Part Five
Chapter XLVIII. An Innocent Culprit

With his head bent down - as if he were facing some keen-blowing wind - and yet there was not a breath of air stirring - Mr Gibson went swiftly to his own home. He rang at the door-bell; an unusual proceeding on his part. Maria opened the door. 'Go and tell Miss Molly she is wanted in the dining-room. Don't say who it is that wants her.' There was something in Mr Gibson's manner that made Maria obey him to the letter, in spite of Molly's surprised question, -

'Wants me? Who is it, Maria?'

Mr Gibson went into the dining-room, and shut the door, for an instant's solitude. He went up to the chimney-piece, took hold of it, and laid his head on his hands, and tried to still the beating of his heart.

The door opened. He knew that Molly stood there before he heard her tone of astonishment.


'Hush!' said he, turning round sharply. 'Shut the door. Come here.'

She came to him, wondering what was amiss. Her thoughts went to the Hamleys immediately. 'Is it Osborne?' she asked, breathless. If Mr Gibson had not been too much agitated to judge calmly, he might have deduced comfort from these three words.

But instead of allowing himself to seek for comfort from collateral evidence, he said, - 'Molly, what is this I hear? That you have been keeping up a clandestine intercourse with Mr Preston - meeting him in out-of-the-way places; exchanging letters with him in a stealthy way.'

Though he had professed to disbelieve all this, and did disbelieve it at the bottom of his soul, his voice was hard and stern, his face was white and grim, and his eyes fixed Molly's with the terrible keenness of their research. Molly trembled all over; but she did not attempt to evade his penetration. If she was silent for a moment, it was because she was rapidly reviewing her relation with regard to Cynthia in this matter. It was but a moment's pause of silence; but it seemed long minutes to one who was craving for a burst of indignant denial. He had taken hold of her two arms just above her wrists, as she had first advanced towards him; he was unconscious of this action; but, as his impatience for her words grew upon him, he grasped her more and more tightly in his vice-like hands, till she made a little involuntary sound of pain. And then he let go; and she looked at her soft bruised flesh, with tears gathering fast to her eyes to think that he, her father, should have hurt her so. At the instant it appeared to her stranger that he should inflict bodily pain upon his child, than that he should have heard the truth - even in an exaggerated form. With a childish gesture she held out her arm to him; but if she expected pity, she received none.

'Pooh!' said he, as he just glanced at the mark, 'that is nothing - nothing. Answer my question. Have you - have you met that man in private?'

'Yes, papa, I have; but I don't think it was wrong.'

He sate down now. 'Wrong!' he echoed, bitterly. 'Not 'wrong? Well! I must bear it somehow. Your mother is dead. That's one comfort. It is true, then, is it? Why, I did not believe it - not I. I laughed in my sleeve at their credulity; and I was the dupe all the time!'

'Papa, I cannot tell you all. It is not my secret, or you should know it directly. Indeed, you will be sorry some time - I have never deceived you yet, have I?' trying to take one of his hands; but he kept them tightly in his pockets, his eyes fixed on the pattern of the carpet before him. 'Papa!' said she, pleading again, 'have I ever deceived you?'

'How can I tell? I hear of this from the town's talk. I don't know what next may come out!'

'The town's talk,' said Molly in dismay. 'What business is it of theirs?'

'Every one makes it their business to cast dirt on a girl's name who has disregarded the commonest rules of modesty and propriety.'

'Papa, you are very hard. "Disregarded modesty." I will tell you exactly what I have done. I met Mr Preston once, - that evening when you put me down to walk over Croston Heath, - and there was another person with him. I met him a second time - and that time by appointment - nobody but our two selves, - in the Towers' Park. That is all. Papa, you must trust me. I cannot explain more. You must trust me indeed.'

He could not help relenting at her words; there was such truth in the tone in which they were spoken. But he neither spoke nor stirred for a minute or two. Then he raised his eyes to hers for the first time since she had acknowledged the external truth of what he charged her with. Her face was very white, but it bore the impress of the final sincerity of death, when the true expression prevails without the poor disguises of time.

'The letters?' he said, - but almost as if he ere ashamed to question that countenance any further.

'I gave him one letter, - of which I did not write a word, - which, in fact, I believe to have been merely an envelope, without any writing whatever inside. The giving that letter, - the two interviews I have named, - make all the private intercourse I have had with Mr Preston. Oh! papa, what have they been saying that has grieved - shocked you so much?'

