Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter LVI

‘Off with the Old Love, and on with the New.’

The next morning saw Mrs. Gibson in a much more contented frame of mind. She had written and posted her letter, and the next thing was to keep Cynthia in what she called a reasonable state, or, in other words, to try and cajole her into docility. But it was so much labour lost. Cynthia had already received a letter from Mr. Henderson before she came down to breakfast — a declaration of love, a proposal of marriage as clear as words could make it; together with an intimation that, unable to wait for the slow delays of the post, he was going to follow her down to Hollingford, and would arrive at the same time that she had done herself on the previous day. Cynthia said nothing about this letter to any one. She came late into the breakfast-room, after Mr. and Mrs. Gibson had finished the actual business of the meal; but her unpunctuality was quite accounted for by the fact that she had been travelling all the night before. Molly was not as yet strong enough to get up so early. Cynthia hardly spoke, and did not touch her food. Mr. Gibson went about his daily business, and Cynthia and her mother were left alone.

‘My dear,’ said Mrs. Gibson, ‘you are not eating your breakfast as you should do. I am afraid our meals seem very plain and homely to you after those in Hyde Park Street?’

‘No,’ said Cynthia; ‘I am not hungry, that’s all.’

‘If we were as rich as your uncle, I should feel it to be both a duty and a pleasure to keep an elegant table; but limited means are a sad clog to one’s wishes. I don’t suppose that, work as he will, Mr. Gibson can earn more than he does at present; while the capabilities of the law are boundless. Lord Chancellor! Titles as well as fortune!’

Cynthia was almost too much absorbed in her own reflections to reply, but she did say —

‘Hundreds of briefless barristers. Take the other side, mamma.’

‘Well; but I have noticed that many of these have private fortunes.’

‘Perhaps. Mamma, I expect Mr. Henderson will come and call this morning.’

‘Oh, my precious child! But how do you know? My darling Cynthia, am I to congratulate you?’

‘No! I suppose I must tell you. I have had a letter this morning from him, and he is coming down by the “Umpire” today.’

‘But he has offered? He surely must mean to offer, at any rate?’

Cynthia played with her teaspoon before she replied; then she looked up, like one startled from a dream, and caught the echo of her mother’s question.

‘Offered! yes, I suppose he has.’

‘And you accept him? Say yes, Cynthia, and make me happy!’

‘I shan’t say “yes” to make any one happy except myself, and the Russian scheme has great charms for me.’ She said this to plague her mother, and lessen Mrs. Gibson’s exuberance of joy, it must be confessed; for her mind was pretty well made up. But it did not affect Mrs. Gibson, who affixed even less truth to it than there really was. The idea of a residence in a new, strange country, among new, strange people, was not without allurement to Cynthia.

‘You always look nice, dear; but don’t you think you had better put on that pretty lilac silk?’

‘I shall not vary a thread or a shred from what I have got on now.’

‘You dear wilful creature! you know you always look lovely in whatever you put on.’ So, kissing her daughter, Mrs. Gibson left the room, intent on the lunch which should impress Mr. Henderson at once with an idea of family refinement.

Cynthia went upstairs to Molly; She was inclined to tell her about Mr. Henderson, but she found it impossible to introduce the subject naturally, so she left it to time to reveal the future as gradually as it might. Molly was tired with a bad night; and her father, in his flying visit to his darling before going out, had advised her to stay upstairs for the greater part of the morning, and to keep quiet in her own room till after her early dinner, so Time had not a fair chance of telling her what he had in store in his budget. Mrs. Gibson sent an apology to Molly for not paying her her usual morning visit, and told Cynthia to give Mr. Henderson’s probable coming as a reason for her occupation downstairs. But Cynthia did no such thing. She kissed Molly, and sate silently by her, holding her hand; till at length she jumped up, and said, ‘You shall be left alone now, little one. I want you to be very well and very bright this afternoon: so rest now.’ And Cynthia left her, and went to her own room, locked the door, and began to think.

