Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter XLV

Confidences

All the rest of that day Molly was depressed and not well. Having anything to conceal was so unusual — almost so unprecedented a circumstance with her that it preyed upon her in every way.

It was a nightmare that she could not shake off; she did so wish to forget it all, and yet every little occurrence seemed to remind her of it. The next morning’s post brought several letters; one from Roger for Cynthia, and Molly, letterless herself, looked at Cynthia as she read it, with wistful sadness; it appeared to Molly as though Cynthia should have no satisfaction in these letters, until she had told him what was her exact position with Mr. Preston; yet Cynthia was colouring and dimpling up as she always did at any pretty words of praise, or admiration, or love. But Molly’s thoughts and Cynthia’s reading were both interrupted by a little triumphant sound from Mrs. Gibson, as she pushed a letter she had just received to her husband, with a —

‘There! I must say I expected that!’ Then, turning to Cynthia, she explained — ‘It is a letter from uncle Kirkpatrick, love. So kind, wishing you to go and stay with them, and help them to cheer up Helen; poor Helen! I am afraid she is very far from well. But we could not have had her here, without disturbing dear papa in his consulting-room; and, though I could have relinquished my dressing-room — he — well! so I said in my letter how you were grieved — you above all of us, because you are such a friend of Helen’s, you know — and how you longed to be of use — as I am sure you do — and so now they want you to go up directly, for Helen has quite set her heart upon it.’

Cynthia’s eyes sparkled. ‘I shall like going,’ said she — ‘all but leaving you, Molly,’ she added, in a lower tone, as if suddenly smitten with some compunction.

‘Can you be ready to go up by the “Bang-up” to-night?’ said Mr Gibson, ‘for, curiously enough, after more than twenty years of quiet practice at Hollingford, I am summoned up today for the first time to a consultation in London, tomorrow. I am afraid Lady Cumnor is worse, my dear.’

‘You don’t say so? Poor dear lady! What a shock it is to me. I’m so glad I’ve had some breakfast. I could not have eaten anything.’

‘Nay, I only say she is worse. With her complaint, being worse may be only a preliminary to being better. Don’t take my words for more than their literal meaning.’

‘Thank you. How kind and reassuring dear papa always is. About your gowns, Cynthia?’

‘Oh, they are all right, mamma, thank you. I shall be quite ready by four o’clock. Molly, will you come with me and help me to pack? I wanted to speak to you, dear,’ said she, as soon as they had gone upstairs. ‘It is such a relief to get away from a place haunted by that man; but I’m afraid you thought I was glad to leave you; and indeed I am not.’ There was a little flavour of ‘protesting too much’ about this; but Molly did not perceive it. She only said, ‘Indeed I did not. I know from my own feelings how you must dislike meeting a man in public in a different manner from what you have done in private. I shall try not to see Mr. Preston again for a long, long time, I’m sure. And Helen Kirkpatrick — But Cynthia, you have not told me one word out of Roger’s letter. Please how is he? Has he quite got over his attack of fever?’

‘Yes, quite. He writes in very good spirits. A great deal about birds and beasts, as usual, and habits of natives, and things of that kind. You may read from there’— indicating a place in the letter —‘to there, if you can; and I’ll tell you what, I’ll trust you with it, Molly, while I pack (and that shows my sense of your honour, not but what you might read it all, only you’d find the love-making dull); but make a little account of where he is, and what he is doing, date, and that sort of thing, and send it to his father.’

Molly took the letter down without a word, and began to copy it at the writing-table; often reading over what she was allowed to read; often pausing, her cheek on her hand, her eyes on the letter, and letting her imagination rove to the writer, and all the scenes in which she had either seen him herself, or in which her fancy had painted him. She was startled from her meditations by Cynthia’s sudden entrance into the drawing-room, looking the picture of glowing delight. ‘No one here! What a blessing! Ah, Miss Molly, you are more eloquent than you believe yourself. Look here!’ holding up a large full envelope, and then quickly replacing it in her pocket, as if she was afraid of being seen. ‘What’s the matter, sweet one?’ coming up and caressing Molly. ‘Is it worrying itself over that letter? Why, don’t you see these are my very own horrible letters, that I am going to burn directly, that Mr. Preston has had the grace to send me, thanks to you, little Molly — cuishla ma chree, pulse of my heart — the letters that have been hanging over my head like somebody’s sword for these two years?’

