Part Six
Chapter LVII. Bridal Visits And Adieux

The whole town of Hollingford came to congratulate and inquire into particulars. Some indeed - Mrs Goodenough at the head of this class of malcontents - thought that they were defrauded of their right to a fine show by Cynthia's being married in London. Even Lady Cumnor was moved into action. She, who had hardly ever paid calls 'out of her own sphere,' who had only once been to see 'Clare' in her own house, - she came to congratulate after her fashion. Maria had only just time to run up into the drawing-room, one morning, and say, -

'Please, ma'am, the great carriage from the Towers is coming up to the gate, and my lady the Countess is sitting inside.' It was but eleven o'clock, and Mrs Gibson would have been indignant at any commoner who had ventured to call at such an untimely hour, but in the case of the Peerage the rules of domestic morality were relaxed.

The family 'stood at arms,' as it were, till Lady Cumnor appeared in the drawing-room; and then she had to be settled in the best chair, and the light adjusted before anything like conversation began. She was the first to speak; and Lady Harriet, who had begun a few words to Molly, dropped into silence.

'I have been taking Mary - Lady Cuxhaven - to the railway station on this new line between Birmingham and London,' and I thought I would come on here, and offer you my congratulations. Clare, which is the young lady?' - putting up her glasses, and looking at Cynthia and Molly, who were dressed pretty much alike. 'I did not think it would be amiss to give you a little. advice, my dear,' said she, when Cynthia had been properly pointed out to her as bride elect. 'I have heard a good deal about you; and I am only too glad, for your mother's sake, - your mother is a very worthy woman, and did her duty very well while she was in our family - I am truly rejoiced, I say, to hear that you are going to make so creditable a marriage. I hope it will efface your former errors of conduct - which, we will hope, were but trivial in reality - and that you will live to be a comfort to your mother, - for whom both Lord Cumnor and I entertain a very sincere regard. But you must conduct yourself with discretion in whatever state of life it pleases God to place you, whether married or single. You must reverence your husband, and conform to his opinion in all things. Look up to him as your head, and do nothing without consulting him.' - It was as well that Lord Cumnor was not amongst the audience; or he might have compared precept with practice. - 'Keep strict accounts; and remember your station in life. I understand that Mr -- ' looking about for some help as to the name she had forgotten - 'Anderson - Henderson is in the law. Although there is a general prejudice against attorneys, I have known of two or three who were very respectable men; and I am sure Mr Henderson is one, or your good mother and our old friend Gibson would not have sanctioned the engagement.'

'He is a barrister,' put in Cynthia, unable to restrain herself any longer. 'Barrister-at-law.'

'Ah, yes. Attorney-at-law. Barrister-at-law. I understand without your speaking so loud, my dear. What was I going to say before you interrupted me? When you have been a little in society you will find that it is reckoned bad manners to interrupt. I had a great deal more to say to you, and you have put it all out of my head. There was something else your father wanted me to ask - what was it, Harriet?'

'I suppose you mean about Mr Hamley!'

'Oh, yes! we are intending to have the house full of Lord Hollingford's friends next month, and Lord Cumnor is particularly anxious to secure Mr Hamley.'

'The squire?' asked Mrs Gibson in some surprise. Lady Cumnor bowed slightly, as much as to say, 'If you did not interrupt me I should explain.'

'The famous traveller - the scientific Mr Hamley, I mean. I imagine he is son to the squire. Lord Hollingford knows him well; but when we asked him before, he declined coming, and assigned no reason.'

Had Roger indeed been asked to the Towers and declined? Mrs Gibson could not understand it. Lady Cumnor went on, -

'Now this time we are particularly anxious to secure him, and my son Lord Hollingford will not return to England until the very week before the Duke of Atherstone is coming to us. I believe Mr Gibson is very intimate with Mr Hamley; do you think he could induce him to favour us with his company?'

