Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter IV

Mr Gibson’s Neighbours

Molly grew up among these quiet people in calm monotony of life, without any greater event than that which has been recorded — the being left behind at the Towers, until she was nearly seventeen. She had become a visitor at the school, but she had never gone again to the annual festival at the great house; it was easy to find some excuse for keeping away, and the recollection of that day was not a pleasant one on the whole, though she often thought how much she should like to see the gardens again.

Lady Agnes was married; there was only Lady Harriet remaining at home; Lord Hollingford, the eldest son, had lost his wife, and was a good deal more at the Towers since he had become a widower. He was a tall ungainly man, considered to be as proud as his mother, the countess; but, in fact, he was only shy, and slow at making commonplace speeches. He did not know what to say to people whose daily habits and interests were not the same as his; he would have been very thankful for a handbook of small-talk, and would have learnt off his sentences with good-humoured diligence. He often envied the fluency of his garrulous father, who delighted in talking to everybody, and was perfectly unconscious of the incoherence of his conversation. But, owing to his constitutional reserve and shyness, Lord Hollingford was not a popular man, although his kindness of heart was very great, his simplicity of character extreme, and his scientific acquirements considerable enough to entitle him to much reputation in the European republic of learned men. In this respect Hollingford was proud of him. The inhabitants knew that the great, grave, clumsy heir to its fealty was highly esteemed for his wisdom; and that he had made one or two discoveries, though in what direction they were not quite sure. But it was safe to point him out to strangers visiting the little town, as ‘That’s Lord Hollingford — the famous Lord Hollingford, you know; you must have heard of him, he is so scientific.’ If the strangers knew his name, they also knew his claims to fame; if they did not, ten to one but they would make as if they did, and so conceal not only their own ignorance, but that of their companions, is to the exact nature of the sources of his reputation.

He was left a widower, with two or three boys. They were at a public school; so that their companionship could make the house in which he had passed his married life but little of a home to him, and he consequently spent much of his time at the Towers; where his mother was proud of him, and his father very fond, but ever so little afraid of him. His friends were always welcomed by Lord and Lady Cumnor; the former, indeed, was in the habit of welcoming everybody everywhere; but it was a proof of Lady Cumnor’s real affection for her distinguished son, that she allowed him to ask what she called ‘all sorts of people’ to the Towers. ‘All sorts of people’ meant really those who were distinguished for science and learning, without regard to rank; and, it must be confessed, without much regard to polished manners likewise.

Mr. Hall, Mr. Gibson’s predecessor, had always been received with friendly condescension by my lady, who had found him established as the family medical man, when first she came to the Towers on her marriage; but she never thought of interfering with his custom of taking his meals, if he needed refreshment, in the housekeeper’s room, not with the housekeeper, bien entendu. The comfortable, clever, stout, and red-faced doctor would very much have preferred this, even if he had had the choice given him (which he never had) of taking his ‘snack,’ as he called it, with my lord and my lady, in the grand dining-room. Of course, if some great surgical gun (like Sir Astley) was brought down from London to bear on the family’s health, it was due to him, as well as to the local medical attendant, to ask Mr. Hall to dinner, in a formal and ceremonious manner, on which occasions Mr. Hall buried his chin in voluminous folds of white muslin, put on his black knee-breeches, with bunches of ribbon at the sides, his silk stockings and buckled shoes, and otherwise made himself excessively uncomfortable in his attire, and went forth in state in a post-chaise from the ‘George,’ consoling himself in the private corner of his heart for the discomfort he was enduring with the idea of how well it would sound the next day in the ears of the squires whom he was in the habit of attending. ‘Yesterday at dinner the earl said,’ or ‘the countess remarked,’ or ‘I was surprised to hear when I was dining at the Towers yesterday.’ But somehow things had changed since Mr. Gibson had become ‘the doctor’ par excellence at Hollingford. The Miss Brownings thought that it was because he had such an elegant figure, and ‘such a distinguished manner;’ Mrs. Goodenough, ‘because of his aristocratic connections’— ‘the son of a Scotch duke, my dear, never mind on which side of the blanket’— but the fact was certain; although he might frequently ask Mrs. Brown to give him something to eat in the housekeeper’s room — he had no time for all the fuss and ceremony of luncheon with my lady — he was always welcome to the grandest circle of visitors in the house. He might lunch with a duke any day that he chose; given that a duke was forthcoming at the Towers. His accent was Scotch, not provincial. He had not an ounce of superfluous flesh on his bones; and leanness goes a great way to gentility. His complexion was sallow, and his hair black; in those days, the decade after the conclusion of the great continental war, to be sallow and black-a-vised was of itself a distinction;’ he was not jovial (as my lord remarked with a sigh, but it was my lady who endorsed the invitations), sparing of his words, intelligent, and slightly sarcastic. Therefore he was perfectly presentable.