‘Oh, I am so glad!’ said Molly, rousing up a little. ‘I never thought he would have sent them. He is better than I believed him. And now it is all over. I am so glad. You quite think he means to give up all claim over you by this, don’t you, Cynthia?’

‘He may claim, but I won’t be claimed; and he has no proofs now. It is the most charming relief; and I owe it all to you, you precious little lady! Now there is only one thing more to be done; and if you would but do it for me —?’ (coaxing and caressing while she asked the question).

‘Oh, Cynthia, don’t ask me; I cannot do any more. You don’t know how sick I go when I think of yesterday, and Mr. Sheepshanks’ look.’

‘It is only a very little thing. I won’t burden your conscience with telling you how I get my letters, but it is not through a person I can trust with money; and I must force him to take back his twenty-three pounds odd shillings. I have put it together at the rate of five per cent., and it’s sealed up. Oh, Molly, I should go off with such a light heart if you would only try to get it safely to him. It’s the last thing; there would be no immediate hurry, you know. You might meet him by chance in a shop, in the street, even at a party — and if you only had it with you in your pocket, there would be nothing so easy.’

Molly was silent. ‘Papa would give it to him. There would be no harm in that. I would tell him he must ask no questions as to what it was.’

‘Very well,’ said Cynthia, ‘have it your own way. I think my way is the best; for if any of this affair comes out — But you’ve done a great deal for me already, and I won’t blame you now for declining to do any more!’

‘I do so dislike having these underhand dealings with him,’ pleaded Molly.

‘Underhand! just simply giving him a letter from me! If I left a note for Miss Browning, should you dislike giving it to her?’

‘You know that’s very different. I could do it openly.’

‘And yet there might be writing in that; and there would not be a line with the money. It would only be the winding-up — the honourable, honest winding-up of an affair which has worried me for years! But do as you like!’

‘Give it me!’ said Molly. ‘I will try.’

‘There’s a darling! You can but try; and if you can’t give it to him in private, without getting yourself into a scrape, why, keep it till I come back again. He shall have it then, whether he will or no!’

Molly looked forward to her tete-a-tete two days with Mrs. Gibson with very different anticipations to those with which she had welcomed the similar intercourse with her father. In the first place, there was no accompanying the travellers to the inn from which the coach started; leave-taking in the market-place was quite out of the bounds of Mrs. Gibson’s sense of propriety. Besides this, it was a gloomy, rainy evening, and candles had to be brought in at an unusually early hour. There would be no break for six hours — no music, no reading; but the two ladies would sit at their worsted work, pattering away at small-talk, with not even the usual break of dinner; for, to suit the requirements of those who were leaving, they had already dined early. But Mrs. Gibson really meant to make Molly happy, and tried to be an agreeable companion, only Molly was not well, and uneasy about many apprehended cares and troubles — and at such hours of indisposition as she was then passing through, apprehensions take the shape of certainties, lying await in our paths. Molly would have given a good deal to have shaken off all these feelings, unusual enough to her; but the very house and furniture, and rain-blurred outer landscape, seemed steeped with unpleasant associations, most of them dating from the last few days.

‘You and I must go on the next journey, I think, my dear,’ said Mrs Gibson, almost chiming in with Molly’s wish that she could get away from Hollingford into some new air and life, for a week or two. ‘We have been stay-at-homes for a long time, and variety of scene is so desirable for the young! But I think the travellers will be wishing themselves at home by this nice bright fireside. “There’s no place like home,” as the poet says.’ “Mid pleasures and palaces although I may roam,” it begins, and it’s both very pretty and very true. It’s a great blessing to have such a dear little home as this, is not it, Molly?’

‘Yes,’ said Molly, rather drearily, having something of the ‘Toujours perdrix’ feeling at the moment. If she could but have gone away with her father, just for two days, how pleasant it would have been.

‘To be sure, love, it would be very nice for you and me to go a little journey all by ourselves. You and I. No one else. If it were not such miserable weather we would have gone off on a little impromptu tour. I’ve been longing for something of the kind for some weeks; but we live such a restricted kind of life here! I declare sometimes I get quite sick of the very sight of the chairs and tables that I know so well. And one misses the others too! It seems so flat and deserted without them!’

‘Yes! We are very forlorn to-night; but I think it’s partly owing to the weather!’