And this from the proud Lady Cumnor; and the object of it Roger Hamley, whom she had all but turned out of her drawing-room two years ago for calling at an untimely hour; and whom Cynthia had turned out of her heart. Mrs Gibson was surprised, and could only murmur out that she was sure Mr Gibson would do all that her ladyship wished.

'Thank you. You know me well enough to be aware that I am not the person, nor is the Towers the house, to go about soliciting guests. But in this instance I bend my head; high rank should always be the first to honour those who have distinguished themselves by art or science.'

'Besides, mamma,' said Lady Harriet, 'papa was saying that the Hamleys have been on their land since before the Conquest; while we only came into the county a century ago; and there is a tale that the first Cumnor began his fortune through selling tobacco in King James's reign.'

If Lady Cumnor did not exactly shift her trumpet and take snuff there on the spot, she behaved in an equivalent manner. She began a low-toned but nevertheless authoritative conversation with Clare about the details of the wedding, which lasted until she thought it fit to go, when she abruptly plucked Lady Harriet up, and carried her off in the very midst of a description she was giving to Cynthia about the delights of Spa, which was to be one of the resting- places of the newly-married couple on their wedding-tour.

Nevertheless she prepared a handsome present for the bride: a Bible and a Prayer-book bound in velvet with silver-clasps; and also a collection of household account-books, at the beginning of which Lady Cumnor wrote down with her own hand the proper weekly allowance of bread, butter, eggs, meat, and groceries per head, with the London prices of the articles, so that the most inexperienced housekeeper might ascertain if her expenditure exceeded her means, as she expressed herself in the note which she sent with the handsome, dull present.

'If you are driving into Hollingford, Harriet, perhaps you will take these books to Miss Kirkpatrick,' said Lady Cumnor, after she had sealed her note with all the straightness and correctness befitting a countess of her immaculate character. 'I understand they are all going up to London to-morrow for this wedding, in spite of what I said to Clare of the duty of being married in one's own parish-church. She told me at the time that she entirely agreed with me, but that her husband had such a strong wish for a visit to London, that she did not know how she could oppose him consistently with her wifely duty. I advised her to repeat to him my reasons for thinking that they would be ill-advised to have the marriage in town; but I am afraid she has been overruled. That was her one great fault when she lived with us; she was always so yielding, and never knew how to say "No."

'Mamma!' said Lady Harriet, with a little sly coaxing in her tone. 'Do you think you would have been so fond of her, if she had opposed you, and said "No," when you wished her

'To be sure I should, my dear. I like everybody to have an opinion of their own; only when my opinions are based on thought and experience, which few people have had equal opportunities of acquiring, I think it is but proper deference in others to allow themselves to be convinced. In fact, I think it is only obstinacy which keeps them from acknowledging that they are. I am not a despot, I hope?' she asked, with some anxiety.

'If you are, dear mamma,' said Lady Harriet, kissing the stern uplifted face very fondly, 'I like a despotism better than a republic, and I must be very despotic over my ponies, for it is already getting very late for my drive round by Ash-holt.' But when she arrived at the Gibsons', she was detained so long there by the state of the family, that she had to give up her going to Ash-holt.

Molly was sitting in the drawing-room pale and trembling, and keeping herself quiet only by a strong effort. She was the only person there when Lady Harriet entered; the room was all in disorder, strewed with presents and paper, and pasteboard boxes, and half-displayed articles of finery.

'You look like Marius sitting amidst the ruins of Carthage, my dear! What's the matter? Why have you got on that woe-begone face? This marriage is not broken off, is it? Though nothing would surprise me where the beautiful Cynthia is concerned.'

'Oh, no! that's all right. But I have caught a fresh cold, and papa says he thinks I had better not go to the wedding.'

'Poor little one! And it's the first visit to London too!'

