Part Five
Chapter XLIX. Molly Gibson Finds A Champion

Lady Cumnor had so far recovered from the violence of her attack, and from the consequent operation, as to be able to be removed to the Towers for change of air; and accordingly she was brought thither by her whole family with all the pomp and state becoming an invalid peeress. There was every probability that 'the family' would make a longer residence at the Towers than they had done for several years, during which time they had been wanderers hither and thither in search of health. Somehow, after all, it was very pleasant and restful to come to the old ancestral home, and every member of the family enjoyed it in his or her own way; Lord Cumnor most especially. His talent for gossip and his love of small details had scarcely fair play in the hurry of a London life, and were much nipped in the bud during his Continental sojournings, as he neither spoke French fluently, nor understood it easily when spoken. Besides, he was a great proprietor, and liked to know how his land was going on; how his tenants were faring in the world. He liked to hear of their births, marriages, and deaths, and had something of a royal memory for faces. In short, if ever a peer was an old woman, Lord Cumnor was that peer; but he was a very good-natured old woman, and rode about on his stout old cob with his pockets full of halfpence for the children, and little packets of snuff for the old people. Like an old woman, too, he enjoyed an afternoon cup of tea in his wife's sitting-room, and over his gossip's beverage he would repeat all that he had learnt in the day. Lady Cumnor was exactly in that state of convalescence when such talk as her lord's was extremely agreeable to her, but she had contemned the habit of listening to gossip so severely all her life, that she thought it due to consistency to listen first, and enter a supercilious protest afterwards. It had, however, come to be a family habit for all of them to gather together in Lady Cumnor's room on their return from their daily walks or drives or rides, and over the fire, sipping their tea at her early meal, to recount the morsels of local intelligence they had heard during the morning. When they had said all that they had to say (and not before), they had always to listen to a short homily from her ladyship on the well-worn texts, - the poorness of conversation about persons, - the probable falsehood of all they had heard, and the degradation of character implied by its repetition. On one of these November evenings they were all assembled in Lady Cumnor's room. She was lying, - all draped in white, and covered up with an Indian shawl, - on a sofa near the fire.

Lady Harriet sate on the rug, close before the wood-fire, picking up fallen embers with a pair of dwarf tongs, and piling them on the red and odorous heap in the centre of the hearth. Lady Cuxhaven, notable' from girlhood, was using the blind man's holiday to net fruit-nets for the walls at Cuxhaven Park. Lady Cumnor's woman was trying to see to pour out tea by the light of one small wax-candle in the background (for Lady Cumnor could not bear much light to her weakened eyes); I and the great leafless branches of the trees outside the house kept sweeping against the windows, moved by the wind that was gathering.

It was always Lady Cumnor's habit to snub those she loved best. Her husband was perpetually snubbed by her, yet she missed him now that he was later than usual, and professed not to want her tea; but they all knew that it was only because he was not there to hand it to her, and be found fault with for his invariable stupidity in forgetting that she liked to put sugar in before she took any cream. At length he burst in.

'I beg your pardon, my lady, - I'm later than I should have been, I know. Why, haven't you had your tea yet?' he exclaimed, bustling about to get the cup for his wife.

'You know I never take cream before I've sweetened it,' said she, with even more emphasis on the 'never' than usual.

'To be sure! What a simpleton I am! I think I might have remembered it by this time. You see I met old Sheepshanks, and that's the reason of it.'

'Of your handing me the cream before the sugar?' asked his wife. It was one of her grim jokes.

'No, no! ha, ha! You're better this evening, I think, my dear. But, as I was saying, Sheepshanks is such an eternal talker, there's no getting away from him, and I had no idea it was so late!'

'Well, I think the least you can do is to tell us something of Mr Sheepshanks' conversation now you have torn yourself away from him.'

'Conversation! did I call it conversation? I don't think I said much. I listened. He really has always a great deal to say. More than Preston, for instance. And, by the way, he was telling me something about Preston; - old Sheepshanks thinks he'll be married before long, - he says there's a great deal of gossip going on about him and Gibson's daughter. They've been caught meeting in the park, and corresponding, and all that kind of thing that is likely to end in a marriage.'

'I shall be very sorry,' said Lady Harriet. 'I always liked that girl; and I can't bear papa's model land-agent.'

'I daresay it's not true,' said Lady Cumnor, in a very audible aside to Lady Harriet. 'Papa picks up stories one day to contradict them the next.'

