Part Five
Chapter L. Cynthia At Bay

Mrs Gibson was slow in recovering her strength after the influenza, and before she was well enough to accept Lady Harriet's invitation to the Towers, Cynthia came home from London. If Molly had thought her manner of departure was scarcely as affectionate and considerate as it might have been, - if such a thought had crossed Molly's fancy for an instant, she was repentant for it as soon as ever Cynthia returned, and the girls met together face to face, with all the old familiar affection, going upstairs to the drawing-room, with their arms round each other's waists, and sitting there together hand in hand. Cynthia's whole manner was more quiet than it had been, when the weight of her unpleasant secret rested on her mind, and made her alternately despondent or flighty.

'After all,' said Cynthia, 'there's a look of home about these rooms which is very pleasant. But I wish I could see you looking stronger, mammal that's the only unpleasant thing. Molly, why didn't you send for me?'

'I wanted to do,' began Molly.

'But I wouldn't let her,' said Mrs Gibson. 'You were much better in London than here, for you could have done me no good; and your letters were very agreeable to read; and now Helen is better, and I'm nearly well, and you've come home just at the right time, for everybody is full of the Charity Ball.'

'But we are not going this year, mamma,' said Cynthia decidedly. 'It is on the 25th, isn't it? and I'm sure you'll never be well enough to take us.'

'You really seem determined to make me out worse than I am, child,' said Mrs Gibson, rather querulously, she being one of those who, when their malady is only trifling, exaggerate it, but when it is really of some consequence, are unwilling to sacrifice any pleasures by acknowledging it. It was well for her in this instance that her husband had wisdom and authority enough to forbid her going to this ball, on which she had set her heart; but the consequence of his prohibition was an increase of domestic plaintiveness and low spirits, which seemed to tell on Cynthia - the bright gay Cynthia herself - and it was often hard work for Molly to keep up the spirits of two other people as well as her own. Ill-health might account for Mrs Gibson's despondency, but why was Cynthia so silent, not to say so sighing? Molly was puzzled to account for it; and all the more perplexed because from time to time Cynthia kept calling upon her for praise for some unknown and mysterious virtue that she had practised; and Molly was young enough to believe that, after any exercise of virtue, the spirits rose, cheered up by an approving conscience. Such was not the case with Cynthia, however. She sometimes said such things as these, when she had been particularly inert and desponding, -

'Ah, Molly, you must let my goodness lie fallow for a while! It has borne such a wonderful crop this year. I have been so pretty-behaved - if you knew all!' Or, 'Really, Molly, my virtue must come down from the clouds! It was strained to the utmost in London - and I find it is like a kite - after soaring aloft for some time, it suddenly comes down, and gets tangled in all sorts of briars and brambles; which things are an allegory, unless you can bring yourself to believe in my extraordinary goodness while I was away - giving me a sort of right to fall foul of all mamma's briars and brambles now.'

But Molly had had some experience of Cynthia's whim of perpetually hinting at a mystery which she did not mean to reveal in the Mr Preston days, and, although she was occasionally piqued into curiosity, Cynthia's allusions at something more in the background fell in general on rather deaf ears. One day the mystery burst its shell, and came out in the shape of an offer made to Cynthia by Mr Henderson - and refused. Under all the circumstances, Molly could not appreciate the heroic goodness so often alluded to. The revelation of the secret at last took place in this way. Mrs Gibson breakfasted in bed: she had done so ever since she had had the influenza; and, consequently, her own private letters always went up on her breakfast-tray. One morning she came into the drawing-room earlier than usual, with an open letter in her hand.

'I've had a letter from aunt Kirkpatrick, Cynthia. She sends me my dividends, - your uncle is so busy. But what does she mean by this, Cynthia' (holding out the letter to her, with a certain paragraph indicated by her finger). Cynthia put her netting on one side, and looked at the writing. Suddenly her face turned scarlet, and then became of a deadly white. She looked at Molly, as if to gain courage from the strong serene countenance.

