Part Three
Chapter XXVIII. Rivalry

For some days after the ball Cynthia seemed languid, and was very silent. Molly, who had promised herself fully as much enjoyment in talking over the past gaiety with Cynthia as in the evening itself, was disappointed when she found that all conversation on the subject was rather evaded than encouraged. Mrs Gibson, it is true, was ready to go over the ground as many times as any one liked; but her words were always like ready-made clothes, and never fitted individual thoughts. Anybody might have used them, and, with a change of proper names, they might have served to describe any ball. She repeatedly used the same language in speaking about it, till Molly knew the sentences and their sequence even to irritation.

'Ah! Mr Osborne, you should have been there! I said to myself many a time how you really should have been there - you and, your brother of course.'

'I thought of you very often during the evening!'

'Did you? Now that I call very kind of you. Cynthia, darling! Do you hear what Mr Osborne Hamley was saying?' as Cynthia came into the room just then. 'He thought of us all on the evening of the ball.'

'He did better than merely remember us then,' said Cynthia, with her soft slow smile. 'We owe him thanks for those beautiful flowers, mamma.'

'Oh!' said Osborne, 'you must not thank me exclusively. I believe it was my thought, but Roger took all the trouble of it.'

'I consider the thought as everything,' said Mrs Gibson. 'Thought is spiritual, while action is merely material.'

This fine sentence took the speaker herself by surprise; and in such conversation as was then going on, it is not necessary to accurately define the meaning of everything that is said.

'I'm afraid the flowers were too late to be of much use though,' continued Osborne. 'I met Preston the next morning, and of course we talked about the ball. I was sorry to find he had been beforehand with us,'

'He only sent one nosegay, and that was for Cynthia,' said Molly, looking up from her work. 'And it did not come till after we had received the flowers from Hamley.' Molly caught a sight of Cynthia's face before she bent down again to her sewing. It was scarlet in colour, and there was a flash of anger in her eyes. Both she and her mother hastened to speak as soon as Molly had finished, but Cynthia's voice was choked with passion, and Mrs Gibson had the word.

'Mr Preston's bouquet was just one of those formal affairs any one can buy at a nursery-garden, which always strike me as having no sentiment in them. I would far rather have two or three lilies of the valley gathered for me by a person I like, than the most expensive bouquet that could be bought!'

'Mr Preston had no business to speak as if he had forestalled you,' said Cynthia. 'It came just as we were ready to go, and I put it into the fire directly.'

'Cynthia, my dear love!' said Mrs Gibson (who had never heard of the fate of the flowers until now), 'what an idea of yourself you will give to Mr Osborne Hamley; but to be sure, I can quite understand it. You inherit my feeling - my prejudice - sentimental I grant, against bought flowers.'

Cynthia was silent for a moment; then she said, 'I used some of your flowers, Mr Hamley, to dress Molly's hair. It was a great temptation, for the colour so exactly matched her coral ornaments; but I believe she thought it treacherous to disturb the arrangement, so I ought to take all the blame on myself.'

'The arrangement was my brother's, as I told you; but I am sure he would have preferred seeing them in Miss Gibson's hair rather than in the blazing fire. Mr Preston comes far the worst off.' Osborne was rather amused at the whole affair, and would have liked to probe Cynthia's motives a little farther. He did not hear Molly saying in as soft a voice as if she were talking to herself, 'I wore mine just as they were sent,' for Mrs Gibson came in with a total change of subject.

'Speaking of lilies of the valley, is it true that they grow wild in Hurst Wood? It is not the season for them to be in flower yet; but when it is, I think we must take a walk there - with our luncheon in a basket - a little picnic in fact. You'll join us, won't you?' turning to Osborne. 'I think it's a charming plan! You could ride to Hollingford and put up your horse here, and we would have a long day in the woods and all come home to dinner - dinner with a basket of lilies in the middle of the table!'

