Part Five
Chapter XLVII. Scandal And Its Victims

When Mr Gibson returned to Hollingford, he found an accumulation of business waiting for him, and he was much inclined to complain of the consequences of the two days' comparative holiday, which had resulted in over-work for the week to come. He had hardly time to speak to his family, he had so immediately to rush off to pressing cases of illness. But Molly managed to arrest him in the hall, standing there with his great coat held out ready for him to put on, but whispering as she did so, -

'Papa! Mr Osborne Hamley was here to see you yesterday. He looks very ill, and he's evidently frightened about himself.' Mr Gibson faced about, and looked at her for a moment; but all he said was, -

'I'll go and see him; don't tell your mother where I'm gone: you've not mentioned this to her, I hope?'

'No,' said Molly, for she had only told Mrs Gibson of Osborne's call, not of the occasion for it.

'Don't say anything about it: there's no need. Now I think of it, I can't possibly go to-day, - but I will go.'

Something in her father's manner disheartened Molly, who had persuaded herself that Osborne's evident illness was partly 'nervous,' by which she meant imaginary. She had dwelt upon his looks of enjoyment at Miss Phoebe's perplexity, and thought that no one really believing himself to be in danger could have given the merry glances which he had done; but after seeing the seriousness of her father's face, she recurred to the shock she had experienced on first seeing Osborne's changed appearance. All this time Mrs Gibson was busy reading a letter from Cynthia which Mr Gibson had brought from London; for every opportunity of private conveyance was seized upon when postage was so high; and Cynthia had forgotten so many things in her hurried packing, that she now sent a list of the clothes which she required. Molly almost wondered that it had not come to her; but she did not understand the sort of reserve that was springing up in Cynthia's mind towards her. Cynthia herself struggled with the feeling, and tried to fight against it by calling herself 'ungrateful,' but the truth was she believed that she no longer held her former high place in Molly's estimation and she could not help turning away from one who knew things to her discredit. She was fully aware of Molly's prompt decision and willing action, where action was especially disagreeable, on her behalf; she knew that Molly would never bring up the past errors and difficulties; but still the consciousness that the good, straightforward girl had learnt that Cynthia had been guilty of so much underhand work cooled her regard, and restrained her willingness of intercourse. Reproach herself with ingratitude as she would, she could not help feeling glad to be away from Molly; it was awkward to speak to her as if nothing had happened; it was awkward to write to her about forgotten ribbons and laces, when their last conversation had been on such different subjects, and had called out such vehement expressions of feeling. So Mrs Gibson held the list in her hand, and read out the small fragments of news that were intermixed with notices of Cynthia's requirements.

'Helen cannot be so very ill,' said Molly at length, 'or Cynthia would not want her pink muslin and daisy wreath.'

'I don't see that that follows, I'm sure,' replied Mrs Gibson rather sharply. 'Helen would never be so selfish as to tie Cynthia to her side, however ill she was. Indeed, I should not have felt that it was my duty to let Cynthia go to London at all, if I had thought she was to be perpetually exposed to the depressing atmosphere of a sick-room. Besides, it must be so good for Helen to have Cynthia coming in with bright pleasant accounts of the parties she has been to - even if Cynthia disliked gaiety I should desire her to sacrifice herself and go out as much as she could, for Helen's sake. My idea of nursing is that one should not be always thinking of one's own feelings and wishes, but doing those things which will most serve to beguile the weary hours of an invalid. But then so few people have had to consider the subject so deeply as I have done!' Mrs Gibson here thought fit to sigh before going on with Cynthia's letter. As far as Molly could make any sense out of this rather incoherent epistle, very incoherently read aloud to her, Cynthia was really pleased and glad to be of use and comfort to Helen, but at the same time very ready to be easily persuaded into the perpetual small gaieties which abounded in her uncle's house in London, even at this dead season of the year. Mrs Gibson came upon Mr Henderson's name once, and then went on with a running um-um-um to herself, which sounded very mysterious, but which might as well have been omitted, as all that Cynthia really said about him was, 'Mr Henderson's mother has advised my aunt to consult a certain Dr Donaldson, who is said to be very clever in such cases as Helen's, but my uncle is not sufficiently sure of the professional etiquette, etc.' Then there came a very affectionate, carefully worded message to Molly, - implying a good deal more than was said of loving gratitude for the trouble she had taken on Cynthia's behalf. And that was all; and Molly went away a little depressed; she knew not why.

