Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell

Chapter LX

Roger Hamley’s Confession

Roger had a great deal to think of as he turned away from looking after the carriage as long as it could be seen. The day before, he had believed that Molly had come to view all the symptoms of his growing love for her — symptoms which he thought had been so patent — as disgusting inconstancy to the inconstant Cynthia; that she had felt that an attachment which could be so soon transferred to another was not worth having; and that she had desired to mark all this by her changed treatment of him, and so to nip it in the bud. But this morning her old sweet, frank manner had returned — in their last interview, at any rate. He puzzled himself hard to find out what could have distressed her at breakfast-time. He even went so far as to ask Robinson whether Miss Gibson had received any letters that morning; and when he heard that she had had one, he tried to believe that the letter was in some way the cause of her sorrow. So far so good. They were friends again after their unspoken difference; but that was not enough for Roger. He felt every day more and more certain that she, and she alone, could make him happy. He had felt this, and had partly given up all hope, while his father had been urging upon him the very course he most desired to take. No need for ‘trying’ to love her, he said to himself — that was already done. And yet he was very jealous on her behalf. Was that love worthy of her which had once been given to Cynthia? Was not this affair too much a mocking mimicry of the last? Again just on the point of leaving England for a considerable time! If he followed her now to her own home — in the very drawing-room where he had once offered to Cynthia! And then by a strong resolve he determined on this course. They were friends now, and he kissed the rose that was her pledge of friendship. If he went to Africa, he ran some deadly chances; he knew better what they were now than he had done when he went before. Until his return he would not even attempt to win more of her love than he already had. But once safe home again, no weak fancies as to what might or might not be her answer should prevent his running all chances to gain the woman who was to him the one who excelled all. His was not the poor vanity that thinks more of the possible mortification of a refusal than of the precious jewel of a bride that may be won. Somehow or another, please God to send him back safe, he would put his fate to the touch. And till then he would be patient. He was no longer a boy to rush at the coveted object; he was a man capable of judging and abiding.

Molly sent her father, as soon as she could find him, to the Hall; and then sate down to the old life in the home drawing-room, where she missed Cynthia’s bright presence at every turn. Mrs. Gibson was in rather a querulous mood, which fastened itself upon the injury of Cynthia’s letter being addressed to Molly, and not to herself.

‘Considering all the trouble I had with her trousseau, I think she might have written to me.’

‘But she did — her first letter was to you, mamma,’ said Molly, her real thoughts still intent upon the Hall — upon the sick child — upon Roger, and his begging for the flower.

‘Yes, just a first letter, three pages long, with an account of her crossing; while to you she can write about fashions, and how the bonnets are worn in Paris, and all sorts of interesting things. But poor mothers must never expect confidential letters, I have found that out.’

‘You may see my letter, mamma,’ said Molly, ‘there is really nothing in it.’

‘And to think of her writing, and crossing to you who don’t value it, while my poor heart is yearning after my lost child! Really life is somewhat hard to bear at times.’

Then there was a silence — for a while.

‘Do tell me something about your visit, Molly. Is Roger very heartbroken? Does he talk much about Cynthia?’

‘No. He does not mention her often; hardly ever, I think.’

‘I never thought he had much feeling. If he had had, he would not have let her go so easily.’

‘I don’t see how he could help it. When he came to see her after his return, she was already engaged to Mr. Henderson — he had come down that very day,’ said Molly, with perhaps more heat than the occasion required.

‘My poor head!’ said Mrs. Gibson, putting her hands up to her head. ‘One may see you’ve been stopping with people of robust health, and — excuse my saying it, Molly, of your friends — of unrefined habits, you’ve got to talk in so loud a voice. But do remember my head, Molly. So Roger has quite forgotten Cynthia, has he? Oh! what inconstant creatures men are! He will be falling in love with some grandee next, mark my words! They are making a pet and a lion of him, and he’s just the kind of weak young man to have his head turned by it all; and to propose to some fine lady of rank, who would no more think of marrying him than of marrying her footman.’

‘I don’t think it is likely,’ said Molly, stoutly. ‘Roger is too sensible for anything of the kind.’