Some one was thinking about her at the same time, and it was not Mr Henderson. Roger had heard from Mr. Gibson that Cynthia had come home, and he was resolving to go to her at once, and have one strong, manly attempt to overcome the obstacles, whatever they might be-and of their nature he was not fully aware — that she had conjured up against the continuance of their relation to each other. He left his father — he left them all — and went off into the woods, to be alone until the time came when he might mount his horse and ride over to put his fate to the touch. He was as careful as ever not to interfere with the morning hours that were tabooed to him of old; but waiting was very hard work when he knew that she was so near, and the time so near at hand.

Yet he rode slowly, compelling himself to quietness and patience when he was once really on the way to her.

‘Mrs. Gibson at home? Miss Kirkpatrick?’ he asked of the servant, Maria, who opened the door. She was confused, but he did not notice it.

‘I think so; I am not sure! Will you walk up into the drawing-room, sir? Miss Gibson is there, I know.’

So he went upstairs, all his nerves on one strain for the coming interview with Cynthia. It was either a relief or a disappointment, he was not sure which, to find only Molly in the room. Molly, half lying on the couch in the bow-window which commanded the garden; draped in soft white drapery, very white herself, and a laced half-handkerchief tied over her head to save her from any ill effects of the air that blew in through the open window. He was so ready to speak to Cynthia that he hardly knew what to say to any one else.

‘I am afraid you are not so well,’ he said to Molly, who sate up to receive him, and who suddenly began to tremble with emotion.

‘I am a little tired, that’s all,’ said she; and then she was quite silent, hoping that he might go, and yet somehow wishing him to stay. But he took a chair and placed it near her, opposite to the window. He thought that surely Maria would tell Miss Kirkpatrick that she was wanted, and that at any moment he might hear her light quick footstep on the stairs. He thought he ought to talk, but he could not think of anything to say. The pink flush came out on Molly’s cheeks; once or twice she was on the point of speaking, but again she thought better of it; and the pauses between the faint disjointed remarks became longer and longer. Suddenly, in one of these pauses, the merry murmur of distant happy voices in the garden came nearer and nearer; Molly looked more and more uneasy and flushed, and in spite of herself kept watching Roger’s face. He could see over her into the garden. A sudden deep colour overspread him, as if his heart had sent its blood out coursing at full gallop. Cynthia and Mr. Henderson had come in sight; he eagerly talking to her as he bent forward to look into her face; she, her looks half averted in pretty shyness, was evidently coquetting about some flowers, which she either would not give, or would not take. Just then, for the lovers had emerged from the shrubbery into comparatively public life, Maria was seen approaching; apparently she had feminine tact enough to induce Cynthia to leave her present admirer, and go a few steps to meet her to receive the whispered message that Mr. Roger Hamley was there, and wished to speak to her. Roger could see her startled gesture, she turned back to say something to Mr. Henderson before coming towards the house. Now Roger spoke to Molly — spoke hurriedly, spoke hoarsely.

‘Molly, tell me! It is too late for me to speak to Cynthia? I came on purpose. Who is that man?’

‘Mr. Henderson. He only came today — but now he is her accepted lover. Oh, Roger, forgive me the pain!’

‘Tell her I have been, and am gone. Send out word to her. Don’t let her be interrupted.’

And Roger ran downstairs at full speed, and Molly heard the passionate clang of the outer door. He had hardly left the house before Cynthia entered the room, pale and resolute.

‘Where is he?’ she said, looking around, as if he might yet be hidden.

‘Gone!’ said Molly, very faint.

‘Gone. Oh, what a relief! It seems to be my fate never to be off with the old lover before I am on with the new, and yet I did write as decidedly as I could. Why, Molly, what’s the matter?’ for now Molly had fainted away utterly. Cynthia flew to the bell, summoned Maria, water, salts, wine, everything; and as soon as Molly, gasping and miserable, became conscious again, she wrote a little pencil-note to Mr. Henderson, bidding him return to the “George,” whence he had come in the morning, and saying that if he obeyed her at once, he might be allowed to call again in the evening, otherwise she would not see him till the next day. This she sent down by Maria, and the unlucky man never believed but that it was Miss Gibson’s sudden indisposition in the first instance that had deprived him of his charmer’s company. He comforted himself for the long solitary afternoon by writing to tell all his friends of his happiness, and amongst them uncle and aunt Kirkpatrick, who received his letter by the same post as that discreet epistle of Mrs Gibson’s, which she had carefully arranged to reveal as much as she wished, and no more.

