Wives And Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
Chapter XXV. Hollingford In A Bustle
All Hollingford felt as if there was a great deal to be done before Easter this year. There was Easter proper, which always required new clothing of some kind, for fear of certain consequences from little birds, who were supposed to resent the impiety of those who do not wear some new article of dress on Easter-day.' And most ladies considered it wiser that the little birds should see the new article for themselves, and not have to take it upon trust, as they would have to do if it were merely a pocket-handkerchief, or a petticoat, or any article of under-clothing. So piety demanded a new bonnet, or a new gown; and was barely satisfied with an Easter pair of gloves. Miss Rose was generally very busy just before Easter in Hollingford. Then this year there was the charity ball. Ashcombe, Hollingford, and Coreham were three neighbouring towns, of about the same number of population, lying at the three equidistant corners of a triangle. In imitation of greater cities with their festivals, these three towns had agreed to have an annual ball for the benefit of the county hospital to be held in turn at each place; and Hollingford was to be the place this year.
It was a fine time for hospitality, and every house of any pretension was as full as it could hold, and flys were engaged long months before.
If Mrs Gibson could have asked Osborne, or in default, Roger Hamley to go to the ball with them and to sleep at their house, - or if, indeed, she could have picked up any stray scion of a 'county family' to whom such an offer would have been a convenience, she would have restored her own dressing-room to its former use as the spare-room, with pleasure. But she did not think it was worth her while to put herself out for any of the humdrum and ill-dressed women who had been her former acquaintance at Ashcombe. For Mr Preston it might have been worth while to give up her room, considering him in the light of a handsome and prosperous young man, and a good dancer besides. But there were more lights in which he was to be viewed. Mr Gibson, who really wanted to return the hospitality shown to him by Mr Preston at the time of his marriage, had yet an instinctive distaste to the man, which no wish of freeing himself from obligation, nor even the more worthy feeling of hospitality, could overcome. Mrs Gibson had some old grudges of her own against him, but she was not one to retain angry feelings, or be very active in her retaliation; she was afraid of Mr Preston, and admired him at the same time. It was awkward too - so she said - to go into a ball-room without any gentleman at all, and Mr Gibson was so uncertain! On the whole - partly for this last-given reason, and partly because conciliation was the best policy, Mrs Gibson herself was slightly in favour of inviting Mr Preston to be their guest. But as soon as Cynthia heard the question discussed - or rather, as soon as she heard it discussed in Mr Gibson's absence, she said that if Mr Preston came to be their visitor on the occasion, she for one would not go to the ball at all. She did not speak with vehemence or in anger; but with such quiet resolution that Molly looked up in surprise. She saw that Cynthia was keeping her eyes fixed on her work, and that she had no intention of meeting any one's gaze, or giving any further explanation. Mrs Gibson, too, looked perplexed, and once or twice seemed on the point of asking some question; but she was not angry as Molly had fully expected. She watched Cynthia furtively and in silence for a minute or two, and then said that after all she could not conveniently give up her dressing-room; and altogether, they had better say no more about it. So no stranger was invited to stay at Mr Gibson's at the time of the ball; but Mrs Gibson openly spoke of her regret at the unavoidable inhospitality, and hoped that they might be able to build an addition to their house before the triennial Hollingford ball.
Another cause of unusual bustle at Hollingford this Easter was the expected return of the family to the Towers, after their unusually long absence. Mr Sheepshanks might be seen trotting up and down on his stout old cob, speaking to attentive masons, plasterers, and glaziers about putting everything - on the outside at least - about the cottages belonging to 'my lord,' in perfect repair. Lord Cumnor owned the greater part of the town; and those who lived under other landlords, or in houses of their own, were stirred up by the dread of contrast to do up their dwellings. So the ladders of whitewashers and painters were sadly in the way of the ladies tripping daintily along to make their purchases, and holding their gowns up in a bunch behind, after a fashion quite gone out in these days.' The housekeeper and steward from the Towers might also be seen coming in to give orders at the various shops; and stopping here and there at those kept by favourites, to avail themselves of the eagerly-tendered refreshments.
Lady Harriet came to call on her old governess the day after the arrival of the family at the Towers. Molly and Cynthia were out walking when she came - doing some errands for Mrs Gibson, who had a secret idea that Lady Harriet would call at the particular time she did, and had a not uncommon wish to talk to her ladyship without the corrective presence of any member of her own family.