'Ah, but this did sound like truth. Sheepshanks said all the old ladies in the town had got hold of it, and were making a great scandal out of it.'

'I don't think it does sound quite a nice story. I wonder what Clare could be doing to allow such goings on,' said Lady Cuxhaven.

'I think it is much more likely that Clare's own daughter - that pretty pawky Miss Kirkpatrick - is the real heroine of this story,' said Lady Harriet. 'She always looks like a heroine of genteel comedy, and those young ladies were capable of a good deal of innocent intriguing, if I remember rightly. Now little Molly Gibson has a certain gaucherie about her which would disqualify her at once from any clandestine proceedings. Besides, "clandestine!" why, the child is truth itself. Papa, are you sure Mr Sheepshanks said it was Miss Gibson that was exciting Hollingford scandal? Wasn't it Miss Kirkpatrick? The notion of her and Mr Preston making a match of it does not sound so incongruous; but, if it's my little friend Molly, I'll go to church and forbid the banns.'

'Really, Harriet, I can't think what always makes you take such an interest in all these petty Hollingford affairs.'

'Mamma, it's only tit for tat. They take the most lively interest in all our sayings and doings. If I were going to be married, they would want to know every possible particular, - where we first met, what we first said to each other, what I wore, and whether he offered by letter or in person. I'm sure those good Miss Brownings were wonderfully well-informed as to Mary's methods of managing her nursery, and educating her girls; so it's only a proper return of the compliment to want to know on our side how they are going on. I am quite of papa's faction. I like to hear all the local gossip.'

'Especially when it is flavoured with a spice of scandal and impropriety, as in this case,' said Lady Cumnor, with the momentary bitterness of a convalescent invalid. Lady Harriet coloured with annoyance. But then she rallied her courage, and said with more gravity than before, -

'I am really interested in this story about Molly Gibson, I own. I both like and respect her; and I do not like to hear her name coupled with that of Mr Preston. I can't help fancying papa has made some mistake.'

'No, my dear. I'm sure I'm repeating what I heard. I'm sorry I said anything about it, if it annoys you or my lady there. Sheepshanks did say Miss Gibson, though, and he went on to say it was a pity the girl had got herself so talked about; for it was the way they had carried on that gave rise to all the chatter. Preston himself was a very fair match for her, and nobody could have objected to it. But I'll try and find a more agreeable piece of news. Old Margery at the lodge is dead; and they don't know where to find some one to teach clear-starching at your school; and Robert Hall made forty pounds last year by his apples.' So they drifted away from Molly and her affairs; only Lady Harriet kept turning what she had heard over in her own mind with interest and wonder.

'I warned her against him the day of her father's wedding. And what a straightforward, out-spoken lassie it was then! I don't believe it; it's only one of old Sheepshanks' stories, half invention and half deafness.'

The next day Lady Harriet rode over to Hollingford, and for the settling of her curiosity she called on the Miss Brownings, and introduced the subject. She would not have spoken about the rumour she had heard to any who were not warm friends of Molly's. If Mr Sheepshanks had chosen to allude to it when she had been riding with her father, she would very soon have silenced him by one of the haughty looks she knew full well how to assume. But she felt as if she must know the truth, and accordingly she began thus abruptly to Miss Browning, -

'What is all this I hear about my little friend Molly Gibson and Mr Preston?'

'Oh, Lady Harriet! have you heard of it? We are so sorry!'

'Sorry for what?'

'I think, begging your ladyship's pardon, we had better not say any more till we know how much you know,' said Miss Browning.

'Nay,' replied Lady Harriet, laughing a little, 'I shan't tell what I know till I am sure you know more. Then we'll make an exchange if you like.'

'I'm afraid it's no laughing Matter for poor Molly,' said Miss Browning, shaking her head. 'People do say such things!'

'But I don't believe them; indeed I don't,' burst in Miss Phoebe, half crying.

'No more will I, then,' said Lady Harriet, taking the good lady's hand.

'It's all very fine, Phoebe, saying you don't believe them, but I should like to know who it was that convinced me, sadly against my will, I am sure.'

'I only told you the facts as Mrs Goodenough told them me, sister; but I'm sure if you had seen poor patient Molly as I have done, sitting up in a corner of a room, looking at the Beauties of England and Wales till she must have been sick of them, and no one speaking to her; and she as gentle and sweet as ever at the end of the evening, though maybe a bit pale - facts or no facts, I won't believe anything against her.'