'Yes. But what I most care for is the not being with Cynthia to the last; and then, papa' - she stopped, for she could hardly go on without open crying, and she did not want to do that. Then she cleared her voice. 'Papa,' she continued, 'has so looked forward to this holiday, - and seeing - and - , and going - oh! I can't tell you where; but he has quite a list of people and sights to be seen, - and now he says he should not be comfortable to leave me all alone for more than three days, - two for travelling, and one for the wedding.' Just then Mrs Gibson came in, ruffled too after her fashion, though the presence of Lady Harriet was wonderfully smoothing.

'My dear Lady Harriet - how kind of you! Ah, yes, I see this poor unfortunate child has been telling you of her ill-luck; just when everything was going on so beautifully; I am sure it was that open window at your back, Molly, - you know you would persist that it could do you no harm, and now you see the mischief I am sure I shan't be able to enjoy myself - and at my only child's wedding too - without you; for I can't think of leaving you without Maria. I would rather sacrifice anything myself than think of you, uncared for, and dismal at home.'

'I am sure Molly is as sorry as any one,' said Lady Harriet.

'No. I don't think she is,' said Mrs Gibson, with happy disregard of the chronology of events, 'or she would not have sate with her back to an open window the day before yesterday, when I told her not. But it can't be helped now. Papa too - but it is my duty to make the best of everything, and look at the cheerful side of life. I wish I could persuade her to do the same' (turning and addressing Lady Harriet). 'But you see it is a great mortification to a girl of her age to lose her first visit to London.'

'It is not that,' began Molly; but Lady Harriet made her a little sign to be silent while she herself spoke.

'Now, Clare! you and I can manage it all, I think, if you will but help me in a plan I have got in my head. Mr Gibson shall stay as long as ever he can in London; and Molly shall be well cared for, and have some change of air and scene too, which is really what she needs as much as anything, in my poor opinion. I can't spirit her to the wedding and give her a sight of London; but I can carry her off to the Towers, and nurse her myself; and send daily bulletins up to London, so that Mr Gibson may feel quite at case, and stay with you as long as you like, What do you say to it, Clare?'

'Oh, I could not go,' said Molly; 'I should only be a trouble to everybody.'

'Nobody asked you for your opinion, little one. If we wise elders decide that you are to go, you must submit in silence.'

Meanwhile Mrs Gibson was rapidly balancing advantages and disadvantages. Amongst the latter, jealousy came in predominant. Amongst the former, - it would sound well; Maria could then accompany Cynthia and herself as 'their maid,' - Mr Gibson would stay longer with her, and it was always desirable to have a man at her beck and call in such a place as London; besides that, this identical man was gentlemanly and good-looking, and a favourite with her prosperous brother- in-law. The ayes had it.

'What a charming plan! I cannot think of anything kinder or pleasanter for this poor darling. Only - what will Lady Cumnor say? I am modest for my family as much as for myself. She won't - '

'You know mamma's sense of hospitality is never more gratified than when the house is quite full; and papa is just like her. Besides she is fond of you, and grateful to our good Mr Gibson, and will be fond of you, little one, when she knows you as I do.'

Molly's heart sank within her at the prospect. Excepting on the one evening of her father's wedding-day, she had never even seen the outside of the Towers since that unlucky day in her childhood when she had fallen asleep on Clare's bed. She had a dread of the countess, a dislike to the house, only it seemed as if it was a solution to the problem of what to do with her, which had been perplexing every one all morning, and so evidently that it had caused her much distress. She kept silence, though her lips quivered from time to time. Oh, if the Miss Brownings had not chosen this very time of all others to pay their monthly visit to Miss Hornblower! if she could only have gone there, and lived with them in their quaint, quiet, primitive way, instead of having to listen, without remonstrance, to hearing plans discussed about her, as if she was an inanimate chattel.

'She shall have the south pink room, opening out of mine by one door, you remember; and the dressing-room shall be made into a cozy little sitting-room for her, in case she likes to be by herself. Parkes shall attend upon her, and I am sure Mr Gibson must know Parkes's powers as a nurse by this time. We shall have all manner of agreeable people in the house to amuse her downstairs; and when she has got rid of this access of cold, I will drive her out every day, and write daily bulletins, as I said. Pray tell Mr Gibson all that, and let it be considered as settled. I will come for her in the close carriage to-morrow, at eleven. And now may I see the lovely bride elect, and give her mamma's present, and my own good wishes?'