The operation on Lady Cumnor had been successfully performed, and in a few days they hoped to bring her down to the Towers to recruit her strength in the fresh country air; the case was one which interested Mr Gibson extremely, and in which his opinion had been proved to be right, in opposition to that of one or two great names in London. The consequence was that he was frequently consulted and referred to during the progress of her recovery; and, as he had much to do in the immediate circle of his Hollingford practice, as well as to write thoughtful letters to his medical brethren in London, he found it difficult to spare the three or four hours necessary to go over to Hamley to see Osborne. He wrote to him, however, begging him to reply immediately and detail his symptoms; and from the answer he received he did not imagine that the case was immediately pressing. Osborne, too, deprecated his coming over to Hamley for the express purpose of seeing him. So the visit was deferred to that more convenient season which is so often too late.

All these days the buzzing gossip about Molly's meetings with Mr Preston, her clandestine correspondence, the tete-a-tete interviews in lonely places, had been gathering strength, and assuming the positive form of scandal. The simple innocent girl, who walked through the quiet streets without a thought of being the object of mysterious implications, became for a time the unconscious black sheep of the town. Servants heard part of what was said in their mistresses' drawing-rooms, and exaggerated the sayings amongst themselves with the coarse strengthening of expression common amongst uneducated people. Mr Preston himself became aware that her name was being coupled with his, though hardly to the extent to which the love of excitement and gossip had carried people's speeches; he chuckled over the mistake, but took no pains to correct it. 'It serves her right,' said he to himself, 'for meddling with other folk's business,' and he felt himself avenged for the discomfiture which her menace of appealing to Lady Harriet had caused him, and the mortification he had experienced in learning from her plain-speaking lips, how he had been talked over by Cynthia and herself, with personal dislike on the one side, and evident contempt on the other. Besides, if any denial of Mr Preston's stirred up an examination as to the real truth, more might come out of his baffled endeavours to compel Cynthia to keep to her engagement to him than he cared to have known. He was angry with himself for still loving Cynthia; loving her in his own fashion, be it understood. He told himself that many a woman of more position and wealth would be glad enough to have him; some of them pretty women too. And he asked himself why he was such a confounded fool as to go on hankering after a penniless girl, who was as fickle as the wind? The answer was silly enough, logically; but forcible in fact. Cynthia was Cynthia, and not Venus herself could have been her substitute. In this one thing Mr Preston was more really true than many worthy men; who, seeking to be married, turn with careless facility from the unattainable to the attainable, and keep their feelings and fancy tolerably loose till they find a woman who consents to be their wife. But no one would ever be to Mr Preston what Cynthia had been, and was; and yet he could have stabbed her in certain of his moods. So, Molly, who had come between him and the object of his desire, was not likely to find favour in his sight, or to obtain friendly actions from him.

There came a time - not very distant from the evening at Mrs Dawes' - when Molly felt that people looked askance at her. Mrs Goodenough openly pulled her grand-daughter away, when the young girl stopped to speak to Molly in the street, and an engagement which the two had made for a long walk together was cut very short by a very trumpery excuse. Mrs Goodenough explained her conduct in the following manner to some of her friends, -

'You see, I don't think the worse of a girl for meeting her sweetheart here and there and everywhere, till she gets talked about; but then when she does - and Molly Gibson's name is in everybody's mouth - I think it's only fair to Bessy, who has trusted me with Annabella, not to let her daughter be seen with a lass who has managed her matters so badly, as to set folk talking about her. My maxim is this, - and it's a very good working one, you may depend on't - women should mind what they're about, and never be talked of; and if a woman's talked of, the less her friends have to do with her till the talk has died away, the better. So Annabella is not to have anything to do with Molly Gibson, this visit at any rate.'

For a good while the Miss Brownings were kept in ignorance of the evil tongues that whispered hard words about Molly. Miss Browning was known to 'have a temper,' and by instinct every one who came in contact with her shrank from irritating that temper by uttering the slightest syllable against the smallest of those creatures over whom she spread the aegis of her love. She would and did reproach them herself; she used to boast that she never spared them: but no one else might touch them with the slightest slur of a passing word. But Miss Phoebe inspired no such terror; the great reason why she did not hear of the gossip against Molly as early as any one, was that, although she was not the rose, she lived near the rose. Besides, she was of so tender a nature that even thick-skinned Mrs Goodenough was unwilling to say what would give Miss Phoebe pain; and it was the new-comer Mrs Dawes, who in all ignorance alluded to the town's talk, as to something of which Miss Phoebe must be aware. Then Miss Phoebe poured down her questions, although she protested, even with tears, her total disbelief in all the answers she received. It was a small act of heroism on her part to keep all that she there learnt a secret from her sister Sally, as she did for four or five days; till Miss Browning attacked her one evening with the following speech, -

'Phoebe! either you've some reason for puffing yourself out with sighs, or you've not. If you have a reason, it's your duty to tell it me directly; and if you've no reason, you must break yourself of a bad habit that is growing upon you.'

