Part Two
Chapter XX. Mrs Gibson's Visitors

One day, to Molly's infinite surprise, Mr Preston was announced as a caller. Mrs Gibson and she were sitting together in the drawing-room; Cynthia was out - gone into the town a-shopping - when the door was opened, the name given, and in walked the young man. His entrance seemed to cause more confusion than Molly could well account for. He came in with the same air of easy assurance with which he had received them at Ashcombe Manor-house. He looked remarkably handsome in his riding-dress, and with the open-air exercise he had just had. But Mrs Gibson's smooth brows contracted a little at the sight of him, and her reception of him was much cooler than that which she usually gave to visitors. Yet there was a degree of agitation in it, which surprised Molly a little. Mrs Gibson was at her everlasting worsted-work frame when Mr Preston entered the room; but somehow in rising to receive him, she threw down her basket of crewels, and, declining Molly's offer to help her, she would pick up all the reels herself, before she asked her visitor to sit down. He stood there, hat in hand, affecting an interest in the recovery of the worsted which Molly was sure he did not feel; for all the time his eyes were glancing round the room, and taking note of the details in the arrangement.

At length they were seated, and conversation began.

'It is the first time I have been in Hollingford since your marriage, Mrs Gibson, or I should certainly have called to pay my respects sooner.'

'I know you are very busy at Ashcombe. I did not expect you to call. Is Lord Cumnor at the Towers? I have not heard from her ladyship for more than a week!'

'No! he seemed still detained at Bath. But I had a letter from him giving me certain messages for Mr Sheepshanks. Mr Gibson is not at home, I'm afraid?'

'No. He is a great deal out - almost constantly, I may say. I had no idea that I should see so little of him. A doctor's wife leads a very solitary life, Mr Preston!'

'You can hardly call it solitary, I should think, when you have such a companion as Miss Gibson always at hand,' said he, bowing to Molly.

'Oh, but I call it solitude for a wife when her husband is away. Poor Mr Kirkpatrick was never happy unless I always went with him, - all his walks, all his visits, he liked me to be with him. But somehow Mr Gibson feels as if I should be rather in his way.'

'I don't think you could ride pillion behind him on Black Bess, mamma,' said Molly. 'And unless you could go in that way you could hardly go with him in his rounds up and down all the rough lanes.'

'Oh! but he might keep a brougham! I've often said so. And then I could use it for visiting in the evenings. Really it was one reason why I didn't go to the Hollingford Charity Ball. I couldn't bring myself to use the dirty fly from the "George." We really must stir papa up against next winter, Molly; it will never do for you and -- '

She pulled herself up suddenly, and looked furtively at Mr Preston to see if he had taken any notice of her abruptness. Of course he had, but he was not going to show it. He turned to Molly, and said, -

'Have you ever been to a public ball yet, Miss Gibson?'

'No!' said Molly.

'It will be a great pleasure to you when the time comes.'

'I'm not sure. I shall like it if I have plenty of partners; but I'm afraid I shan't know many people.'

'And you suppose that young men haven't their own ways and means of being introduced to pretty girls?'

It was exactly one of the speeches Molly had disliked him for before; and delivered, too, in that kind of underbred manner which showed that it was meant to convey a personal compliment. Molly took great credit to herself for the unconcerned manner with which she went on with her tatting exactly as if she had never heard it.

'I only hope I may be one of your partners at the first ball you go to. Pray, remember my early application for that honour, when you are overwhelmed with requests for dances.'

'I don't choose to engage myself beforehand,' said Molly, perceiving, from under her dropped eyelids, that he was leaning forwards and looking at her as though he was determined to have an answer.

'Young ladies are always very cautious in fact, however modest they may be in profession,' he replied, addressing himself in a nonchalant manner to Mrs Gibson. 'In spite of Miss Gibson's apprehension of not having many partners she declines the certainty of having one. I suppose Miss Kirkpatrick will have returned from France before then?'

He said these last words exactly in the same tone as he had used before; but Molly's instinct told her that he was making an effort to do so. She looked up. He was playing with his hat, almost as if he did not care to have any answer to his question. Yet he was listening acutely, and with a half smile on his face.

Mrs Gibson reddened a little, and hesitated, -

'Yes; certainly. My daughter will be with us next winter, I believe; and I daresay she will go out with us.'