Mrs Gibson did not give Molly the message of remembrance that Lady Harriet had left for her; but she imparted various pieces of news relating to the Towers with great animation and interest. The Duchess of Menteith and her daughter, Lady Alice, were coming to the Towers; would be there the day of the ball; would come to the ball; and the Menteith diamonds were famous. That was piece of news the first. The second was that ever so many gentlemen were coming to the Towers - some English, some French. This piece of news would have come first in order of importance had there been much probability of their being dancing men, and, as such, possible partners at the coming ball. But Lady Harriet had spoken of them as Lord Hollingford's friends, useless scientific men in all probability. Then, finally, Mrs Gibson was to go to the Towers next day to lunch; Lady Cumnor had written a little note by Lady Harriet to beg her to come; if Mrs Gibson could manage to find her way to the Towers, one of the carriages in use should bring her back to her own home in the course of the afternoon.
'The dear countess!' said Mrs Gibson, with soft affection. It was a soliloquy, uttered after a minute's pause, at the end of all this information.
And all the rest of that day her conversation had an aristocratic perfume hanging about it. One of the few books she had brought with her into Mr Gibson's house was bound in pink, and in it she studied 'Menteith, Duke of, Adolphus George,' etc. etc., till she was fully up in all the duchess's connections, and probable interests. Mr Gibson made his mouth up into a droll whistle when he came home at night, and found himself in a Towers' atmosphere. Molly saw the shade of annoyance through the drollery; she was beginning to see it oftener than she liked, not that she reasoned upon it, or that she consciously traced the annoyance to its source; but she could not help feeling uneasy in herself when she knew her father was in the least put out.
Of course a fly was ordered for Mrs Gibson. In the early afternoon she came home. If she had been disappointed in her interview with the countess she never told her woe, nor revealed the fact that when she first arrived at the Towers she had to wait for an hour in Lady Cumnor's morning-room, uncheered by any companionship save that of her old friend Mrs Bradley, till suddenly, Lady Harriet coming in, she exclaimed, 'Why, Clare! you dear woman! are you here all alone? Does mamma know?' And, after a little more affectionate conversation, she rushed to find her ladyship, perfectly aware of the fact, but too deep in giving the duchess the benefit of her wisdom and experience in trousseaux to be at all aware of the length of time Mrs Gibson had been passing in patient solitude. At lunch Mrs Gibson was secretly hurt by my lord's supposing it to be her dinner, and calling out his urgent hospitality from the very bottom of the table, giving as a reason for it, that she must remember it was her dinner. In vain she piped out in her soft, high voice, 'Oh, my lord! I never eat meat in the middle of the day; I can hardly eat anything at lunch.' Her voice was lost, and the duchess might go away with the idea that the Hollingford doctor's wife dined early; that is to say, if her grace ever condescended to have any idea on the subject at all; which presupposes that she was cognizant of the facts of there being a doctor at Hollingford, and that he had a wife, and that his wife was the pretty, faded, elegant-looking woman sending away her plate of untasted food - food that she longed to eat, for she was really desperately hungry after her drive and her solitude.
And then, after lunch, there did come a tete-a-tete with Lady Cumnor, which was conducted after this wise: -
'Well, Clare! I am really glad to see you. I once thought I should never get back to the Towers, but here I am! There was such a clever man at Bath - a Doctor Snape - he cured me at last - quite set me up. I really think if ever I am ill again I shall send for him: it is such a thing to find a really clever medical man. Oh, by the way, I always forget you've married Mr Gibson - of course he is very clever, and all that. (The carriage to the door in ten minutes, Brown, and desire Bradley to bring my things down.) What was I asking you? Oh! how do you get on with the step-daughter. She seemed to me to be a young lady with a pretty stubborn will of her own. I put a letter for the post down somewhere, and I cannot think where; do help me to look for it, there's a good woman. Just run to my room, and see if Brown can find it, for it is of great consequence.'
Off went Mrs Gibson rather unwillingly; for there were several things she had wanted to speak about, and she had not heard half of what she had expected to learn of the family gossip. But all chance was gone; for when she came back from her fruitless errand, Lady Cumnor and the duchess were in full talk, Lady Cumnor with the missing letter in her hand, which she was using something like a baton to enforce her words.
