and saying into encouragement?’

‘Perhaps. I daresay I’m all wrong, and that he is all right,’ said Cynthia, piqued and pouting. ‘We used to say in France, that “les absens ont toujours tort,” but really it seems as if here —’ she stopped. She was unwilling to be impertinent to a man whom she respected and liked. She took up another point of her defence, and rather made matters worse. ‘Besides, Roger would not allow me to consider myself as finally engaged to him; I would willingly have done it, but he would not let me.’

‘Nonsense. Don’t let us go on talking about it, Cynthia! I have said all that I mean to say. I believe that you were only thoughtless, as I told you before. But don’t let it happen again.’ He left the room at once, to put a stop to the conversation, the continuance of which would serve no useful purpose, and perhaps end by irritating him.

‘“Not guilty, but we recommend the prisoner not to do it again.” It’s pretty much that, isn’t it, Molly?’ said Cynthia, letting her tears downfall, even while she smiled. ‘I do believe your father might make a good woman of me yet, if he would only take the pains, and was not quite so severe. And to think of that stupid little fellow making all this mischief He pretended to take it to heart, as if he had loved me for years instead of only for days. I daresay only for hours if the truth were told.’

‘I was afraid he was becoming very fond of you,’ said Molly; ‘at least it struck me once or twice; but I knew he could not stay long, and I thought it would only make you uncomfortable if I said anything about it. But now I wish I had!’

‘It would not have made a bit of difference,’ replied Cynthia. ‘I knew he liked me, and I like to be liked; it’s born in me to try to make every one I come near fond of me; but then they should not carry it too far, for it becomes very troublesome if they do. I shall hate red-haired people for the rest of my life. To think of such a man as that being the cause of your father’s displeasure with me!’

Molly had a question at her tongue’s end that she longed to put; she knew it was indiscreet, but at last out it came almost against her will.

‘Shall you tell Roger about it?’

Cynthia replied, ‘I have not thought about it — no! I don’t think I shall — there’s no need. Perhaps, if we are ever married —’

‘Ever married!’ said Molly, under her breath. But Cynthia took no notice of the exclamation until she had finished the sentence which it interrupted.

‘—— and I can see his face, and know his mood, I may tell it him then; but not in writing, and when he is absent; it might annoy him.’

‘I am afraid it would make him uncomfortable,’ said Molly, simply. ‘And yet it must be so pleasant to be able to tell him everything — all your difficulties and troubles.’

‘Yes; only I don’t worry him with these things; it is better to write him merry letters, and cheer him up among the black folk. You repeated “Ever married,” a little while ago; do you know, Molly, I don’t think I ever shall be married to him? I don’t know why, but I have a strong presentiment, so it’s just as well not to tell him all my secrets, for it would be awkward for him to know them if it never came off!’

Molly dropped her work, and sate silent, looking into the future; at length she said, ‘I think it would break his heart, Cynthia!’

‘Nonsense. Why, I am sure that Mr. Coxe came here with the intention of falling in love with you — you need not blush so violently. I am sure you saw it as plainly as I did, only you made yourself disagreeable, and I took pity on him, and consoled his wounded vanity.’

‘Can you — do you dare to compare Roger Hamley to Mr. Coxe?’ asked Molly, indignantly.

‘No, no, I don’t!’ said Cynthia in a moment. ‘They are as different as men can be. Don’t be so dreadfully serious over everything, Molly. You look as oppressed with sad reproach, as if I had been passing on to you the scolding your father gave me.’

‘Because I don’t think you value Roger as you ought, Cynthia!’ said Molly stoutly, for it required a good deal of courage to force herself to say this, although she could not tell why she shrank so from speaking.

‘Yes, I do! It’s not in my nature to go into ecstasies, and I don’t suppose I shall ever be what people call “in love.” But I am glad he loves me, and I like to make him happy, and I think him the best and most agreeable man I know, always excepting your father when he is not angry with me. What can I say more, Molly? would you like me to say I think him handsome?’

‘I know most people think him plain, but —’

‘Well, I’m of the opinion of most people then, and small blame to them. But I like his face — oh, ten thousand times better than Mr Preston’s handsomeness!’ For the first time during the conversation Cynthia seemed thoroughly in earnest. Why Mr. Preston was introduced neither she nor Molly knew; it came up and out by a sudden impulse; but a fierce look came into the eyes, and the soft lips contracted themselves as Cynthia named his name. Molly had noticed this look before, always at the mention of this one person.

‘Cynthia, what makes you dislike Mr. Preston so much?’

‘Don’t you? Why do you ask me? and yet, Molly,’ said she, suddenly relaxing into depression, not merely in tone and look, but in the droop of her limbs —‘Molly, what should you think of me if I married him after all?’

‘Married him! Has he ever asked you?’

But Cynthia, instead of replying to this question, went on, uttering her own thoughts — ‘More unlikely things have happened. Have you never heard of strong wills mesmerizing weaker ones into submission? One of the girls at Madame Lefevre’s went out as a governess to a Russian family, who lived near Moscow. I sometimes think I’ll write to her to get me a situation in Russia, just to get out of the daily chance of seeing that man!’

