One day, for some reason or other, Mr. Gibson came home unexpectedly. He was crossing the hall, having come in by the garden-door — the garden communicated with the stable-yard, where he had left his horse — when the kitchen door opened, and the girl who was underling in the establishment, came quickly into the hall with a note in her hand, and made as if she was taking it upstairs; but on seeing her master she gave a little start, and turned back as if to hide herself in the kitchen. If she had not made this movement, so conscious of guilt, Mr. Gibson, who was anything but suspicious, would never have taken any notice of her. As it was, he stepped quickly forwards, opened the kitchen door, and called out, ‘Bethia’ so sharply that she could not delay coming forwards.
‘Give me that note,’ he said. She hesitated a little.
‘It’s for Miss Molly,’ she stammered out.
‘Give it to me!’ he repeated more quietly than before. She looked as if she would cry; but still she kept the note tight held behind her back.
‘He said as I was to give it into her own hands; and I promised as I would, faithful.’
‘Cook, go and find Miss Molly. Tell her to come here at once.’
He fixed Bethia with his eyes. It was of no use trying to escape: she might have thrown it into the fire, but she had not presence of mind enough. She stood immovable, only her eyes looked any way rather than encounter her master’s steady gaze. ‘Molly, my dear!’
‘Papa! I did not know you were at home,’ said innocent, wondering Molly.
‘Bethia, keep your word. Here is Miss Molly; give her the note.’
‘Indeed, Miss, I couldn’t help it!’
Molly took the note, but before she could open it, her father said — ‘That’s all, my dear; you need not read it. Give it to me. Tell those who sent you, Bethia, that all letters for Miss Molly must pass through my hands. Now be off with you, goosey, and go back to where you came from.’
‘Papa, I shall make you tell me who my correspondent is.’
‘We’ll see about that, by-and-by.’
She went a little reluctantly, with ungratified curiosity, upstairs to Miss Eyre, who was still her daily companion, if not her governess. He turned into the empty dining-room, shut the door, broke the seal of the note, and began to read it. It was a flaming love-letter from Mr. Coxe; who professed himself unable to go on seeing her day after day without speaking to her of the passion she had inspired — an ‘eternal passion,’ he called it; on reading which Mr. Gibson laughed a little. Would she not look kindly at him? would she not think of him whose only thought was of her? and so on, with a very proper admixture of violent compliments to her beauty. She was fair, not pale; her eyes were loadstars, her dimples marks of Cupid’s finger, &c.
Mr. Gibson finished reading it; and began to think about it in his own mind. ‘Who would have thought the lad had been so poetical; but, to be sure, there’s a “Shakespeare” in the surgery library: I’ll take it away and put “Johnson’s Dictionary” instead. One comfort is the conviction of her perfect innocence — ignorance, I should rather say — for it is easy to see it’s the first “confession of his love,” as he calls it. But it’s an awful worry — to begin with lovers so early. Why, she’s only just seventeen — not seventeen, indeed, till July; not for six weeks yet. Sixteen and three-quarters! Why, she’s quite a baby. To be sure — poor Jeanie was not so old, and how I did love her! (Mrs. Gibson’s name was Mary, so he must have been referring to someone else.) Then his thoughts wandered back to other days, though he still held the open note in his hand. By-and-by his eyes fell upon it again, and his mind came back to bear upon the present time. ‘I’ll not be hard upon him. I’ll give him a hint; he is quite sharp enough to take it. Poor laddie! if I send him away, which would be the wisest course, I do believe, he’s got no home to go to.’
After a little more consideration in the same strain, Mr. Gibson went and sat down at the writing-table and wrote the following formula:—
(‘That “master” will touch him to the quick,’ said Mr. Gibson to himself as he wrote the word.)
Rx Verecundiae ounce i Fidelitatis Domesticae ounce i Reticentiae gr iij. M. Capiat hanc dosim ter die in aqua pura. R. GIBSON, Ch.
Mr. Gibson smiled a little sadly as he re-read his words. ‘Poor Jeanie,’ he said aloud. And then he chose out an envelope, enclosed the fervid love-letter, and the above prescription; sealed it with his own sharply-cut seal-ring, R. G., in Old–English letters, and then paused over the address.