‘Was he very terrible?’ asked Cynthia, as she sate with Molly in the stillness of Mrs. Gibson’s dressing-room.

‘Oh, Cynthia, it was such pain to see him, he suffered so!’

‘I don’t like people of deep feelings,’ said Cynthia, pouting. ‘They don’t suit me. Why could not he let me go without this fuss. I’m not worth his caring for!’

‘You have the happy gift of making people love you. Remember Mr Preston — he too would not give up hope.’

‘Now I won’t have you classing Roger Hamley and Mr. Preston together in the same sentence. One was as much too bad for me, as the other is too good. Now I hope that maxi in the garden is the juste milieu — I’m that myself, for I don’t think I’m vicious, and I know I’m not virtuous.’

‘Do you really like him enough to marry him?’ asked Molly earnestly. ‘Do think, Cynthia. It won’t do to go on throwing your lovers off; you give pain that I am sure you do not mean to do — that you cannot understand.’

‘Perhaps I can’t. I’m not offended. I never set up for what I am not, and I know I’m not constant. I have told Mr. Henderson so —’ She stopped, blushing and smiling at the recollection.

‘You have! and what did he say?’

‘That he liked me just as I was; so you see he’s fairly warned. Only he is a little afraid, I suppose — for he wants me to be married very soon, almost directly in fact. But I don’t know if I shall give way — you hardly saw him, Molly — but he’s coming again to-night, and mind, I’ll never forgive you if you don’t think him very charming. I believe I cared for him when he offered all those months ago, but I tried to think I didn’t; only sometimes I really was so unhappy, I thought I must put an iron-band round my heart to keep it from breaking, like the Faithful John of the German story,’— do you remember, Molly? — how when his master came to his crown and his fortune, and his lady-love, after innumerable trials and disgraces, and was driving away from the church where he’d been married in a coach and six, with Faithful John behind, the happy couple heard three great cracks in succession, and on inquiring, they were the iron-bands round his heart, that Faithful John had worn all during the time of his master’s tribulation, to keep it from breaking.’

In the evening Mr. Henderson came. Molly had been very curious to see him; and when she saw him she was not sure whether she liked him or not. He was handsome, without being conceited; gentlemanly, without being foolishly fine. He talked easily, and never said a silly thing. He was perfectly well-appointed, yet never seemed to have given a thought to his dress. He was good-tempered and kind; not without some of the cheerful flippancy of repartee which belonged to his age and profession, and which his age and profession are apt to take for wit. But he wanted something in Molly’s eyes, at any rate in this first interview, and in her heart of hearts she thought him rather commonplace. But of course she said nothing of this to Cynthia, who was evidently as happy as she could be. Mrs. Gibson, too, was in the seventh heaven of ecstasy and spoke but little; but what she did say, expressed the highest sentiments in the finest language. Mr. Gibson was not with them for long, but while he was there he was evidently studying the unconscious Mr. Henderson with his dark penetrating eyes. Mr. Henderson behaved exactly as he ought to have done to everybody; respectful to Mr. Gibson, deferential to Mrs. Gibson, friendly to Molly, devoted to Cynthia. The next time Mr Gibson found Molly alone, he began —

‘Well! and how do you like the new relation that is to be?’

‘It is difficult to say. I think he is very nice in all his bits, but — rather dull on the whole.’

‘I think him perfection,’ said Mr. Gibson, to Molly’s surprise; but in an instant afterwards she saw that he had been speaking ironically. He went on. ‘I don’t wonder she preferred him to Roger Hamley. Such scents! such gloves! And then his hair and his cravat!’

‘Now, papa, you are not fair. He is a great deal more than that. One could see that he had very good feeling; and he is very handsome, and very much attached to her.’

