Part Four
Chapter XL. Molly Gibson Breathes Freely

That was the way in which Mrs Gibson first broached her intention of accompanying Cynthia up to London for a few days' visit. She had a trick of producing the first sketch of any new plan before an outsider to the family circle; so that the first emotions of others, if they disapproved of her projects, had to be repressed, until the idea had become familiar to them. To Molly it seemed too charming a proposal ever to come to pass. She had never allowed herself to recognize the restraint she was under in her stepmother's presence; but all at once she found it out when her heart danced at the idea of three whole days - for that it would be at the least - of perfect freedom of intercourse with her father; of old times come back again; of meals without perpetual fidgetiness after details of ceremony and correctness of attendance.

'We'll have bread and cheese for dinner, and eat it on our knees; we'll make up for having had to eat sloppy puddings with a fork instead of a spoon all this time, by putting our knives in our mouths till we cut ourselves. Papa shall pour his tea into his saucer if he is in a hurry; and if I'm thirsty, I'll take the slop-basin. And oh, if I could but get, buy, borrow, or steal any kind of an old horse; my grey skirt is not new, but it will do; - that would be too delightful. After all, I think I can be happy again; for months and months it has seemed as if I had got too old ever to feel pleasure, much less happiness again.'

So thought Molly. Yet she blushed, as if with guilt, when Cynthia, reading her thought, said to her one day, -

'Molly, you are very glad to get rid of us, are not you?'

'Not of you, Cynthia; at least, I don't think I am. Only, if you only knew how I love papa, and how I used to see a great deal more of him than I ever do now -- '

'Ah! I often think what interlopers we must seem, and are in fact -- '

'I don't feel you as such. You, at any rate, have been a new delight to me, a sister; and I never knew how charming such a relationship could be.'

'But mamma?' said Cynthia, half-suspiciously, half-sorrowfully.

'She is papa's wife,' said Molly, quietly. 'I don't mean to say I am not often very sorry to feel I am no longer first with him; but it was' - the violent colour flushed into her face till even her eyes burnt, and she suddenly found herself on the point of crying; the weeping ash-tree, the misery, the slow dropping comfort;' and the comforters came all so vividly before her; - 'it was Roger!' - she went on looking up at Cynthia, as she overcame her slight hesitation at mentioning his name - 'Roger, who told me how I ought to take papa's marriage, when I was first startled and grieved at the news. Oh, Cynthia, what a great thing it is to be loved by him!'

Cynthia blushed, and looked fluttered and pleased.

'Yes, I suppose it is. At the same time, Molly, I'm afraid he'll expect me to be always as good as he fancies me now, and I shall have to walk on tip-toe all the rest of my life.'

'But you are good, Cynthia,' put in Molly.

'No, I'm not. You're just as much mistaken as he is; and some day I shall go down in your opinions with a run, just like the hall clock the other day when the spring broke.'

'I think he'll love you just as much,' said Molly.

'Could you? Would you be my friend if - if it turned out ever that I had done very wrong things? Would you remember how very difficult it has sometimes been to me to act rightly' (she took hold of Molly's hand as she spoke). 'We won't speak of mamma, for your sake as much as mine or hers; but you must see she is not one to help a girl with much good advice, or good -- Oh, Molly, you don't know how I was neglected just at a time when I wanted friends most. Mamma does not know it; it is not in her to know what I might have been if I had only fallen into wise, good hands. But I know it; and what's more,' continued she, suddenly ashamed of her unusual exhibition of feeling, 'I try not to care, which I daresay is really the worst of all; but I could worry myself to death if I once took to serious thinking.'

'I wish I could help you, or even understand you,' said Molly, after a moment or two of sad perplexity.

'You can help me,' said Cynthia, changing her manner abruptly. 'I can trim bonnets, and make head-dresses; but somehow my hands can't fold up gowns and collars, like your deft little fingers. Please will you help me to pack? That's a real, tangible piece of kindness, and not sentimental consolation for sentimental distresses, which are, perhaps, imaginary after all.'