'Oh, sister! do you think it is really my duty to tell you? it would be such a comfort; but then I thought I ought not; it will distress you so.'

'Nonsense. I am so well prepared for misfortune by the frequent contemplation of its possibility that I believe I can receive any ill news with apparent equanimity and real resignation. Besides, when you said yesterday at breakfast-time that you meant to give up the day to making your drawers tidy, I was aware that some misfortune was impending, though of course I could not judge of its magnitude. Is the Highchester Bank broken?'

'Oh no, sister!' said Miss Phoebe, moving to a seat close to her sister's on the sofa. 'Have you really been thinking that! I wish I had told you what I heard at the very first, if you've been fancying that!'

'Take warning, Phoebe, and learn to have no concealments from me. I did think we must be ruined, from your ways of going on; eating no meat at dinner, and sighing continually. And now what is it?'

'I hardly know how to tell you, Sally. I really don't.' Miss Phoebe began to cry; Miss Browning took hold of her arm, and gave her a little sharp shake.

'Cry as much as you like when you've told me; but don't cry now, child, when you're keeping me on the tenterhooks.'

'Molly Gibson has lost her character, sister. That's it.'

'Molly Gibson has done no such thing!' said Miss Browning indignantly. 'How dare you repeat such stories about poor Mary's child! Never let me hear you say such things again!'

'I can't help it. Mrs Dawes told me; and she says it's all over the town. I told her I did not believe a word of it. And I kept it from you; and I think I should have been really ill if I'd kept it to myself any longer. Oh, sister! what are you going to do?'

For Miss Browning had risen without speaking a word, and was leaving the room in a stately and determined fashion. 'I am going to put on my bonnet and things, and then I shall call upon Mrs Dawes, and confront her with her lies.'

'Oh, don't call them "lies," sister; it's such a strong, ugly word. Please call them "tallydiddles," for I don't believe she meant any harm. Besides - besides - if they should turn out to be truth! Really, sister, that's the weight on my mind; so many things sounded as if they might be true.'

'What things?' said Miss Browning, still standing with judicial erectness of position in the middle of the floor.

'Why - one story was that Molly had given him a letter.'

'Who's him? How am I to understand a story told in that silly way?' Miss Browning sate down on the nearest chair, and made up her mind to be patient if she could.

'Him is Mr Preston. And that must be true; because I missed her from my side when I wanted to ask her if she thought blue would look green by candlelight, as the young man said it would, and she had run across the street, and Mrs Goodenough was just going into the shop, just as she said she was.'

Miss Browning's distress was overcoming her anger; so she only said, 'Phoebe, I think you'll drive me mad. Do tell me what you heard from Mrs Dawes in a sensible and coherent manner, for once in your life.'

'I'm sure I'm trying with all my might to tell you everything just as it happened.'

'What did you hear from Mrs Dawes?'

'Why, that Molly and Mr Preston were keeping company just as if she was a maid-servant and he was a gardener; meeting at all sorts of improper times and places, and fainting away in his arms, and out at night together, and writing to each other, and slipping their letters into each other's hands; and that was what I was talking about, sister, for I next door to saw that done once. I saw her with my own eyes run across the street to Grinstead's, where he was, for we had just left him there; with a letter in her hand, too, which was not there when she came back all fluttered and blushing. But I never thought anything of it at the time; but now all the town is talking about it, and crying shame, and saying they ought to be married.' Miss Phoebe sank, into sobbing again; but was suddenly roused by a good box on her car. Miss Browning was standing over her almost trembling with passion.

'Phoebe, if ever I hear you say such things again, I'll turn you out of the house that minute.'

'I only said what Mrs Dawes said, and you asked me what it was,' replied Miss Phoebe, humbly and meekly. 'Sally, you should not have done that.'

'Never mind whether I should or I shouldn't. That's not the matter in hand. What I've got to decide is how to put a stop to all these lies.'

