Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter LV

An Absent Lover Returns

And now it was late June; and to Molly’s and her father’s extreme urgency in pushing, and Mr. and Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s affectionate persistency in pulling, Cynthia had yielded, and had gone back to finish her interrupted visit in London, but not before the bruit of her previous sudden return to nurse Molly, had told strongly in her favour in the fluctuating opinion of the little town. Her affair with Mr. Preston was thrust into the shade; while every one was speaking of her warm heart. Under the gleam of Molly’s recovery everything assumed a rosy hue, as indeed became the time when actual roses were actually in bloom.

One morning Mrs. Gibson brought Molly a great basket of flowers, that bad been sent from the Hall. Molly still breakfasted in bed, but had just come down, and was now well enough to arrange the flowers for the drawing-room, and as she did so with these blossoms, she made some comments on each.

‘Ah! these white pinks! They were Mrs. Hamley’s favourite flower; and so like her! This little bit of sweetbrier, it quite scents the room. It has pricked my fingers, but never mind. Oh, mamma, look at this rose! I forget its name, but it is very rare, and grows up in the sheltered corner of the wall, near the mulberry-tree. Roger bought the tree for his mother with his own money when he was quite a boy; he showed it me, and made me notice it.’

‘I daresay it was Roger who got it now. You heard papa say he had seen him yesterday.’

‘No! Roger! Roger come home!’ said Molly, turning first red, then very white.

‘Yes. Oh, I remember you had gone to bed before papa came in, and he was called off early to tiresome Mrs. Beale. Yes, Roger turned up at the Hall the day before yesterday.’

But Molly leaned back against her chair, too faint to do more at the flowers for some time. She had been startled by the suddenness of the news. ‘Roger come home!’

It happened that Mr. Gibson was unusually busy on this particular day, and he did not return until late in the afternoon. But Molly kept her place in the drawing-room all the time, not even going to take her customary siesta, so anxious was she to hear everything about Roger’s return, which as yet appeared to her almost incredible. But it was quite natural in reality; the long monotony of her illness had made her lose all count of time. When Roger left England, his idea was to coast round Africa on the eastern side until he reached the Cape; and thence to make what further journey or voyage might seem to him best in pursuit of his scientific objects. To Cape Town all his letters had been addressed of late; and there, two months before, he had received the intelligence of Osborne’s death, as well as Cynthia’s hasty letter of relinquishment. He did not consider that he was doing wrong in returning to England immediately, and reporting himself to the gentlemen who had sent him out, with a full explanation of the circumstances relating to Osborne’s private marriage and sudden death. He offered, and they accepted his offer, to go out again for any time that they might think equivalent to the five months he was yet engaged to them for. They were most of them gentlemen of property, and saw the full importance of proving the marriage of an eldest son, and installing his child as the natural heir to a long-descended estate. This much information, but in a more condensed form, Mr. Gibson gave to Molly, in a very few minutes. She sate up on her sofa, looking very pretty with the flush on her cheeks, and the brightness in her eyes.

‘Well!’ said she, when her father stopped speaking.

‘Well! what?’ asked he, playfully.

‘Oh! why, such a number of things. I’ve been waiting all day to ask you all about everything. How is he looking?’

‘If a young man of twenty-four ever does take to growing taller, I should say that he was taller. As it is, I suppose it is only that he looks broader, stronger — more muscular.’

‘Oh! is he changed?’ asked Molly, a little disturbed by this account.

‘No, not changed; and yet not the same. He is as brown as a berry for one thing; caught a little of the negro tinge, and a beard as fine and sweeping as my bay-mare’s tail.’

‘A beard! But go on, papa. Does he talk as he used to do? I should know his voice amongst ten thousand.’

‘I did not catch any Hottentot twang, if that’s what you mean. Nor did he say, “Caesar and Pompey berry much alike, ‘specially Pompey,” which is the only specimen of negro language I can remember just at this moment.’

‘And which I never could see the wit of,’ said Mrs. Gibson, who had come into the room after the conversation had begun; and did not understand what it was aiming at. Molly fidgeted; she wanted to go on with her questions and keep her father to definite and matter-of-fact answers, and she knew that when his wife chimed into a conversation, Mr. Gibson was very apt to find out that he must go about some necessary piece of business.

‘Tell me, how are they all getting on together?’ It was an inquiry which she did not make in general before Mrs. Gibson, for Molly and her father had tacitly agreed to keep silence on what they knew or had observed, respecting the three who formed the present family at the Hall.