‘He’ll not like Master Coxe outside; no need to put him to unnecessary shame.’ So the direction on the envelope was — Edward Coxe, Esq.
Then Mr. Gibson applied himself to the professional business which had brought him home so opportunely and unexpectedly, and afterwards he went back through the garden to the stables; and just as he had mounted his horse, he said to the stable-man — ‘Oh! by the way, here’s a letter for Mr. Coxe. Don’t send it through the women; take it round yourself to the surgery-door, and do it at once.’
The slight smile upon his face, as he rode out of the gates, died away as soon as he found himself in the solitude of the lanes. He slackened his speed, and began to think. It was very awkward, he considered, to have a motherless girl growing up into womanhood in the same house with two young men, even if she only met them at meal-times; and all the intercourse they had with each other was merely the utterance of such words as, ‘May I help you to potatoes?’ or, as Mr. Wynne would persevere in saying, ‘May I assist you to potatoes?’— a form of speech which grated daily more and more upon Mr. Gibson’s cars. Yet Mr. Coxe, the offender in this affair which had just occurred, had to remain for three years more as a pupil in Mr Gibson’s family. He should be the very last of the race. Still there were three years to be got over; and if this stupid passionate calf-love of his lasted, what was to be done? Sooner or later Molly would become aware of it. The contingencies of the affair were so excessively disagreeable to contemplate, that Mr. Gibson determined to dismiss the subject from his mind by a good strong effort. He put his horse to a gallop, and found that the violent shaking over the lanes — paved as they were with round stones, which had been dislocated by the wear and tear of a hundred years — was the very best thing for the spirits, if not for the bones. He made a long round that afternoon, and came back to his home imagining that the worst was over, and that Mr. Coxe would have taken the hint conveyed in the prescription. All that would be needed was to find a safe place for the unfortunate Bethia, who had displayed such a daring aptitude for intrigue. But Mr. Gibson reckoned without his host. It was the habit of the young men to come in to tea with the family in the dining-room, to swallow two cups, munch their bread or toast, and then disappear. This night Mr. Gibson watched their countenances furtively from under his long eye-lashes, while he tried against his wont to keep up a degage manner, and a brisk conversation on general subjects. He saw that Mr. Wynne was on the point of breaking out into laughter, and that red-haired, red-faced Mr. Coxe was redder and fiercer than ever, while his whole aspect and ways betrayed indignation and anger.
‘He will have it, will he?’ thought Mr. Gibson to himself; and he girded up his loins for the battle. He did not follow Molly and Miss Eyre into the drawing-room as he usually did. He remained where he was, pretending to read the newspaper, while Bethia, her face swelled up with crying, and with an aggrieved and offended aspect, removed the tea-things. Not five minutes after the room was cleared, came the expected tap at the door. ‘May I speak to you, sir?’ said the invisible Mr. Coxe, from outside.
‘To be sure. Come in, Mr. Coxe. I was rather wanting to talk to you about that bill of Corbyn’s. Pray sit down.’
‘It is about nothing of that kind, sir, that I wanted — that I wished — No, thank you — I would rather not sit down.’ He, accordingly, stood in offended dignity. ‘It is about that letter, sir — that letter with the insulting prescription, sir.’
‘Insulting prescription! I am surprised at such a word being applied to any prescription of mine — though, to be sure, patients are sometimes offended at being told the nature of their illnesses; and, I dare say, they may take offence at the medicines which their cases require.’
‘I did not ask you to prescribe for me.’
‘Oh, ho! Then you were the Master Coxe who sent the note through Bethia! Let me tell you it has cost her her place, and was a very silly letter into the bargain.’
‘It was not the conduct of a gentleman, sir, to intercept it, and to open it, and to read words never addressed to you, sir.’
‘No!’ said Mr. Gibson, with a slight twinkle in his eye and a curl on his lips, not unnoticed by the indignant Mr. Coxe. ‘I believe I was once considered tolerably good-looking, and I dare say I was as great a coxcomb as any one at twenty; but I don’t think that even then I should quite have believed that all those pretty compliments were addressed to myself.’