'It means - mamma, I may as well tell you at once - Mr Henderson offered to me while I was in London, and I refused him.'

'Refused him - and you never told me, but let me hear it by chance! Really, Cynthia, I think you're very unkind. And pray what made you refuse Mr Henderson? Such a fine young man, - and such a gentleman! Your uncle told me he had a very good private fortune besides.'

'Mamma, do you forget that I have promised to marry Roger Hamley?' said Cynthia quietly.

'No! of course I don't - how can I, with Molly always dinning the word "engagement" into my ears? But really, when one considers all the uncertainties, - and after all it was not a distinct promise, - he seemed almost as if he might have looked forward to something of this sort.'

'Of what sort, mamma?' said Cynthia sharply.

'Why, of a more eligible offer. He must have known you might change your mind, and meet with some one you liked better: so little as you had seen of the world.' Cynthia made an impatient movement, as if to stop her mother.

'I never said I liked him better, - how can you talk so, mamma? I'm going to marry Roger, and there's an end of it. I will not be spoken to about it again.' She got up and left the room.

'Going to marry Roger! That's all very fine. But who is to guarantee his coming back alive! And if he does, what have they to marry upon, I should like to know? I don't wish her to have accepted Mr Henderson, though I am sure she liked him; and true love ought to have its course, and not be thwarted; but she need not have quite finally refused him until - well, until we had seen how matters turn out. Such an invalid as I am too! It has given me quite a palpitation at the heart. I do call it quite unfeeling of Cynthia.'

'Certainly,' began Molly; but then she remembered that her stepmother was far from strong, and unable to bear a protest in favour of the right course without irritation. So she changed her speech into a suggestion of remedies for palpitation; and curbed her impatience to speak out her indignation at the contemplated falsehood to Roger. But when they were alone, and Cynthia began upon the subject, Molly was less merciful. Cynthia said, -

'Well, Molly, and now you know all! I've been longing to tell you - and yet somehow I could not.'

'I suppose it was a repetition of Mr Coxe,' said Molly gravely. 'You were agreeable, - and he took it for something more.'

'I don't know,' sighed Cynthia. 'I mean I don't know if I was agreeable or not. He was very kind - very pleasant - but I did not expect it all to end as it did. However, it is of no use thinking of it.'

'No!' said Molly, simply; for to her mind the pleasantest and kindest person in the world put in comparison with Roger was as nothing; he stood by himself. Cynthia's next words, - and they did not come very soon, - were on quite a different subject, and spoken in rather a pettish tone. Nor did she allude again in jesting sadness to her late efforts at virtue.

In a little while Mrs Gibson was able to accept the often-repeated invitation from the Towers to go and stay there for a day or two. Lady Harriet told her that it would be a kindness to Lady Cumnor to come and bear her company in the life of seclusion the latter was still compelled to lead; and Mrs Gibson was flattered and gratified with a dim unconscious sense of being really wanted, not merely deluding herself into a pleasing fiction. Lady Cumnor was in that state of convalescence common to many invalids. The spring of life had begun again to flow, and with the flow returned the old desires and projects and plans, which had all become mere matters of indifference during the worst part of her illness.

But as yet her bodily strength was not sufficient to be an agent to her energetic mind, and the difficulty of driving the ill-matched pair of body and will - one weak and languid, the other strong and stern, - made her ladyship often very irritable. Mrs Gibson herself was not quite strong enough for a 'souffre-douleur;" and the visit to the Towers was not, on the whole, quite so happy a one as she had anticipated. Lady Cuxhaven and Lady Harriet, each aware of their mother's state of health and temper, but only alluding to it as slightly as was absolutely necessary in their conversations with each other, took care not to leave 'Clare' too long with Lady Cumnor; but several times when one or the other went to relieve guard they found Clare in tears, and Lady Cumnor holding forth on some point on which she had been meditating during the silent hours of her illness, and on which she seemed to consider herself born to set the world to rights.