So there sate Miss Phoebe, in tearful defiance of facts.

'And, as I said before, I'm quite of your opinion,' said Lady Harriet.

'But how does your ladyship explain away her meetings with Mr Preston in all sorts of unlikely and open-air places?' asked Miss Browning, who, to do her justice, would have been only too glad to join Molly's partisans, if she could have preserved her character for logical deduction at the same time. 'I went so far as to send for her father and tell him all about it. I thought at least he would have horsewhipped Mr Preston; but he seems to have taken no notice of it.'

'Then we may be quite sure he knows some way of explaining matters that we don't,' said Lady Harriet, decisively. 'After all, there may be a hundred and fifty perfectly natural and justifiable explanations.'

'Mr Gibson knew of none when I thought it my duty to speak to him,' said Miss Browning.

'Why, suppose that Mr Preston is engaged to Miss Kirkpatrick, and Molly is confidante and messenger.'

'I don't see that your ladyship's supposition much alters the blame. Why, if he is honourably engaged to Cynthia Kirkpatrick, does he not visit her openly at her home in Mr Gibson's house? Why does Molly lend herself to clandestine proceedings?'

'One can't account for everything,' said Lady Harriet, a little impatiently, for reason was going hard against her. 'But I choose to have faith in Molly Gibson. I'm sure she's not done anything very wrong. I've a great mind to go and call on her - Mrs Gibson is confined to her room with this horrid influenza - and take her with me on a round of calls through this little gossipping town, - on Mrs Goodenough, or Badenough, who seems to have been propagating all these stories. But I've not time to-day. I've to meet papa at three, and it's three now. Only remember, Miss Phoebe, it's you and I against the world, in defence of a distressed damsel.'

'Don Quixote and Sancho Panza!' said she to herself as she ran lightly down Miss Browning's old-fashioned staircase.

'Now, I don't think that's pretty of you, Phoebe,' said Miss Browning in some displeasure, as soon as she was alone with her sister. 'First, you convince me against my will, and make me very unhappy; and I have to do unpleasant things, all because you've made me believe that certain statements are true; and then you turn round and cry, and say you don't believe a word of it all, making me out a regular ogre and backbiter. No! it's of no use. I shan't listen to you.' So she left Miss Phoebe in tears, and locked herself up in her own room.

Lady Harriet, meanwhile, was riding homewards by her father's side, apparently listening to all he chose to say, but in reality turning over the probabilities and possibilities that might account for these strange interviews between Molly and Mr Preston. It was a case of parler de l'ane et l'on en voit les oreilles. At a turn in the road they saw Mr Preston a little way before them, coming towards them on his good horse, point device, in his riding attire.

The earl, in his thread-bare coat, and on his old brown cob, called out cheerfully, -

'Aha! here's Preston. Good-day to you. I was just wanting to ask you about that slip of pasture-land on the Home Farm. John Brickkill wants to plough it up and crop it. It's not two acres at the best.'

While they were talking over this bit of land, Lady Harriet came to her resolution. As soon as her father had finished, she said, -

'Mr Preston, perhaps you will allow me to ask you one or two questions to relieve my mind, for I am in some little perplexity at present.'

'Certainly; I shall only be too happy to give you any information in my power.' But the moment after he had made this polite speech, he recollected Molly's speech - that she would refer her case to Lady Harriet. But the letters had been returned, and the affair was now wound up. She had come off conqueror, he the vanquished. Surely she would never have been so ungenerous as to appeal after that?

'There are reports about Miss Gibson and you current among the gossips of Hollingford. Are we to congratulate you on your engagement to that young lady?'

'Ah! by the way, Preston, we ought to have done it before,' interrupted Lord Cumnor, in hasty goodwill. But his daughter said quietly, 'Mr Preston has not yet told us if the reports are well founded, papa.'

She looked at him with the air of a person expecting an answer, and expecting a truthful answer.

'I am not so fortunate,' replied he, trying to make his horse appear fidgety, without incurring observation.

'Then I may contradict that report?' asked Lady Harriet quietly. 'Or is there any reason for believing that in time it may come true? I ask because such reports, if unfounded, do harm to young ladies.'

'Keep other sweethearts off,' put in Lord Cumnor, looking a good deal pleased at his own discernment. Lady Harriet went on, -

'And I take a great interest in Miss Gibson.'

Mr Preston saw from her manner that he was 'in for it,' as he expressed it to himself. The question was, how much or how little did she know?

