Part Two
Chapter XVI. The Bride At Home

Among the 'county people' (as Mrs Gibson termed them) who called upon her as a bride, were the two young Mr Hamleys. The squire, their father, had done his congratulations, as far as he ever intended to do them, to Mr Gibson himself when he came to the hall; but Mrs Hamley, unable to go and pay visits herself, anxious to show attention to her kind doctor's new wife, and with perhaps a little sympathetic curiosity as to how Molly and her stepmother got on together, made her sons ride over to Hollingford with her cards and apologies. They came into the newly-furnished drawing-room, looking bright and fresh from their ride: Osborne first, - as usual, perfectly dressed for the occasion, and with the sort of fine manner which sate so well upon him; Roger, looking like a strong-built, cheerful, intelligent country farmer, followed in his brother's train. Mrs Gibson was dressed for receiving callers, and made the effect she always intended to produce, of a very pretty woman, no longer in first youth, but with such soft manners and such a caressing voice, that people forgot to wonder what her real age might be. Molly was better dressed than formerly; her stepmother saw after that. She disliked anything old or shabby, or out of taste about her; it hurt her eye; and she had already fidgeted Molly into a new amount of care about the manner in which she put on her clothes, arranged her hair, and was gloved and shod. Mrs Gibson had tried to put her through a course of rosemary washes and creams in order to improve her tanned ,complexion; but about that Molly was either forgetful or rebellious, and Mrs Gibson could not well come up to the girl's bedroom every night and see that she daubed her face and neck over with the cosmetics so carefully provided for her. Still, her appearance was extremely improved, even to Osborne's critical eye. Roger sought rather to discover in her looks and expression whether she was happy or not; his mother had especially charged him to note all these signs.

Osborne and Mrs Gibson made themselves agreeable to each other according to the approved fashion when a young man calls on a middle-aged bride. They talked of the 'Shakespeare and musical glasses' of the day, each viewing with the other in their knowledge of London topics. Molly heard fragments of their conversation in the pauses of silence between Roger and herself. Her hero was coming out in quite a new character; no longer literary or poetical, or romantic, or critical, he was now full of the last new play, the singers at the opera. He had the advantage over Mrs Gibson, who, in fact, only spoke of these things from hearsay, from listening to the talk at the Towers, while Osborne had run up from Cambridge two or three times to hear this, or to see that, wonder of the season. But she had the advantage over him in greater boldness of invention to eke out her facts; and besides she had more skill in the choice and arrangement of her words, so as to make it appear as if the opinions that were in reality quotations, were formed by herself from actual experience or personal observation; such as, in speaking of the mannerisms of a famous Italian singer, she would ask, -

'Did you observe her constant trick of heaving her shoulders and clasping her hands together before she took a high note?' - which was so said as to imply that Mrs Gibson herself had noticed this trick. Molly, who had a pretty good idea by this time of how her stepmother had passed the last year of her life, listened with no small bewilderment to this conversation; but at length decided that she must misunderstand what they were saying, as she could not gather up the missing links for the necessity of replying to Roger's questions and remarks. Osborne was not the same Osborne he was when with his mother at the hall. Roger saw her glancing at his brother.

'You think my brother looking ill?' said he, lowering his voice.

'No - not exactly.'

'He is not well. Both my father and I are anxious about him. That run on the Continent did him harm, instead of good; and his disappointment at his examination has told upon him, I'm afraid.'

'I was not thinking he looked ill; only changed somehow.'

'He says he must go back to Cambridge soon. Possibly it may do him good; and I shall be off next week. This is a farewell visit to you, as well as one of congratulation to Mrs Gibson.'

'Your mother will feel your both going away, won't she? But of course young men will always have to live away from home.'

'Yes,' he replied. 'Still she feels it a good deal; and I am not satisfied about her health either. You will go over and see her sometimes, will you? she is very fond of you.'

'If I may,' said Molly, unconsciously glancing at her stepmother. She had an uncomfortable instinct that, in spite of Mrs Gibson's own perpetual flow of words, she could, and did, hear everything that fell from Molly's lips.

'Do you want any more books?' said he. 'If you do, make a list out, and send it to my mother before I leave, next Tuesday. After I am gone, there will be no one to go into the library and pick them out.'

After they were gone, Mrs Gibson began her usual comments on the departed visitors.

'I do like that Osborne Hamley! What a nice fellow he is! Somehow, I always do like eldest sons. He will have the estate, won't he? I shall ask your dear papa to encourage him to come about the house. He will be a very good, very pleasant acquaintance for you and Cynthia. The other is but a loutish young fellow, to my mind; there is no aristocratic bearing about him. I suppose he takes after his mother, who is but a parvenue, I've heard them say at the Towers.'