In general, it is the people who are left behind stationary, who give way to low spirits at any parting; the travellers, however bitterly they may feel the separation, find something in the change of scene to soften regret in the very first hour of separation. But as Molly walked home with her father from seeing Mrs Gibson and Cynthia off to London by the 'Umpire' coach, she almost danced along the street.

'Now, papa!' said she, 'I'm going to have you all to myself for a whole week. You must be very obedient.'

'Don't be tyrannical, then. You are walking me out of breath, and we are cutting Mrs Goodenough, in our hurry.'

So they crossed over the street to speak to Mrs Goodenough.

'We've just been seeing my wife and her daughter off to London. Mrs Gibson has gone up for a week!'

'Deary, deary, to London, and only for a week! Why, I can remember its being a three days' journey! It will be very lonesome for you, Miss Molly, without your young companion!'

'Yes!' said Molly, suddenly feeling as if she ought to have taken this view of the case. 'I shall miss Cynthia very much.'

'And you, Mr Gibson; why, it will be like being a widower over again! You must come and drink tea with me some evening. We must try and cheer you up a bit amongst us. Shall it be Tuesday?'

In spite of the sharp pinch which Molly gave to his arm, Mr Gibson accepted the invitation, much to the gratification of the old lady.

'Papa, how could you go and waste one of our evenings. We have but six in all, and now but five; and I had so reckoned on our doing all sorts of things together.'

'What sort of things?'

'Oh, I don't know: everything that is unrefined and ungenteel,' added she, slyly looking up into her father's face.

His eyes twinkled, but the rest of his face was perfectly grave. 'I'm not going to be corrupted. With toil and labour I have reached a very fair height of refinement. I won't be pulled down again.'

'Yes, you will, papa. We'll have bread and cheese for lunch this very day. And you shall wear your slippers in the drawing-room every evening you'll stay quietly at home; and oh, papa, don't you think I could ride Nora Creina. I've been looking out the old grey skirt, and I think I could make myself tidy.'

'Where is the side-saddle to come from?'

'To be sure the old one won't fit that great Irish mare. But I'm not particular, papa. I think I could manage somehow.'

'Thank you. But I'm not quite going to return into barbarism. It may he a depraved taste, but I should like to see my daughter properly mounted.'

'Think of riding together down the lanes - why, the dog-roses must be all out in flower, and the honeysuckles, and the hay - how I should like to see Merriman's farm again! Papa, do let me have one ride with you! Please do. I am sure we can manage it somehow.'

And 'somehow' it was managed. 'Somehow' all Molly's wishes came to pass; there was only one little drawback to this week of holiday and happy intercourse with her father. Everybody would ask them out to tea. They were quite like bride and bridegroom; for the fact was, that the late dinners which Mrs Gibson had introduced into her own house, were a great inconvenience in the calculations of the small tea-drinkings at Hollingford. How ask people to tea at six, who dined at that hour? How, when they refused cake and sandwiches at half-past eight, how induce other people who were really hungry to commit a vulgarity before those calm and scornful eyes? So there had been a great lull of invitations for the Gibsons to Hollingford tea-parties. Mrs Gibson, whose object was to squeeze herself into 'county society,' had taken this being left out of the smaller festivities with great equanimity; but Molly missed the kind homeliness of the parties to which she had gone from time to time as long as she could remember; and though, as each three-cornered note was brought in, she grumbled a little over the loss of another charming tete-a-tete with her father, she really was glad to go again in the old way among old friends. Miss Browning and Miss Phoebe were especially compassionate towards her in her loneliness. If they had had their will she would have dined there every day; and she had to call upon them very frequently in order to prevent their being hurt at her declining the dinners. Mrs Gibson wrote twice during her week's absence to her husband. That piece of news was quite satisfactory to the Miss Brownings, who had of late months held themselves a great deal aloof from a house where they chose to suppose that their presence was not wanted. In their winter evenings they had often talked over Mr Gibson's household, and having little besides conjectures to go upon, they found the subject interminable, as they could vary the possibilities every day. One of their wonders was how Mr and Mrs Gibson really got on together; another was whether Mrs Gibson was extravagant or not. Now two letters during the week of her absence showed what was in those days considered a very proper amount of conjugal affection. Yet not too much - at elevenpence halfpenny postage. A third letter would have been extravagant. Sister looked to sister with an approving nod as Molly named the second letter, which arrived in Hollingford the very day before Mrs Gibson was to return. They had settled between themselves that two letters would show the right amount of good feeling and proper understanding in the Gibson family: more would have been extravagant; only one would have been a mere matter of duty. There had been rather a question between Miss Browning and Miss Phoebe as to which person the second letter (supposing it came) was to be addressed. It would be very conjugal to write twice to Mr Gibson; and yet it would be very pretty if Molly came in for her share.