'I have no expectation or hope of ever having a nearer interest in Miss Gibson than I have at present. I shall be glad if this straightforward answer relieves your ladyship from your perplexity.'

He could not help the touch of insolence that accompanied these last words. It was not in the words themselves, nor in the tone in which they were spoken, nor in the look which accompanied them, it was in all; it implied a doubt of Lady Harriet's right to question him as she did; and there was something of defiance in it as well. But this touch of insolence put Lady Harriet's mettle up; and she was not one to check herself, in any course, for the opinion of an inferior.

'Then, sir! are you aware of the injury you may do to a young lady's reputation if you meet her, and detain her in long conversations, when she is walking by herself, unaccompanied by any one? You give rise - you have given rise to reports.'

'My dear Harriet, are not you going too far? You don't know - Mr Preston may have intentions - unacknowledged intentions.'

'No, my lord. I have no intentions with regard to Miss Gibson. She may be a very worthy young lady - I have no doubt she is. Lady Harriet seems determined to push me into such a position that I cannot but acknowledge myself to be - it is not enviable - not pleasant to own - but I am, in fact, a jilted man; jilted by Miss Kirkpatrick, after a tolerably long engagement. My interviews with Miss Gibson were not of the most agreeable kind - as you may conclude when I tell you she was, I believe, the instigator - certainly, she was the agent in this last step of Miss Kirkpatrick's. Is your ladyship's curiosity' (with an emphasis on this last word) 'satisfied with this rather mortifying confession of mine?'

'Harriet, my dear, you've gone too far - we had no right to pry into Mr Preston's private affairs.'

'No more I had,' said Lady Harriet, with a smile of winning frankness: the first smile she had accorded to Mr Preston for many a long day; ever since the time, years ago, when, presuming on his handsomeness, he had assumed a tone of gallant familiarity with Lady Harriet, and paid her personal compliments as he would have done to an equal.

'But he will excuse me, I hope,' continued she, still in that gracious manner which made him feel that he now held a much higher place in her esteem than he had had at the beginning of their interview, 'when he learns that the busy tongues of the Hollingford ladies have been speaking of my friend, Miss Gibson, in the most unwarrantable manner; drawing unjustifiable inferences from the facts of that intercourse with Mr Preston, the nature of which he has just conferred such a real obligation on me by explaining.'

'I think I need hardly request Lady Harriet to consider this explanation of mine as confidential,' said Mr Preston.

'Of course, of course!' said the earl; 'every one will understand that.' And he rode home, and told his wife and Lady Cuxhaven the whole conversation between Lady Harriet and Mr Preston; in the strictest confidence, of course. Lady Harriet had to stand a good many strictures on manners, and proper dignity for a few days after this. However, she consoled herself by calling on the Gibsons; and, finding that Mrs Gibson (who was still an invalid) was asleep at the time, she experienced no difficulty in carrying off the unconscious Molly for a walk, which Lady Harriet so contrived that they twice passed through all the length of the principal street of the town, loitered at Grinstead's for half an hour, and wound up by Lady Harriet's calling on the Miss Brownings, who, to her regret, were not at home.

'Perhaps, it is as well,' said she, after a minute's consideration. 'I'll leave my card, and put your name down underneath it, Molly.'

Molly was a little puzzled by the manner in which she had been taken possession of, like an inanimate chattel, for all the afternoon, and exclaimed, -

'Please, Lady Harriet - I never leave cards; I have not got any, and on the Miss Brownings, of all people; why, I run in and out whenever I like.'

'Never mind, little one. To-day you shall do everything properly, and according to full etiquette.

'And now tell Mrs Gibson to come out to the Towers for a long day; we will send the carriage for her whenever she will let us know that she is strong enough to come. Indeed, she had better come for a few days; at this time of the year it does not do for an invalid to be out in the evenings, even in a carriage.'

So spoke Lady Harriet, standing on the white door-steps at Miss Brownings', and holding Molly's hand while she wished her good-by. 'You'll tell her, dear, that I came partly to see her - but that finding her asleep, I ran off with you, and don't forget about her coming to stay with us for change of air - mamma will like it, I'm sure - and the carriage, and all that. And now good-by, we've done a good day's work! And better than you're aware of,' continued she, still addressing Molly, though the latter was quite out of hearing. 'Hollingford is not the place I take it to be, if it doesn't veer round in Miss Gibson's favour after my to-day's trotting of that child about.'