'But, Sally, they are not all lies - if you will call them so; I'm afraid some things are true; though I stuck to their being false when Mrs Dawes told me of them.'

'If I go to Mrs Dawes, and she repeats them to me, I shall slap her face or box her ears I'm afraid, for I couldn't stand tales being told of poor Mary's daughter, as if they were just a, stirring piece of news like James Horrocks' pig with two heads,' said Miss Browning, meditating aloud. 'That would do harm instead of good. Phoebe, I'm really sorry I boxed your ears, only I should do it again if you said the same things.'

Phoebe sate down by her sister, and took hold of one of her withered hands, and began caressing it, which was her way of accepting her sister's expression of regret. 'If I speak to Molly, the child will deny it, if she's half as good-for-nothing as they say; and if she's not, she'll only worry herself to death. No, that won't do. Mrs Goodenough - but she's a donkey; and if I convinced her, she could never convince any one else. No; Mrs Dawes, who told you, shall tell me, and I'll tie my hands together inside my muff, and bind myself over to keep the peace. And when I've heard what is to be heard, I'll put the matter into Mr Gibson's hands. That's what I'll do. So it's no use your saying anything against it, Phoebe, for I shan't attend to you.'

Miss Browning went to Mrs Dawes', and began civilly enough to make inquiries about the reports current in Hollingford about Molly and Mr Preston; and Mrs Dawes fell into the snare, and told all the real and fictitious circumstances of the story in circulation, quite unaware of the storm that was gathering and ready to fall upon her as soon as she stopped speaking. But she had not the long habit of reverence for Miss Browning which would have kept so many Hollingford ladies from justifying themselves if she found fault. Mrs Dawes stood up for herself and her own veracity, bringing out fresh scandal, which she said she did not believe, but that many did; and adducing so much evidence as to the truth of what she had said and did believe, that Miss Browning was almost quelled, and sate silent and miserable at the end of Mrs Dawes' justification of herself.

'Well!' she said at length, rising up from her chair as she spoke, 'I'm very sorry I've lived till this day; it's a blow to me just as if I had heard of such goings-on in my own flesh and blood. I suppose I ought to apologize to you, Mrs Dawes, for what I said; but I've no heart to do it to-day. I ought not to have spoken as I did; but that's nothing to this affair, you see.'

'I hope you do me the justice to perceive that I only repeated what I had heard on good authority, Miss Browning,' said Mrs Dawes in reply.

'My dear, don't repeat evil on any authority unless you can do some good by speaking about it,' said Miss Browning, laying her hand on Mrs Dawes' shoulder. 'I'm not a good woman, but I know what is good, and that advice is. And now I think I can tell you that I beg your pardon for flying out upon you so; but God knows what pain you were putting me to. You'll forgive me, won't you, my dear?' Mrs Dawes felt the hand trembling on her shoulder, and saw the real distress of Miss Browning's mind, so it was not difficult to her to grant the requested forgiveness. Then Miss Browning went home, and said but few words to Phoebe, who indeed saw well enough that her sister had heard the reports confirmed, and needed no further explanation of the cause of scarcely-tasted dinner, and short replies, and saddened looks. Presently Miss Browning sate down and wrote a short note. Then she rang the bell, and told the little maiden who answered it to take it to Mr Gibson, and if he was out to see that it was given to him as soon as ever he came home. And then she went and put on her Sunday cap; and Miss Phoebe knew that her sister had written to ask Mr Gibson to come and be told of the rumours affecting his daughter. Miss Browning was sadly disturbed at the information she had received, and the task that lay before her; she was miserably uncomfortable to herself and irritable to Miss Phoebe, and the netting-cotton she was using kept continually snapping and breaking from the jerks of her nervous hands. When the knock at the door was heard, - the well-known doctor's knock, - Miss Browning took off her spectacles, and dropped them on the carpet, breaking them as she did so; and then she bade Miss Phoebe leave the room, as if her presence had cast the evil-eye, and caused the misfortune. She wanted to look natural, and was distressed at forgetting whether she usually received him sitting or standing.

'Well!' said he, coming in cheerfully, and rubbing his cold hands as he went straight to the fire, 'and what is the matter with us? It's Phoebe, I suppose. I hope none of those old spasms? But, after all, a dose or two will set that to rights.'

'Oh! Mr Gibson, I wish it was Phoebe, or me either!' said Miss Browning, trembling more and more.

He sate down by her patiently, when he saw her agitation, and took her hand in a kind, friendly manner.