'Every iota from Paris! Every i-o-ta!'
Lady Cumnor was too much of a lady not to apologize for useless trouble, but they were nearly the last words she spoke to Mrs Gibson, for she had to go out and drive with the duchess; and the brougham to take 'Clare' (as she persisted in calling Mrs Gibson) back to Hollingford, followed the carriage to the door. Lady Harriet came away from her entourage of young men and young ladies, all prepared for some walking expedition, to wish Mrs Gibson good-by.
'We shall see you at the ball,' she said. 'You'll be there with your two girls, of course, and I must have a little talk with you there; with all these visitors in the house, it has been impossible to see anything of you to-day, you know.'
Such were the facts, but rose-colour was the medium through which they were seen by Mrs Gibson's household listeners on her return.
'There are many visitors staying at the Towers - oh, yes! a great many: the duchess and Lady Alice, and Mr and Mrs Grey, and Lord Albert Monson and his sister, and my old friend Captain James of the Blues - many more, in fact. But of course I preferred going to Lady Cumnor's own room, where I could see her and Lady Harriet quietly, and where we were not disturbed by the bustle downstairs. Of course we were obliged to go down to lunch, and then I saw my old friends, and renewed pleasant acquaintances. But I really could hardly get any connected conversation with any one. Lord Cumnor seemed so delighted to see me there again: though there were six or seven between us, he was always interrupting with some civil or kind speech especially addressed to me. And after lunch Lady Cumnor asked me all sorts of questions about my new life with as much interest as if I had been her daughter. To be sure, when the duchess came in we had to leave off, and talk about the trousseau she is preparing for Lady Alice. Lady Harriet made such a point of our meeting at the ball; she is a good, affectionate creature, is Lady Harriet!'
This last was said in a tone of meditative appreciation.
The afternoon of the day on which the ball was to take place, a servant rode over from Hamley with two lovely nosegays, 'with the Mr Hamleys' compliments to Miss Gibson and Miss Kirkpatrick.' Cynthia was the first to receive them. She came dancing into the drawing-room, flourishing the flowers about in either hand, and danced up to Molly, who was trying to settle to her reading, by way of passing the time away till the evening came.
'Look, Molly, look! Here are bouquets for us! Long life to the givers!'
'Who are they from?' asked Molly, taking hold of one, and examining it with tender delight at its beauty.
'Who from? Why, the two paragons of Hamleys, to be sure! Is it not a pretty attention?'
'How kind of them!' said Molly.
'I'm sure it is Osborne who thought of it. He has been so much abroad, where it is such a common compliment to send bouquets to young ladies.'
'I don't see why you should think it is Osborne's thought!' said Molly, reddening a little. 'Mr Roger Hamley used to gather nosegays constantly for his mother, and sometimes for me.'
'Well, never mind whose thought it was, or who gathered them; we've got the flowers, and that's enough. Molly, I'm sure these red flowers will just match your coral necklace and bracelets,' said Cynthia, pulling out some camellias, then a rare kind of flower.
'Oh, please, don't!' exclaimed Molly. 'Don't you see how carefully the colours are arranged - they have taken such pains; please, don't.'
'Nonsense!' said Cynthia, continuing to pull them out; 'see, here are quite enough. I'll make you a little coronet of them - sewn on black velvet, which will never be seen - just as they do in France!'
'Oh, I am so sorry! It is quite spoilt,' said Molly.
'Never mind! I'll take this spoilt bouquet; I can make it up again just as prettily as ever; and you shall have this, which has never been touched.' Cynthia went on arranging the crimson buds and flowers to her taste. Molly said nothing, but kept on watching Cynthia's nimble fingers tying up the wreath.
'There,' said Cynthia, at last, 'when that is sewn on black velvet, to keep the flowers from dying, you'll see how pretty it will look. And there are enough red flowers in this untouched nosegay to carry out the idea!'
'Thank you' (very slowly). 'But shan't you mind having only the wrecks of the other?'
'Not I; red flowers would not go with my pink dress.'
'But - I daresay they arranged each nosegay so carefully!'
'Perhaps they did. But I never would allow sentiment to interfere with my choice of colours; and pink does tie one down. Now you, in white muslin, just tipped with crimson, like a daisy, may wear anything.'