‘It was not the conductor a gentleman, sir,’ repeated Mr. Coxe, stammering over his words — he was going on to say something more, when Mr. Gibson broke in.
‘And let me tell you, young man,’ replied Mr. Gibson, with a sudden sternness in his voice, ‘that what you have done is only excusable in consideration of your youth and extreme ignorance of what are considered the laws of domestic honour. I receive you into my house as a member of my family — you induce one of my servants — corrupting her with a bribe, I have no doubt —’
‘Indeed, sir! I never gave her a penny.’
‘Then you ought to have done. You should always pay those who do your dirty work.’
‘Just now, sir, you called it corrupting with a bribe,’ muttered Mr Coxe.
Mr. Gibson took no notice of this speech, but went on — ‘Inducing one of my servants to risk her place, without offering her the slightest equivalent, by begging her to convey a letter clandestinely to my daughter — a mere child.’
‘Miss Gibson, sir, is nearly seventeen! I heard you say so only the other day,’ said Mr. Coxe, aged twenty. Again Mr. Gibson ignored the remark.
‘A letter which you were unwilling to have seen by her father, who had tacitly trusted to your honour, by receiving you as an inmate of his house. Your father’s son — I know Major Coxe well — ought to have come to me, and have said out openly, “Mr. Gibson, I love — or I fancy that I love — your daughter; I do not think it right to conceal this from you, although unable to earn a penny; and with no prospect of an unassisted livelihood, even for myself, for several years, I shall not say a word about my feelings — or fancied feelings — to the very young lady herself.” That is what your father’s son ought to have said; if, indeed, a couple of grains of reticent silence would not have been better still.’
‘And if I had said it, sir — perhaps I ought to have said it,’ said poor Mr. Coxe, in a hurry of anxiety, ‘what would have been your answer? Would you have sanctioned my passion, sir?’
‘I would have said, most probably — I will not be certain of my exact words in a suppositious case — that you were a young fool, but not a dishonourable young fool, and I should have told you not to let your thoughts run upon a calf-love until you had magnified it into a passion. And I dare say, to make up for the mortification I should have given you, I should have prescribed your joining the Hollingford Cricket Club, and set you at liberty as often as I could on the Saturday afternoons. As it is, I must write to your father’s agent in London, and ask him to remove you out of my household, repaying the premium, of course, which will enable you to start afresh in some other doctor’s surgery.’
‘It will so grieve my father,’ said Mr. Coxe, startled into dismay, if not repentance.
‘I see no other course open. It will give Major Coxe some trouble (I shall take care that he is at no extra expense), but what I think will grieve him the most is the betrayal of confidence; for I trusted you, Edward, like a son of my own!’ There was something in Mr. Gibson’s voice when he spoke seriously, especially when he referred to any feeling of his own — he who so rarely betrayed what was passing in his heart — that was irresistible to most people: the change from joking and sarcasm to tender gravity.
Mr. Coxe hung his head a little, and meditated.
‘I do love Miss Gibson,’ said he at length. ‘Who could help it?’
‘Mr. Wynne, I hope!’ said Mr. Gibson.
‘His heart is preengaged,’ replied Mr. Coxe. ‘Mine was free as air till I saw her.’
‘Would it tend to cure your — well! passion, we’ll say — if she wore blue spectacles at meal-times? I observe you dwell much on the beauty of her eyes.’
‘You are ridiculing my feelings, Mr. Gibson. Do you forget that you yourself were young once?’
‘Poor Jeanie’ rose before Mr. Gibson’s eyes; and he felt a little rebuked.
‘Come, Mr. Coxe, let us see if we can’t make a bargain,’ said he, after a minute or so of silence. ‘You have done a really wrong thing, and I hope you are convinced of it in your heart, or that you will be when the heat of this discussion is over, and you come to think a little about it. But I won’t lose all respect for your father’s son. If you will give me your word that, as long as you remain a member of my family — pupil, apprentice, what you will — you won’t again try to disclose your passion — you see, I am careful to take your view of what I should call a mere fancy — by word or writing, looks or acts, in any manner whatever, to my daughter, or to talk about your feelings to any one else, you shall remain here. If you cannot give me your word, I must follow out the course I named, and write to your father’s agent.’