'I should like it very much,' said Osborne; 'but I may not be at home. Roger is more likely to be here, I believe, at that time - a month hence.' He was thinking of the visit to London to sell his poems, and the run down to Winchester which he anticipated afterwards - the end of May had been the period fixed for this pleasure for some time, not merely in his own mind, but in writing to his wife.

'Oh, but you must be with us! We must wait for Mr Osborne Hamley, must not we, Cynthia?'

'I'm afraid the lilies won't wait,' replied Cynthia.

'Well, then, we must put it off till dog-rose and honeysuckle time. You will be at home then, won't you? or does the London season present too many attractions?'

'I don't exactly know when dog-roses are in flower!'

'Not know, and you a poet? Don't you remember the lines -

It was the time of roses,

We plucked them as we passed?"

'Yes; but that doesn't specify the time of year that is the time of roses; and I believe my movements are guided more by the lunar calendar than the floral. You had better take my brother for your companion; he is practical in his love of flowers, I am only theoretical.'

'Does that fine word "theoretical" imply that you are ignorant?' asked Cynthia.

'Of course we shall be happy to see your brother; but why can't we have you too? I confess to a little timidity in the presence of one so deep and learned as your brother is from all accounts. Give me a little charming ignorance, if we must call it by that hard word.'

Osborne bowed. It was very pleasant to him to be petted and flattered, even though he knew all the time that it was only flattery. It was an agreeable contrast to the home that was so dismal to him, to come to this house where the society of two agreeable girls, and the soothing syrup of their mother's speeches, awaited him whenever he liked to come. To say nothing of the difference that struck upon his senses, poetical though he might esteem himself, of a sitting-room full of flowers and tokens of women's presence, where all the chairs were easy, and all the tables well covered with pretty things, to the great drawing-room at home, where the draperies were threadbare, and the seats uncomfortable, and no sign of feminine presence ever now lent a grace to the stiff arrangement of the furniture. Then the meals, light and well cooked, suited his taste and delicate appetite so much better than the rich and heavy viands prepared by the servants at the Hall. Osborne was becoming a little afraid of falling into the habit of paying too frequent visits to the Gibsons (and that, not because he feared the consequences of his intercourse with the two young ladies; for he never thought of them excepting as friends; - the fact of his marriage was constantly present to his mind, and Aimee too securely enthroned in his heart, for him to remember that he might be looked upon by others in the light of a possible husband); but the reflection forced itself upon him occasionally, whether he was not trespassing too often on hospitality which he had at present no means of returning.

But Mrs Gibson, in her ignorance of the true state of affairs, was secretly exultant in the attraction which made him come so often and lounge away the hours in their house and garden. She had no doubt that it was Cynthia who drew him to the house; and if the latter had been a little more amenable to reason, her mother would have made more frequent allusions than she did to the crisis which she thought was approaching. But she was restrained by the intuitive conviction that if her daughter became conscious of what was impending, and was made aware of Mrs Gibson's cautious and quiet efforts to forward the catastrophe, the wilful girl would oppose herself to it with all her skill and power. As it was, Mrs Gibson trusted that Cynthia's affections would become engaged before she knew where she was, and that in that case she would not attempt to frustrate her mother's delicate scheming, even though she did perceive it. But Cynthia had come across too many varieties of flirtation, admiration, and even passionate love, to be for a moment at fault as to the quiet friendly nature of Osborne's attentions. She received him always as a sister might a brother. It was different when Roger returned from his election as Fellow of Trinity. The trembling diffidence, the hardly suppressed ardour of his manner, made Cynthia understand before long with what kind of love she had now to deal. She did not put it into so many words - no, not even in her secret heart - but she recognized the difference between Roger's relation to her and Osborne's, long before Mrs Gibson found it out. Molly was, however, the first to discover the nature of Roger's attraction. The first time they saw him after the ball, it came out to her observant eyes. Cynthia had not been looking well since that evening; she went slowly about the house, pale and heavy-eyed; and, fond as she usually was of exercise and the free fresh air, there was hardly any persuading her now to go out for a walk. Molly watched this fading with tender anxiety, but to all her questions as to whether she had felt over-fatigued with her dancing, whether anything had occurred to annoy her, and all such inquiries, she replied in languid negatives. Once Molly touched on Mr Preston's name, and found that this was a subject on which Cynthia was raw; now, Cynthia's face lighted up with spirit, and her whole body showed her ill-repressed agitation, but she only said a few sharp words, expressive of anything but kindly feeling towards the gentleman, and then bade Molly never name his name to her again. Still, the latter could not imagine that he was more than intensely distasteful to her friend, as well as to herself, he could not be the cause of Cynthia's present indisposition. But this indisposition lasted so many days without change or modification, that even Mrs Gibson noticed it, and Molly became positively uneasy. Mrs Gibson considered Cynthia's quietness and languor as the natural consequence of 'dancing with everybody who asked her' at the ball. Partners whose names were in the 'Red Book' would not have produced half the amount of fatigue, according to Mrs Gibson's judgment apparently, and if Cynthia had been quite well, very probably she would have hit the blot in her mother's speech with one of her touches of sarcasm. Then, again, when Cynthia did not rally, Mrs Gibson grew impatient, and accused her of being fanciful and lazy; at length, and partly at Molly's instance, there came an appeal to Mr Gibson, and a professional examination of the supposed invalid, which Cynthia hated more than anything, especially when the verdict was, that there was nothing very much the matter, only a general lowness of tone, and depression of health and spirits, which would soon be remedied by tonics, and, meanwhile, she was not to be urged to exertion.

