Part Five
Chapter XLVI. Hollingford Gossips

'MY dear Molly, why didn't you come and dine with us? I said to sister I would come and scold you well. Oh, Mr Osborne Hamley, is that you?' and a look of mistaken intelligence at the tete-a-tete she had disturbed came so perceptibly over Miss Phoebe's face that Molly caught Osborne's sympathetic eye, and both smiled at the notion.

'I'm sure I - well! one must sometimes - I see our dinner would have been - ' Then she recovered herself into a connected sentence. 'We only just heard of Mrs Gibson's having a fly from the "George," because sister sent our Nancy to pay for a couple of rabbits Tom Ostler had snared (I hope we shan't be taken up for poachers, Mr Osborne - snaring doesn't require a licence, I believe?), and she heard he was gone off with the fly to the Towers with your dear mamma; for Coxe who drives the fly in general has sprained his ankle. We had just finished dinner, but when Nancy said Tom Ostler would not be back till night I said, "Why, there's that poor dear girl left all alone by herself, and her mother such a friend of ours," - when she was alive, I mean, But I'm sure I'm glad I'm mistaken.'

Osborne said, - 'I came to speak to Mr Gibson, not knowing he had gone to London, and Miss Gibson kindly gave me some of her lunch. I must go now.'

'Oh dear! I am so sorry,' fluttered out Miss Phoebe, 'I disturbed you; but it was with the best intentions. I always was mal-apropos from a child.' But Osborne was gone before she had finished her apologies. Before he left, his eyes met Molly's with a strange look of yearning farewell that struck her at the time, and that she remembered strongly afterwards.

'Such a nice suitable thing, and I came in the midst, and spoilt it all. I am sure you're very kind, my dear, considering - '

'Considering what, my dear Miss Phoebe? If you are conjecturing a love affair between Mr Osborne Hamley and me, you never were more mistaken in your life. I think I told you so once before. Please do believe me.'

'Oh, yes! I remember. And somehow sister got it into her head it was Mr Preston, I recollect.'

'One guess is just as wrong as the other,' said Molly, smiling, and trying to look perfectly indifferent, but going extremely red from annoyance at the mention of Mr Preston's name. It was very difficult for her to keep up any conversation, for her heart was full of Osborne - his changed appearance, his melancholy words of foreboding, and his confidences about his wife - French, Catholic, servant. Molly could not help trying to piece these strange facts together by imaginations of her own, and found it very hard work to attend to kind Miss Phoebe's unceasing patter. She came up to the point, however, when the voice ceased; and could recall, in a mechanical manner, the echo of the last words, which from both Miss Phoebe's look, and the dying accent that lingered in Molly's ear, she perceived to be a question. Miss Phoebe was asking her if she would go out with her? She was going to Grinstead's, the bookseller of Hollingford; who, in addition to his regular business, was the agent for the Hollingford Book Society, received their subscriptions, kept their accounts, ordered their books from London, and, on payment of a small salary, allowed the Society to keep their volumes on shelves in his shop. It was the centre of news and gossip, the club, as it were, of the little town. Everybody who pretended to gentility in the place belonged to it, It was a test of gentility, indeed, rather than of education or a love of literature. No shopkeeper would have thought of offering himself as a member, however great his general intelligence and love of reading; while it boasted upon the list of subscribers most of the county families in the neighbourhood, some of whom subscribed to the Hollingford Book Society as a sort of duty belonging to their station, without often using their privilege of reading the books: while there were residents in the little town, such as Mrs Goodenough, who privately thought reading a great waste of time, that might be much better employed in sewing, and knitting, and pastry-making, but who nevertheless belonged to it as a mark of station, just as these good, motherly women would have thought it a terrible come-down in the world if they had not had a pretty young servant-maid to fetch them home from the tea-parties at night. At any rate, Grinstead's was a very convenient place for a lounge. In that view of the Book Society every one agreed. Molly went upstairs to get ready to accompany Miss Phoebe; and on opening one of her drawers she saw Cynthia's envelope, containing the notes she owed to Mr Preston, carefully sealed up like a letter. This was what Molly had so unwillingly promised to deliver - the last final stroke to the affair. Molly took it up, hating it. For a time she had forgotten it; and now it was here, facing her, and she must try and get rid of it. She put it into her pocket for the chances of the walk and the day, and fortune for once seemed to befriend her; for, on their entering Grinstead's shop, in which two or three people were now, as always, congregated, making play of examining the books, or business of writing down the titles of new works in the order-book, there was Mr Preston. He bowed as they came in. He could not help that; but, at the sight of Molly, he looked as ill-tempered and out of humour as a man well could do. She was connected in his mind with defeat and mortification; and besides, the sight of her called up what he desired now above all things to forget; namely, the deep conviction received through Molly's simple earnestness, of Cynthia's dislike to him, If Miss Phoebe had seen the scowl upon his handsome face, she might have undeceived her sister in her suppositions about him and Molly. But Miss Phoebe, who did not consider it quite maidenly to go and stand close to Mr Preston, and survey the shelves of books in such close proximity to a gentleman, found herself an errand at the other end of the shop, and occupied herself in buying writing-paper.