‘Nonsense, dear. I can’t have you giving in to the silly fancy of being affected by weather. Poor dear Mr. Kirkpatrick used to say, “a cheerful heart makes its own sunshine.” He would say it to me, in his pretty way, whenever I was a little low — for I am a complete barometer — you may really judge of the state of the weather by my spirits, I have always been such a sensitive creature! It is well for Cynthia that she does not inherit it; I don’t think her easily affected in any way, do you?’

Molly thought for a minute or two, and then replied — ‘No, she is certainly not easily affected — not deeply affected perhaps I should say.’

‘Many girls, for instance, would have been touched by the admiration she excited — I may say the attentions she received when she was at her uncle’s last summer.’

‘At Mr. Kirkpatrick’s?’

‘Yes. There was Mr. Henderson, that young lawyer; that’s to say he is studying law, but he has a good private fortune and is likely to have more, so he can only be what I call playing at law. Mr Henderson was over head and ears in love with her. It is not my fancy, although I grant mothers are partial; both Mr. and Mrs Kirkpatrick noticed it; and in one of Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s letters, she said that poor Mr. Henderson was going into Switzerland for the long vacation, doubtless to try and forget Cynthia; but she really believed he would find it only dragging at each remove a lengthening chain. I thought it such a refined quotation, and altogether worded so prettily. You must know aunt Kirkpatrick some day, Molly, my love: she is what I call a woman of a truly elegant mind.’

‘I can’t help thinking it was a pity that Cynthia did not tell them of her engagement.’

‘It is not an engagement, my dear! How often must I tell you that?’

‘But what am I to call it?’

‘I don’t see why you need to call it anything. Indeed I don’t understand what you mean by “it.” You should always try to express yourself intelligibly. It really is one of the first principles of the English language. In fact, philosophers might ask what is language given us for at all, if it is not that we may make our meaning understood?’

‘But there is something between Cynthia and Roger; they are more to each other than I am to Osborne, for instance. What am I to call it?’

‘You should not couple your name with that of any unmarried young man; it is so difficult to teach you delicacy, child. Perhaps one may say there is a peculiar relation between dear Cynthia and Roger, but it is very difficult to characterize it; I have no doubt that is the reason she shrinks from speaking about it. For, between ourselves, Molly, I really sometimes think it will come to nothing. He is so long away, and, privately speaking, Cynthia is not very very constant. I once knew her very much taken before — that little affair is quite gone by; and she was very civil to Mr. Henderson, in her way; I fancy she inherits it, for when I was a girl I was beset by lovers, and could never find in my heart to shake them off. You have not heard dear papa say anything of the old squire, or dear Osborne, have you? It seems so long since we have heard or seen anything of Osborne. But he must be quite well, I think, or we should have heard of it.’

‘I believe he is quite well. Some one said the other day that they had met him riding — it was Mrs. Goodenough, now I remember — and that he was looking stronger than he had done for years.’

‘Indeed! I am truly glad to hear it. I always was fond of Osborne; and, do you know, I never really took to Roger; I respected him and all that, of course. But to compare him with Mr. Henderson! Mr Henderson is so handsome and well-bred, and gets all his gloves from Houbigant!’

It was true that they had not seen anything of Osborne Hamley for a long time; but, as it often happens, just after they had been speaking about him he appeared. It was on the day following on Mr Gibson’s departure that Mrs. Gibson had received one of the notes, not so common now as formerly, from the family in town asking her to go over to the Towers, and find a book, or a manuscript, or something or other that Lady Cumnor wanted with all an invalid’s impatience. It was just the kind of employment she required for an amusement on a gloomy day, and it put her into a good humour immediately. There was a certain confidential importance about it, and it was a variety, and it gave her the pleasant drive in a fly up the noble avenue, and the sense of being the temporary mistress of all the grand rooms once so familiar to her. She asked Molly to accompany her, out of an access of kindness, but was not at all sorry when Molly excused herself and preferred stopping at home. At eleven o’clock Mrs. Gibson was off, all in her Sunday best (to use the servant’s expression, which she herself would so have contemned), well-dressed in order to impose on the servants at the Towers, for there was no one else to be seen or to be seen by.

‘I shall not be at home until the afternoon, my dear! But I hope you will not find it dull. I don’t think you will, for you are something like me, my love — never less alone than when alone, as one of the great authors has justly expressed it.’

Molly enjoyed her house to herself to the full as much as Mrs. Gibson would enjoy having the Towers to herself. She ventured on having her lunch brought upon a tray into the drawing-room, so that she might eat her sandwiches while she went on with her book. In the middle, Mr. Osborne Hamley was announced. He came in, looking wretchedly ill in spite of purblind Mrs. Goodenough’s report of his healthy appearance.

