Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter IX

The Widower and the Widow

Mrs. Kirkpatrick was only too happy to accept Lady Cumnor’s invitation. It was what she had been hoping for, but hardly daring to expect, as she believed that the family were settled in London for some time to come. The Towers was a pleasant and luxurious house in which to pass her holidays; and though she was not one to make deep plans, or to look far ahead, she was quite aware of the prestige which her being able to say she had been staying with ‘dear Lady Cumnor’ at the Towers, was likely to give her and her school in the eyes of a good many people; so she gladly prepared to join her ladyship on the 17th. Her wardrobe did not require much arrangement; if it had done, the poor lady would not have had much money to appropriate to the purpose. She was very pretty and graceful; and that goes a great way towards carrying off shabby clothes; and it was her taste, more than any depth of feeling, that had made her persevere in wearing all the delicate tints — the violets and greys — which, with a certain admixture of black, constitute half-mourning. This style of becoming dress she was supposed to wear in memory of Mr. Kirkpatrick; in reality because it was both lady-like and economical. Her beautiful hair was of that rich auburn that hardly ever turns grey; and partly out of consciousness of its beauty, and partly because the washing of caps is expensive, she did not wear anything on her head; her complexion had the vivid tints that often accompany the kind of hair which has once been red; and the only injury her skin had received from advancing years was that the colouring was rather more brilliant than delicate, and varied less with every passing emotion. She could no longer blush; and at eighteen she had been very proud of her blushes. Her eyes were soft, large, and china-blue in colour; they had not much expression or shadow about them, which was perhaps owing to the flaxen colour of her eyelashes. Her figure was a little fuller than it used to be, but her movements were as soft and sinuous as ever. Altogether, she looked much younger than her age, which was not far short of forty. She had a very pleasant voice, and read aloud well and distinctly, which Lady Cumnor liked. Indeed, for some inexplicable reason, she was a greater; more positive favourite with Lady Cumnor than with any of the rest of the family, though they all liked her up to a certain point, and found it agreeably useful to have any one in the house who was so well acquainted with their ways and habits; so ready to talk, when a little trickle of conversation was required; so willing to listen, and to listen with tolerable intelligence, if the subjects spoken about did not refer to serious solid literature, or science, or politics, or social economy. About novels and poetry, travels and gossip, personal details, or anecdotes of any kind, she always made exactly the remarks which are expected from an agreeable listener; and she had sense enough to confine herself to those short expressions of wonder, admiration, and astonishment, which may mean anything, when more recondite things were talked about.

It was a very pleasant change to a poor unsuccessful schoolmistress to leave her own house, full of battered and shabby furniture (she had taken the goodwill and furniture of her predecessor at a valuation, two or three years before), where the look-out was as gloomy, and the surrounding as squalid, as is often the case in the smaller streets of a country town, and to come bowling through the Towers Park in the luxurious carriage sent to meet her; to alight, and feel secure that the well-trained servants would see after her bags and umbrella, and parasol, and cloak, without her loading herself with all these portable articles, as she had had to do while following the wheel-barrow containing her luggage in going to the Ashcombe coach-office that morning; to pass up the deep-piled carpets of the broad shallow stairs into my lady’s own room, cool and deliciously fresh, even on this sultry day, and fragrant with great bowls of freshly gathered roses of every shade of colour. There were two or three new novels lying uncut on the table; the daily papers, the magazines. Every chair was an easy-chair of some kind or other; and all covered with French chintz that mimicked the real flowers in the garden below. She was familiar with the bedroom called hers, to which she was soon ushered by Lady Cumnor’s maid. It seemed to her far more like home than the dingy place she had left that morning; it was so natural to her to like dainty draperies and harmonious colouring, and fine linen and soft raiment. She sate down on the arm-chair by the bed-side, and wondered over her fate something in this fashion —

‘One would think it was an easy enough thing to deck a looking-glass like that with muslin and pink ribbons; and yet how hard it is to keep it up! People don’t know how hard it is till they’ve tried as I have. I made my own glass just as pretty when I first went to Ashcombe; but the muslin got dirty, and the pink ribbons faded, and it is so difficult to earn money to renew them; and when one has got the money one hasn’t the heart to spend it all at once. One thinks and one thinks how one can get the most good out of it; and a new gown, or a day’s pleasure, or some hot-house fruit, or some piece of elegance that can be seen and noticed in one’s drawing-room, carries the day, and good-by to prettily decked looking-glasses. Now here, money is like the air they breathe. No one ever asks or knows how much the washing costs, or what pink ribbon is a yard. Ah! it would be different if they had to earn every penny as I have! They would have to calculate, like me, how to get the most pleasure out of it. I wonder if I am to go on all my life toiling and moiling for money? It’s not natural. Marriage is the natural thing; then the husband has all that kind of dirty work to do, and his wife sits in the drawing-room like a lady. I did, when poor Kirkpatrick was alive. Heigho! it’s a sad thing to be a widow.’