Mr. Coxe stood irresolute.
‘Mr. Wynne knows all I feel for Miss Gibson, sir. He and I have no secrets from each other.’
‘Well, I suppose he must represent the reeds. You know the story of King Midas’s barber, who found out that his royal master had the ears of an ass beneath his hyacinthine curls. So the barber, in default of a Mr. Wynne, went to the reeds that grew on the shores of a neighbouring lake, and whispered to them, “King Midas has the ears of an ass.” But he repeated it so often that the reeds learnt the words, and kept on saying them all the day long, till at the last the secret was no secret at all. If you keep on telling your tale to Mr. Wynne, are you sure he won’t repeat it in his turn?’
‘If I pledge my word as a gentleman, sir, I pledge it for Mr. Wynne as well.’
‘I suppose I must run the risk. But remember how soon a young girl’s name may be breathed upon, and sullied. Molly has no mother, and for that very reason she ought to move among you all, as unharmed as Una herself.’
‘Mr. Gibson, if you wish it, I’ll swear it on the Bible,’ cried the excitable young man.
‘Nonsense. As if your word, if it’s worth anything, was not enough! We’ll shake hands upon it, if you like.’
Mr. Coxe came forward eagerly, and almost squeezed Mr. Gibson’s ring into his finger.
As he was leaving the room, he said, a little uneasily, ‘May I give Bethia a crown-piece?’
‘No, indeed! Leave Bethia to me. I hope you won’t say another word to her while she is here. I shall see that she gets a respectable place when she goes away.’
Then Mr. Gibson rang for his horse, and went out on the last visits of the day. He used to reckon that he rode the world around in the course of the year. There were not many surgeons in the county who had so wide a range of practice as he; he went to lonely cottages on the borders of great commons; to farm-houses at the end of narrow country lanes that led to nowhere else, and were overshadowed by the elms and beeches overhead. He attended all the gentry within a circle of fifteen miles round Hollingford; and was the appointed doctor to the still greater families who went up to London every February — as the fashion then was — and returned to their acres in the early weeks of July. He was, of necessity, a great deal from home, and on this soft and pleasant summer evening he felt the absence as a great evil. He was startled into discovering that his little one was growing fast into a woman, and already the passive object of some of the strong interests that affect a woman’s life; and he — her mother as well as her father — so much away that he could not guard her as he would have wished. The end of his cogitations was that ride to Hamley the next morning, when he proposed to allow his daughter to accept Mrs. Hamley’s last invitation — an invitation that had been declined at the time.
‘You may quote against me the proverb, “He that will not when he may, when he will he shall have nay.” And I shall have no reason to complain,’ he had said.
But Mrs. Hamley was only too much charmed with the prospect of having a young girl for a visitor; one whom it would not be a trouble to entertain; who might be sent out to ramble in the gardens, or told to read when the invalid was too much fatigued for conversation; and yet one whose youth and freshness would bring a charm, like a waft of sweet summer air, into her lonely shut-up life. Nothing could be pleasanter, and so Molly’s visit to Hamley was easily settled.
‘I only wish Osborne and Roger had been at home,’ said Mrs. Hamley, in her slow soft voice. ‘She may find it dull being with old people, like the squire and me, from morning till night. When can she come? the darling — I am beginning to love her already!’
Mr. Gibson was very glad in his heart that the young men of the house were out of the way; he did not want his little Molly to be passing from Scylla to Charybdis; and, as he afterwards scoffed at himself for thinking, he had got an idea that all young men were wolves in chase of his one ewe-lamb.
‘She knows nothing of the pleasure in store for her,’ he replied; ‘and I am sure I don’t know what feminine preparations she may think necessary, or how long they may take. You’ll remember she is a little ignoramus, and has had no . . . no training in etiquette; our ways at home are rather rough for a girl, I’m afraid. But I know I could not send her into a kinder atmosphere than this.’