'You've had another letter, you say, my dear,' asked Miss Browning, 'I daresay Mrs Gibson has written to you this time?'

'It is a large sheet, and Cynthia has written on one half to me, and all the rest is to papa.'

'A very nice arrangement, I'm sure. And what does Cynthia say? Is she enjoying herself?'

'Oh, yes, I think so. They have had a dinner-party, and one night when mamma was at Lady Cumnor's, Cynthia went to the play with her cousins.'

'Upon my word! and all in one week? I do call that dissipation. Why, Thursday would be taken up with the journey, and Friday with resting, and Sunday is Sunday all the world over; and they must have written on Tuesday. Well! I hope Cynthia won't find Hollingford dull, that's all, when she comes back.'

'I don't think it's likely,' said Miss Phoebe, with a little simper and a knowing look, which sate oddly on her kindly innocent face. 'You see a great deal of Mr Preston, don't you, Molly!'

'Mr Preston!' said Molly, flushing up with surprise. 'No! not much. He's been at Ashcombe all winter, you know! He has but just come back to settle here, What should make you think so!'

'Oh! a little bird told us,' said Miss Browning. Molly knew that little bird from her childhood, and had always hated it, and longed to wring its neck. Why could not people speak out and say that they did not mean to give up the name of their informant? But it was a very favourite form of fiction with the Miss Brownings, and to Miss Phoebe it was the very acme of wit.

'The little bird was flying about one day in Heath Lane, and it saw Mr Preston and a young lady - we won't say who - walking together in a very friendly manner, that is to say, he was on horseback; but the path is raised above the road, just where there is the little wooden bridge over the brook -- '

'Perhaps Molly is in the secret, and we ought not to ask her about it,' said Miss Phoebe, seeing Molly's extreme discomfiture and annoyance.

'It can be no great secret,' said Miss Browning, dropping the little-bird formula, and assuming an air of dignified reproval at Miss Phoebe's interruption, 'for Miss Hornblower says Mr Preston owns to being engaged -- '

'At any rate it is not to Cynthia, that I know positively,' said Molly with some vehemence. 'And pray put a stop to any such reports; you don't know what mischief they may do. I do so hate that kind of chatter!' It was not very respectful of Molly to speak in this way to be sure, but she thought only of Roger; and the distress any such reports might cause, should he ever hear of them (in the centre of Africa!) made her colour up scarlet with vexation.

'Heighty-teighty! Miss Molly! don't you remember that I am old enough to be your mother, and that it is not pretty behaviour to speak so to us - to me! "Chatter" to be sure. Really, Molly -- '

'I beg your pardon,' said Molly, only half-penitent.

'I daresay you did not mean to speak so to sister,' said Miss Phoebe, trying to make peace.

Molly did not answer all at once. She wanted to explain how much mischief might be done by such reports.

'But don't you see,' she went on, still flushed by vexation, 'how bad it is to talk of such things in such a way? Supposing one of them cared for some one else, and that might happen, you know; Mr Preston, for instance, may be engaged to some one else?'

'Molly! I pity the woman! Indeed I do. I have a very poor opinion of Mr Preston,' said Miss Browning, in a warning tone of voice; for a new idea had come into her head.

'Well, but the woman, or young lady, would not like to hear such reports about Mr Preston.'