‘That’s just the fault I always found with him; sensible and cold-hearted! Now, that’s a kind of character which may be very valuable, but which revolts me. Give me warmth of heart, even with a little of that extravagance of feeling which misleads the judgment, and conducts into romance. Poor Mr. Kirkpatrick! That was just his character. I used to tell him that his love for me was quite romantic. I think I have told you about his walking five miles in the rain to get me a muffin once when I was ill?’

‘Yes!’ said Molly. ‘It was very kind of him.’

‘So imprudent, too! Just what one of your sensible, cold-hearted, commonplace people would never have thought of doing. With his cough and all.’

‘I hope he didn’t suffer for it?’ replied Molly, anxious at any cost to keep off the subject of the Hamleys, upon which she and her stepmother always disagreed, and on which she found it difficult to keep her temper.

‘Yes, indeed, he did! I don’t think he ever got over the cold he caught that day. I wish you had known him, Molly. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if you had been my real daughter, and Cynthia dear papa’s, and Mr. Kirkpatrick and your own dear mother had all lived. People talk a good deal about natural affinities. It would have been a question for a philosopher.’ She began to think on the impossibilities she had suggested.

‘I wonder how the poor little boy is?’ said Molly, after a pause, speaking out her thoughts.

‘Poor little child! When one thinks how little his prolonged existence is to be desired, one feels that his death would be a boon.’

‘Mamma! what do you mean?’ asked Molly, much shocked. ‘Why every one cares for his life as the most precious thing! You have never seen him! He is the bonniest, sweetest little fellow that can be! What do you mean?’

‘I should have thought that the squire would have desired a better-born heir than the offspring of a servant — with all his ideas about descent, and blood, and family. And I should have thought that it was a little mortifying to Roger — who must naturally have looked upon himself as his brother’s heir — to find a little interloping child, half French, half English, stepping into his shoes!’

‘You don’t know how fond they are of him — the squire looks upon him as the apple of his eye.’

‘Molly! Molly! pray don’t let me hear you using such vulgar expressions. When shall I teach you true refinement — that refinement which consists in never even thinking a vulgar, commonplace thing? Proverbs and idioms are never used by people of education. “Apple of his eye!” I am really shocked.’

‘Well, mamma, I’m very sorry; but after all, what I wanted to say as strongly as I could was, that the squire loves the little boy as much as his own child; and that Roger — oh! what a shame to think that Roger —’ And she stopped suddenly short, as if she were choked.

‘I don’t wonder at your indignation, my dear!’ said Mrs. Gibson. ‘It is just what I should have felt at your age. But one learns the baseness of human nature with advancing years. I was wrong, though, to undeceive you so early — but depend upon it, the thought I alluded to has crossed Roger Hamley’s mind!’

‘All sorts of thoughts cross one’s mind — it depends upon whether one gives them harbour and encouragement,’ said Molly.

‘My dear, if you must have the last word, don’t let it be a truism. But let us talk on some more interesting subject. I asked Cynthia to buy me a silk gown in Paris, and I said I would send her word what colour I fixed upon — I think dark blue is the most becoming to my complexion; what do you say?’

Molly agreed, sooner than take the trouble of thinking about the thing at all; she was far too full of her silent review of all the traits in Roger’s character which had lately come under her notice, and that gave the lie direct to her stepmother’s supposition. Just then they heard Mr. Gibson’s step downstairs. But it was some time before he made his entrance into the room where they were sitting.

‘How is little Roger?’ said Molly, eagerly.

‘Beginning with scarlet fever, I’m afraid. It’s well you left when you did, Molly. You’ve never had it. We must stop up all intercourse with the Hall for a time. If there’s one illness I dread, it is this.’

‘But you go and come back to us, papa.’

‘Yes. But I always take plenty of precautions. However, no need to talk about risks that lie in the way of one’s duty. It is unnecessary risks that we must avoid.’

‘Will he have it badly?’ asked Molly.

‘I can’t tell. I shall do my best for the wee laddie.’

Whenever Mr. Gibson’s feelings were touched, he was apt to recur to the language of his youth. Molly knew now that he was much interested in the case.