Molly fingered her valuable letter, as it lay in her pocket; did she dare to cross over to Mr Preston, and give it to him, or not? While she was still undecided, shrinking always just at the moment when she thought she had got her courage up for action, Miss Phoebe, having finished her purchase, turned round, and after looking a little pathetically at Mr Preston's back, said to Molly in a whisper, - 'I think we'll go to Johnson's now, and come back for the books in a little while.'

So across the street to Johnson's they went; but no sooner had they entered the draper's shop, than Molly's conscience smote her for her cowardice, and loss of a good opportunity. 'I'll be back directly,' said she, as soon as Miss Phoebe was engaged with her purchases; and Molly ran across to Grinstead's, without looking either to the right or the left; she had been watching the door, and she knew that no Mr Preston had issued forth. She ran in; he was at the counter now, talking to Grinstead himself, Molly put the letter into his hand, to his surprise, and almost against his will, and turned round to go back to Miss Phoebe. At the door of the shop stood Mrs Goodenough, arrested in the act of entering, staring, with her round eyes, made still rounder and more owl-like by spectacles, to see Molly Gibson giving Mr Preston a letter, which he, conscious of being watched, and favouring underhand practices habitually, put quickly into his pocket, unopened. Perhaps, if he had had time for reflection he would not have scrupled to put Molly to open shame, by rejecting what she so eagerly forced upon him.

There was another long evening to be got through with Mrs Gibson; but on this occasion there was the pleasant occupation of dinner, which took up at least an hour; for it was one of Mrs Gibson's fancies - one which Molly chafed against - to have every ceremonial gone through in the same stately manner for two as for twenty. So, although Molly knew full well, and her stepmother knew full well, and Maria knew full well, that neither Mrs Gibson nor Molly touched dessert, it was set on the table with as much form as if Cynthia had been at home, who delighted in almonds and raisins; or Mr Gibson been there, who never could resist dates, although he always protested against 'persons in their station of life having a formal dessert set out before them every day.' And Mrs Gibson herself apologized as it were to Molly to-day, in the same words she had often used to Mr Gibson, - 'It's no extravagance, for we need not eat it - I never do. But it looks well, and makes Maria understand what is required in the daily life of every family of position.'

All through the evening Molly's thoughts wandered far and wide, though she managed to keep up a show of attention to what Mrs Gibson was saying. She was thinking of Osborne, and his abrupt, half-finished confidence, his ill-looks; she was wondering when Roger would come home, and longing for his return, as much (she said to herself) for Osborne's sake as for her own. And then she checked herself. What had she to do with Roger? Why should she long for his return? It was Cynthia who was doing this; only somehow he was such a true friend to Molly, that she could not help thinking of him as a staff and a stay in the troublous times which appeared to lie not far ahead this evening. Then Mr Preston and her little adventure with him came uppermost. How angry he looked! How could Cynthia have liked him even enough to get into this abominable scrape, which was, however, all over now! And so she ran on in her fancies and imaginations, little dreaming that that very night much talk was going on not half-a-mile from where she sate sewing, that would prove that the 'scrape' (as she called it, in her girlish phraseology) was not all over.

Scandal sleeps in the summer, comparatively speaking. Its nature is the reverse of that of the dormouse. Warm ambient air, loiterings abroad, gardenings, flowers to talk about, and preserves to make, soothed the wicked imp to slumber in the parish of Hollingford in summer-time. But when evenings grew short, and people gathered round the fires, and put their feet in a circle - not on the fenders, that was not allowed - then was the time for confidential conversation! Or in the pauses allowed for the tea-trays to circulate among the card-tables - when those who were peaceably inclined tried to stop the warm discussions about 'the odd trick,' and the rather wearisome feminine way of 'shouldering the crutch, and showing how fields were won' - small crumbs and scraps of daily news came up to the surface, such as 'Martindale has raised the price of his best joints a halfpenny in the pound;' or 'it's a shame of Sir Harry to order in another book on farriery into the Book Society; Phoebe and I tried to read it, but really there is no general interest in it;' or, 'I wonder what Mr Ashton will do, now Nancy is going to be married! Why, she has been with him these seventeen years! It's a very foolish thing for a woman of her age to be thinking of matrimony; and so I told her, when I met her in the market-place this morning!' So said Miss Browning on the night in question; her hand of cards lying by her on the green baize-covered table, while she munched the rich pound-cake of a certain Mrs Dawes, lately come to inhabit Hollingford.