'Why can't she say at once that Cynthia is here now?' asked Molly to herself, yet glad that Mr Preston's curiosity was baffled.

He still smiled; but this time he looked up at Mrs Gibson, as he asked, - 'You have good news from her, I hope?'

'Yes; very. By the way, how are our old friends the Robinsons? How often I think of their kindness to me at Ashcombe! Dear good people, I wish I could see them again.'

'I will certainly tell them of your kind inquiries. They are very well, I believe.'

Just at this moment, Molly heard the familiar sound of the click and opening of the front door. She knew it must be Cynthia; and, conscious of some mysterious reason which made Mrs Gibson wish to conceal her daughter's whereabouts from Mr Preston, and maliciously desirous to baffle him, she rose to leave the room, and meet Cynthia on the stairs; but one of the lost crewels of worsted had entangled itself in her gown and feet, and before she had freed herself of the encumbrance, Cynthia had opened the drawing-room door, and stood in it, looking at her mother, at Molly, at Mr Preston, but not advancing one step. Her colour, which had been brilliant the first moment of her entrance, faded away as she gazed; but her eyes - her beautiful eyes - usually so soft and grave, seemed to fill with fire, and her brows to contract, as she took the resolution to come forwards and take her place among the three, who were all looking at her with different emotions. She moved calmly and slowly forwards; Mr Preston went a step or two to meet her, his hand held out, and the whole expression of his face that of eager delight.

But she took no notice of the outstretched hand, nor of the chair that he offered her. She sate down on a little sofa in one of the windows, and called Molly to her.

'Look at my purchases,' said she. 'This green ribbon was fourteen-pence a yard, this silk three shillings,' and so she went on, forcing herself to speak about these trifles as if they were all the world to her, and she had no attention to throw away on her mother and her mother's visitor.

Mr Preston took his cue from her. He, too, talked of the news of the day, the local gossip - but Molly, who glanced up at him from time to time, was almost alarmed by the bad expression of suppressed anger, almost amounting to vindictiveness, which entirely marred his handsome looks. She did not wish to look again; and tried rather to back up Cynthia's efforts at maintaining a separate conversation. Yet she could not help overhearing Mrs Gibson's strain after increased civility, as if to make up for Cynthia's rudeness, and, if possible, to deprecate his anger. She talked perpetually, as though her object were to detain him; whereas previous to Cynthia's return she had allowed frequent pauses in the conversation, as though to give him the opportunity to take his leave.

In the course of the conversation between them the Hamleys came up. Mrs Gibson was never unwilling to dwell upon Molly's intimacy with this county family; and when the latter caught the sound of her own name, her stepmother was saying, -

'Poor Mrs Hamley could hardly do without Molly; she quite looked upon her as a daughter, especially towards the last, when, I am afraid, she had a good deal of anxiety. Mr Osborne Hamley - I daresay you have heard - he did not do so well at college, and they had expected so much - parents will, you know; but what did it signify? for he had not to earn his living! I call it a very foolish kind of ambition when a young man has not to go into a profession.'

'Well, at any rate, the squire must be satisfied now. I saw this morning's Times, with the Cambridge examination lists in it. Isn't the second son called after his father, Roger?'

'Yes,' said Molly, starting up, and coming nearer.

'He's senior wrangler, that's all,' said Mr Preston, almost as though he were vexed with himself for having anything to say that could give her pleasure. Molly went back to her seat by Cynthia.

'Poor Mrs Hamley,' said she very softly, as if to herself. Cynthia took her hand, in sympathy with Molly's sad and tender look, rather than because she understood all that was passing in her mind, nor did she quite understand it herself. A death that had come out of time; a wonder if the dead knew what passed upon the earth they had left - the brilliant Osborne's failure, Roger's success; the vanity of human wishes; all these thoughts, and what they suggested, were inextricably mingled up in her mind. She came to herself in a few minutes. Mr Preston was saying all the unpleasant things he could think of about the Hamleys in a tone of false sympathy.

