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kitchen. If she had not made this movement, so conscious of guilt, Mr. Gibson, who was anything but suspicious, would never have taken any notice of her. As it was, he stepped quickly forwards, opened the kitchen door, and called out, 'Bethia' so sharply that she could not delay coming forwards.
'Give me that note,' he said. She hesitated a little.
'It's for Miss Molly,' she stammered out.
'Give it to me!' he repeated more quietly than before. She looked as if she would cry; but still she kept the note tight held behind her back.
'He said as I was to give it into her own hands; and I promised as I would, faithful.'
'Cook, go and find Miss Molly. Tell her to come here at once.'
He fixed Bethia with his eyes. It was of no use trying to escape: she might have thrown it into the fire, but she had not presence of mind enough. She stood immovable, only her eyes looked any way rather than encounter her master's steady gaze. 'Molly, my dear!'
'Papa! I did not know you were at home,' said innocent, wondering Molly.
'Bethia, keep your word. Here is Miss Molly; give her the note.'
'Indeed, Miss, I couldn't help it!'
Molly took the note, but before she could open it, her father said,-- 'That's all, my dear; you need not read it. Give it to me. Tell those who sent you, Bethia, that all letters for Miss Molly must pass through my hands. Now be off with you, goosey, and go back to where you came from.'
'Papa, I shall make you tell me who my correspondent is.'
'We'll see about that, by-and-by.'
She went a little reluctantly, with ungratified curiosity, upstairs to Miss Eyre, who was still her daily companion, if not her governess. He turned into the empty dining-room, shut the door, broke the seal of the note, and began to read it. It was a flaming love-letter from Mr. Coxe; who professed himself unable to go on seeing her day after day without speaking to her of the passion she had inspired--an 'eternal passion,' he called it; on reading which Mr. Gibson laughed a little. Would she not look kindly at him? would she not think of him whose only thought was of her? and so on, with a very proper admixture of violent compliments to her beauty. She was fair, not pale; her eyes were loadstars, her dimples marks of Cupid's finger, &c.
Mr. Gibson finished reading it; and began to think about it in his own mind. 'Who would have thought the lad had been so poetical; but, to be sure, there's a "Shakespeare" in the surgery library: I'll take it away and put "Johnson's Dictionary" instead. One comfort is the conviction of her perfect innocence--ignorance, I should rather say--for it is easy to see it's the first "confession of his love," as he calls it. But it's an awful worry--to begin with lovers so early. Why, she's only just seventeen,--not seventeen, indeed, till July; not for six weeks yet. Sixteen and three-quarters! Why, she's quite a baby. To be sure-- poor Jeanie was not so old, and how I did love her! (Mrs. Gibson's name was Mary, so he must have been referring to someone else.) Then his thoughts wandered back to other days, though he still held the open note in his hand. By-and-by his eyes fell upon it again, and his mind came back to bear upon the present time. 'I'll not be hard upon him. I'll give him a hint; he is quite sharp enough to take it. Poor laddie! if I send him away, which would be the wisest course, I do believe, he's got no home to go to.'
After a little more consideration in the same strain, Mr. Gibson went and sat down at the writing-table and wrote the following formula:--
('That "master" will touch him to the quick,' said Mr. Gibson to himself as he wrote the word.)
Rx Verecundiae ounce i Fidelitatis Domesticae ounce i Reticentiae gr iij.
M. Capiat hanc dosim ter die in aqua pura.
R. GIBSON, _Ch._
Mr. Gibson smiled a little sadly as he re-read his words. 'Poor Jeanie,' he said aloud. And then he chose out an envelope, enclosed the fervid love-letter, and the above prescription; sealed it with his own sharply-cut seal-ring, R. G., in Old-English letters, and then paused over the address.
'He'll not like _Master_ Coxe outside; no need to put him to unnecessary shame.' So the direction on the envelope was-- _Edward Coxe, Esq._
Then Mr. Gibson applied himself to the professional business which had brought him home so opportunely and unexpectedly, and afterwards he went back through the garden to the stables; and just as he had mounted his horse, he said to the stable-man,--'Oh! by the way, here's a letter for Mr. Coxe. Don't send it through the women; take it round yourself to the surgery-door, and do it at once.'