‘Oh!’ said Mr. Gibson, ‘Roger is evidently putting everything to rights in his firm, quiet way.’

‘“Things to rights.” Why, what’s wrong?’ asked Mrs. Gibson quickly. ‘The squire and the French daughter-inlaw don’t get on well together, I suppose? I am always so glad Cynthia acted with the promptitude she did; it would have been very awkward for her to have been mixed up with all these complications. Poor Roger! to find himself supplanted by a child when he comes home!’

‘You were not in the room, my dear, when I was telling Molly of the reasons for Roger’s return; it was to put his brother’s child at once into his rightful and legal place. So now, when he finds the work partly done to his hands, he is happy and gratified in proportion.’

‘Then he is not much affected by Cynthia’s breaking off her engagement?’ (Mrs. Gibson could afford to call it an ‘engagement’ now.) ‘I never did give him credit for very deep feelings.’

‘On the contrary, he feels it very acutely. He and I had a long talk about it, yesterday.’

Both Molly and Mrs. Gibson would have liked to have heard something more about this conversation; but Mr. Gibson did not choose to go on with the subject. The only point which he disclosed was that Roger had insisted on his right to have a personal interview with Cynthia; and, on hearing that she was in London at present, had deferred any further explanation or expostulation by letter, preferring to await her return.

Molly went on with her questions on other subjects. ‘And Mrs. Osborne Hamley? How is she?’

‘Wonderfully brightened up by Roger’s presence. I don’t think I have ever seen her smile before; but she gives him the sweetest smiles from time to time. They are evidently good friends; and she loses her strange startled look when she speaks to him. I suspect she has been quite aware of the squire’s wish that she should return to France; and has been hard put to it to decide whether to leave her child or not. The idea that she would have to make some such decision came upon her when she was completely shattered by grief and illness, and she has not had any one to consult as to her duty until Roger came, upon whom she has evidently firm reliance. He told me something of this himself.’

‘You seem to have had quite a long conversation with him, papa!’

‘Yes. I was going to see old Abraham, when the squire called to me over the hedge, as I was jogging along. He told me the news; and there was no resisting his invitation to come back and lunch with them. Besides, one gets a great deal of meaning out of Roger’s words; it did not take so very long a time to hear this much.’

‘I should think he would come and call upon us soon,’ said Mrs Gibson to Molly; ‘and then we shall see how much we can manage to hear.’

‘Do you think he will, papa?’ said Molly, more doubtfully. She remembered the last time he was in that very room, and the hopes with which he left it; and she fancied that she could see traces of this thought in her father’s countenance at his wife’s speech.

‘I cannot tell, my dear. Until he is quite convinced of Cynthia’s intentions, it cannot be very pleasant for him to come on mere visits of ceremony to the house in which he has known her; but he is one who will always do what he thinks right, whether pleasant or not.’

Mrs. Gibson could hardly wait till her husband had finished his sentence before she testified against a part of it.

‘“Convinced of Cynthia’s intentions!” I should think she had made them pretty clear! What more does the man want?’

‘He is not as yet convinced that the letter was not written in a fit of temporary feeling. I have told him that this was true; although I did not feel it my place to explain to him the causes of that feeling. He believes that he can induce her to resume the former footing. I do not; and I have told him so; but of course he needs the full conviction that she alone can give him.’

‘Poor Cynthia! My poor child!’ said Mrs. Gibson, plaintively. ‘What she has exposed herself to by letting herself be over-persuaded by that man!’

Mr. Gibson’s eyes flashed fire. But he kept his lips tight closed; and only said, ‘“That man,” indeed!’ quite below his breath.

Molly, too, had been damped by an expression or two in her father’s speech. ‘Mere visits of ceremony!’ Was it so, indeed? A ‘mere visit of ceremony!’ Whatever it was, the call was paid before many days were over. That he felt all the awkwardness of his position towards Mrs. Gibson — that he was in reality suffering pain all the time — was but too evident to Molly; but of course Mrs. Gibson saw nothing of this in her gratification at the proper respect paid to her by one whose name was already in the newspapers that chronicled his return, and about whom already Lord Cumnor and the Towers family had been making inquiry.