His Scotch blood (for that he was of Scotch descent there could be no manner of doubt) gave him just the kind of thistly dignity which made every one feel that they must treat him with respect; so on that head he was assured. The grandeur of being an invited guest to dinner at the Towers from time to time, gave him but little pleasure for many years, but it was a form to be gone through in the way of his profession, without any idea of social gratification.

But when Lord Hollingford returned to make the Towers his home, affairs were altered. Mr. Gibson really heard and learnt things that interested him seriously, and that gave a fresh flavour to his reading. From time to time he met the leaders of the scientific world; odd-looking, simple-hearted men, very much in earnest about their own particular subjects, and not having much to say on any other. Mr. Gibson found himself capable of appreciating such persons, and also perceived that they valued his appreciation, as it was honestly and intelligently given. Indeed, by-and-by, he began to send contributions of his own to the more scientific of the medical journals, and thus partly in receiving, partly in giving out information and accurate thought, a new zest was added to his life. There was not much intercourse between Lord Hollingford and himself; the one was too silent and shy, the other too busy, to seek each other’s society with the perseverance required to do away with the social distinction of rank that prevented their frequent meetings. But each was thoroughly pleased to come into contact with the other. Each could rely on the other’s respect and sympathy with a security unknown to many who call themselves friends; and this was a source of happiness to both; to Mr. Gibson the most so, of course; for his range of intelligent and cultivated society was the smaller. Indeed, there was no one equal to himself among the men with whom he associated, and this he had felt as a depressing influence, although he had never recognized the cause of his depression. There was Mr Ashton, the vicar, who had succeeded Mr. Browning, a thoroughly good and kind-hearted man, but one without an original thought in him; whose habitual courtesy and indolent mind led him to agree to every opinion, not palpably heterodox, and to utter platitudes in the most gentlemanly manner. Mr. Gibson had once or twice amused himself, by leading the vicar on in his agreeable admissions of arguments ‘as perfectly convincing,’ and of statements as ‘curious but undoubted,’ till he had planted the poor clergyman in a bog of heretical bewilderment. But then Mr. Ashton’s pain and suffering at suddenly finding out into what a theological predicament he had been brought, his real self-reproach at his previous admissions, were so great that Mr. Gibson lost all sense of fun, and hastened back to the Thirty-nine Articles with all the good-will in life, as the only means of soothing the vicar’s conscience. On any other subject, except that of orthodoxy, Mr. Gibson could lead him any lengths; but then his ignorance on most of them prevented bland acquiescence from arriving at any results which could startle him. He had some private fortune, and was not married, and lived the life of an indolent and refined bachelor; but though he himself was no very active visitor among his poorer parishioners, he was always willing to relieve their wants in the most liberal, and, considering his habits, occasionally in the most self-denying manner, whenever Mr. Gibson, or any one else, made them clearly known to him. ‘Use my purse as freely as if it was your own, Gibson,’ he was wont to say. ‘I’m such a bad one at going about and making talk to poor folk — I dare say I don’t do enough in that way — but I am most willing to give you anything for any one you may consider in want.’