The slight smile upon his face, as he rode out of the gates, died away as soon as he found himself in the solitude of the lanes. He slackened his speed, and began to think. It was very awkward, he considered, to have a motherless girl growing up into womanhood in the same house with two young men, even if she only met them at meal-times; and all the intercourse they had with each other was merely the utterance of such words as, 'May I help you to potatoes?' or, as Mr. Wynne would persevere in saying, 'May I assist you to potatoes?'--a form of speech which grated daily more and more upon Mr. Gibson's cars. Yet Mr. Coxe, the offender in this affair which had just occurred, had to remain for three years more as a pupil in Mr Gibson's family. He should be the very last of the race. Still there were three years to be got over; and if this stupid passionate calf-love of his lasted, what was to be done? Sooner or later Molly would become aware of it. The contingencies of the affair were so excessively disagreeable to contemplate, that Mr. Gibson determined to dismiss the subject from his mind by a good strong effort. He put his horse to a gallop, and found that the violent shaking over the lanes--paved as they were with round stones, which had been dislocated by the wear and tear of a hundred years--was the very best thing for the spirits, if not for the bones. He made a long round that afternoon, and came back to his home imagining that the worst was over, and that Mr. Coxe would have taken the hint conveyed in the prescription. All that would be needed was to find a safe place for the unfortunate Bethia, who had displayed such a daring aptitude for intrigue. But Mr. Gibson reckoned without his host. It was the habit of the young men to come in to tea with the family in the dining-room, to swallow two cups, munch their bread or toast, and then disappear. This night Mr. Gibson watched their countenances furtively from under his long eye-lashes, while he tried against his wont to keep up a _degage_ manner, and a brisk conversation on general subjects. He saw that Mr. Wynne was on the point of breaking out into laughter, and that red- haired, red-faced Mr. Coxe was redder and fiercer than ever, while his whole aspect and ways betrayed indignation and anger.
'He will have it, will he?' thought Mr. Gibson to himself; and he girded up his loins for the battle. He did not follow Molly and Miss Eyre into the drawing-room as he usually did. He remained where he was, pretending to read the newspaper, while Bethia, her face swelled up with crying, and with an aggrieved and offended aspect, removed the tea-things. Not five minutes after the room was cleared, came the expected tap at the door. 'May I speak to you, sir?' said the invisible Mr. Coxe, from outside.
'To be sure. Come in, Mr. Coxe. I was rather wanting to talk to you about that bill of Corbyn's. Pray sit down.'
'It is about nothing of that kind, sir, that I wanted--that I wished-- No, thank you--I would rather not sit down.' He, accordingly, stood in offended dignity. 'It is about that letter, sir--that letter with the insulting prescription, sir.'
'Insulting prescription! I am surprised at such a word being applied to any prescription of mine--though, to be sure, patients are sometimes offended at being told the nature of their illnesses; and, I dare say, they may take offence at the medicines which their cases require.'
'I did not ask you to prescribe for me.'
'Oh, ho! Then you were the Master Coxe who sent the note through Bethia! Let me tell you it has cost her her place, and was a very silly letter into the bargain.'
'It was not the conduct of a gentleman, sir, to intercept it, and to open it, and to read words never addressed to you, sir.'
'No!' said Mr. Gibson, with a slight twinkle in his eye and a curl on his lips, not unnoticed by the indignant Mr. Coxe. 'I believe I was once considered tolerably good-looking, and I dare say I was as great a coxcomb as any one at twenty; but I don't think that even then I should quite have believed that all those pretty compliments were addressed to myself.'
'It was not the conductor a gentleman, sir,' repeated Mr. Coxe, stammering over his words--he was going on to say something more, when Mr. Gibson broke in.
'And let me tell you, young man,' replied Mr. Gibson, with a sudden sternness in his voice, 'that what you have done is only excusable in consideration of your youth and extreme ignorance of what are considered the laws of domestic honour. I receive you into my house as a member of my family--you induce one of my servants--corrupting her with a bribe, I have no doubt--'
'Indeed, sir! I never gave her a penny.'
'Then you ought to have done. You should always pay those who do your dirty work.'
'Just now, sir, you called it corrupting with a bribe,' muttered Mr Coxe.
Mr. Gibson took no notice of this speech, but went on,--'Inducing one of my servants to risk her place, without offering her the slightest equivalent, by begging her to convey a letter clandestinely to my daughter--a mere child.'
'Miss Gibson, sir, is nearly seventeen! I heard you say so only the
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