‘This call is not on you, Molly,’ said he, after the first greetings were over. ‘I was in hopes I might have found your father at home; I thought lunch-time was the best hour.’ He had sate down, as if thoroughly glad of the rest, and fallen into a languid stooping position, as if it had become so natural to him that no sense of what were considered good manners sufficed to restrain him now.

‘I hope you did not want to see him professionally?’ said Molly, wondering if she was wise in alluding to his health, yet urged to it by her real anxiety.

‘Yes, I did. I suppose I may help myself to a biscuit and a glass of wine? No, don’t ring for more. I could not eat it if it was here. But I just want a mouthful; this is quite enough, thank you. When will your father be back?’

‘He was summoned up to London. Lady Cumnor is worse. I fancy there is some operation going on; but I don’t know. He will be back tomorrow night.’

‘Very well. Then I must wait. Perhaps I shall be better by that time. I think it’s half fancy; but I should like your father to tell me so. He will laugh at me, I daresay; but I don’t think I shall mind that. He always is severe on fanciful patients, is not he, Molly?’

Molly thought that if he saw Osborne’s looks just now he would hardly think him fanciful, or be inclined to be severe. But she only said — ‘Papa enjoys a joke at everything, you know. It is a relief after all the sorrow he sees.’

‘Very true. There is a great deal of sorrow in the world. I don’t think it’s a very happy place after all. So Cynthia is gone to London,’ he added, after a pause, ‘I think I should like to have seen her again. Poor old Roger! He loves her very dearly, Molly,’ he said. Molly hardly knew how to answer him in all this; she was so struck by the change in both voice and manner.

‘Mamma has gone to the Towers,’ she began, at length. ‘Lady Cumnor wanted several things that mamma only can find. She will be sorry to miss you. We were speaking of you only yesterday, and she said how long it was since we had seen you.’

‘I think I’ve grown careless; I have often felt so weary and ill that it was all I could do to keep up a brave face before my father.’

‘Why did you not come and see papa?’ said Molly; ‘or write to him?’

‘I cannot tell. I drifted on sometimes better, and sometimes worse, till today I mustered up pluck, and came to hear what your father has got to tell me: and all for no use it seems.’

‘I am very sorry. But it is only for two days. He shall go and see you as soon as ever he returns.’

‘He must not alarm my father, remember, Molly,’ said Osborne, lifting himself by the arms of his chair into an upright position and speaking eagerly for the moment. ‘I wish to God Roger was at home,’ said he, falling back into the old posture.

‘I can’t help understanding you,’ said Molly. ‘You think yourself very ill; but is not it that you are tired just now?’ She was not sure if she ought to have understood what was passing in his mind; but as she did, she could not help speaking a true reply.

‘Well, sometimes I do think I’m very ill; and then, again, I think it’s only the moping life sets me fancying and exaggerating.’ He was silent for some time. Then, as if he had taken a sudden resolution, he spoke again. ‘You see there are others depending upon me — upon my health. You have not forgotten what you heard that day in the library at home? No, I know you have not. I have seen the thought of it in your eyes often since then. I did not know you at that time. I think I do now.’

‘Don’t go on talking so fast,’ said Molly. ‘Rest. No one will interrupt us; I will go on with my sewing; when you want to say anything more I shall be listening.’ For she had been alarmed at the strange pallor that had come over his face.

‘Thank you.’ After a time he roused himself, and began to speak very quietly, as if on an indifferent matter of fact.

‘The name of my wife is Aimee. Aimee Hamley of course. She lives at Bishopsfield, a village near Winchester. Write it down, but keep it to yourself. She is a Frenchwoman, a Roman Catholic, and was a servant. She is a thoroughly good woman. I must not say how dear she is to me. I dare not. I meant once to have told Cynthia, but she did not seem quite to consider me as a brother. Perhaps she was shy of a new relation, but you’ll give my love to her, all the same. It is a relief to think that some one else has my secret; and you are like one of us, Molly. I can trust you almost as I can trust Roger. I feel better already now I feel that some one else knows the whereabouts of my wife and child.’

‘Child!’ said Molly, surprised. But before he could reply, Maria had announced —

‘Miss Phoebe Browning.’

‘Fold up that paper,’ said he, quickly, putting something into her hands. ‘It is only for yourself.’

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