When the squire heard from his wife of Mr. Gibson’s proposal, he was as much pleased as she at the prospect of their youthful visitor; for he was a man of a hearty hospitality, when his pride did not interfere with its gratification; and he was delighted to think of his sick wife’s having such an agreeable companion in her hours of loneliness. After a while he said — ‘It’s as well the lads are at Cambridge; we might have been having a love-affair if they had been at home.’
‘Well — and if we had?’ asked his more romantic wife.
‘It would not have done,’ said the squire, decidedly. ‘Osborne will have had a first-rate education — as good as any man in the county — he’ll have this property, and he’s a Hamley of Hamley; not a family in the shire is as old as we are, or settled on their ground so well. Osborne may marry where he likes. If Lord Hollingford had a daughter, Osborne would have been as good a match as she could have required. It would never do for him to fall in love with Gibson’s daughter — I should not allow it. So it’s as well he’s out of the way.’
‘Well! perhaps Osborne had better look higher.’
‘“Perhaps!” I say he must.’ The squire brought his hand down with a thump on the table, near him, which made his wife’s heart beat hard for some minutes. ‘And as for Roger,’ he continued, unconscious of the flutter he had put her into, ‘he’ll have to make his own way, and earn his own bread; and, I’m afraid, he’s not getting on very brilliantly at Cambridge. He must not think of falling in love for these ten years.’
‘Unless he marries a fortune,’ said Mrs. Hamley, more by way of concealing her palpitation than anything else; for she was unworldly and romantic to a fault.
‘No son of mine shall ever marry a wife who is richer than himself, with my good will,’ said the squire again, with emphasis, but without a thump. ‘I don’t say but what if Roger is gaining five hundred a year by the time he’s thirty, he shall not choose a wife with ten thousand pounds down; but I do say, if a boy of mine, with only two hundred a year — which is all Roger will have from us, and that not for a long time — goes and marries a woman with fifty thousand to her portion, I will disown him — it would be just disgusting.’
‘Not if they loved each other, and their whole happiness depended upon their marrying each other?’ put in Mrs. Hamley, mildly.
‘Pooh! away with love! Nay, my dear, we loved each other so dearly we should never have been happy with any one else; but that’s a different thing. People are not like what they were when we were young. All the love now-a-days is just silly fancy, and sentimental romance, as far as I can see.’
Mr. Gibson thought that he had settled everything about Molly’s going to Hamley before he spoke to her about it, which he did not do, until the morning of the day on which Mrs. Hamley expected her. Then he said — ‘By the way, Molly! you are to go to Hamley this afternoon; Mrs. Hamley wants you to go to her for a week or two, and it suits me capitally that you should accept her invitation just now.’
‘Go to Hamley! This afternoon! Papa, you’ve got some odd reasons at the back of your head — some mystery, or something. Please, tell me what it is. Go to Hamley for a week or two! Why, I never was from home before this without you in all my life.’
‘Perhaps not. I don’t think you ever walked before you put your feet to the ground. Everything must have a beginning.’
‘It has something to do with that letter that was directed to me, but that you took out of my hands before I could even see the writing of the direction.’ She fixed her grey eyes on her father’s face, as if she meant to pluck out his secret.
He only smiled and said — ‘You’re a witch, goosey!’
‘Then it had! But if it was a note from Mrs. Hamley, why might I not see it? I have been wondering if you had some plan in your head ever since that day — Thursday, was it not? You’ve gone about in a kind of thoughtful perplexed way, just like a conspirator. Tell me, papa’— coming up to him, and putting on a beseeching manner —‘why might not I see that note? and why am I to go to Hamley all on a sudden?’
‘Don’t you like to go? Would you rather not?’ If she had said that she did not want to go he would have been rather pleased than otherwise, although it would have put him into a great perplexity; but he was beginning to dread the parting from her even for so short a time. However, she replied directly —
‘I don’t know — I dare say I shall like it when I have thought a little more about it. Just now I am so startled by the suddenness of the affair, I have not considered whether I shall like it or not. I shan’t like going away from you, I know. Why am I to go, papa?’