Then there was the contrast between the dinners which she had to share with her scholars at Ashcombe — rounds of beef, legs of mutton, great dishes of potatoes, and large barter-puddings, with the tiny meal of exquisitely cooked delicacies, sent up on old Chelsea china, that was served every day to the earl and countess and herself at the Towers. She dreaded the end of her holidays as much as the most home-loving of her pupils. But at this time that end was some weeks off, so Clare shut her eyes to the future, and tried to relish the present to its fullest extent. A disturbance to the pleasant, even course of the summer days came in the indisposition of Lady Cumnor. Her husband had gone back to London, and she and Mrs. Kirkpatrick had been left to the very even tenor of life, which was according to my lady’s wish just now. In spite of her languor and fatigue, she had gone through the day when the school visitors came to the Towers, in full dignity, dictating clearly all that was to be done, what walks were to be taken, what hothouses to be seen, and when the party were to return to the ‘collation.’ She herself remained indoors, with one or two ladies who had ventured to think that the fatigue or the heat might be too much for them, and who had therefore declined accompanying the ladies in charge of Mrs. Kirkpatrick, or those other favoured few to whom Lord Cumnor was explaining the new buildings in his farm-yard. ‘With the utmost condescension,’ as her hearers afterwards expressed it, Lady Cumnor told them all about her married daughters’ establishments, nurseries, plans for the education of their children, and manner of passing the day. But the exertion tired her; and when every one had left, the probability is that she would have gone to lie down and rest, had not her husband made an unlucky remark in the kindness of his heart. He came up to her and put his hand on her shoulder.

‘I’m afraid you’re sadly tired, my lady?’ he said.

She braced her muscles, and drew herself up, saying coldly —

‘When I am tired, Lord Cumnor, I will tell you so.’ And her own fatigue showed itself during the rest of the evening in her sitting particularly upright, and declining all offers of easy-chairs or footstools, and refusing the insult of a suggestion that they should all go to bed earlier. She went on in something of this kind of manner as long as Lord Cumnor remained at the Towers. Mrs Kirkpatrick was quite deceived by it, and kept assuring Lord Cumnor that she had never seen dear Lady Cumnor looking better, or so strong and well. But he had an affectionate heart, if a blundering head; and though he could give no reason for his belief, he was almost certain his wife was not well. Yet he was too much afraid of her to send for Mr. Gibson without her permission. His last words to Clare were —

‘It’s such a comfort to leave my lady to you; only don’t you be deluded by her ways. She’ll not show she’s ill till she can’t help it. Consult with Bradley,’ (Lady Cumnor’s ‘own woman,’— she disliked the new-fangledness of ‘lady’s-maid,’) ‘and if I were you, I’d send and ask Gibson to call — you might make any kind of a pretence,’— and then the idea he had had in London of the fitness of a match between the two coming into his head just now, he could not help adding — ‘Get him to come and see you, he’s a very agreeable man; Lord Hollingford says there’s no one like him in these parts: and he might be looking at my lady while he was talking to you, and see if he thinks her really ill. And let me know what he says about her.’

But Clare was just as great a coward about doing anything for Lady Cumnor which she had not expressly ordered, as Lord Cumnor himself. She knew she might fall into such disgrace if she sent for Mr. Gibson without direct permission, that she might never be asked to stay at the Towers again; and the life there, monotonous in its smoothness of luxury as it might be to some, was exactly to her taste. She in her turn tried to put upon Bradley the duty which Lord Cumnor had put upon her.

‘Mrs. Bradley,’ she said one day, ‘are you quite comfortable about my lady’s health? Lord Cumnor fancied that she was looking worn and ill?’

‘Indeed, Mrs. Kirkpatrick, I don’t think my lady is herself. I can’t persuade myself as she is, though if you was to question me till night I couldn’t tell you why.’