For some days there was imminent danger to the little boy; for some weeks there was a more chronic form of illness to contend with; but when the immediate danger was over and the warm daily interest was past, Molly began to realize that, from the strict quarantine her father evidently thought it necessary to establish between the two houses, she was not likely to see Roger again before his departure for Africa. Oh! if she had but made more of the uncared-for days that she had passed with him at the Hall! Worse than uncared for; days on which she had avoided him; refused to converse freely with him; given him pain by her change of manner; for she had read in his eyes, heard in his voice, that he had been perplexed and pained, and now her imagination dwelt on and exaggerated the expression of his tones and looks.

One evening after dinner, her father said —

‘As the country-people say, I’ve done a stroke of work today. Roger Hamley and I have laid our heads together, and we have made a plan by which Mrs. Osborne and her boy will leave the Hall.’

‘What did I say the other day, Molly?’ said Mrs. Gibson, interrupting, and giving Molly a look of extreme intelligence.

‘And go into lodgings at Jennings’ farm; not four hundred yards from the Park-field gate,’ continued Mr. Gibson. ‘The squire and his daughter-inlaw have got to be much better friends over the little fellow’s sick-bed; and I think he sees now how impossible it would be for the mother to leave her child, and go and be happy in France, which has been the notion running in his head all this time. To buy her off, in fact. But that one night, when I was very uncertain whether I could bring him through, they took to crying together, and condoling with each other; and it was just like tearing down a curtain that had been between them; they have been rather friends than otherwise ever since. Still Roger’—(Molly’s cheeks grew warm and her eyes soft and bright; it was such a pleasure to hear his name)—‘and I both agree that his mother knows much better how to manage the boy than his grandfather does. I suppose that was the one good thing she got from that hardhearted mistress of hers. She certainly has been well trained in the management of children. And it makes her impatient, and annoyed, and unhappy, when she sees the squire giving the child nuts and ale, and all sorts of silly indulgences, and spoiling him in every possible way. Yet she’s a coward, and doesn’t speak out her mind. Now by being in lodgings, and having her own servants — nice pretty rooms they are, too; we went to see them, and Mrs. Jennings promises to attend well to Mrs Osborne Hamley, and is very much honoured, and all that sort of thing — not ten minutes’ walk from the Hall, too, so that she and the little chap may easily go backwards and forwards as often as they like, and yet she may keep the control over her child’s discipline and diet. In short, I think I’ve done a good day’s work,’ he continued, stretching himself a little; and then with a shake rousing himself, and making ready to go out again; to see a patient who had sent for him in his absence.

‘A good day’s work!’ he repeated to himself as he ran downstairs. ‘I don’t know when I have been so happy!’ For he had not told Molly all that had passed between him and Roger. Roger had begun a fresh subject of conversation just as Mr. Gibson was hastening away from the Hall, after completing the new arrangement for Aimee and her child.

‘You know that I set off next Tuesday, Mr. Gibson, don’t you?’ said Roger, a little abruptly.

‘To be sure. I hope you’ll be as successful in all your scientific objects as you were the last time, and have no sorrows awaiting you when you come back.’

‘Thank you. Yes. I hope so. You don’t think there’s any danger of infection now, do you?’

‘No! If the disease were to spread through the household, I think we should have had some signs of it before now. One is never sure, remember, with scarlet fever.

Roger was silent for a minute or two. ‘Should you be afraid,’ he said at length, ‘of seeing me at your house?’

‘Thank you; but I think I would rather decline the pleasure of your society there at present. It’s only three weeks or a month since the child began. Besides, I shall be over here again before you go. I’m always on my guard against symptoms of dropsy. I have known it supervene.’

‘Then I shall not see Molly again!’ said Roger, in a tone and with a look of great disappointment.

Mr. Gibson turned his keen, observant eyes upon the young man, and looked at him in as penetrating a manner as if he had been beginning with an unknown illness. Then the doctor and the father compressed his lips and gave vent to a long intelligent whistle. ‘Whew!’ said he.

Roger’s bronzed cheeks took a deeper shade.

‘You will take a message to her from me, won’t you? A message of farewell?’ he pleaded.