So Cynthia came in, and demurely received the very proper present, and the equally correct congratulations, without testifying any very great delight or gratitude at either; for she was quite quick enough to detect that there was no great afflux. of affection accompanying either. But when she heard her mother quickly recapitulating all the details of the plan for Molly, Cynthia's eyes did sparkle with gladness; and almost to Lady Harriet's surprise, she thanked her as if she had conferred a personal favour upon her, Cynthia. Lady Harriet saw, too, that in a very quiet way, she had taken Molly's hand, and was holding it all the time, as if loth to think of their approaching separation - somehow, she and Lady Harriet were brought nearer together by this little action than they had ever been before.

If Molly had hoped that her father might have raised some obstacles to the project, she was disappointed. But, indeed, she did not when she perceived how he seemed to feel that, by placing her under the care of Lady Harriet and Parkes, he should be relieved from anxiety; and how he spoke of this change of air and scene as being the very thing he had been wishing to secure for her; country air, and absence of excitement as this would be; for the only other place where he could have secured her these advantages, and at the same time sent her as an invalid, was to Hamley Hall; and he dreaded the associations there with the beginning of her present illness.

So Molly was driven off in state the next day, leaving her own home all in confusion with the assemblage of boxes and trunks in the hall, and all the other symptoms of the approaching departure of the family for London and the wedding. All the morning Cynthia had been with her in her room, attending to the arrangement of Molly's clothes, instructing her what to wear with what, and rejoicing over the pretty smartnesses, which, having been prepared for her as bridesmaid, were now to serve as adornments for her visit to the Towers. Both Molly and Cynthia spoke about dress as if it was the very object of their lives; for each dreaded the introduction of more serious subjects; Cynthia more for Molly than herself. Only when the carriage was announced, and Molly was preparing to go downstairs, Cynthia said, -

'I am not going to thank you, Molly, or to tell you how I love you.'

'Don't,' said Molly, 'I can't bear it.'

'Only you know you're to be my first visitor, and if you wear brown ribbons to a green gown, I'll turn you out of the house!' So they parted. Mr Gibson was there in the hall to hand Molly in. He had ridden hard; and was now giving her two or three last injunctions as to her health.

'Think of us on Thursday,' said he. 'I declare I don't know which of her three lovers she may not summon at the very last moment to act the part of bridegroom. I'm determined to be surprised at nothing; and will give her away with a good grace to whoever comes.'

They drove away, and until they were out of sight of the house, Molly had enough to do to keep returning the kisses of the hand wafted to her by her stepmother out of the drawing-room window, while at the same time her eyes were fixed on a white handkerchief fluttering out of the attic from which she herself had watched Roger's departure nearly two years before. What changes time had brought!

When Molly arrived at the Towers she was convoyed into Lady Cumnor's presence by Lady Harriet. It was a mark of respect to the lady of the house, which the latter knew that her mother would expect; but she was anxious to get it over, and take Molly up into the room which she had been so busy in arranging for her. Lady Cumnor was, however, very kind, if not positively gracious.

'You are Lady Harriet's visitor, my dear,' said she, 'and I hope she will take good care of you. If not, come and complain of her to me.' It was as near an approach to a joke as Lady Cumnor ever perpetrated, and from it Lady Harriet knew that her mother was pleased by Molly's manners and appearance.

'Now, here you are in your own kingdom; and into this room I shan't venture to come without express permission. Here is the last new Quarterly, and the last new novel, and the last new essays. Now, my dear, you need not come down again to-day unless you like it. Parkes shall bring you everything and anything you want. You must get strong as fast, as you can, for all sorts of great and famous people are coming to-morrow and the next day, and I think you'll like to see them. Suppose for to-day you only come down to lunch, and if you like it, in the evening. Dinner is such a wearily long meal, if one is not strong; and you would not miss much, for there is only my cousin Charles in the house now, and he is the personification of sensible silence.'