‘But sometimes you seem quite intimate with him, and talk to him —’

‘How can I help it?’ said Cynthia impatiently. Then recovering herself she added: ‘We knew him so well at Ashcombe, and he’s not a man to be easily thrown off, I can tell you. I must be civil to him; it’s not from liking, and he knows it is not, for I’ve told him so. However, we won’t talk about him. I don’t know how we came to do it, I’m sure: the mere fact of his existence, and of his being within half a mile of us, is bad enough. Oh! I wish Roger was at home, and rich, and could marry me at once, and carry me away from that man! If I’d thought of it, I really believe I would have taken poor red-haired Mr. Coxe.’

‘I don’t understand it at all,’ said Molly. ‘I dislike Mr. Preston, but I should never think of taking such violent steps as you speak of, to get away from the neighbourhood in which he lives.’

‘No, because you are a reasonable little darling,’ said Cynthia, resuming her usual manner, and coming up to Molly, and kissing her. ‘At least you’ll acknowledge I’m a good hater!’

‘Yes. But still I don’t understand it.’

‘Oh, never mind! There are old complications with our affairs at Ashcombe. Money matters are at the root of it all. Horrid poverty — do let us talk of something else! Or, better still, let me go and finish my letter to Roger, or I shall be too late for the African mail!’

‘Is it not gone? Oh, I ought to have reminded you! It will be too late. Did you not see the notice at the post-office that letters for — ought to be in London on the morning of the 10th instead of the evening. Oh, I am so sorry!’

‘So am I, but it can’t be helped. It is to be hoped it will be the greater treat when he does get it. I’ve a far greater weight on my heart, because your father seems so displeased with me. I was fond of him, and now he is making me quite a coward. You see, Molly,’ continued she, a little piteously, ‘I’ve never lived with people with such a high standard of conduct before; and I don’t quite know how to behave.’

‘You must learn,’ said Molly, tenderly. ‘You’ll find Roger quite as strict in his notions of right and wrong.’

‘Ah, but he’s in love with me!’ said Cynthia, with a pretty consciousness of her power. Molly turned away her head, and was silent; it was of no use combating the truth, and she tried rather not to feel it — not to feel, poor girl, that she too had a great weight on her heart, into the cause of which she shrank from examining. That whole winter long she had felt as if her sun was all shrouded over with grey mist, and could no longer shine brightly for her. She wakened up in the morning with a dull sense of something being wrong — the world was out of joint, and, if she were born to set it right, she did not know how to do it. Blind herself as she would, she could not help perceiving that her father was not satisfied with the wife he had chosen. For a long time Molly had been surprised at his apparent contentment; sometimes she had been unselfish enough to be glad that he was satisfied; but still more frequently nature would have its way, and she was almost irritated at what she considered his blindness. Something, however, had changed him now: something that had arisen at the time of Cynthia’s engagement; he had become nervously sensitive to his wife’s failings, and his whole manner had grown dry and sarcastic, not merely to her, but sometimes to Cynthia — and even — but this very rarely, to Molly herself. He was not a man to go into passions, or ebullitions of feeling: they would have relieved him, even while degrading him in his own eyes; but he became hard, and occasionally bitter in his speeches and ways. Molly now learnt to long after the vanished blindness in which her father had passed the first year of his marriage; yet there were no outrageous infractions of domestic peace. Some people might say that Mr. Gibson ‘accepted the inevitable;’ he told himself in more homely phrase ‘that it was no use crying over spilt milk;’ and he, from principle, avoided all actual dissensions with his wife, preferring to cut short a discussion by a sarcasm, or by leaving the room. Moreover, Mrs Gibson had a very tolerable temper of her own, and her cat-like nature purred and delighted in smooth ways, and pleasant quietness. She had no great facility for understanding sarcasm; it is true it disturbed her, but as she was not quick at deciphering any depth of meaning, and felt it to be unpleasant to think about it, she forgot it as soon as possible. Yet she saw she was often in some kind of disfavour with her husband, and it made her uneasy. She resembled Cynthia in this; she liked to be liked; and she wanted to regain the esteem which she did not perceive she had lost for ever. Molly sometimes took her stepmother’s part in secret; she felt as if she herself could never have borne her father’s hard speeches so patiently: they would have cut her to the heart, and she must either have demanded an explanation, and probed the sore to the bottom, or sate down despairing and miserable. Instead of which Mrs. Gibson, after her husband had left the room on these occasions, would say in a manner more bewildered than hurt —

‘I think dear papa seems a little put out today; we must see that he has a dinner that he likes when he comes home. I have often perceived that everything depends on making a man comfortable in his own house.’