‘Not I. I’m not going to be a message-carrier between any young man and young woman. I’ll tell my womankind I forbade you to come near the house, and that you’re sorry to go away without bidding good-by. That’s all I shall say.’

‘But you do not disapprove? — I see you guess why. Oh! Mr. Gibson, just speak to me one word of what must be in your heart, though you are pretending not to understand why I would give worlds to see Molly again before I go.’

‘My dear boy!’ said Mr. Gibson, more affected than he liked to show, and laying his hand on Roger’s shoulder. Then he pulled himself up, and said gravely enough —

‘Mind, Molly is not Cynthia. If she were to care for you, she is not one who could transfer her love to the next comer.’

‘You mean not as readily as I have done,’ replied Roger. ‘I only wish you could know what a different feeling this is to my boyish love for Cynthia.’

‘I wasn’t thinking of you when I spoke; but, however, as I might have remembered afterwards that you were not a model of constancy, let us hear what you have to say for yourself.’

‘Not much. I did love Cynthia very much. Her manners and her beauty bewitched me; but her letters — short, hurried letters — sometimes showing that she really hadn’t taken the trouble to read mine through — I cannot tell you the pain they gave me! Twelve months’ solitude, in frequent danger of one’s life — face to face with death — sometimes ages a man like many years’ experience. Still I longed for the time when I should see her sweet face again, and hear her speak. Then the letter at the Cape! — and still I hoped. But you know how I found her, when I went to have the interview which I trusted might end in the renewal of our relations — engaged to Mr Henderson. I saw her walking with him in your garden, coquetting with him about a flower, just as she used to do with me. I can see the pitying look in Molly’s eyes as she watched me; I can see it now. And I could beat myself for being such a blind fool as to — What must she think of me? how she must despise me, choosing the false Duessa.’

‘Come, come! Cynthia isn’t so bad as that. She’s a very fascinating, faulty creature.’

‘I know! I know! I will never allow any one to say a word against her. If I called her the false Duessa it was because I wanted to express my sense of the difference between her and Molly as strongly as I could. You must allow for a lover’s exaggeration. Besides, all I wanted to say was — Do you think that Molly, after seeing and knowing that I had loved a person so inferior to herself, could ever be brought to listen to me?’

‘I don’t know. I can’t tell. And even if I could, I would not. Only if it’s any comfort to you, I may say what my experience has taught me. Women are queer, unreasoning creatures, and are just as likely as not to love a man who has been throwing away his affection.’

‘Thank you, sir!’ said Roger, interrupting him. ‘I see you mean to give me encouragement. And I had resolved never to give Molly a hint of what I felt till I returned — and then to try and win her by every means in my power. I determined not to repeat the former scene in the former place — in your drawing-room — however I might be tempted. And perhaps, after all, she avoided me when she was here last.’

‘Now, Roger, I’ve listened to you long enough. If you’ve nothing better to do with your time than to talk about my daughter, I have. When you come back it will be time enough to enquire how far your father would approve of such an engagement.’

‘He himself urged it upon me the other day — but then I was in despair — I thought it was too late.’

‘And what means you are likely to have of maintaining a wife — I always thought that point was passed too lightly over when you formed your hurried engagement to Cynthia. I’m not mercenary — Molly has some money independently of me — that she by the way knows nothing of — not much; — and I can allow her something. But all these things must be left till your return.’

‘Then you sanction my attachment?’

‘I don’t know what you mean by sanctioning it. I can’t help it. I suppose losing one’s daughter is a necessary evil. Still,’— seeing the disappointed expression on Roger’s face —‘it is but fair to you to say I’d rather give my child — my only child, remember! — to you, than to any man in the world!’

‘Thank you!’ said Roger, shaking hands with Mr. Gibson, almost against the will of the latter. ‘And I may see her, just once, before I go?’

‘Decidedly not. There I come in as doctor as well as father. No!’

‘But you will take a message, at any rate?’

‘To my wife and to her conjointly. I will not separate them. I will not in the slightest way be a go-between.’

‘Very well,’ said Roger. ‘Tell them both as strongly as you can how I regret your prohibition. I see I must submit. But if I don’t come back, I’ll haunt you for having been so cruel.’