'Matrimony's not so bad as you think for, Miss Browning,' said Mrs Goodenough, standing up for the holy estate into which she had twice entered. 'If I had ha' seen Nancy, I should ha' given her my mind very different. It's a great thing to be able to settle what you'll have for dinner, without never a one interfering with you.'

'If that's all!' said Miss Browning, drawing herself up, 'I can do that; and, perhaps, better than a woman who has a husband to please.'

'No one can say as I didn't please my husbands - both on 'em, though Jeremy was tickler' in his tastes than poor Harry Beaver. But as I used to say to 'em, "Leave the victual to me; it's better for you than knowing what's to come beforehand. The stomach likes to be taken by surprise." And neither of 'em ever repented 'em of their confidence. You may take my word for it, beans and bacon will taste better (and Mr Ashton's Nancy in her own house) than all the sweetbreads and spring chickens she's been a-doing for him this seventeen years. But if I chose I could tell you of something as would interest you all a deal more than old Nancy's marriage to a widower with nine children - only as the young folks themselves is meeting in private, clandestine-like, it's perhaps not for me to tell their secrets.'

'I'm sure I don't want to hear of clandestine meetings between young men and young women,' said Miss Browning, throwing up her head. 'It's disgrace enough to the people themselves, I consider, if they enter on a love affair without the proper sanction of parents. I know 'public opinion has changed on the subject; but when poor Gratia was married to Mr Byerley, he wrote to my father without ever having so much as paid her a compliment, or said more than the most trivial and commonplace things to her; and my father and mother sent for her into my father's study, and she said she never was so much frightened in her life, - and they said it was a very good offer, and Mr Byerley was a very worthy man, and they hoped she would behave properly to him when he came to supper that night. And after that he was allowed to come twice a week till they were married. My mother and I sate at our work in the bow-window of the Rectory drawing-room, and Gratia and Mr Byerley at the other end; and my mother always called my attention to some flower or plant in the garden when it struck nine, for that was his time for going. Without offence to the present company, I am rather inclined to look upon matrimony as a weakness to which some very worthy people are prone; but if they must be married, let them make the best of it, and go through the affair with dignity and propriety; or if there are misdoings and clandestine meetings, and such things, at any rate, never let me hear about them! I think it's you to play, Mrs Dawes. You'll excuse my frankness on the subject of matrimony! Mrs Goodenough there can tell you I'm a very out-spoken person.'

'It's not the out-speaking, it's what you say that goes against me, Miss Browning,' said Mrs Goodenough, affronted, yet ready to play her card as soon as needed, And as for Mrs Dawes, she was too anxious to get into the genteelest of all (Hollingford) society to object to whatever Miss Browning (who, in right of being a deceased rector's daughter, rather represented the selectest circle of the little town) advocated, celibacy, marriage, bigamy, or polygamy.

So the remainder of the evening passed over without any farther reference to the secret Mrs Goodenough was burning to disclose, unless a remark made apropos de rien by Miss Browning, during the silence of a deal, could be supposed to have connexion with the previous conversation. She said suddenly and abruptly, -

'I don't know what I have done that any man should make me his slave.' If she was referring to any prospect of matrimonial danger she saw opening before her fancy, she might have been comforted. But it was a remark of which no one took any notice, all being far too much engaged in the rubber. Only when Miss Browning took her early leave (for Miss Phoebe had a cold, and was an invalid at home), Mrs Goodenough burst out with, -

'Well! now I may speak out my mind, and say as how if there was a slave between us two, when Goodenough was alive, it wasn't me; and I don't think as it was pretty in Miss Browning to give herself such airs on her virginity when there was four widows in the room, - who've had six honest men among 'em for husbands. No offence, Miss Airy!' addressing an unfortunate little spinster, who found herself the sole representative of celibacy now that Miss Browning was gone.