'The poor old squire - not the wisest of men - has woefully mismanaged his estate. And Osborne Hamley is too fine a gentleman to understand the means by which to improve the value of the land - even if he had the capital. A man who had practical knowledge of agriculture, and some thousands of ready money, might bring the rental up to eight thousand or so. Of course, Osborne will try and marry some one with money; the family is old and well-established, and he mustn't object to commercial descent, though I daresay the squire will for him; but then the young fellow himself is not the man for the work. No! the family's going down fast; and it's pity when these old Saxon houses vanish off the land; but it is "kismet" with the Hamleys. Even the senior wrangler - if it is that Roger Hamley - he will have spent all his brains in one effort. You never hear of a senior wrangler being worth anything afterwards. He'll be a Fellow of his college, of course - that will be a livelihood for him at any rate.'

'I believe in senior wranglers,' said Cynthia, her clear high voice ringing through the room. 'And from all I've heard of Mr Roger Hamley, I believe he will keep up the distinction he has earned. And I don't believe that the house of Hamley is so near extinction in wealth and fame, and good name.'

'They are fortunate in having Miss Kirkpatrick's good word,' said Mr Preston, rising to take his leave.

'Dear Molly,' said Cynthia, in a whisper, 'I know nothing about your friends the Hamleys, except that they are your friends, and what you have told me about them. But I won't have that man speaking of them so - and your eyes filling with tears all the time. I'd sooner swear to their having all the talents and good fortune under the sun.'

The only person of whom Cynthia appeared to be wholesomely afraid was Mr Gibson. When he was present she was more careful in speaking, and showed more deference to her mother. Her evident respect for Mr Gibson, and desire for his good opinion, made her curb herself before him; and in this manner she earned his good favour as a lively, sensible girl, with just so much knowledge of the world as made her a very desirable companion to Molly. Indeed, she made something of the same kind of impression on all men. They were first struck with her personal appearance; and then with her pretty deprecating manner, which appealed to them much as if she had said, 'You are wise, and I am foolish - have mercy on my folly.' It was a way she had; it meant nothing really; and she was hardly conscious of it herself; but it was very captivating all the same. Even old Williams, the gardener, felt it; he said to his confidante, Molly, -

'Eh, miss, but that be a rare young lady! She do have such pretty coaxing ways. I be to teach her to bud roses come the season - and I'll warrant ye she'll learn to be sharp enough, for all she says she bees so stupid.'

If Molly had not had the sweetest disposition in the world she might have become jealous of all the allegiance laid at Cynthia's feet; but she never thought of comparing the amount of admiration and love which they each received. Yet once she did feel a little as if Cynthia were poaching on her manor. The invitation to the quiet dinner had been sent to Osborne Hamley, and declined by him. But he thought it right to call soon afterwards. It was the first time Molly had seen any of the family since she left the Hall, since Mrs Hamley's death; and there was so much that she wanted to ask. She tried to wait patiently till Mrs Gibson had exhausted the first gush of her infinite nothings; and then Molly came in with her modest questions. How was the squire? Had he returned to his old habits? Had his health suffered? - putting each inquiry with as light and delicate a touch as if she had been dressing a wound. She hesitated a little, a very little, before speaking of Roger; for just one moment the thought flitted across her mind that Osborne might feel the contrast between his own and his brother's college career too painfully to like to have it referred to; but then she remembered the generous brotherly love that had always existed between the two, and had just entered upon the subject, when Cynthia, in obedience to her mother's summons, came into the room, and took up her work. No one could have been quieter - she hardly uttered a word; but Osborne seemed to fall under her power at once. He no longer gave his undivided attention to Molly. He cut short his answers to her questions; and by-and-by, without Molly's rightly understanding how it was, he had turned towards Cynthia, and was addressing himself to her. Molly saw the look of content on Mrs Gibson's face; perhaps it was her own mortification at not having heard all she wished to know about Roger, that gave her a keener insight than usual, but certain it is that all at once she perceived that Mrs Gibson would not dislike a marriage between Osborne and Cynthia, and considered the present occasion as an auspicious beginning. Remembering the secret which she had been let into so unwillingly, Molly watched his behaviour, almost as if she had been retained in the interests of the absent wife; but, after all, thinking as much of the possibility of his attracting Cynthia as of the unknown and mysterious Mrs Osborne Hamley. His manner was expressive of great interest and of strong prepossession in favour of the beautiful girl to whom he was talking. He was in deep mourning, which showed off his slight figure and delicate refined face. But there was nothing of flirting, as far as Molly understood the meaning of the word, in either looks or words. Cynthia, too, was extremely quiet; she was always much quieter with men than with women; it was part of the charm of her soft allurement that she was so passive. They were talking of France. Mrs Gibson herself had passed two or three years of her girlhood there; and Cynthia's late return from Boulogne made it a very natural subject of conversation. But Molly was thrown out of it; and with her heart still unsatisfied as to the details of Roger's success, she had to stand up at last, and receive Osborne's good-by, scarcely longer or more intimate than his farewell to Cynthia. As soon as he was gone Mrs Gibson began in his praise.