‘Thank you; I come upon you pretty often, I believe, and make very little scruple about it; but if you’ll allow me to suggest, it is, that you should not try to make talk when you go into the cottages; but just talk.’

‘I don’t see the difference,’ said the vicar, a little querulously; ‘but I dare say there is a difference, and I have no doubt what you say is quite true. I should not make talk, but talk; and as both are equally difficult to me, you must let me purchase the privilege of silence by this ten-pound note.’

‘Thank you. It is not so satisfactory to me; and, I should think, not to yourself. But probably the Joneses and Greens will prefer it.’

Mr. Ashton would look with plaintive inquiry into Mr. Gibson’s face after some such speech, as if asking if a sarcasm was intended. On the whole they went on in the most amicable way; only beyond the gregarious feeling common to most men, they had very little actual pleasure in each other’s society. Perhaps the man of all others to whom Mr. Gibson took the most kindly — at least, until Lord Hollingford came into the neighbourhood — was a certain Squire Hamley. He and his ancestors had been called squire as long back as local tradition extended. But there was many a greater landowner in the county, for Squire Hamley’s estate was not more than eight hundred acres or so. But his family had been in possession of it long before the Earls of Cumnor had been heard of; before the Hely–Harrisons had bought Coldstone Park; no one in Hollingford knew the time when the Hamleys had not lived at Hamley. ‘Ever since the Heptarchy,’ said the vicar. ‘Nay,’ said Miss Browning, ‘I have heard that there were Hamleys of Hamley before the Romans.’ The vicar was preparing a polite assent, when Mrs. Goodenough came in with a still more startling assertion. ‘I have always heerd,’ said she, with all the slow authority of an oldest inhabitant, ‘that there was Hamleys of Hamley afore the time of the pagans.’ Mr. Ashton could only bow, and say, ‘Possibly, very possibly, madam.’ But he said it in so courteous a manner that Mrs. Goodenough looked round in a gratified manner, as much as to say, ‘The Church confirms my words; who now will dare dispute them?’ At any rate, the Hamleys were a very old family, if not aborigines. They had not increased their estate for centuries; they had held their own, if even with an effort, and had not sold a rood of it for the last hundred years or so. But they were not an adventurous race. They never traded, or speculated, or tried agricultural improvements of any kind. They had no capital in any bank; nor what perhaps would have been more in character, hoards of gold in any stocking. Their mode of life was simple, and more like that of yeomen than squires. Indeed Squire Hamley, by continuing the primitive manners and customs of his forefathers, the squires of the eighteenth century, did live more as a yeoman, when such a class existed, than as a squire of this generation. There was a dignity in this quiet conservatism that gained him an immense amount of respect both from high and low; and he might have visited at every house in the county had he so chosen. But he was very indifferent to the charms of society; and perhaps this was owing to the fact that the squire, Roger Hamley, who at present lived and reigned at Hamley, had not received so good an education as he ought to have done. His father, Squire Stephen, had been plucked at Oxford, and, with stubborn pride, he had refused to go up again. Nay, more! he had sworn a great oath, as men did in those days, that none of his children to come should ever know either university by becoming a member of it. He had only one child, the present squire, and he was brought up according to his father’s word; he was sent to a petty provincial school, where he saw much that he hated, and then turned loose upon the estate as its heir. Such a bringing up did not do him all the harm that might have been anticipated. He was imperfectly educated, and ignorant on many points; but he was aware of his deficiency, and regretted it in theory. He was awkward and ungainly in society, and so kept out of it as much as possible; and he was obstinate, violent-tempered, and dictatorial in his own immediate circle. On the other side, he was generous, and true as steel; the very soul of honour in fact. He had so much natural shrewdness, that his conversation was always worth listening to, although he was apt to start by assuming entirely false premisses, which he considered as incontrovertible as if they had been mathematically proved; but, given the correctness of his premisses, nobody could bring more natural wit and sense to bear upon the arguments based upon them.