'If there is one thing I dislike,' said Cynthia to Mr Gibson, after he had pronounced tonics to be the cure for her present state, 'it is the way doctors have of giving tablespoonfuls of nauseous mixtures as a certain remedy for sorrows and cares.' She laughed up in his face as she spoke; she had always a pretty word and smile for him, even in the midst of her loss of spirits.

'Come! you acknowledge you have "sorrows" by that speech; we'll make a bargain: if you'll tell me your sorrows and cares, I'll try and find some other remedy for them than giving you what you are pleased to term my nauseous mixtures.'

'No,' said Cynthia, colouring; 'I never said I had sorrows and cares; I spoke generally. What should I have a sorrow about - you and Molly are only too kind to me,' her eyes filling with tears.

'Well, well, we'll not talk of such gloomy things, and you shall have some sweet emulsion to disguise the taste of the bitters I shall be obliged to fall back upon.'

'Please, don't. If you but knew how I dislike emulsions and disguises! I do want bitters - and if I sometimes - if I'm obliged to - if I'm not truthful myself, I do like truth in others - at least, sometimes.' She ended her sentence with another smile, bus it was rather faint and watery.

Now the first person out of the house to notice Cynthia's change of look and manner was Roger Hamley - and yet he did not see her until, under the influence of the nauseous mixture, she was beginning to recover. But his eyes were scarcely off her during the first five minutes he was in the room. All the time he was trying to talk to Mrs Gibson in reply to her civil platitudes, he was studying Cynthia; and at the first convenient pause he came and stood before Molly, so as to interpose his person between her and the rest of the room; for some visitors had come in subsequent to his entrance.

'Molly, how ill your sister is looking! What is it? Has she had advice? You must forgive me, but so often those who live together in the same house don't observe the first approaches of illness.'

Now Molly's love for Cynthia was fast and unwavering, but if anything tried it, it was the habit Roger had fallen into of always calling Cynthia Molly's sister in speaking to the latter. From any one else it would have been a matter of indifference to her, and hardly to be noticed; it vexed both ear and heart when Roger used the expression; and there was a curtness of manner as well as of words in her reply.

'Oh! she was over-tired by the ball. Papa has seen her, and says she will be all right very soon.'

'I wonder if she wants change of air?' said Roger, meditatively. 'I wish - I do wish we could have her at the Hall; you and your mother too, of course. But I don't see how it would be possible - or else how charming it would be!'

Molly felt as if a visit to the Hall under such circumstances would be altogether so different an affair to all her former ones, that she could hardly tell if she should like it or not.