'Well, really, I begin to have some faith in long descent. What a gentleman he is! How agreeable and polite! So different from that forward Mr Preston,' she continued, looking a little anxiously at Cynthia. Cynthia, quite aware that her reply was being watched for, said, coolly, -

'Mr Preston doesn't improve on acquaintance. There was a time, mamma, when I think both you and I thought him very agreeable.'

'I don't remember. You've a clearer memory than I have. But we were talking of this delightful Mr Osborne Hamley. Why, Molly, you were always talking of his brother - it was Roger this, and Roger that - I can't think how it was you so seldom mentioned this young man.'

'I did not know I had mentioned Mr Roger Hamley so often,' said Molly, blushing a little. 'But I saw much more of him - he was more at home.'

'Well, well! It's all right, my dear. I daresay he suits you best. But really, when I saw Osborne Hamley close to my Cynthia, I couldn't help thinking - but perhaps I'd better not tell you what I was thinking of. Only they are each of them so much above the average in appearance; and, of course, that suggests things.'

'I perfectly understand what you were thinking of, mamma,' said Cynthia, with the greatest composure; 'and so does Molly, I have no doubt.'

'Well! there's no harm in it, I'm sure. Did you hear him say that, though he did not like to leave his father alone just at present, yet that when his brother Roger came back from Cambridge, he should feel more at liberty? It was quite as much to say, "If you will ask me to dinner then, I shall be delighted to come." And chickens will be so much cheaper, and cook has such a nice way of boning them, and doing them up with forcemeat. Everything seems to be falling out so fortunately. And Molly, my dear, you know I won't forget you. By-and-by, when Roger Hamley has taken his turn at stopping at home with his father, we will ask him to one of our little quiet dinners.'

Molly was very slow at taking this in; but in about a minute the sense of it had reached her brain, and she went all over very red and hot; especially as she saw that Cynthia was watching the light come into her mind with great amusement.

'I'm afraid Molly isn't properly grateful, mamma. If I were you, I wouldn't exert myself to give a dinner-party on her account. Bestow all your kindness upon me.'

Molly was often puzzled by Cynthia's speeches to her mother; and this was one of these occasions. But she was more anxious to say something for herself; she was so much annoyed at the implication in Mrs Gibson's last words.

'Mr Roger Hamley has been very good to me; he was a great deal at home when I was there, and Mr Osborne Hamley was very little there: that was the reason I spoke so much more of one than the other. If I had - if he had,' - losing her coherence in the difficulty of finding words, - 'I don't think I should. Oh, Cynthia, instead of laughing at me, I think you might help me to explain myself!'

Instead, Cynthia gave a diversion to the conversation.

'Mamma's paragon gives me an idea of weakness. I can't quite make out whether it is in body or mind. Which is it, Molly?'

'He is not strong, I know; but he is very accomplished and clever. Every one says that, - even papa, who doesn't generally praise young men. That made the puzzle the greater when he did so badly at college.'

'Then it's his character that is weak. I'm sure there's weakness somewhere; but he's very agreeable. It must have been very pleasant, staying at the Hall.'

'Yes; but it's all over now.'

'Oh, nonsense!' said Mrs Gibson, wakening up from counting the stitches in her pattern. 'We shall have the young men coming to dinner pretty often, you'll see. Your father likes them, and I shall always make a point of welcoming his friends. They can't go on mourning for a mother for ever. I expect we shall see a great deal of them; and that the two families will become very intimate. After all, these good Hollingford people are terribly behindhand, and I should say, rather commonplace.'

Part Three