And thus she went on, groping about to find the means of reinstating herself in his good graces — really trying, according to her lights, till Molly was often compelled to pity her in spite of herself, and although she saw that her stepmother was the cause of her father’s increased astringency of disposition. For indeed he had got into that kind of exaggerated susceptibility with regard to his wife’s faults, which may be best typified by the state of bodily irritation that is produced by the constant recurrence of any particular noise: those who are brought within hearing of it, are apt to be always on the watch for the repetition, if they are once made to notice it, and are in an irritable state of nerves.

So that poor Molly had not passed a cheerful winter, independently of any private sorrows that she might have in her own heart. She did not look well, either; she was gradually falling into low health, rather than bad health. Her heart beat more feebly and slower; the vivifying stimulant of hope — even unacknowledged hope — was gone out of her life. It seemed as if there was not, and never could be in this world, any help for the dumb discordancy between her father and his wife. Day after day, month after month, year after year, would Molly have to sympathize with her father, and pity her stepmother, feeling acutely for both, and certainly more than Mrs. Gibson felt for herself. Molly could not imagine how she had at one time wished for her father’s eyes to be opened, and how she could ever have fancied that if they were, he would be able to change things in Mrs Gibson’s character. It was all hopeless, and the only attempt at a remedy was to think about it as little as possible. Then Cynthia’s ways and manners about Roger gave Molly a great deal of uneasiness. She did not believe that Cynthia cared enough for him; at any rate, not with the sort of love that she herself would have bestowed, if she had been so happy — no, that was not it — if she had been in Cynthia’s place. She felt as if she should have gone to him both hands held out, full and brimming over with tenderness, and been grateful for every word of precious confidence bestowed on her. Yet Cynthia received his letters with a kind of carelessness, and read them with a strange indifference, while Molly sate at her feet, so to speak, looking up with eyes as wistful as a dog’s waiting for crumbs, and such chance beneficences.

She tried to be patient on these occasions, but at last she must ask — ‘Where is he, Cynthia? What does he say?’ By this time Cynthia had put down the letter on the table by her, smiling a little from time to time, as she remembered the loving compliments it contained.

‘Where? Oh, I did not look exactly — somewhere in Abyssinia — Huon.’ I can’t read the word, and it does not much signify, for it would give me no idea.’

‘Is he well?’ asked greedy Molly.

‘Yes, now. He has had a slight touch of fever, he says; but it’s all over now, and he hopes he is getting acclimatized.’

‘Of fever! — and who took care of him? he would want nursing — and so far from home. Oh, Cynthia!’

‘Oh, I don’t fancy he had any nursing, poor fellow! One does not expect nursing, and hospitals, and doctors in Abyssinia; but he had plenty of quinine with him, and I suppose that is the best specific. At any rate, he says he is quite well now!’

Molly sate silent for a minute or two.

‘What is the date of the letter, Cynthia?’

‘I did not look. December the — December the 10th.’

‘That’s nearly two months ago,’ said Molly.

‘Yes; but I determined I would not worry myself with useless anxiety, when he went away. If anything did — go wrong, you know,’ said Cynthia, using an euphuism’ for death, as most people do (it is an ugly word to speak plain out in the midst of life), ‘it would be all over before I even heard of his illness, and I could be of no use to him — could I, Molly?’

‘No. I daresay it is all very true; only I should think the squire could not take it so easily.’

‘I always write him a little note when I hear from Roger, but I don’t think I’ll name this touch of fever — shall I, Molly?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Molly. ‘People say one ought, but I almost wish I had not heard it. Please, does he say anything else that I may hear?’

‘Oh, lovers’ letters are so silly, and I think this is sillier than usual,’ said Cynthia, looking over her letter again. ‘Here’s a piece you may read, from that line to that,’ indicating two places. ‘I have not read it myself for it looked dullish — all about Aristotle and Pliny — and I want to get this bonnet-cap made up before we go out to pay our calls.’

Molly took the letter, the thought crossing her mind that he had touched it, had had his hands upon it, in those far-distant desert lands, where he might be lost to sight and to any human knowledge of his fate; even now her pretty brown fingers almost caressed the flimsy paper with their delicacy of touch as she read. She saw references made to books, which, with a little trouble, would be accessible to her here in Hollingford. Perhaps the details and the references would make the letter dull and dry to some people, but not to her, thanks to his former teaching and the interest he had excited in her for his pursuits. But, as he said in apology, what had he to write about in that savage land, but his love, and his researches, and travels? There was no society, no gaiety, no new books to write about, no gossip in Abyssinian wilds.

Molly was not in strong health, and perhaps this made her a little fanciful; but certain it is that her thoughts by day and her dreams by night were haunted by the idea of Roger lying ill and untended in those savage lands. Her constant prayer, ‘O my Lord! give her the living child, and in no wise slay it,’ came from a heart as true as that of the real mother in King Solomon’s judgment. ‘Let him live, let him live, even though I may never set eyes upon him again. Have pity upon his father! Grant that he may come home safe, and live happily with her whom he loves so tenderly — so tenderly, O God.’ And then she would burst into tears, and drop asleep at last, sobbing.

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