'Don't hurry yourself, - take your time. I daresay it's not so bad as you fancy; but we'll see about it. There's a great deal of help in the world, much as we abuse it.'

'Mr Gibson,' said she, 'it's your Molly I'm so grieved about. It's out now, and God help us both, and the poor child too, for I'm sure she's been led astray, and not gone wrong by her own free will!'

'Molly!' said he, fighting against her words. 'What's my little Molly been doing or saying?'

'Oh! Mr Gibson, I don't know how to tell you. I never would have named it, if I had not been convinced, sorely, sorely against my will.'

'At any rate, you can let me hear what you have heard,' said he, putting his elbow on the table, and screening his eyes with his hand. 'Not that I am a bit afraid of anything you can hear about my girl,' continued he. 'Only in this little nest of gossip it's as well to know what people are talking about.'

'They say - oh! how shall I tell you?'

'Go on, can't you?' said he, removing his hand from his blazing eyes. 'I'm not going to believe it, so don't be afraid!'

'But I fear you must believe it. I would not if I could help it. She's been carrying on a clandestine correspondence with Mr Preston! -- '

'Mr Preston!' exclaimed he.

'And meeting him at all sorts of unseemly places and hours out of doors, - in the dark, - fainting away in his - his arms, if I must speak out. All the town is talking of it.' Mr Gibson's hand was over his eyes again, and he made no sign; so Miss Browning went on, adding touch to touch. 'Mr Sheepshanks saw them together. They have exchanged notes in Grinstead's shop; she ran after him there.'

'Be quiet, can't you?' said Mr Gibson, taking his hand away, and showing his grim set face. 'I have heard enough. Don't go on. I said I shouldn't believe it, and I don't. I suppose I must thank you for telling me; but I can't yet.'

'I don't want your thanks,' said Miss Browning, almost crying. 'I thought you ought to know; for though you're married again, I can't forget you were dear Mary's husband once upon a time; and Molly's her child.'

'I'd rather not speak any more about it just at present,' said he, not at all replying to Miss Browning's last speech. 'I may not control myself as I ought. I only wish I could meet Preston, and horsewhip him within an inch of his life. I wish I'd the doctoring of these slanderous gossips. I'd make their tongues lie still for a while. My little girl! What harm has she done them all, that they should go and foul her fair name.'

'Indeed, Mr Gibson, I'm afraid it's all true. I would not have sent for you if I hadn't examined into it. Do ascertain the truth before you do anything violent, such as horsewhipping or poisoning.'

With all the inconsequence of a man in a passion, Mr Gibson laughed out, 'What have I said about horsewhipping or poisoning? Do you think I'd have Molly's name dragged about the streets in connection with any act of violence on my part. Let the report die away as it arose. Time will prove its falsehood.'

'But I don't think it will, and that's the pity of it,' said Miss Browning. 'You must do something, but I don't know what.'

'I shall go home and ask Molly herself what's the meaning of it all; that's all I shall do. It's too ridiculous - knowing Molly as I do, it's perfectly ridiculous.' He got up and walked about the room with hasty steps, laughing short unnatural laughs from time to time. 'Really what will they say next? "Satan finds some mischief still for idle tongues to do."'

'Don't talk of Satan, please, in this house. No one knows what may happen, if he's lightly spoken about,' pleaded Miss Browning.

He went on, without noticing her, talking to himself, - 'I've a great mind to leave the place; - and what food for scandal that piece of folly would give rise to!' Then he was silent for a time; his hands in his pockets, his eyes on the ground, as he continued his quarter-deck march. Suddenly he stopped close to Miss Browning's chair. 'I'm thoroughly ungrateful to you, for as true a mark of friendship as you've ever shown to me. True or false, it was right I should know the wretched scandal that was being circulated; and it could not have been pleasant for you to tell it me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.'

'Indeed, Mr Gibson, if it was false I would never have named it, but let it die away.'

'It's not true though!' said he, doggedly, letting drop the hand he had taken in his effusion of gratitude.

She shook her head. 'I shall always love Molly for her mother's sake,' she said. And it was a great concession from the correct Miss Browning. But her father did not understand it as such.

'You ought to love her for her own. She has done nothing to disgrace herself. I shall go straight home, and probe into the truth.'

'As if the poor girl who has been led away into deceit already would scruple much at going on in falsehood,' was Miss Browning's remark on this last speech of Mr Gibson's; but she had discretion enough not to make it until he was well out of hearing.