‘Come, I like that. Give me a wise man of science in love! No one beats him in folly. Good-by.’

‘Good-by, You will see Molly this afternoon!’

‘To be sure. And you will see your father. But I don’t heave such portentous sighs at the thought.’

Mr. Gibson gave Roger’s message to his wife and to Molly that evening at dinner. It was but what the latter had expected, after all her father had said of the very great danger of infection; but now that her expectation came in the shape of a final decision, it took away her appetite. She submitted in silence; but her observant father noticed that after this speech of his, she only played with the food on her plate, and concealed a good deal of it under her knife and fork.

‘Lover versus father!’ thought he, half sadly. ‘Lover wins.’ And he, too, became indifferent to all that remained of his dinner. Mrs Gibson pattered on; and nobody listened.

The day of Roger’s departure came. Molly tried hard to forget it in working away at a cushion she was preparing as a present to Cynthia; people did worsted-work in those days. One, two, three. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven; all wrong; she was thinking of something else, and had to unpick it. It was a rainy day, too; and Mrs. Gibson, who had planned to go out and pay some calls, had to stay indoors. This made her restless and fidgety. She kept going backwards and forwards to different windows in the drawing-room to look at the weather, as if she imagined that while it rained at one window, it might be fine weather at another.

‘Molly — come here! who is that man wrapped up in a cloak — there — near the Park wall, under the beech-tree — he has been there this half-hour and more, never stirring, and looking at this house all the time! I think it’s very suspicious.’

Molly looked, and in an instant recognized Roger under all his wraps. Her first instinct was to draw back. The next to come forwards, and say — ‘Why, mamma, it’s Roger Hamley! Look now — he’s kissing his hand; he’s wishing us good-by in the only way he can!’ And she responded to his sign; but she was not sure if he perceived her modest quiet movement, for Mrs. Gibson became immediately so demonstrative that Molly fancied that her eager foolish pantomimic motions must absorb all his attention.

‘I call this so attentive of him,’ said Mrs. Gibson, in the midst of a volley of kisses of her hand. ‘Really it is quite romantic. It reminds me of former days — but he will be too late! I must send him away; it is half-past twelve!’ And she took out her watch and held it up, tapping it with her forefinger, and occupying the very centre of the window. Molly could only peep here and there, dodging now up, now down, now on this side, now on that, of the perpetually-moving arms. She fancied she saw something of a corresponding movement on Roger’s part. At length he went away, slowly, slowly, and often looking back, in spite of the tapped watch. Mrs. Gibson at last retreated, and Molly quietly moved into her place to see his figure once more before the turn of the road hid it from her view. He, too, knew where the last glimpse of the Gibsons’ house was to be obtained, and once more he turned, and his white handkerchief floated on the air. Molly waved hers high up, with eager longing that it should be seen. And then, he was gone! and Molly returned to her worsted-work, happy, glowing, sad, content, and thinking to herself how sweet is — friendship!

When she came to a sense of the present, Mrs. Gibson was saying —

‘Upon my word, though Roger Hamley has never been a great favourite of mine, this little attention of his has reminded me very forcibly of a very charming young man — a soupirant, as the French would call him — Lieutenant Harper — you must have heard me speak of him, Molly?’

‘I think I have!’ said Molly, absently.

‘Well, you remember how devoted he was to me when I was at Mrs Duncombe’s, my first situation, and I only seventeen. And when the recruiting party was ordered to another town, poor Mr. Harper came and stood opposite the schoolroom window for nearly an hour, and I know it was his doing that the band played “The girl I left behind me,” when they marched out the next day. Poor Mr. Harper! It was before I knew dear Mr. Kirkpatrick! Dear me. How often my poor heart has had to bleed in this life of mine! not but what dear papa is a very worthy man, and makes me very happy. He would spoil me, indeed, if I would let him. Still he is not as rich as Mr. Henderson.’