Mrs Gibson was always apt to consider these remarks as addressed with a personal direction at some error of her own, and defended the fault in question with a sense of property in it, whatever it might happen to be. The second and the last day of her stay at the Towers, Lady Harriet came in, and found her mother haranguing in an excited tone of voice, and Clare looking submissive and miserable and oppressed.

'What's the matter, dear mamma? Are not you tiring yourself with talking?'

'No, not at all! I was only speaking of the folly of people dressing above their station. I began by telling Clare of the fashions of my grandmother's days, when every class had a sort of costume of its own, - and servants did not ape tradespeople, nor tradespeople professional men, and so on, - and what must the foolish woman do but begin to justify her own dress, as if I had been accusing her, or even thinking about her at all. Such nonsense! Really, Clare, your husband has spoilt you sadly, if you can't listen to any one without thinking they are alluding to you! People may flatter themselves just as much by thinking that their faults are always present to other people's minds, as if they believe that the world is always contemplating their individual charms and virtues.'

'I was told, Lady Cumnor, that this silk was reduced in price. I bought it at Waterloo House' after the season was over,' said Mrs Gibson, touching the very handsome gown she wore in deprecation of Lady Cumnor's angry voice, and blundering on to the very source of irritation.

'Again, Clare! How often must I tell you I had no thought of you or your gowns, or whether they cost much or little; your husband has to pay for them, and it is his concern if you spend more on your dress than you ought to do.'

'It was only five guineas for the whole dress,' pleaded Mrs Gibson.

'And very pretty it is,' said Lady Harriet, stooping to examine it, and so hoping to soothe the poor aggrieved woman. But Lady Cumnor went on, -

'No! you ought to have known me better by this time. When I think a thing I say it out. I don't beat about the bush. I use straightforward language. I will tell you where I think you have been in fault, Clare, if you like to know.' Like it or not, the plain-speaking was coming now. 'You have spoilt that girl of yours till she does not know her own mind. She has behaved abominably to Mr Preston; and it is all in consequence of the faults in her education. You have much to answer for.'

'Mamma, mamma!' said Lady Harriet, 'Mr Preston did not wish it spoken about.' And at the same moment Mrs Gibson exclaimed, 'Cynthia - Mr Preston!' in such a tone of surprise, that if Lady Cumnor had been in the habit of observing the revelations made by other people's tones and voices, she would have found out that Mrs Gibson was ignorant of the affair to which she was alluding.

'As for Mr Preston's wishes, I do not suppose I am bound to regard them when I feel it my duty to reprove error,' said Lady Cumnor loftily to Lady Harriet. 'And, Clare, do you mean to say that you are not aware that your daughter has been . engaged to Mr Preston for some time - years, I believe, - and has at last chosen to break it off, - and has used the Gibson girl - I forget her name, - as a cat's-paw, and made both her and herself the town's talk - the butt for all the gossip of Hollingford? I remember when I was young there was a girl called Jilting Jessy. You'll have to watch over your young lady, or she will get some such name. I speak to you like a friend, Clare, when I tell you it's my opinion that girl of yours will get herself into some more mischief yet before she's safely married. Not that I care one straw for Mr Preston's feelings. I don't even know if he's got feelings or not; but I know what is becoming in a young woman, and jilting is not. And now you may both go away, and send Bradley to me, for I'm tired, and want to have a little sleep.'

'Indeed, Lady Cumnor - will you believe me? - I do not think Cynthia was ever engaged to Mr Preston. There was an old flirtation. I was afraid -- '

'Ring the bell for Bradley,' said Lady Cumnor, wearily: her eyes closed. Lady Harriet had too much experience of her mother's moods not to lead Mrs Gibson away almost by main force, she protesting all the while that she did not think there was any truth in the statement, though it was dear Lady Cumnor that said it.

Once in her own room, Lady Harriet said, 'Now, Clare, I'll tell you all about it; and I think you'll have to believe it, for it was Mr Preston himself who told me. I heard of a great commotion in Hollingford about Mr Preston; and I met him riding out, and asked him what it was all about; he did not want to speak about it, evidently. No man does, I suppose, when he's been jilted; and he made both papa and me promise not to tell; but papa did - and that's what mamma has for a foundation; you see, a really good one.'