Roger went on, -

'You got our flowers in time, did you not? Ah! you don't know how often I thought of you that evening! And you enjoyed it too, didn't you? - you had plenty of agreeable partners, and all that makes a first ball delightful? I heard that your sister danced every dance.'

'It was very pleasant,' said Molly, quietly. 'But, after all, I'm not sure if I want to go to another just yet; there seems to be so much trouble connected with a ball.'

'Ah! you are thinking of your sister, and her not being well?'

'No, I was not,' said Molly, rather bluntly. 'I was thinking of the dress, and the dressing, and the weariness the next day.'

He might think her unfeeling if he liked; she felt as if she had only too much feeling just then, for it was bringing on her a strange contraction of heart. But he was too inherently good himself to put any harsh construction on her speech. Just before he went away, while he was ostensibly holding her hand and wishing her good-by, he said to her in a voice too low to be generally heard, -

'Is there anything I could do for your sister? We have plenty of books, as you know, if she cares for reading.' Then, receiving no affirmative look or word from Molly in reply to this suggestion, he went on, - 'Or flowers? she likes flowers. Oh! and our forced strawberries are just ready - I will bring some over to-morrow.'

'I am sure she will like them,' said Molly.

For some reason or other, unknown to the Gibsons, a longer interval than usual occurred between Osborne's visits, while Roger came almost every day, always with some fresh offering by which he openly sought to relieve Cynthia's indisposition as far as it lay in his power. Her manner to him was so gentle and gracious that Mrs Gibson became alarmed, lest, in spite of his 'uncouthness' (as she was pleased to term it), he might come to be preferred to Osborne, who was so strangely neglecting his own interests, in Mrs Gibson's opinion. In her quiet way, she contrived to pass many slights upon Roger; but the darts rebounded from his generous nature that could not have imagined her motives, and fastened themselves on Molly. She had often been called naughty and passionate when she was a child; and she thought now that she began to understand that she really had a violent temper. What seemed neither to hurt Roger nor annoy Cynthia made Molly's blood boil; and now she had once discovered Mrs Gibson's wish to make Roger's visits shorter and less frequent, she was always on the watch for indications of this desire. She read her stepmother's heart when the latter made allusions to the squire's loneliness, now that Osborne was absent from the Hall, and that Roger was so often away amongst his friends during the day, -

'Mr Gibson and I should be so delighted if you could have stopped to dinner; but, of course, we cannot be so selfish as to ask you to stay when we remember how your father would be left alone. We were saying yesterday we wondered how he bore his solitude, poor old gentleman!'

Or, as soon as Roger came with his bunch of early roses, it was desirable for Cynthia to go and rest in her own room, while Molly had to accompany Mrs Gibson on some improvised errand or call. Still Roger, whose object was to give pleasure to Cynthia, and who had, from his boyhood, been always certain of Mr Gibson's friendly regard, was slow to perceive that he was not wanted. If he did not see Cynthia, that was his loss; at any rate, he heard how she was, and left her some little thing which he believed she would like, and was willing to risk the chance of his own gratification by calling four or five times in the hope of seeing her once. At last there came a day when Mrs Gibson went beyond her usual negative snubbiness, and when, in some unwonted fit of crossness, for she was a very placid-tempered person in general, she was guilty of positive rudeness,

Cynthia was very much better. Tonics had ministered to a mind diseased, though she hated to acknowledge it; her pretty bloom and much of her light-heartedness had come back, and there was no cause remaining for anxiety. Mrs Gibson was sitting at her embroidery in the drawing-room, and the two girls were at the window, Cynthia laughing at Molly's earnest endeavours to imitate the French accent in which the former had been reading a page of Voltaire. For the duty, or the farce, of settling to 'improving reading' in the mornings was still kept up, although Lord Hollingford, the unconscious suggestor of the idea, had gone back to town without making any of the efforts to see Molly again that Mrs Gibson had anticipated on the night of the ball. That Alnaschar vision had fallen to the ground. It was as yet early morning; a delicious, fresh, lovely June day, the air redolent with the scents of flower-growth and bloom; and half the time the girls had been ostensibly employed in the French reading they had been leaning out of the open window trying to reach a cluster of climbing roses. They had secured them at last, and the bunch lay on Cynthia's lap, but many of the petals had fallen off, so, though the perfume lingered about the window-seat, the full beauty of the flowers had passed away. Mrs Gibson had once or twice reproved them for the merry noise they had been making, which hindered her in the business of counting the stitches in her pattern; and she had set herself a certain quantity to do that morning before going out, and was of that nature which attaches infinite importance to fulfilling small resolutions, made about indifferent trifles without any reason whatever.