'Never mind. As the world goes, what you say you have done, Molly, is ground enough. You must tell me all. I must be able to refute these rumours point by point.'

'How are they to be refuted; when you say that the truth which I have acknowledged is ground enough for what people are saying?'

'You say you were not acting for yourself, but for another. If you tell me who the other was, - if you tell me everything out fully, I will do my utmost to screen her - for of course I guess it was Cynthia - while I am exonerating you.'

'No, papa!' said Molly, after some little consideration; 'I have told you all I can tell; all that concerns myself; and I have promised not to say one word more.'

'Then your character will be impugned. It must be, unless the fullest explanation of these secret meetings is given. I have a great mind to force the whole truth out of Preston himself!'

'Papa! once again I beg you to trust me. If you ask Mr Preston you will very likely hear the whole truth; but that is just what I have been trying so hard to conceal, for it will only make several people very unhappy if it is known, and the whole affair is over and done with now.'

'Not your share in it. Miss Browning sent for me this evening to tell me how people were talking about you. She implied that it was a complete loss of your good name. You do not know, Molly, how slight a thing may blacken a girl's reputation for life. I had hard work to stand all she said, even though I did not believe a word of it at the time. And now you have told me that much of it is true.'

'But I think you are a brave man, papa. And you believe me, don't you? We shall outlive these rumours, never fear.'

'You don't know the power of ill-natured tongues, child,' said he.

'Oh, now you've called me "child" again I don't care for anything. Dear, dear papa, I'm sure it is best and wisest to take no notice of these speeches. After all they may not mean them ill-naturedly. I am sure Miss Browning would not. By-and-by they'll quite forget how much they made out of so little, - and even if they don't, you would not have me break my solemn word, would you?'

'Perhaps not. But I cannot easily forgive the person who, by practising on your generosity, led you into this scrape. You are very young, and look upon these things as merely temporary evils. I have more experience.'

'Still, I don't see what I can do now, papa. Perhaps I've been foolish; but what I did, I did of my ownself. It was not suggested to me. And I'm sure it was not wrong in morals, whatever it might be in judgment. As I said, it is all over now; what I did ended the affair, I am thankful to say; and it was with that object I did it. If people choose to talk about me, I must submit; and so must you, dear papa.'

'Does your mother - does Mrs Gibson - know anything about it?' asked he with sudden anxiety.

'No; not a bit; not a word. Pray don't name it to her. That might lead to more mischief than anything else. I have really told you everything I am at liberty to tell.'

It was a great relief to Mr Gibson to find that his sudden fear that his wife might have been privy to it all was ill-founded; he had been seized by a sudden dread that she, whom he had chosen to marry in order to have a protectress and guide for his daughter, had been cognizant of this ill-advised adventure with Mr Preston; nay, more, that she might even have instigated it to save her own child; for that Cynthia was somehow or other at the bottom of it all he had no doubt whatever. But now, at any rate, Mrs Gibson had not been playing a treacherous part; that was all the comfort he could extract out of Molly's mysterious admission, that much mischief might result from Mrs Gibson's knowing anything about these meetings with Mr Preston.

'Then, what is to be done?' said he. 'These reports are abroad, - am I to do nothing to contradict them? Am I to go about smiling and content with all this talk about you, passing from one idle gossip to another?'

'I'm afraid so. I'm very sorry, for I never meant you to have known anything about it, and I can see now how it must distress you. But surely when nothing more happens, and nothing comes of what has happened, the wonder and the gossip must die away? I know you believe every word I have said, and that you trust me, papa. Please, for my sake, be patient with all this gossip and cackle.'

'It will try me hard, Molly,' said he.

'For my sake, papa!'

'I don't see what else I can do,' replied he moodily, 'unless I get hold of Preston.'

'That would be the worst of all. That would make a talk. And, after all, perhaps he was not so very much to blame. Yes! he was. But he behaved well to me as far as that goes,' said she, suddenly recollecting his speech when Mr Sheepshanks came up in the Towers' Park, - 'Don't stir, you have done nothing to be ashamed of.'

'That is true. A quarrel between men which drags a woman's name into notice is to be avoided at any cost. But sooner or later I must have it out with Preston. He shall find it not so pleasant to have placed my daughter in equivocal circumstances.'