'But Cynthia is engaged to another man - she really is. And another - a very good match indeed - has just been offering to her in London. Mr Preston is always at the root of mischief.'

'Nay! I do think in this case it must be that pretty Miss Cynthia of yours who has drawn on one man to be engaged to her, - not to say two, - and another to make her an offer. I can't endure Mr Preston, but I think it's rather hard to accuse him of having called up the rivals, who are, I suppose, the occasion of his being jilted.'

'I don't know; I always feel as if he owed me a grudge, and men have so many ways of being spiteful. You must acknowledge that if he had not met you I should not have had dear Lady Cumnor so angry with me.'

'She only wanted to warn you about Cynthia. Mamma has always been very particular about her own daughters. She has been very severe on the least approach to flirting, and Mary will be like her!'

'But Cynthia will flirt, and I can't help it. She is not noisy, or giggling; she is always a lady - that everybody must own. But she has a way of attracting men, she must have inherited from me, I think.' And here she smiled faintly, and would not have rejected a confirmatory compliment, but none came.

'However, I will speak to her; I will get to the bottom of the whole affair. Pray tell Lady Cumnor that it has so fluttered me the way she spoke, about my dress and all. And it only cost five guineas after all, reduced from eight!'

'Well, never mind now. You are looking very much flushed; quite feverish! I left you too long in mamma's hot room. But do you know she is so much pleased to have you here?' And so Lady Cumnor really was, in spite of the continual lectures which she gave 'Clare,' and which poor Mrs Gibson turned under as helplessly as the typical worm. Still it was something to have a countess to scold her; and that pleasure would endure when the worry was past. And then Lady Harriet petted her more than usual to make up for what she had to go through in the convalescent's room; and Lady Cuxhaven talked sense to her, with dashes of science and deep thought intermixed, which was very flattering, although generally unintelligible; and Lord Cumnor, good-natured, good-tempered, kind, and liberal, was full of gratitude to her for her kindness in coming to see Lady Cumnor, and his gratitude took the tangible shape of a haunch of venison, to say nothing of lesser game. When she looked back upon her visit as she drove home in the solitary grandeur of the Towers' carriage, there had been but one great enduring rub - Lady Cumnor's crossness - and she chose to consider Cynthia as the cause of that, instead of seeing the truth, which had been so often set before her by the members of her ladyship's family, that it took its origin in her state of health. Mrs Gibson did not exactly mean to visit this one discomfort upon Cynthia, nor did she quite mean to upbraid her daughter for conduct as yet unexplained, and which might have some justification; but, finding her quietly sitting in the drawing-room, she sate down despondingly in her own little easy chair, and in reply to Cynthia's quick, pleasant greeting of, -

'Well, mamma, how are you? We did not expect you so early! Let me take off your bonnet and shawl!' she replied dolefully, -

'It has not been such a happy visit that I should wish to prolong it.' Her eyes were fixed on the carpet, and her face was as irresponsive to the welcome offered as she could make it.

'What has been the matter?' asked Cynthia, in all good faith.

'You! Cynthia - you! I little thought when you were born how I should have to bear to hear you spoken about.'

Cynthia threw back her head, and angry light came into her eyes.

'What business have they with me? How came they to talk about me in any way?'

'Everybody is talking about you; it is no wonder they are. Lord Cumnor is sure to hear about everything always. You should take more care about what you do, Cynthia, if you don't like being talked about.'

'It rather depends upon what people say,' said Cynthia, affecting a lightness which she did not feel; for she had a provision of what was coming.

'Well! I don't like it, at any rate. It is not pleasant to me to hear first of my daughter's misdoings from Lady Cumnor, and then to be lectured about her, and her flirting, and her jilting, as if I had had anything to do with it. I can assure you it has quite spoilt my visit. No! don't touch my shawl. When I go to my room I can take it myself.'