Cynthia took the utmost pains in dressing Molly, leaving the clever housemaid to her mother's exclusive service. Mrs Gibson was more anxious about her attire than was either of the girls; it had given her occasion for deep thought and not a few sighs. Her deliberation had ended in her wearing her pearl-grey satin wedding-gown, with a profusion of lace, and white and coloured lilacs. Cynthia was the one who took the affair the most lightly. Molly looked upon the ceremony of dressing for a first ball as rather a serious ceremony; certainly as an anxious proceeding. Cynthia was almost as anxious as herself; only Molly wanted her appearance to be correct and unnoticed; and Cynthia was desirous of setting off Molly's rather peculiar charms - her cream-coloured skin, her profusion of curly black hair, her beautiful long-shaped eyes, with their shy, loving expression. Cynthia took up so much time in dressing Molly to her mind, that she herself had to perform her toilette in a hurry. Molly, ready dressed, sate on a low chair in Cynthia's room, watching the pretty creature's rapid movements, as she stood in her petticoat before the glass, doing up her hair, with quick certainty of effect. At length, Molly heaved a long sigh, and said, -
'I should like to be pretty!'
'Why, Molly,' said Cynthia, turning round with an exclamation on the tip of her tongue; but when she caught the innocent, wistful look on Molly's face, she instinctively checked what she was going to say, and, half-smiling to her own reflection in the glass, she said, - 'The French girls would tell you, to believe that you were pretty would make you so.'
Molly paused before replying, -
'I suppose they would mean that if you knew you were pretty, you would never think about your looks; you would be so certain of being liked, and that it is caring -- '
'Listen! that's eight o'clock striking. Don't trouble yourself with trying to interpret a French girl's meaning, but help me on with my frock, there's a dear one.'
The two girls were dressed, and were standing over the fire waiting for the carriage in Cynthia's room, when Maria (Betty's successor) came hurrying into the room. Maria had been officiating as maid to Mrs Gibson, but she had had intervals of leisure, in which she had rushed upstairs, and, under the pretence of offering her services, she had seen the young ladies' dresses, and the sight of so many fine clothes had sent her into a state of excitement which made her think nothing of rushing upstairs for the twentieth time, with a nosegay still more beautiful than the two previous ones.
'Here, Miss Kirkpatrick! No, it's not for you, miss!' as Molly, being nearer to the door, offered to take it and pass it to Cynthia. 'It's for Miss Kirkpatrick; and there's a note for her besides!'
Cynthia said nothing, but took the note and the flowers. She held the note so that Molly could read it at the same time she did.
I send you some flowers; and you must allow me
to claim the first dance after nine o'clock, before
which time I fear I cannot arrive. - R. P.
'Who is it?' asked Molly.
Cynthia looked extremely irritated, indignant, perplexed - what was it turned her cheek so pale, and made her eyes so full of fire?
'It is Mr Preston,' said she, in answer to Molly. 'I shall not dance with him; and here go his flowers - '
Into the very middle of the embers, which she immediately stirred down upon the beautiful shrivelling petals as if she wished to annihilate them as soon as possible. Her voice had never been raised; it was as sweet as usual; nor, though her movements were prompt enough, were they hasty or violent.
'Oh!' said Molly, 'those beautiful flowers! We might have put them in water.'
'No,' said Cynthia; 'it's best to destroy them. We don't want them; and I can't bear to be reminded of that man.'
'It was an impertinent familiar note,' said Molly. 'What right had he to express himself in that way - no beginning, no end, and only initials. Did you know him well when you were at Ashcombe, Cynthia?'
'Oh, don't let us think any more about him,' replied Cynthia. 'It is quite enough to spoil any pleasure at the ball to think that he will be there. But I hope I shall get engaged before he comes, so that I can't dance with him - and don't you, either!'
'There! they are calling for us,' exclaimed Molly, and with quick step, yet careful of their draperies, they made their way downstairs to the place where Mr and Mrs Gibson awaited them. Yes: Mr Gibson was going; even if he had to leave them afterwards to attend to any professional call. And Molly suddenly began to admire her father as a handsome man, when she saw him now, in full evening attire. Mrs Gibson, too - how pretty she was! In short, it was true that no better-looking a party than these four people entered the Hollingford ball-room that evening.