Molly was sitting in her pretty white invalid’s dress, half reading, half dreaming, for the June air was so clear and ambient, the garden so full of bloom, the trees so full of leaf, that reading by the open window was only a pretence at such a time; besides which Mrs Gibson continually interrupted her with remarks about the pattern of her worsted-work. It was after lunch — orthodox calling time, when Maria ushered in Mr. Roger Hamley. Molly started up; and then stood shyly and quietly in her place while a bronzed, bearded, grave man came into the room, in whom she at first had to seek for the merry boyish face she knew by heart only two years ago. But months in the climates in which Roger had been travelling age as much as years in more temperate districts. And constant thought and anxiety while in daily peril of life deepen the lines of character upon a face. Moreover, the circumstances that had of late affected him personally were not of a nature to make him either buoyant or cheerful. But his voice was the same; that was the first point of the old friend Molly caught, when he addressed her in a tone far softer than he used in speaking conventional politenesses to her stepmother.

‘I was so sorry to hear how ill you had been! You are looking but delicate!’ letting his eyes rest upon her face with affectionate examination. Molly felt herself colour all over with the consciousness of his regard. To do something to put an end to it, she looked up, and showed him her beautiful soft grey eyes, which he never remembered to have noticed before. She smiled at him as she blushed still deeper, and said —

‘Oh! I am quite strong now to what I was. It would be a shame to be ill when everything is in its full summer beauty.’

‘I have heard how deeply we — I am indebted to you — my father can hardly praise you —’

‘Please don’t,’ said Molly, the tears coming into her eyes in spite of herself. He seemed to understand her at once; he went on as if speaking to Mrs. Gibson — ‘Indeed my little sister-inlaw is never weary of talking about Monsieur le Docteur, as she calls your husband!’

‘I have not had the pleasure of making Mrs. Osborne Hamley’s acquaintance yet,’ said Mrs. Gibson, suddenly aware of a duty which might have been expected from her, ‘and I must beg you to apologize to her for my remissness. But Molly has been such a care and anxiety to me — for, you know, I look upon her quite as my own child — that I really have not gone anywhere, excepting to the Towers perhaps I should say, which is just like another home to me. And then I understood that Mrs. Osborne Hamley was thinking of returning to France before long? Still it was very remiss.’

The little trap thus set for news of what might be going on in the Hamley family was quite successful. Roger answered her thus —

‘I am sure Mrs. Osborne Hamley will be very glad to see any friends of the family, as soon as she is a little stronger. I hope she will not go back to France at all. She is an orphan, and I trust we shall induce her to remain with my father. But at present nothing is arranged.’ Then, as if glad to have got over his ‘visit of ceremony,’ he got up and took leave. When he was at the door he looked back, having, as he thought, a word more to say; but he quite forgot what it was, for he surprised Molly’s intent gaze, and sudden confusion at discovery, and went away as soon as he could.

‘Poor Osborne was right!’ said he. ‘She had grown into delicate fragrant beauty just as he said she would: or is it the character which has formed the face? Now the next time I enter these doors it will be to learn my fate!’

Mr. Gibson had told his wife of Roger’s desire to have a personal interview with Cynthia, rather with a view to her repeating what he said to her daughter. He did not see any exact necessity for this, it is true; but he thought that it might be advisable that she should know all the truth in which she was concerned, and he told his wife this. But she took the affair into her own management, and, although she apparently agreed with Mr. Gibson, she never named the affair to Cynthia; all that she said to her was —

‘Your old admirer, Roger Hamley, has come home in a great hurry in consequence of poor dear Osborne’s unexpected decease. He must have been rather surprised to find the widow and her little boy established at the Hall. He came to call here the other day, and made himself really rather agreeable, although his manners are not improved by the society he has kept on his travels. Still I prophesy he will be considered as a fashionable “lion,” and perhaps the very uncouthness which jars against my sense of refinement, may even become admired in a scientific traveller, who has been into more desert places, and eaten more extraordinary food, than any other Englishman of the day. I suppose he has given up all chance of inheriting the estate, for I hear he talks of returning to Africa, and becoming a regular wanderer. Your name was not mentioned, but I believe he inquired about you from Mr. Gibson.’

‘There!’ said she to herself, as she folded up and directed this letter; ‘that can’t disturb her, or make her uncomfortable. And it’s all the truth too, or very near it. Of course he’ll want to see her when she comes back; but by that time I do hope Mr. Henderson will have proposed again, and that that affair will be all settled.’