‘Don’t you think you could make some errand to Hollingford, and see Mr. Gibson, and ask him to come round this way some day, and make a call on Lady Cumnor?’

‘It would be as much as my place is worth, Mrs. Kirkpatrick. Till my lady’s dying day, if Providence keeps her in her senses, she’ll have everything done her own way, or not at all. There’s only Lady Harriet that can manage her at all, and she not always.’

‘Well, then — we must hope that there is nothing the matter with her; and I dare say there is not. She says there is not, and she ought to know best herself.’

But a day or two after this conversation took place, Lady Cumnor startled Mrs. Kirkpatrick, by saying suddenly —

‘Clare, I wish you’d write a note to Mr. Gibson, saying, I should like to see him this afternoon. I thought he would have called of himself before now. He ought to have done so, to pay his respects.’

Mr. Gibson had been far too busy in his profession to have time for mere visits of ceremony, though he knew quite well he was neglecting what was expected of him. But the district of which he may be said to have had medical charge was full of a bad kind of low fever, which took up all his time and thought, and often made him very thankful that Molly was out of the way in the quiet shades of Hamley.

His domestic ‘raws’ had not healed over in the least, though he was obliged to put the perplexities on one side for the time. The last drop — the final straw, had been an impromptu visit of Lord Hollingford’s, whom he had met in the town one forenoon. They had had a good deal to say to each other about some new scientific discovery, with the details of which Lord Hollingford was well acquainted, while Mr. Gibson was ignorant and deeply interested. At length Lord Hollingford said suddenly —

‘Gibson, I wonder if you’d give me some lunch; I’ve been a good deal about since my seven-o’clock breakfast, and am getting quite ravenous.’

Now Mr. Gibson was only too much pleased to show hospitality to one whom he liked and respected so much as Lord Hollingford, and he gladly took him home with him to the early family dinner. But it was just at the time when the cook was sulking at Bethia’s dismissal — and she chose to be unpunctual and careless. There was no successor to Bethia as yet appointed to wait at the meals. So, though Mr. Gibson knew well that bread-and-cheese, cold beef, or the simplest food available, would have been welcome to the hungry lord, he could not get either these things for luncheon, or even the family dinner, at anything like the proper time, in spite of all his ringing, and as much anger as he liked to show, for fear of making Lord Hollingford uncomfortable. At last dinner was ready, but the poor host saw the want of nicety — almost the want of cleanliness, in all its accompaniments — dingy plate, dull-looking glass, a tablecloth that, if not absolutely dirty, was anything but fresh in its splashed and rumpled condition, and compared it in his own mind with the dainty delicacy with which even a loaf of brown bread was served up at his guest’s home. He did not apologize directly, but, after dinner, just as they were parting, he said —

‘You see a man like me — a widower — with a daughter who cannot always be at home — has not the regulated household which would enable me to command the small portions of time I can spend there.’

He made no allusion to the comfortless meal of which they had both partaken, though it was full in his mind. Nor was it absent from Lord Hollingford’s, as he made reply —

‘True, true. Yet a man like you ought to be free from any thought of household cares. You ought to have somebody. How old is Miss Gibson?’

‘Seventeen. It’s a very awkward age for a motherless girl.’

‘Yes; very. I have only boys, but it must be very awkward with a girl. Excuse me, Gibson, but we’re talking like friends. Have you never thought of marrying again? It would not be like a first marriage, of course; but if you found a sensible agreeable woman of thirty or so, I really think you couldn’t do better than take her to manage your home, and so save you either discomfort or worry; and, besides, she would be able to give your daughter that kind of tender supervision which, I fancy, all girls of that age require. It’s a delicate subject, but you’ll excuse my having spoken frankly.’

Mr. Gibson had thought of this advice several times since it was given; but it was a case of ‘first catch your hare.’ Where was the ‘sensible and agreeable woman of thirty or so?’ Not Miss Browning, nor Miss Phoebe, nor Miss Goodenough. Among his country patients there were two classes pretty distinctly marked: farmers, whose children were unrefined and uneducated; squires, whose daughters would, indeed think the world was coming to a pretty pass, if they were to marry a country surgeon.