Molly was spiteful enough to have great pleasure in saying, -

'I think I've heard her father was a Russia merchant, and imported tallow and hemp. Mr Osborne Hamley is extremely like her.'

'Indeed! But there's no calculating these things. Anyhow, he is the perfect gentleman in appearance and manner. The estate is entailed, is it not?'

'I know nothing about it,' said Molly.

A short silence ensued. Then Mrs Gibson said, -

'Do you know, I almost think I must get dear papa to give a little dinner-party, and ask Mr Osborne Hamley? I should like to have him feel at home in this house. It would be something cheerful for him after the dulness and solitude of Hamley Hall. For the old people don't visit much, I believe?'

'He's going back to Cambridge next week,' said Molly.

'Is he? Well, then, we'll put off our little dinner till Cynthia comes home. I should like to have some young society for her, poor darling, when she returns.'

'When is she coming?' said Molly, who had always a longing curiosity for this same Cynthia's return.

'Oh! I'm not sure; perhaps at the new year - perhaps not till Easter. I must get this drawing-room all new furnished first; and then I mean to fit up her room and yours just alike. They are just the same size, only on opposite sides of the passage.'

'Are you going to new-furnish that room?' said Molly, in astonishment at the never-ending changes.

'Yes; and yours, too, darling; so don't be jealous."

'Oh, please, mamma, not mine,' said Molly, taking in the idea for the first time.

'Yes, dear! You shall have yours done as well. A little French bed,' and a new paper, and a pretty carpet, and a dressed-up toilette-table and glass, will make it look quite a different place.'

'But I don't want it to look different. I like it as it is. Pray don't do anything to it.'

'What nonsense, child! I never heard anything more ridiculous! Most girls would be glad to get rid of furniture only fit for the lumber-room.'

'It was my own mamma's before she was married,' said Molly, in a very low voice; bringing out this last plea unwillingly, but with a certainty that it would not be resisted.

Mrs Gibson paused for a moment before she replied, -

'It's very much to your credit that you should have such feelings, I'm sure. But don't you think sentiment may be carried too far? Why, we should have no new furniture at all, and should have to put up with worm-eaten horrors. Besides, my dear, Hollingford will seem very dull to Cynthia, after pretty, gay France, and I want to make the first impressions attractive. I've a notion I can settle her down near here; and I want her to come in a good temper; for, between ourselves, my dear, she is a little, leetle wilful. You need not mention this to your papa.'

'But can't you do Cynthia's room, and not mine? Please let mine alone.'

'No, indeed! I couldn't agree to that. Only think what would be said of me by everybody; petting my own child, and neglecting my husband's! I couldn't bear it.'

'No one need know.'

'In such a tittle-tattle place as Hollingford! Really, Molly, you are either very stupid or very obstinate, or else you don't care what hard things may be said about me: and all for a selfish fancy of your own! No! I owe myself the justice of acting in this matter as I please. Every one shall know I'm not a common stepmother. Every penny I spend on Cynthia I shall spend on you too; so it's no use talking any more about it.'

So Molly's little white dimity bed, her old-fashioned chest of drawers, and her other cherished relics of her mother's maiden-days, were consigned to the lumber-room; and after a while, when Cynthia and her great French boxes had come home, the old furniture that had filled up the space required for the fresh importation of trunks, disappeared into the lumber-room.

All this time the family at the Towers had been absent; Lady Cumnor had been ordered to Bath for the early part of the winter, and her family were with her there. On dull rainy days, Mrs Gibson used to bethink her of missing 'the Cumnors,' for so she had taken to calling them since her position had become more independent of theirs. It marked a distinction between her intimacy in the family, and the reverential manner in which the townspeople were accustomed to speak of 'the earl and the countess.' both Lady Cumnor and Lady Harriet wrote to their dear Clare from time to time. The former had generally some commissions that she wished to have executed at the Towers, or in the town; and no one could do them so well as Clare, who was acquainted with all the tastes and ways of the countess. These commissions were the cause of various bills for flys and cars from the 'George' Inn. Mr Gibson pointed out this consequence to his wife; but she, in return, bade him remark that a present of game was pretty sure to follow upon the satisfactory execution of Lady Cumnor's wishes. Somehow, Mr Gibson did not quite like this consequence either; but he was silent about it, at any rate. Lady Harriet's letters were short and amusing. She had that sort of regard for her old governess which prompted her to write from time to time, and to feel glad when the half-voluntary task was accomplished. So there was no real outpouring of confidence, but enough news of the family and gossip of the place she was in, as she thought would make Clare feel that she was not forgotten by her former pupils, intermixed with moderate but sincere expressions of regard. How those letters were quoted and referred to by Mrs Gibson in her conversations with the Hollingford ladies! She had found out their effect at Ashcombe; and it was not less at Hollingford. But she was rather perplexed at kindly messages to Molly, and at inquiries as to how the Miss Brownings liked the tea she had sent; and Molly had first to explain, and then to narrate at full length, all the occurrences of the afternoon at Ashcombe Manor House, and Lady Harriet's call upon her at Miss Brownings'.