But Cynthia returned to Hollingford one Tuesday morning, and in answer to her mother’s anxious inquiries on the subject, would only say that Mr. Henderson had not offered again. ‘Why should he? She had refused him once,’ and he did not know the reason of her refusal, at least one of the reasons. She did not know if she should have taken him if there had been no such person as Roger Hamley in the world. No! Uncle and aunt Kirkpatrick had never heard anything about Roger’s offer — nor had her cousins. She had always declared her wish to keep it a secret, and she had not mentioned it to any one, whatever other people might have done.’ Underneath this light and careless vein there were other feelings; but Mrs. Gibson was not one to probe beneath the surface. She had set her heart on Mr Henderson’s marrying Cynthia very early in their acquaintance: and to know, firstly, that the same wish had entered into his head, and that Roger’s attachment to Cynthia, with its consequences, had been the obstacle; and secondly, that Cynthia herself with all the opportunities of propinquity that she had lately had, had failed to provoke a repetition of the offer — it was, as Mrs. Gibson said, ‘enough to provoke a saint.’ All the rest of the day she alluded to Cynthia as a disappointing and ungrateful daughter; Molly could not make out why, and resented it for Cynthia, until the latter said, bitterly, ‘Never mind, Molly. Mamma is only vexed because Mr —— because I have not come back an engaged young lady.’

‘Yes; and I am sure you might have done — there’s the ingratitude! I am not so unjust as to want you to do what you can’t do!’ said Mrs Gibson, querulously.

‘But where’s the ingratitude, mamma? I am very much tired, and perhaps that makes me stupid; but I cannot see the ingratitude.’ Cynthia spoke very wearily, leaning her head back on the sofa-cushions, as if she did not much care to have an answer.

‘Why, don’t you see we are doing all we can for you; dressing you well, and sending you to London; and when you might relieve us of the expense of all this, you don’t.’

‘No! Cynthia, I will speak,’ said Molly, all crimson with indignation, and pushing away Cynthia’s restraining hand. ‘I am sure papa does not feel, and does not mind, any expense he incurs about his daughters. And I know quite well that he does not wish us to marry, unless —’ She faltered and stopped.

‘Unless what?’ said Mrs. Gibson, half-mocking.

‘Unless we love some one very dearly indeed,’ said Molly, in a low, firm tone.

‘Well, after this tirade — really rather indelicate, I must say — I have done. I will neither help nor hinder any love-affairs of you two young ladies. In my days we were glad of the advice of our elders.’ And she left the room to put into fulfilment an idea which had just struck her: to write a confidential letter to Mrs Kirkpatrick, giving her her version of Cynthia’s ‘unfortunate entanglement’ and ‘delicate sense of honour,’ and hints of her entire indifference to all the masculine portion of the world, Mr Henderson being dexterously excluded from the category.

‘Oh, dear!’ said Molly, throwing herself back in a chair, with a sigh of relief, as Mrs. Gibson left the room; ‘how cross I do get since I have been ill. But I could not bear her to speak as if papa grudged you anything.’

‘I am sure he does not, Molly. You need not defend him on my account. But I am sorry mamma still looks upon me as “an encumbrance,” as the advertisements in The Times always call us unfortunate children. But I have been an encumbrance to her all my life. I am getting very much into despair about everything, Molly. I shall try my luck in Russia. I have heard of a situation as English governess at Moscow, in a family owning whole provinces of land, and serfs by the hundred. I put off writing my letter till I came home; I shall be as much out of the way there as if I was married. Oh, dear! travelling all night is not good for the spirits. How is Mr Preston?’

‘Oh, he has taken Cumnor Grange, three miles away, and he never comes in to the Hollingford tea-parties now. I saw him once in the street, but it’s a question which of us tried the hardest to get out of the other’s way.’

‘You’ve not said anything about Roger, yet.’

‘No; I did not know if you would care to hear. He is very much older-looking; quite a strong grown-up man. And papa says he is much graver. Ask me any questions, if you want to know, but I have only seen him once.’

‘I was in hopes he would have left the neighbourhood by this time. Mamma said he was going to travel again.’

‘I can’t tell,’ said Molly. ‘I suppose you know,’ she continued, but hesitating a little before she spoke, ‘that he wishes to see you.’

‘No! I never heard. I wish he would have been satisfied with my letter. It was as decided as I could make it. If I say I won’t see him, I wonder if his will or mine will be the strongest?’

‘His,’ said Molly. ‘But you must see him, you owe it to him. He will never be satisfied without it.’

‘Suppose he talks me round into resuming the engagement? I should only break it off again.’

‘Surely you can’t be “talked round” if your mind is made up. But perhaps it is not really, Cynthia?’ asked she, with a little wistful anxiety betraying itself in her face.

‘It is quite made up. I am going to teach little Russian girls; and am never going to marry nobody.’

‘You are not serious, Cynthia. And yet it is a very serious thing.’

But Cynthia went into one of her wild moods, and no more reason or sensible meaning was to be got out of her at the time.

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