Cynthia was brought to bay, and sate down; remaining with her mother, who kept sighing ostentatiously from time to time.

'Would you mind telling me what they said? If there are accusations abroad against me, it is as well I should know what they are. Here's Molly' (as the girl entered the room, fresh from a morning's walk). 'Molly, mamma has come back from the Towers, and my lord and my lady have been doing me the honour to talk over my crimes and misdemeanors, and I am asking mamma what they have said. I don't set up for more virtue than other people, but I can't make out what an earl and a countess have to do with poor little me.'

'It was not for your sake!' said Mrs Gibson. 'It was for mine. They felt for me, for it is not pleasant to have one's child's name in everybody's mouth.'

'As I said before, that depends upon how it is in everybody's mouth. If I were going to marry Lord Hollingford, I make no doubt every one would be talking about me, and neither you nor I should mind it in the least.'

'But this is no marriage with Lord Hollingford, so it is nonsense to talk as if it was. They say you've gone and engaged yourself to Mr Preston, and now refuse to marry him; and they call that jilting.'

'Do you wish me to marry him, mamma?' asked Cynthia, her face in a flame, her eyes cast down. Molly stood by, very hot, not fully understanding it; and only kept where she was by the hope of coming in as sweetener or peacemaker, or helper of some kind.

'No,' said Mrs Gibson, evidently discomfited by the question. 'Of course I don't; you have gone and entangled yourself with Roger Hamley, a very worthy young man; but nobody knows where he is, and if he's dead or alive; and he has not a penny if he is alive.'

'I beg your pardon. I know that he has some fortune from his mother; it may not be much, but he is not penniless; and he is sure to earn fame and great reputation, and with it money will come,' said Cynthia.

'You've entangled yourself with him, and you've done something of the sort with Mr Preston, and got yourself into such an imbroglio' (Mrs Gibson could not have said 'mess' for the world, although the word was present to her mind), 'that when a really eligible person comes forward - handsome, agreeable, and quite the gentleman - and a good private fortune into the bargain, you have to refuse him. You'll end as an old maid, Cynthia, and it will break my heart.'

'I daresay I shall,' said Cynthia, quietly. 'I sometimes think I am the kind of person of which old maids are made!' She spoke seriously, and a little sadly.

Mrs Gibson began again. 'I don't want to know your secrets as long as they are secrets; but when all the town is talking about you, I think I ought to be told.'

'But, mamma, I did not know I was such a subject of conversation; and even now I can't make out how it has come about.'

'No more can I. I only know that they say you've been engaged to Mr Preston, and ought to have married him, and that I can't help it, if you did not choose, any more than I could have helped your refusing Mr Henderson; and yet I am constantly blamed for your misconduct. I think it's very hard.' Mrs Gibson began to cry. Just then her husband came in. 'You here, my dear! Welcome back,' said he, coming up to her courteously, and kissing her cheek. 'Why, what's the matter? Tears?' and he heartily wished himself away again. 'Yes!' said she, raising herself up, and clutching after sympathy of any kind, at any price. 'I'm come home again, and I'm telling Cynthia how Lady Cumnor has been so cross to me, and all through her. Did you know she had gone and engaged herself to Mr Preston, and then broken it off? Everybody is talking about it, and they know it up at the Towers.'

For one moment his eyes met Molly's, and he comprehended it all. He made his lips up into a whistle, but no sound came. Cynthia had quite lost her defiant manner since her mother had spoken to Mr Gibson. Molly sate down by her.

'Cynthia,' said he, very seriously.

'Yes!' she answered, softly.

'Is this true? I had heard something of it before - not much; but there is scandal enough about to make it desirable that you should have some protector - some friend who knows the whole truth.'

No answer. At last she said, 'Molly knows it all.' Mrs Gibson, too, had been awed into silence by her husband's grave manner, and she did not like to give vent to the jealous thought in her mind that Molly had known the secret of which she was ignorant. Mr Gibson replied to Cynthia with some sternness, -

'Yes! I know that Molly knows it all, and that she has had to bear slander and ill words for your sake, Cynthia. But she refused to tell me more.'