'He did not place me. He did not know I was coming, did not expect to meet me either time; and would far rather not have taken the letter I gave him if he could have helped himself.'

'It is all a mystery. I hate to have you mixed up in mysteries.'

'I hate to be mixed up. But what can I do? I know of another mystery which I am pledged not to speak about. I cannot help myself.'

'Well, all I can say is, never be the heroine of a mystery. That you can avoid, if you can't help being an accessory. Then, I suppose, I must yield to your wishes and let this scandal wear itself out without any notice from me?'

'What else can you do under the circumstances?'

'Ay; what else indeed? How shall you bear it?'

For an instant the quick hot tears sprang into her eyes; to have everybody - all her world thinking evil of her, did seem hard to the girl who had never thought or said an unkind thing of them. But she smiled as she made answer, -

'It's like tooth-drawing, it will be over some time. It would be much worse if I had really been doing wrong.'

'Cynthia shall beware - ' he began; but Molly put her hand before his mouth.

'Papa, Cynthia must not be accused, or suspected; you will drive her out of your house if you do, she is so proud, and so unprotected, except by you. And Roger, - for Roger's sake, you will never do or say anything to send Cynthia away, when he has trusted us all to take care of her, and love her in his absence. Oh! I think if she were really wicked, and I did not love her at all, I should feel bound to watch over her, he loves her so dearly. And she is really good at heart, and I do love her dearly. You must not vex or hurt Cynthia, papa, - remember she is dependent upon you!'

'I think the world would get on tolerably well, if there were no women in it. They plague the life out of one. You've made me forget, amongst you - poor old Job Haughton that I ought to have gone to see an hour ago.'

Molly put up her mouth to be kissed. 'You're not angry with me now, papa, are you?'

'Get out of my way' (kissing her all the same). 'If I'm not angry with you, I ought to be; for you've caused a great deal of worry, which won't be over yet awhile, I can tell you.'

For all Molly's bravery at the time of this conversation, it was she that suffered more than her father. He kept out of the way of hearing gossip; but she was perpetually thrown into the small society of the place. Mrs Gibson herself had caught cold, and moreover was not tempted by the quiet old-fashioned visiting which was going on just about this time, provoked by the visit of two of Mrs Dawes' pretty unrefined nieces, who laughed, and chattered, and ate, and would fain have flirted with Mr Ashton, the vicar, could he have been brought by any possibility to understand his share in the business. Mr Preston did not accept the invitations to Hollingford tea-drinkings with the same eager gratitude as he had done a year before: or else the shadow which hung over Molly would have extended to him, her co-partner in the clandestine meetings which gave such umbrage to the feminine virtue of the town. Molly herself was invited, because it would not do to pass any apparent slight on either Mr or Mrs Gibson; but there was a tacit, and under-hand protest against her being received on the old terms. Every one was civil to her, but no one was cordial; there was a very perceptible film of difference in their behaviour to her from what it was formerly; nothing that had outlines and could be defined. But Molly, for all her clear conscience and her brave heart, felt acutely that she was only tolerated, not welcomed. She caught the buzzing whispers of the two Miss Oakeses', who, when they first met the heroine of the prevailing scandal, looked at her askance, and criticized her pretensions to good looks, with hardly an attempt at under-tones. Molly tried to be thankful that her father was not in the mood for visiting. She was even glad that her stepmother was too much of an invalid to come out, when she felt thus slighted, and as it were, degraded from her place. Miss Browning herself, that true old friend, spoke to her with chilling dignity, and much reserve, for she had never heard a word from Mr Gibson since the evening when she had put herself to so much pain to tell him of the disagreeable rumours affecting his daughter.