'What nonsense!' said Mrs Gibson, with some annoyance. 'Lady Harriet only went to see you out of a desire of amusement. She would only make fun of the Miss Brownings, and then they will be quoting her and talking about her, just as if she was their intimate friend.'

'I don't think she did make fun of them. She really sounded as if she had been very kind.'

'And you suppose you know her ways better than I do, who have known her these fifteen years? I tell you she turns every one into ridicule who does not belong to her set. Why, she used always to speak of the Miss Brownings as "Pecksy and Flapsy."'

'She promised me she would not,' said Molly driven to bay.

'Promised you! - Lady Harriet? What do you mean?'

'Only - she spoke of them as Pecksy and Flapsy - and when she talked of coming to call on me at their house, I asked her not to come if she was going to -- to make fun of them.'

'Upon my word! with all my long acquaintance with Lady Harriet I should never have ventured on such impertinence.'

'I didn't mean it as impertinence,' said Molly, sturdily. 'And I don't think Lady Harriet took it as such.'

'You can't know anything about it. She can put on any kind of manner.'

Just then Squire Hamley came in. It was his first call; and Mrs Gibson gave him a graceful welcome, and was quite ready to accept his apology for its tardiness, and to assure him that she quite understood the pressure of business on every landowner who farmed his own estate. But no such apology was made. He shook her hand heartily, as a mark of congratulation on her good fortune in having secured such a prize as his friend Gibson, but said nothing about his long neglect of duty. Molly, who by this time knew the few strong expressions of his countenance well, was sure that something was the matter, and that he was very much disturbed. He hardly attended to Mrs Gibson's fluent opening of conversation, for she had already determined to make a favourable impression on the father of the handsome young man who was heir to an estate, besides his own personal agreeableness; but he turned to Molly, and, addressing her, said - almost in a low voice, as if he was making a confidence to her that he did not intend Mrs Gibson to hear, -

'Molly, we are all wrong at home! Osborne has lost the fellowship at Trinity he went back to try for. Then he has gone and failed miserably in his degree, after all that he said, and that his mother said; and I, like a fool, went and boasted about my clever son. I can't understand it. I never expected anything extraordinary from Roger; but Osborne -- ! And then it has thrown madam into one of her bad fits of illness; and she seems to have a fancy for you, child! Your father came to see her this morning. Poor thing, she's very poorly, I'm afraid; and she told him how she should like to have you about her, and he said I might fetch you. You'll come, won't you, my dear? She's not a poor woman, such as many people think it's the only charity to be kind to, but she's just as forlorn of woman's care as if she was poor - worse, I dare say.'

'I'll be ready in ten minutes,' said Molly, much touched by the squire's words and manner, never thinking of asking her stepmother's consent, now that she had heard that her father had given his. As she rose to leave the room, Mrs Gibson, who had only half heard what the squire had said, and was a little affronted at the exclusiveness of his confidence, said, - 'My dear, where are you going?'

'Mrs Hamley wants me, and papa says I may go,' said Molly; and almost at the same time the squire replied, -

'My wife is ill, and as she's very fond of your daughter, she begged Mr Gibson to allow her to come to the Hall for a little while, and he kindly said she might, and I'm come to fetch her.'

'Stop a minute, darling,' said Mrs Gibson to Molly - a slight cloud over her countenance, in spite of her caressing word. 'I am sure dear papa quite forgot that you were to go out with me to-night, to visit people,' continued she, addressing herself to the squire, 'with whom I am quite unacquainted - and it is very uncertain if Mr Gibson can return in time to go with me - so, you see, I cannot allow Molly to go with you.'

'I shouldn't have thought it would have signified. Brides are always brides, I suppose; and it's their part to be timid; but I shouldn't have thought it - in this case. And my wife sets her heart on things, as sick people do. Well, Molly' (in a louder tone, for these foregoing sentences were spoken sotto voce), 'we must put it off till to-morrow: and it's our loss, not yours,' he continued, as he saw the reluctance with which she slowly returned to her place. 'You'll be as gay as can be to-night, I dare say -- '

'No, I shall not,' broke in Molly. 'I never wanted to go, and now I shall want it less than ever.'