'She told you that much, did she?' said Cynthia, aggrieved.

'I could not help it,' said Molly.

'She did not name your name,' said Mr Gibson. 'At the time I believe she thought she had concealed it - but there was no mistaking who it was.'

'Why did she speak about it at all?' said Cynthia, with some bitterness. Her tone - her question stirred up Mr Gibson's passion.

'It was necessary for her to justify herself to me - I heard my daughter's reputation attacked for the private meetings she had given to Mr Preston - I came to her for an explanation. There is no need to be ungenerous, Cynthia, because you have been a flirt and a jilt even to the degree of dragging Molly's name down into the same mire.'

Cynthia lifted her bowed-down head, and looked at him. 'You say that of me, Mr Gibson. Not knowing what the circumstances are, you say that!'

He had spoken too strongly: he knew it. But he could not bring himself to own it just at that moment. The thought of his sweet innocent Molly, who had borne so much patiently, prevented any retractation of his words at the time. 'Yes!' he said, 'I do say it. You cannot tell what evil constructions are put upon actions ever so slightly beyond the bounds of maidenly propriety. I do say that Molly has had a great deal to bear, in consequence of this clandestine engagement of yours, Cynthia - there may be extenuating circumstances, I acknowledge - but you will need to remember them all to excuse your conduct to Roger Hamley, when he comes home. I asked you to tell me the full truth, in order that until he comes, and has a legal right to protect you, I may do so.' No answer. 'It certainly requires explanation,' continued he. 'Here are you, - engaged to two men at once to all appearances!' Still no answer. 'To be sure, the gossips of the town have not yet picked out the fact of Roger Hamley's being your accepted lover; but scandal has been resting on Molly, and ought to have rested on you, Cynthia - for a concealed engagement to Mr Preston - necessitating meetings in all sorts of places unknown to your friends.'

'Papa,' said Molly, 'if you knew all you would not speak so to Cynthia. I wish she would tell you herself all that she has told me.'

'I am ready to hear whatever she has to say,' said he. But Cynthia said, -

'No! you have prejudged me; you have spoken to me as you had no right to speak. I refuse to give you my confidence, or accept your help. People are very cruel to me' - her voice trembled for a moment, - 'I did not think you would have been. But I can bear it.'

And then, in spite of Molly, who would have detained her by force, she tore herself away, and hastily left the room. 'Oh, papa!' said Molly, crying, and clinging to him, 'do let me tell you all.' And then she suddenly recollected the awkwardness of telling some of the details of the story before Mrs Gibson, and stopped short.

'I think, Mr Gibson, you have been very very unkind to my poor fatherless child,' said Mrs Gibson, emerging from behind her pocket-handkerchief. 'I only wish her poor father had been alive, and all this would never have happened.'

'Very probably. Still I cannot see of what either she or you have to complain. Inasmuch as we could, I and mine have sheltered her; I have loved her; I do love her almost as if she were my own child - as well as Molly, I do not pretend to do.'

'That's it, Mr Gibson! you do not treat her like your own child.' But in the midst of this wrangle Molly stole out, and went in search of Cynthia. She thought she bore an olive-branch of healing in the sound of her father's just spoken words: 'I do love her almost as if she were my own child.' But Cynthia was locked into her room, and refused to open the' door.

'Open to me, please,' pleaded Molly. 'I have something to say to you - I want to see you - do open!'

'No!' said Cynthia. 'Not now. I am busy. Leave me alone. I don't want to hear what you have got to say. I do not want to see you. By-and-by we shall meet, and then -- ' Molly stood quite quietly, wondering what new words of more persuasion she could use. In a minute or two Cynthia called out, 'Are you there still, Molly?' and when Molly answered 'Yes,' and hoped for a relenting, the same hard metallic voice, telling of resolution and repression, spoke out, 'Go away. I cannot bear the feeling of your being there - waiting and listening. Go downstairs - out of the house - anywhere away. It is the most you can do for me, now.'

Part Six