He had married a delicate fine London lady; it was one of those perplexing marriages of which one cannot understand the reasons. Yet they were very happy, though possibly Mrs. Hamley would not have sunk into the condition of a chronic invalid, if her husband had cared a little more for her various tastes, or allowed her the companionship of those who did. After his marriage he was wont to say he had got all that was worth having out of that crowd of houses they called London. It was a compliment to his wife which he repeated until the year of her death; it charmed her at first, it pleased her up to the last time of her hearing it; but, for all that, she used sometimes to wish that he would recognize the fact that there might still be something worth hearing and seeing in the great city. But he never went there again, and though he did not prohibit her going, yet he showed so little sympathy with her when she came back full of what she had done on her visit that she ceased caring to go. Not but what he was kind and willing in giving his consent, and in furnishing her amply with money. ‘There, there, my little woman, take that! Dress yourself up as fine as any on ’em, and buy what you like, for the credit of Hamley of Hamley; and go to the park and the play, and show off with the best on ’em. I shall be glad to see thee back again, I know; but have thy fling while thou art about it.’ Then when she came back it was, ‘Well, well, it has pleased thee, I suppose, so that’s all right. But the very talking about it tires me, I know, and I can’t think how you have stood it all. Come out and see how pretty the flowers are looking in the south garden. I’ve made them sow all the seeds you like; and I went over to Hollingford nursery to buy the cuttings of the plants you admired last year. A breath of fresh air will clear my brain after listening to all this talk about the whirl of London, which is like to have turned me giddy.’

Mrs. Hamley was a great reader, and had considerable literary taste. She was gentle and sentimental; tender and good. She gave up her visits to London; she gave up her sociable pleasure in the company of her fellows in education and position. Her husband, owing to the deficiencies of his early years, disliked associating with those to whom he ought to have been an equal; he was too proud to mingle with his inferiors. He loved his wife all the more dearly for her sacrifices for him; but, deprived of all her strong interests, she sank into ill-health; nothing definite; only she never was well. Perhaps if she had had a daughter it would have been better for her; but her two children were boys, and their father, anxious to give them the advantages of which he himself had suffered the deprivation, sent the lads very early to a preparatory school. They were to go on to Rugby and Cambridge; the idea of Oxford was hereditarily distasteful in the Hamley family. Osborne, the eldest — so called after his mother’s maiden name — was full of tastes, and had some talent. His appearance had all the grace and refinement of his mother’s. He was sweet-tempered and affectionate, almost as demonstrative as a girl. He did well at school, carrying away many prizes; and was, in a word, the pride and delight of both father and mother; the confidential friend of the latter, in default of any other. Roger was two years younger than Osborne; clumsy and heavily built, like his father; his face was square, and the expression grave, and rather immobile. He was good, but dull, his schoolmasters said. He won no prizes, but brought home a favourable report of his conduct. When he caressed his mother, she used laughingly to allude to the fable of the lap-dog and the donkey; so thereafter he left off all personal demonstration of affection. It was a great question as to whether he was to follow his brother to college after he left Rugby. Mrs. Hamley thought it would be rather a throwing away of money, as he was so little likely to distinguish himself in intellectual pursuits; anything practical — such as a civil engineer — would be more the line of life for him. She thought that it would be too mortifying for him to go to the same college and university as his brother, who was sure to distinguish himself — and, to be repeatedly plucked, to come away wooden-spoon at last. But his father persevered doggedly, as was his wont, in his intention of giving both his sons the same education; they should both have the advantages of which he had been deprived. If Roger did not do well at Cambridge it would be his own fault. If his father did not send him thither, some day or other he might be regretting the omission, as Squire Roger had done himself for many a year. So Roger followed his brother Osborne to Trinity,’ and Mrs. Hamley was again left alone, after the year of indecision as to Roger’s destination, which had been brought on by her urgency. She had not been able for many years to walk beyond her garden; the greater part of her life was spent on a sofa, wheeled to the window in summer, to the fireside in winter. The room which she inhabited was large and pleasant; four tall windows looked out upon a lawn dotted over with flower-beds, and melting away into a small wood, in the centre of which there was a pond, filled with water-lilies. About this unseen pond in the deep shade Mrs. Hamley had written many a pretty four-versed poem since she lay on her sofa, alternately reading and composing poetry. She had a small table by her side on which there were the newest works of poetry and fiction; a pencil and blotting-book, with loose sheets of blank paper; a vase of flowers always of her husband’s gathering; winter and summer, she had a sweet fresh nosegay every day. Her maid brought her a draught of medicine every three hours, with a glass of clear water and a biscuit; her husband came to her as often as his love for the open air and his labours out-of-doors permitted; but the event of her day, when her boys were absent, was Mr. Gibson’s frequent professional visits.