'I could tell her of a girl as she's very fond on, who's on the high road to matrimony; and in as cunning a way as ever I heerd on. going out at dusk to meet her sweetheart, just as if she was my Sally, or your Jenny. And her name is Molly too, - which, as I have often thought, shows a low taste in them as first called her so;' she might as well be a scullery-maid at oncest. Not that she's picked up anybody common; she's looked about her for a handsome fellow, and a smart young man enough!'

Every one around the table looked curious and intent on the disclosures being made, except the hostess, Mrs Dawes, who smiled intelligence with her eyes, and knowingly pursed up her mouth until Mrs Goodenough had finished her tale. Then she said demurely, -

'I suppose you mean Mr Preston and Miss Gibson?'

'Why, who told you?' said Mrs Goodenough, turning round upon her in surprise. 'You can't say as I did. There's many a Molly in Hollingford, besides her, - though none, perhaps, in such a genteel station in life. I never named her, I'm sure.'

'No! But I know. I could tell my tale too,' continued Mrs Dawes.

'No! could you, really?' said Mrs Goodenough, very curious and a little jealous.

'Yes. My uncle Sheepshanks came upon them in the Park Avenue, - he startled 'em a good deal, he said; and when he taxed Mr Preston with being with his sweetheart, he didn't deny it.'

'Well! Now so much has come out, I'll tell you what I know. Only, ladies, I wouldn't wish to do the girl an unkind turn, - so you must keep what I've got to tell you a secret.' Of course they promised; that was easy.

'My Hannah, as married Tom Oakes, and lives in Pearson's Lane, was a-gathering of damsons only about a week ago, and Molly Gibson was a-walking fast down the lane, - quite in a hurry like to meet some one, - and Hannah's little Anna-Maria fell down, and Molly (who's a kind-hearted lass enough) picked her up; so if Hannah had had her doubts before, she had none then.'

'But there was no one with her, was there?' asked one of the ladies anxiously, as Mrs Goodenough stopped to finish her piece of cake, just at this crisis.

'No: I said she looked as if she was going to meet some one, - and by-and-by comes Mr Preston running out of the wood just beyond Hannah's, and says he, "A cup of water, please, good woman, for a lady has fainted, or is 'sterical or something." Now though he didn't know Hannah, Hannah knew him. "More folks know Tom Fool, than Tom Fool knows," asking Mr Preston's pardon; for he's no fool whatever he be. And I could tell you more, - and what I've seed with my own eyes. I seed her give him a letter in Grinstead's shop, only yesterday, and he looked as black as thunder at her, for he seed me if she didn't.'

'It's a very suitable kind of thing,' said Miss Airy; 'why do they make such a mystery of it?'

'Some folks like it,' said Mrs Dawes; 'it adds zest to it all, to do their courting underhand.'

'Ay, it's like salt to their victual,' put in Mrs Goodenough. But I didn't think Molly Gibson was one of that sort, I didn't.'

'The Gibsons hold themselves very high?' cried Mrs Dawes, more as an inquiry than an assertion. 'Mrs Gibson has called upon me.'

'Ay, you're like to be a patient of the doctor's,' put in Mrs Goodenough.

'She seemed to me very affable, though she is so intimate with the Countess and the family at the Towers; and is quite the lady herself; dines late, I've heard, and everything in style.'

'Style! very different style to what Bob Gibson, her husband, was used to when first he came here, - glad of a mutton-chop in his surgery, for I doubt if he'd a fire anywhere else; we called him Bob Gibson then, but none on us dare Bob him now; I'd as soon think o' calling him sweep!'

'I think it looks very bad for Miss Gibson!' said one lady, rather anxious to bring back the conversation to the more interesting present time. But as soon as Mrs Goodenough heard this natural comment on the disclosures she had made, she fired round on the speaker.

'Not at all bad, and I'll trouble you not to use such a word as that about Molly Gibson, as I've known all her life. It's odd, if you will. I was odd myself as a girl; I never could abide a plate of gathered gooseberries, but I must needs go and skulk behind a bush and gather 'em for myself. It's some folk's taste, though it mayn't be Miss Browning's, who'd have all the courting done under the nose of the family. All as ever I said was that I was surprised at it in Molly Gibson; and that I'd ha' thought it was liker that pretty minx of a Cynthia as they call her; indeed at one time I was ready to swear as it was her Mr Preston was after. And now, ladies, I'll wish you a very good night. I cannot abide waste; and I'll venture for it Sally's letting the candle in the lantern run all to grease, instead of putting it out, as I've told her to do, if ever she's got to wait for me.'

So with formal dipping curtseys the ladies separated, but not without thanking Mrs Dawes for the pleasant evening they had had; a piece of old-fashioned courtesy always gone through in those days.