'Mr Roger Hamley,' was announced. 'So tiresome!' said Mrs Gibson, almost in his hearing, as she pushed away her embroidery frame. She put out her cold, motionless hand to him, with a half-murmured word of welcome, still eyeing her lost embroidery. He took no apparent notice, and passed on to the window.

'How delicious!' said he. 'No need for any more Hamley roses now yours are out,'

'I agree with you,' said Mrs Gibson, replying to him before either Cynthia or Molly could speak, though he addressed his words to them. 'You have been very kind in bringing us flowers so long; but now our own are out we need not trouble you any more.'

He looked at her with a little surprise clouding his honest face; it was perhaps more at the tone than the words. Mrs Gibson, however, had been bold enough to strike the first blow, and she determined to go on as opportunity offered. Molly would perhaps have been more pained if she had not seen Cynthia's colour rise. She waited for her to speak, if need were; for she knew that Roger's defence, if defence were needed, might be safely entrusted to Cynthia's ready wit.

He put out his hand for the shattered cluster of roses that lay in Cynthia's lap.

'At any rate,' said he, 'my trouble - if Mrs Gibson considers it has been a trouble to me - will be over-paid, if I may have this.'

'Old lamps for new,' said Cynthia, smiling as she gave it to him. 'I wish one could always buy nosegays such as you have brought us, as cheaply.'

'You forget the waste of time that, I think, we must reckon as part of the payment,' said her mother. 'Really, Mr Hamley, we must learn to shut our doors on you if you come so often, and at such early hours! I settle myself to my own employment regularly after breakfast till lunch-time; and it is my wish to keep Cynthia and Molly to a course of improving reading and study - so desirable for young people of their age, if they are ever to become intelligent, companionable women; but with early visitors it is quite impossible to observe any regularity of habits.'

All this was said in that sweet, false tone which of late had gone through Molly like the scraping of a slate-pencil on a slate. Roger's face changed. His ruddy colour grew paler for a moment, and he looked grave and not pleased. In another moment the wonted frankness of expression returned. Why should not he, he asked himself, believe her? it was early to call; it did interrupt regular occupation. So he spoke, and said, -

'I believe I have been very thoughtless - I'll not come so early again; but I had some excuse to-day: my brother told me you had made a plan for going to see Hurst Wood when the roses were out, and they are earlier than usual this year - I've been round to see. He spoke of a long day there, going before lunch -- '

'The plan was made with Mr Osborne Hamley. I could not think of going without him!' said Mrs Gibson, coldly.

'I had a letter from him this morning, in which he named your wish, and he says he fears he cannot be at home till they are out of flower. I daresay they are not much to see in reality, but the day is so lovely I thought that the plan of going to Hurst Wood would be a charming excuse for being out of doors.'

'Thank you. How kind you are! and so good, too, in sacrificing your natural desire to be with your father as much as possible.'

'I am glad to say my father is so much better than he was in the winter that he spends much of his time out of doors in his fields. He has been accustomed to go about alone, and I - we think that as great a return to his former habits as he can be induced to make, is the best for him.'

'And when do you return to Cambridge?'

There was some hesitation in Roger's manner as he replied, -

'It is uncertain. You probably know that I am a Fellow of Trinity now. I hardly yet know what my future plans may be; I am thinking of going up to London soon.'