'Hush, my dear,' said Mrs Gibson; and, addressing the squire, she added, 'The visiting here is not all one could wish for so young a girl - no young people, no dances, nothing of gaiety; but it is wrong in you, Molly, to speak against such kind friends of your father's as I understand these Cockerells are. Don't give so bad an impression of yourself to the kind squire.'

'Let her alone! let her alone!' quoth he. 'I see what she means. She'd rather come and be in my wife's sick-room than go out for this visit to-night. Is there no way of getting her off?'

'None whatever,' said Mrs Gibson. 'An engagement is an engagement with me; and I consider that she is not only engaged to Mrs Cockerell, but to me - bound to accompany me, in my husband's absence.'

The squire was put out; and when he was put out he had a trick of placing his hands on his knees and whistling softly to himself. Molly knew this phase of his displeasure, and only hoped he would confine himself to this wordless expression of annoyance. It was pretty hard work for her to keep the tears out of her eyes; and she endeavoured to think of something else, rather than dwell on regrets and annoyances. She heard Mrs Gibson talking on in a sweet monotone, and wished to attend to what she was saying, but the squire's visible annoyance struck sharper on her mind. At length, after a pause of silence, he started up, and said, -

'Well! it's no use. Poor madam; she won't like it. She'll be disappointed! But it's but for one evening! - but for one evening! She may come to-morrow, mayn't she? Or will the dissipation of such an evening as she describes, be too much for her?'

There was a touch of savage irony in his manner which frightened Mrs Gibson into good behaviour.

'She shall be ready at any time you name. I am so sorry: my foolish shyness is in fault, I believe; but still you must acknowledge that an engagement is an engagement.'

'Did I ever say an engagement was an elephant, madam? However, there's no use saying any more about it, or I shall forget my manners. I'm an old tyrant, and she - lying there in bed, poor girl - has always given me my own way. So you'll excuse me, Mrs Gibson, won't you; and let Molly come along with me at ten to- morrow morning?'

'Certainly,' said Mrs Gibson, smiling. But when his back was turned, she said to Molly, -

'Now, my dear, I must never have you exposing me to the ill-manners of such a man again! I don't call him a squire; I call him a boor, or a yeoman at best. You must not go on accepting or rejecting invitations as if you were an independent young lady, Molly. Pay me the respect of a reference to my wishes another time, if you please, my dear!'

'Papa had said I might go,' said Molly, choking a little.

'As I am now your mamma your references must be to me, for the future. But as you are to go you may as well look well dressed. I will lend you my new shawl for this visit, if you like it, and my set of green ribbons. I am always indulgent when proper respect is paid to me. And in such a house as Hamley Hall, no one can tell who may be coming and going, even if there is sickness in the family.'

'Thank you. But I don't want the shawl and the ribbons, please: there will be nobody there except the family. There never is, I think; and now that she is so ill' - Molly was on the point of crying at the thought of her friend lying ill and lonely, and looking for her arrival. Moreover, she was sadly afraid lest the squire had gone off with the idea that she did not want to come - that she preferred that stupid, stupid party at the Cockerells'. Mrs Gibson, too, was sorry; she had an uncomfortable consciousness of having given way to temper before a stranger, and a stranger, too, whose good opinion she had meant to cultivate: and she was also annoyed at Molly's tearful face.

'What can I do for you, to bring you back into good temper?' she said. 'First, you insist upon your knowing Lady Harriet better than I do - I, who have known her for eighteen or nineteen years at least. Then you jump at invitations without ever consulting me, or thinking of how awkward it would be for me to go stumping into a drawing-room all by myself; following my new name, too, which always makes me feel uncomfortable, it is such a sad come-down after Kirkpatrick! And then, when I offer you some of the prettiest things I have got, you say it does not signify how you are dressed. What can I do to please you, Molly? I, who delight in nothing more than peace in a family, to see you sitting there with despair upon your face?'

Molly could stand it no longer; she went upstairs to her own room - her own smart new room, which hardly yet seemed a familiar place; and began to cry so heartily and for so long a time, that she stopped at length for very weariness. She thought of Mrs Hamley wearying for her; of the old Hall whose very quietness might become oppressive to an ailing person; of the trust the squire had had in her that she would come off directly with him. And all this oppressed her much more than the querulousness of her stepmother's words.