He knew there was real secret harm going on all this time that people spoke of her as a merely fanciful invalid; and that one or two accused him of humouring her fancies. But he only smiled at such accusations. He felt that his visits were a real pleasure and lightening of her growing and indescribable discomfort; he knew that Squire Hamley would have been only too glad if he had come every day; and he was conscious that by careful watching of her symptoms he might mitigate her bodily pain. Besides all these reasons, he took great pleasure in the squire’s society. Mr. Gibson enjoyed the other’s unreasonableness; his quaintness; his strong conservatism in religion, politics, and morals. Mrs. Hamley tried sometimes to apologize for, or to soften away, opinions which she fancied were offensive to the doctor, or contradictions which she thought too abrupt; but at such times her husband would lay his great hand almost caressingly on Mr. Gibson’s shoulder, and soothe his wife’s anxiety, by saying, ‘Let us alone, little woman. We understand each other, don’t we, doctor? Why, bless your life, he gives me better than he gets many a time; only, you see, he sugars it over, and says a sharp thing, and pretends it’s all civility and humility; but I can tell when he’s giving me a pill.’

One of Mrs. Hamley’s often-expressed wishes had been, that Molly might come and pay her a visit. Mr. Gibson always refused this request of hers, though he could hardly have given his reasons for these refusals. He did not want to lose the companionship of his child, in fact; but he put it to himself in quite a different way. He thought her lessons and her regular course of employment would be interrupted. The life in Mrs. Hamley’s heated and scented room would not be good for the girl; Osborne and Roger Hamley would be at home, and he did not wish Molly to be thrown too exclusively upon them for young society; or they would not be at home, and it would be rather dull and depressing for his girl to be all the day long with a nervous invalid.

But at length the day came when Mr. Gibson rode over, and volunteered a visit from Molly; an offer which Mrs. Hamley received with the ‘open arms of her heart,’ as she expressed it; and of which the duration was unspecified. And the cause for this change in Mr Gibson’s wishes was as follows:— It has been mentioned that he took pupils, rather against his inclination, it is true; but there they were, a Mr. Wynne and Mr. Coxe, ‘the young gentlemen,’ as they were called in the household; ‘Mr. Gibson’s young gentlemen,’ as they were termed in the town. Mr. Wynne was the elder, the more experienced one, who could occasionally take his master’s place, and who gained experience by visiting the poor, and the ‘chronic cases.’ Mr. Gibson used to talk over his practice with Mr. Wynne, and try and elicit his opinions in the vain hope that, some day or another, Mr. Wynne might start an original thought. The young man was cautious and slow; he would never do any harm by his rashness, but at the same time he would always be a little behind his day. Still Mr. Gibson remembered that he had had far worse ‘young gentlemen’ to deal with; and was content with, if not thankful for, such an elder pupil as Mr. Wynne. Mr. Coxe was a boy of nineteen or so, with brilliant red hair, and a tolerably red face, of both of which he was very conscious and much ashamed. He was the son of an Indian officer, an old acquaintance of Mr. Gibson’s. Major Coxe was at some unpronounceable station in the Punjaub, at the present time; but the year before he had been in England, and had repeatedly expressed his great satisfaction at having placed his only child as a pupil to his old friend, and had in fact almost charged Mr. Gibson with the guardianship as well as the instruction of his boy, giving him many injunctions which he thought were special in this case; but which Mr. Gibson with a touch of annoyance assured the major were always attended to in every case, with every pupil. But when the poor major ventured to beg that his boy might be considered as one of the family, and that he might spend his evenings in the drawing-room instead of the surgery, Mr Gibson turned upon him with a direct refusal.