'Ah! London is the true place for a young man,' said Mrs Gibson, with decision, as if she had reflected a good deal on the question. 'If it were not that we really are so busy this morning, I should have been tempted to make an exception to our general rule; one more exception, for your early visits have made us make too many already. Perhaps, however, we may see you again before you go?'

'Certainly I shall come,' replied he, rising to take his leave, and still holding the demolished roses in his hand. Then, addressing himself more especially to Cynthia, he added, 'My stay in London will not exceed a fortnight or so - is there anything I can do for you - or you?' turning a little to Molly.

'No, thank you very much,' said Cynthia, very sweetly, and then, acting on a sudden impulse, she leant out of the window, and gathered him some half-opened roses. 'You deserve these; do throw that poor shabby bunch away.'

His eyes brightened, his cheeks glowed. He took the offered buds, but did not throw away the other bunch.

'At any rate, I may come after lunch is over, and the afternoons and the evenings will be the most delicious time of day a month hence.' He said this to both Molly and Cynthia, but in his heart he addressed it to the latter.

Mrs Gibson affected not to hear what he was saying, but held out her limp hand once more to him.

'I suppose we shall see you when you return; and pray tell your brother how we are longing to have a visit from him again.'

When he had left the room, Molly's heart was quite full. She had watched his face, and read something of his feelings: his disappointment at their non- acquiescence in his plan of a day's pleasure in Hurst Wood, the delayed conviction that his presence was not welcome to the wife of his old friend, which had come so slowly upon him - perhaps, after all, these things touched Molly more keenly than they did him. His bright look when Cynthia gave him the rosebuds indicated a gush of sudden delight more vivid than the pain he had shown by his previous increase of gravity.

'I can't think why he will come at such untimely hours,' said Mrs Gibson, as soon as she heard him fairly out of the house. 'It's different from Osborne; we are so much more intimate with him: he came and made friends with us all the time this stupid brother of his was muddling his brains with mathematics at Cambridge. Fellow of Trinity, indeed! I wish he would learn to stay there, and not come intruding here, and assuming that because I asked Osborne to join in a picnic it was all the same to me which brother came.'

'In short, mamma, one man may steal a horse, but another must not look over the hedge,' said Cynthia, pouting a little.

'And the two brothers have always been treated so exactly alike by their friends, and there has been such a strong friendship between them, that it is no wonder Roger thinks he may be welcome where Osborne is allowed to come at all hours,' continued Molly, in high dudgeon. 'Roger's "muddled brains," indeed! Roger, "stupid!"'

'Oh, very well, my dears! When I was young it wouldn't have been thought becoming for girls of your age to fly out because a little restraint was exercised as to the hours at which they should receive the young men's calls. And they would have supposed that there might be good reasons why their parents disapproved of the visits of certain gentlemen, even while they were proud and pleased to see some members of the same family.'

'But that was what I said, mamma,' said Cynthia, looking at her mother with an expression of innocent bewilderment on her face. 'One man may -- '

'Be quiet, child! All proverbs are vulgar, and I do believe that is the vulgarest of all. You are really catching Roger Hamley's coarseness, Cynthia!'

'Mamma,' said Cynthia, roused to anger, 'I don't mind your abusing me, but Mr Roger Hamley has been very kind to me while I've not been well: I can't bear to hear him disparaged. If he's coarse, I've no objection to be coarse as well, for it seems to me it must mean kindliness and pleasantness, and the bringing of pretty flowers and presents.'

Molly's tears were brimming over at these words; she could have kissed Cynthia for her warm partisanship, but, afraid of betraying emotion, and 'making a scene,' as Mrs Gibson called any signs of warm feeling, she laid down her book hastily, and ran upstairs to her room, and locked the door in order to breathe freely. There were traces of tears upon her face when she returned into the drawing-room half-an-hour afterwards, walking straight and demurely up to her former place, where Cynthia still sate and gazed idly out of the window, pouting and displeased; Mrs Gibson, meanwhile, counting her stitches aloud with great distinctness and vigour.