Molly was only too glad to allow Lady Harriet to decide everything for her. It had begun to rain, and was, altogether, a gloomy day for August; and there was a small fire of scented wood burning cheerfully in the sitting-room appropriated to her. High up, it commanded a wide and pleasant view over the park, and from it could be seen the spire of Hollingford Church, which gave Molly a pleasant idea of neighbourhood to home. She was left alone, lying on the sofa - books near her, wood crackling and blazing, wafts of wind bringing the beating rain against the window, and so enhancing the sense of indoor comfort by the outdoor contrast. Parkes was unpacking for her. Lady Harriet had introduced Parkes to Molly by saying, 'Now, Molly, this is Mrs Parkes, the only person I ever am afraid of. She scolds me if I dirty myself with my paints, just as if I was a little child; and she makes me go to bed when I want to sit up,' - Parkes was smiling grimly all the time; - 'so to get rid of her tyranny I give her you as victim. Parkes, rule over Miss Gibson with a rod of iron; make her eat and drink, and rest and sleep, and dress as you think wisest and best.'

Parkes had begun her reign by putting Molly on the sofa, and saying, 'If you will give me your keys, Miss, I will unpack your things, and let you know when it is time for me to arrange your hair, preparatory to luncheon.' For if Lady Harriet used familiar colloquialisms from time to time, she certainly had not learnt it from Parkes, who piqued herself on the correctness of her language.

When Molly went down to lunch she found 'cousin Charles,' with his aunt, Lady Cumnor. He was a certain Sir Charles Morton, the son of Lady Cumnor's only sister: a plain, sandy-haired man of thirty-five or so; immensely rich, very sensible, awkward, and reserved. He had had a chronic attachment, of many years' standing, to his cousin, Lady Harriet, who did not care for him in the least, although it was the marriage very earnestly desired for her by her mother. Lady Harriet was, however, on friendly terms with him, ordered him about, and told him what to do, and what to leave undone, without having even a doubt as to the willingness of his obedience. She had given him his cue about Molly.

'Now, Charles, the girl wants to be interested and amused without having to take any trouble for herself; she is too delicate to be very active either in mind or body. Just look after her when the house gets full, and place her where she can hear and see everything and everybody, without any fuss and responsibility.'

So Sir Charles began this day at luncheon by taking Molly under his quiet protection. He did not say much to her; but what he did say was thoroughly friendly and sympathetic; and Molly began, as he and Lady Harriet intended that she should, to have a kind of pleasant reliance upon him. Then in the evening while the rest of the family were at dinner - after Molly's tea and hour of quiet repose, Parkes came and dressed her in some of the new clothes prepared for the Kirkpatrick visit, and did her hair in some new and pretty way, so that when Molly looked at herself in the cheval-glass, she scarcely knew the elegant reflection to be that of herself. She was fetched down by Lady Harriet into the great long formidable drawing-room, which, as an interminable place of pacing, had haunted her dreams ever since her childhood. At the further end sate Lady Cumnor at her tapestry work; the light of fire and candle seemed all concentrated on that one bright part where presently Lady Harriet made tea, and Lord Cumnor went to sleep, and Sir Charles read passages aloud from the Edinburgh Review to the three ladies at their work.

When Molly went to bed she was constrained to admit that staying at the Towers as a visitor was rather pleasant than otherwise; and she tried to reconcile old impressions with new ones, until she fell asleep. There was another comparatively quiet day before the expected guests began to arrive in the evening. Lady Harriet took Molly a drive in her little pony-carriage; and for the first time for many weeks Molly began to feel the delightful spring of returning health; the dance of youthful spirits in the fresh air cleared by the previous day's rain.