That last sentence contained the germ of Mrs. Gibson’s present grievance. Having married Cynthia, as her mother put it — taking credit to herself as if she had had the principal part in the achievement — she now became a little envious of her daughter’s good fortune in being the wife of a young, handsome, rich and moderately fashionable man, who lived in London. She naively expressed her feelings on this subject to her husband one day when she was really not feeling quite well, and when consequently her annoyances were much more present to her mind than her sources of happiness.

‘It is such a pity!’ said she, ‘that I was born when I was. I should so have liked to belong to this generation.’

‘That’s sometimes my own feeling,’ said he. ‘So many new views seem to be opened in science, that I should like, if it were possible, to live till their reality was ascertained, and one saw what they led to. But I don’t suppose that’s your reason, my dear, for wishing to be twenty or thirty years younger.’

‘No, indeed. And I did not put it in that hard unpleasant way; I only said I should like to belong to this generation. To tell the truth, I was thinking of Cynthia. Without vanity, I believe I was as pretty as she is — when I was a girl, I mean; I had not her dark eye-lashes, but then my nose was straighter. And now look at the difference! I have to live in a little country town with three servants, and no carriage; and she with her inferior good looks will live in Sussex Place,’ and keep a man and a brougham, and I don’t know what. But the fact is, in this generation there are so many more rich young men than there were when I was a girl.’

‘Oh, ho! so that’s your reason, is it, my dear. If you had been young now you might have married somebody as well off as Walter?’

‘Yes!’ said she. ‘I think that was my idea. Of course I should have liked him to be you. I always think if you had gone to the bar you might have succeeded better, and lived in London, too. I don’t think Cynthia cares much where she lives, yet you see it has come to her.’

‘What has — London?’

‘Oh, you dear, facetious man. Now that’s just the thing to have captivated a jury. I don’t believe Walter will ever be so clever as you are. Yet he can take Cynthia to Paris, and abroad, and everywhere. I only hope all this indulgence won’t develope the faults in Cynthia’s character. It’s a week since we heard from her, and I did write so particularly to ask her for the autumn fashions before I bought my new bonnet. But riches are a great snare.’

‘Be thankful you are spared temptation, my dear.’

‘No, I’m not. Every body likes to be tempted. And, after all, it’s very easy to resist temptation, if one wishes.’

‘I don’t find it so easy,’ said her husband.

‘Here’s medicine for you, mamma,’ said Molly, entering with a letter held up in her hand. ‘A letter from Cynthia.’

‘Oh, you dear little messenger of good news! There was one of the heathen deities in Mangnall’s Questions whose office that was. The letter is dated from Calais. They’re coming home! She’s bought me a shawl and a bonnet! The dear creature! Always thinking of others before herself. Good fortune cannot spoil her. They’ve a fortnight left of their holiday! Their house is not quite ready; they’re coming here. Oh, now, Mr. Gibson, we must have the new dinner service at Watts’s I’ve set my heart on so long! “Home” Cynthia calls this house. I’m sure it has been a home to her, poor darling! I doubt if there is another man in the world who would have treated his stepdaughter like dear papa! And, Molly, you must have a new gown.’

‘Come, come! Remember I belong to the last generation,’ said Mr Gibson.

‘And Cynthia will not notice what I wear,’ said Molly, bright with pleasure at the thought of seeing her again.

‘No! but Walter will. He has such a quick eye for dress, and I think I rival papa; if he is a good stepfather, I’m a good stepmother, and I could not bear to see my Molly shabby, and not looking her best. I must have a new gown too. It won’t do to look as if we had nothing but the dresses which we wore at the wedding!’

But Molly stood against the new gown for herself, and urged that if Cynthia and Walter were to come to visit them often, they had better see them as they really were, in dress, habits, and appointments. When Mr. Gibson had left the room, Mrs. Gibson softly reproached Molly for her obstinacy.

‘You might have allowed me to beg for a new gown for you, Molly, when you knew how much I had admired that figured silk at Brown’s the other day. And now, of course, I can’t be so selfish as to get it for myself, and you to have nothing. You should learn to understand the wishes of other people. Still, on the whole, you are a dear, sweet girl, and I only wish — well, I know what I wish; only dear papa does not like it to be talked about. And now cover me up close, and let me go to sleep, and dream about my dear Cynthia and my new shawl!’

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55