But the first day on which Mr. Gibson paid his visit to Lady Cumnor, he began to think it possible that Mrs. Kirkpatrick was his ‘hare.’ He rode away with slack rein, thinking over what he knew of her, more than about the prescriptions he should write, or the way he was going. He remembered her as a very pretty Miss Clare: the governess who had the scarlet fever; that was in his wife’s days, a long time ago; he could hardly understand Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s youthfulness of appearance when he thought how long. Then he heard of her marriage to a curate; and the next day (or so it seemed, he could not recollect the exact duration of the interval), of his death. He knew, in some way, that ever since she had been living as a governess in different families; but that she had always been a great favourite with the family at the Towers, for whom, quite independent of their rank, he had a true respect. A year or two ago he had heard that she had taken the good-will of a school at Ashcombe; a small town close to another property of Lord Cumnor’s, in the same county. Ashcombe was a larger estate than that near Hollingford, but the old Manor-house there was not nearly so good a residence as the Towers; so it was given up to Mr. Preston, the land-agent, for the Ashcombe property, just as Mr. Sheepshanks was for that at Hollingford. There were a few rooms at the Manor-house reserved for the occasional visits of the family, otherwise Mr Preston, a handsome young bachelor, had it all to himself. Mr. Gibson knew that Mrs. Kirkpatrick had one child, a daughter, who must be much about the same age as Molly. Of course she had very little, if any, property. But he himself had lived carefully, and had a few thousands well invested; besides which, his professional income was good, and increasing rather than diminishing every year. By the time he had arrived at this point in his consideration of the case, he was at the house of the next patient on his round, and he put away all thought of matrimony and Mrs. Kirkpatrick for the time. Once again, in the course of the day, he remembered with a certain pleasure that Molly had told him some little details connected with her unlucky detention at the Towers five or six years ago, which had made him feel at the time as if Mrs. Kirkpatrick had behaved very kindly to his little girl. So there the matter rested for the present, as far as he was concerned.

Lady Cumnor was out of health; but not so ill as she had been fancying herself during all those days when the people about her dared not send for the doctor. It was a great relief to her to have Mr. Gibson to decide for her what she was to do; what to eat, drink, avoid. Such decisions ab extra, are sometimes a wonderful relief to those whose habit it has been to decide, not only for themselves, but for every one else; and occasionally the relaxation of the strain which a character for infallible wisdom brings with it, does much to restore health. Mrs. Kirkpatrick thought in her secret soul that she had never found it so easy to get on with Lady Cumnor; and Bradley and she had never done singing the praises of Mr. Gibson, ‘who always managed my lady so beautifully.’

Reports were duly sent up to my lord, but he and her daughters were strictly forbidden to come down. Lady Cumnor wished to be weak and languid, and uncertain both in body and mind, without family observation. It was a condition so different to anything she had ever been in before, that she was unconsciously afraid of losing her prestige, if she was seen in it. Sometimes she herself wrote the daily bulletins; at other times she bade Clare to do it, but she would always see the letters. Any answers she received from her daughters she used to read herself, occasionally imparting some of their contents to ‘that good Clare.’ But anybody might read my lord’s letters. There was no great fear of family secrets oozing out in his sprawling lines of affection. But once Mrs. Kirkpatrick came upon a sentence in a letter from Lord Cumnor, which she was reading out loud to his wife, that caught her eye before she came to it, and if she could have skipped it and kept it for private perusal, she would gladly have done so. My lady was too sharp for her, though. In her opinion ‘Clare was a good creature, but not clever,’ the truth being that she was not always quick at resources, though tolerably unscrupulous in the use of them.

‘Read on. What are you stopping for? There is no bad news, is there, about Agnes? — Give me the letter.’

Lady Cumnor read, half aloud —

‘“How are Clare and Gibson getting on? You despised my advice to help on that affair, but I really think a little match-making would be a very pleasant amusement now that you are shut up in the house; and I cannot conceive any marriage more suitable.”’

‘Oh!’ said Lady Cumnor, laughing, ‘it was awkward for you to come upon that, Clare: I don’t wonder you stopped short. You gave me a terrible fright, though.’

‘Lord Cumnor is so fond of joking,’ said Mrs. Kirkpatrick, a little flurried, yet quite recognizing the truth of his last words — ‘I cannot conceive any marriage more suitable.’ She wondered what Lady Cumnor thought of it. Lord Cumnor wrote as if there was really a chance. It was not an unpleasant idea; it brought a faint smile out upon her face, as she sate by Lady Cumnor, while the latter took her afternoon nap.

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