Only Miss Phoebe would seek out Molly with even more than her former tenderness; and this tried Molly's calmness more than all the slights put together. The soft hand, pressing hers under the table, - the continual appeals to her, so as to bring her back into the conversation, touched Molly almost to shedding tears. Sometimes the poor girl wondered to herself whether this change in the behaviour of her acquaintances was not a mere fancy of hers; whether, if she had never had that conversation with her father, in which she had borne herself so bravely at the time, she should have discovered the difference in their treatment of her. She never told her father how she felt these perpetual small slights; she had chosen to bear the burden of her own free will; nay, more, she had insisted on being allowed to do so; and it was not for her to grieve him now by showing that she shrank from the consequences of her own act. So she never even made an excuse for not going into the small gaieties, or mingling with the society of Hollingford. Only she suddenly let go the stretch of restraint she was living in, when one evening her father told her that he was really anxious about Mrs Gibson's cough, and should like Molly to give up a party at Mrs Goodenough's, to which they were all three invited, but to Which Molly alone was going. Molly's heart leaped up at the thoughts of stopping at home, even though the next moment she had to blame herself for rejoicing at a reprieve that was purchased by another's suffering. However, the remedies prescribed by her husband did Mrs Gibson good; and she was particularly grateful and caressing to Molly.

'Really, dear!' said she, stroking Molly's head, 'I think your hair is getting softer, and losing that disagreeable crisp curly feeling.'

Then Molly knew that her stepmother was in high good-humour; the smoothness or curliness of her hair was a sure test of the favour in which Mrs Gibson held her at the moment.

'I am so sorry to be the cause of detaining you from this little party, but dear papa is so over-anxious about me. I have always been a kind of pet with gentlemen, and poor Mr Kirkpatrick never knew how to make enough of me. But I think Mr Gibson is even more foolishly fond; his last words were, "Take care of yourself, Hyacinth;" and then he came back again to say, "If you don't attend to my directions I won't answer for the consequences." I shook my forefinger at him, and said, "Don't be so anxious, you silly man."'

'I hope we have done everything he told us to do,' said Molly.

'Oh yes! I feel so much better. Do you know, late as it is, I think you might go to Mrs Goodenough's yet? Maria could take you, and I should like to see you dressed; when one has been wearing dull warm gowns for a week or two one gets quite a craving for bright colours, and evening dress. So go and get ready, dear, and then perhaps you'll bring me back some news, for really shut up as I have been with only papa and you for the last fortnight, I've got quite moped and dismal, and I can't bear to keep young people from the gaieties suitable to their age.'

'Oh, pray, mamma! I had so much rather not go.'

'Very well! very well! Only I think it is rather selfish of you, when you see I am so willing to make the sacrifice for your sake.'

'But you say it is a sacrifice to you, and I don't want to go.'

'Very well; did I not say you might stop at home; only pray don't chop logic; nothing is so fatiguing to a sick person.'

Then they were silent for some time. Mrs Gibson broke the silence by saying, in a languid voice, -

'Can't you think of anything amusing to say, Molly?'

Molly pumped up from the depths of her mind a few little trivialities which she had nearly forgotten, but she felt that they were anything but amusing, and so Mrs Gibson seemed to feel them; for presently she said, -

'I wish Cynthia was at home.' And Molly felt it as a reproach to her own dulness.

'Shall I write to her and ask her to come back?'

'Well, I'm not sure; I wish I knew a great many things. You've not heard anything of poor dear Osborne Hamley lately, have you?'

Remembering her father's charge not speak of Osborne's health, Molly made no reply, nor was any needed, for Mrs Gibson went on thinking aloud, -

'You see, if Mr Henderson has been as attentive as he was in the spring - and the chances about Roger - I shall be really grieved if anything happens to that young man, uncouth as he is, but it must be owned that Africa is not merely an unhealthy - it is a savage - and even in some parts a cannibal country. I often think of all I've read of it in geography books, as I lie awake at night, and if Mr Henderson is really becoming attached! The future is hidden from us by infinite wisdom, Molly, or else I should like to know it; one would calculate one's behaviour at the present time so much better if one only knew what events were to come. But I think, on the whole, we had better not alarm Cynthia. If we had only known in time we might have planned for her to have come down with Lord Cumnor and my lady.'

'Are they coming? Is Lady Cumnor well enough to travel?'

'Yes, to be sure. Or else I should not have considered whether or no Cynthia could have come down with them; it would have sounded very well - more than respectable, and would have given her a position among that lawyer set in London.'

'Then Lady Cumnor is better?'

'To be sure. I should have thought papa would have mentioned it to you; but, to be sure, he is always so scrupulously careful not to speak about his patients. Quite right too - quite right and delicate. Why, he hardly ever tells me how they are going on. Yes! The Earl and the Countess, and Lady Harriet, and Lord and Lady Cuxhaven, and Lady Agnes; and I've ordered a new winter bonnet and a black satin cloak.'