‘So was Roger. However, I must confess I shall only be too glad to have her married. She is a girl who will always have some love-affair on hand, and will always be apt to slip through a man’s fingers if he does not look sharp; as I was saying to Roger —’

‘You have seen him, then, since he was here?’

‘Met him in the street.’

‘How was he?’

‘I don’t suppose he had been going through the pleasantest thing in the world; but he’ll get over it before long. He spoke with sense and resignation, and did not say much about it; but one could see that he was feeling it pretty sharply. He’s had three months to think it over, remember. The squire, I should guess, is showing more indignation. He is boiling over, that any one should reject his son! The enormity of the sin never seems to have been apparent to him till now, when he sees how Roger is affected by it. Indeed, with the exception of myself, I don’t know one reasonable father; eh, Molly?’

Whatever else Mr. Henderson might be, he was an impatient lover; he wanted to marry Cynthia directly — next week — the week after. At any rate before the long vacation, so that they could go abroad at once. Trousseaux, and preliminary ceremonies, he gave to the winds. Mr Gibson, generous as usual, called Cynthia aside a morning or two after her engagement, and put a hundred-pound note into her hands.

‘There! that’s to pay your expenses to Russia and back. I hope you’ll find your pupils obedient.’

To his surprise, and rather to his discomfiture, Cynthia threw her arms round his neck and kissed him.

‘You are the kindest person I know,’ said she; ‘and I don’t know how to thank you in words.’

‘If you tumble my shirt-collars again in that way, I’ll charge you for the washing. Just now, too, when I’m trying so hard to be trim and elegant, like your Mr. Henderson.’

‘But you do like him, don’t you?’ said Cynthia, pleadingly. ‘He does so like you.’

‘Of course. We are all angels just now, and you are an arch-angel. I hope he’ll wear as well as Roger.’

Cynthia looked grave. ‘That was a very silly affair,’ she said. ‘We were two as unsuitable people —’

‘It has ended, and that’s enough. Besides, I’ve no more time to waste; and there is your smart young man coming here in all haste.’

Mr. and Mrs. Kirkpatrick sent all manner of congratulations; and, in a private letter, assured Mrs. Gibson that her ill-timed confidence about Roger should be considered as quite private. For as soon as Mr Henderson had made his appearance in Hollingford, she had written a second letter, entreating them not to allude to anything she might have said in her first; which she said was written in such excitement on discovering the real state of her daughter’s affections, that she had hardly known what she had said, and had exaggerated some things, and misunderstood others; all that she did know now was, that Mr. Henderson had just proposed to Cynthia, and was accepted, and that they were as happy as the day was long, and (‘excuse the vanity of a mother,’) made a most lovely couple. So Mr and Mrs. Kirkpatrick wrote back an equally agreeable letter, praising Mr. Henderson, admiring Cynthia, and generally congratulatory; insisting into the bargain that the marriage should take place from their house in Hyde Park Street, and that Mr. and Mrs. Gibson and Molly should all come up and pay them a visit. There was a little postscript at the end. ‘Surely you do not mean the famous traveller, Hamley, about whose discoveries all our scientific men are so much excited. You speak of him as a young Hamley, who went to Africa. Answer this question, pray, for Helen is most anxious to know.’ This P.S. being in Helen’s handwriting. In her exultation at the general success of everything, and desire for sympathy, Mrs. Gibson read parts of this letter to Molly; the postscript among the rest. It made a deeper impression on Molly than even the proposed kindness of the visit to London.

There were some family consultations; but the end of them all was that the Kirkpatrick invitation was accepted. There were many small reasons for this, which were openly acknowledged; but there was one general and unspoken wish to have the ceremony performed out of the immediate neighbourhood of the two men whom Cynthia had previously — rejected; that was the word now to be applied to her treatment of them. So Molly was ordered and enjoined and entreated to become strong as soon as possible, in order that her health might not prevent her attending the marriage. Mr. Gibson himself, though he thought it his duty to damp the exultant anticipations of his wife and her daughter, was not at all averse to the prospect of going to London, and seeing half-a-dozen old friends, and many scientific exhibitions, independently of the very fair amount of liking which he had for his host, Mr. Kirkpatrick, himself.

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