'Perhaps not. But for all that, take my word for it, he's a great flirt, and young ladies had better not have much to do with him.'

'I daresay it was all accident their meeting in Heath Lane.' said Miss Phoebe.

'I know nothing about it,' said Molly, 'and I daresay I have been impertinent, only please don't talk about it any more. I have my reasons for asking you.' She got up, for by the striking of the church clock she had just found out that it was later than she had thought, and she knew that her father would be at home by this time. She bent down and kissed Miss Browning's grave and passive face.

'How you are growing, Molly!' said Miss Phoebe, anxious to cover over her sister's displeasure. '"As tall and as straight as a poplar-tree!" as the old song says.'

'Grow in grace, Molly, as well as in good looks!' said Miss Browning, watching her out of the room. As soon as she was fairly gone, Miss Browning got up and shut the door quite securely, and then sitting down near her sister, she said, in a low voice, 'Phoebe, it was Molly herself that was with Mr Preston in Heath Lane that day when Mrs Goodenough saw them together!'

'Gracious goodness me!' exclaimed Miss Phoebe, receiving it at once as gospel. 'How do you know?'

'By putting two and two together. Did not you notice how red Molly went, and then pale, and how she said she knew for a fact that Mr Preston and Cynthia Kirkpatrick were not engaged?'

'Perhaps not engaged; but Mrs Goodenough saw them loitering together, all by their own two selves -- '

'Mrs Goodenough only crossed Heath Lane at the Shire Oak, as she was riding in her phaeton,' said Miss Browning, sententiously. 'We all know what a coward she is in a carriage, so that most likely she had only half her wits about her, and her eyes are none of the best when she is standing steady on the ground. Molly and Cynthia have got those new plaid shawls just alike, and they trim their bonnets alike, and Molly is grown as tall as Cynthia since Christmas. I was always afraid she'd be short and stumpy, but she's now as tall and slender as any one need be. I'll answer for it, Mrs Goodenough saw Molly, and took her for Cynthia.'

When Miss Browning 'answered for it' Miss Phoebe gave up doubting. She sate some time in silence revolving her thoughts. Then she said, -

'It would not be such a very bad match after all, sister.' She spoke very meekly, awaiting her sister's sanction to her opinion.

'Phoebe, it would be a bad match for Mary Preston's daughter. If I had known what I know now we'd never have had him to tea last September.'

'Why, what do you know?' asked Miss Phoebe.

'Miss Hornblower told me many things; some that I don't think you ought to hear, Phoebe. He was engaged to a very pretty Miss Gregson, at Henwick, where he comes from; and her father made inquiries, and heard so much that was bad about him, that he made his daughter break off the match, and she's dead since!'

'How shocking!' said Miss Phoebe, duly impressed.

'Besides, he plays at billiards and he bets at races, and some people do say he keeps race-horses.'

'But is not it strange that the earl keeps him on as his agent?'

'No! perhaps not. He's very clever about land, and very sharp in all law affairs; and my lord is not bound to take notice - if indeed he knows - of the manner in which Mr Preston talks when he has taken too much wine.'

'Taken too much wine. Oh, sisters is he a drunkard? and we have had him to tea!'

'I did not say he was a drunkard, Phoebe,' said Miss Browning, pettishly. 'A man may take too much wine occasionally, without being a drunkard. Don't let me hear you using such coarse words, Phoebe!'

Miss Phoebe was silent for a time after this rebuke.

'Presently she said, 'I do hope it was not Molly Gibson.'

'You may hope as much as you like, but I'm pretty sure it was. However, we'd better say nothing about it to Mrs Goodenough; she has got Cynthia into her head, and there let her rest. Time enough to set reports afloat about Molly when we know there's some truth in them. Mr Preston might do for Cynthia, who's been brought up France, though she has such pretty manners; but it may have made her not particular. He must not, and he shall not, have Molly, if I go into church and forbid the banns myself; but I'm afraid - I'm afraid there's something between her and him. We must keep on the lookout, Phoebe. I'll be her guardian angel, in spite of herself.'

Part Five