‘There are three old ladies sitting somewhere, and thinking about you just at this very minute; one has a distaff in her hands, and is spinning a thread; she has come to a knot in it, and is puzzled what to do with it. Her sister has a great pair of scissors in her hands, and wants — as she always does, when any difficulty arises in the smoothness of the thread — to cut it off short; but the third, who has the most head of the three, plans how to undo the knot; and she it is who has decided that you are to go to Hamley. The others are quite convinced by her arguments; so, as the Fates have decreed that this visit is to be paid, there is nothing left for you and me but to submit.’
‘That is all nonsense, papa, and you are only making me more curious to find out this hidden reason.’
Mr. Gibson changed his tone, and spoke gravely now. ‘There is a reason, Molly, and one which I do not wish to give. When I tell you this much, I expect you to be an honourable girl, and to try and not even conjecture what the reason may be — much less endeavour to put little discoveries together till very likely you may find out what I want to conceal.’
‘Papa, I won’t even think about your reason again. But then I shall have to plague you with another question. I have had no new gowns this year, and I have outgrown all my last summer frocks. I have only three that I can wear at all. Betty was saying only yesterday that I ought to have some more.’
‘That will do that you have got on, won’t it? It is a very pretty colour.’
‘Yes; but, papa,’ (holding it out as if she was, going to dance) ‘it’s made of woollen, and so hot and heavy; and every day it will be getting warmer.’
‘I wish girls could dress like boys,’ said Mr. Gibson, with a little impatience. ‘How is a man to know when his daughter wants clothes? and how is he to rig her out when he finds it out, just when she needs them most and has not got them?’
‘Ah, that’s the question!’ said Molly, in some despair.
‘Can’t you go to Miss Rose’s? Does not she keep ready-made frocks for girls of your age?’
‘Miss Rose! I never had anything from her in my life,’ replied Molly, in some surprise; for Miss Rose was the great dressmaker and milliner of the little town, and hitherto Betty had made the girl’s frocks.
‘Well, but it seems people consider you as a young woman now, and so I suppose you must run up milliners’ bills like the rest of your kind. Not that you are to get anything anywhere that you can’t pay for down in ready money. Here’s a ten-pound note; go to Miss Rose’s, or Miss anybody’s, and get what you want at once. The Hamley carriage is to come for you at two, and anything that is not quite ready, can easily be sent by their cart on Saturday, when some of their people always come to market. Nay, don’t thank me! I don’t want to have the money spent, and I don’t want you to go and leave me: I shall miss you, I know; it’s only hard necessity that drives me to send you a-visiting, and to throw away ten pounds on your clothes. There, go away; you’re a plague, and I mean to leave off loving you as fast as I can.’
‘Papa!’ holding up her finger as in warning, ‘you are getting mysterious again; and though my honourableness is very strong, I won’t promise that it shall not yield to my curiosity if you go on hinting at untold secrets.’
‘Go away and spend your ten pounds. What did I give it you for but to keep you quiet?’
Miss Rose’s ready-made resources and Molly’s taste combined, did not arrive at a very great success. She bought a lilac print, because it would wash, and would be cool and pleasant for the mornings; and this Betty could make at home before Saturday. And for high-days and holidays — by which was understood afternoons and Sundays — Miss Rose persuaded her to order a gay-coloured, flimsy plaid silk, which she assured her was quite the latest fashion in London, and which Molly thought would please her father’s Scotch blood. But when he saw the scrap which she had brought home as a pattern, he cried out that the plaid belonged to no clan in existence, and that Molly ought to have known this by instinct. It was too late to change it, however, for Miss Rose had promised to cut the dress out as soon as Molly had left her shop.
Mr. Gibson had hung about the town all the morning instead of going away on his usual distant rides. He passed his daughter once or twice in the street, but he did not cross over the way when he was on the opposite side — only gave her a look or a nod, and went on his way, scolding himself for his weakness in feeling so much pain at the thought of her absence for a fortnight or so.
‘And, after all,’ thought he, ‘I am only where I was when she comes back; at least, if that foolish fellow goes on with his imaginary fancy. She’ll have to come back some time, and if he chooses to imagine himself constant, there’s still the devil to pay.’ Presently he began to hum the air out of the ‘Beggar’s Opera’—
‘I wonder any man alive
Should ever rear a daughter.’
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09