‘He must live like the others. I can’t have the pestle and mortar carried into the drawing-room, and the place smelling of aloes.’

‘Must my boy make pills himself, then?’ asked the major, ruefully.

‘To be sure. The youngest apprentice always does. It’s not hard work. He’ll have the comfort of thinking he won’t have to swallow them himself. And he’ll have the run of the pomfret cakes, and the conserve of hips, and on Sundays he shall have a taste of tamarinds to reward him for his weekly labour at pill-making.’

Major Coxe was not quite sure whether Mr. Gibson was not laughing at him in his sleeve; but things were so far arranged, and the real advantages were so great that he thought it was best to take no notice, but even to submit to the indignity of pill-making. He was consoled for all these rubs by Mr. Gibson’s manner at last when the supreme moment of final parting arrived. The doctor did not say much; but there was something of real sympathy in his manner that spoke straight to the father’s heart, and an implied ‘you have trusted me with your boy, and I have accepted the trust in full,’ in each of the last few words.

Mr. Gibson knew his business and human nature too well to distinguish young Coxe by any overt marks of favouritism; but he could not help showing the lad occasionally that he regarded him with especial interest as the son of a friend. Besides this claim upon his regard, there was something about the young man himself that pleased Mr Gibson. He was rash and impulsive, apt to speak, hitting the nail on the head sometimes with unconscious cleverness, at other times making gross and startling blunders. Mr. Gibson used to tell him that his motto would always be ‘kill or cure,’ and to this Mr. Coxe once made answer that he thought it was the best motto a doctor could have; for if he could not cure the patient, it was surely best to get him out of his misery quietly, and at once. Mr. Wynne looked up in surprise, and observed that he should be afraid that such putting out of misery might be looked upon as homicide by some people. Mr Gibson said in a dry tone, that for his part he should not mind the imputation of homicide, but that it would not do to make away with profitable patients in so speedy a manner; and that he thought that as long as they were willing and able to pay two-and-sixpence for the doctor’s visit, it was his duty to keep them alive; of course, when they became paupers the case was different. Mr. Wynne pondered over this speech; Mr. Coxe only laughed. At last Mr. Wynne said —

‘But you go every morning, sir, before breakfast to see old Nancy Grant, and you’ve ordered her this medicine, sir, which is about the most costly in Corbyn’s bill?’

‘Have you not found out how difficult it is for men to live up to their precepts? You’ve a great deal to learn yet, Mr. Wynne!’ said Mr Gibson, leaving the surgery as he spoke.

‘I never can make the governor out,’ said Mr. Wynne, in a tone of utter despair. ‘What are you laughing at, Coxey?’

‘Oh! I’m thinking how blest you are in having parents who have instilled moral principles into your youthful bosom. You’d go and be poisoning all the paupers off, if you hadn’t been told that murder was a crime by your mother; you’d be thinking you were doing as you were bid, and quote old Gibson’s words when you came to be tried. “Please, my lord judge, they were not able to pay for my visits, and so I followed the rules of the profession as taught me by Mr. Gibson, the great surgeon at Hollingford, and poisoned the paupers.”’

‘I can’t bear that scoffing way of his.’

‘And I like it. If it wasn’t for the governor’s fun, and the tamarinds, and something else that I know of, I would run off to India. I hate stifling rooms, and sick people, and the smell of drugs, and the stink of pills on my hands; — faugh!’

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