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- Wives and Daughters - 110/139 -


When the knock at the door was heard,--the well-known doctor's knock,-- Miss Browning took off her spectacles, and dropped them on the carpet, breaking them as she did so; and then she bade Miss Phoebe leave the room, as if her presence had cast the evil-eye, and caused the misfortune. She wanted to look natural, and was distressed at forgetting whether she usually received him sitting or standing.

'Well!' said he, coming in cheerfully, and rubbing his cold hands as he went straight to the fire, 'and what is the matter with us? It's Phoebe, I suppose. I hope none of those old spasms? But, after all, a dose or two will set that to rights.'

'Oh! Mr. Gibson, I wish it was Phoebe, or me either!' said Miss Browning, trembling more and more.

He sate down by her patiently, when he saw her agitation, and took her hand in a kind, friendly manner.

'Don't hurry yourself,--take your time. I daresay it's not so bad as you fancy; but we'll see about it. There's a great deal of help in the world, much as we abuse it.'

'Mr. Gibson,' said she, 'it's your Molly I'm so grieved about. It's out now, and God help us both, and the poor child too, for I'm sure she's been led astray, and not gone wrong by her own free will!'

'Molly!' said he, fighting against her words. 'What's my little Molly been doing or saying?'

'Oh! Mr. Gibson, I don't know how to tell you. I never would have named it, if I had not been convinced, sorely, sorely against my will.'

'At any rate, you can let me hear what you have heard,' said he, putting his elbow on the table, and screening his eyes with his hand. 'Not that I am a bit afraid of anything you can hear about my girl,' continued he. 'Only in this little nest of gossip it's as well to know what people are talking about.'

'They say--oh! how shall I tell you?'

'Go on, can't you?' said he, removing his hand from his blazing eyes. 'I'm not going to believe it, so don't be afraid!'

'But I fear you must believe it. I would not if I could help it. She's been carrying on a clandestine correspondence with Mr Preston!--'

'Mr. Preston!' exclaimed he.

'And meeting him at all sorts of unseemly places and hours out of doors,--in the dark,--fainting away in his--his arms, if I must speak out. All the town is talking of it.' Mr. Gibson's hand was over his eyes again, and he made no sign; so Miss Browning went on, adding touch to touch. 'Mr. Sheepshanks saw them together. They have exchanged notes in Grinstead's shop; she ran after him there.'

'Be quiet, can't you?' said Mr. Gibson, taking his hand away, and showing his grim set face. 'I have heard enough. Don't go on. I said I shouldn't believe it, and I don't. I suppose I must thank you for telling me; but I can't yet.'

'I don't want your thanks,' said Miss Browning, almost crying. 'I thought you ought to know; for though you're married again, I can't forget you were dear Mary's husband once upon a time; and Molly's her child.'

'I'd rather not speak any more about it just at present,' said he, not at all replying to Miss Browning's last speech. 'I may not control myself as I ought. I only wish I could meet Preston, and horsewhip him within an inch of his life. I wish I'd the doctoring of these slanderous gossips. I'd make their tongues lie still for a while. My little girl! What harm has she done them all, that they should go and foul her fair name.'

'Indeed, Mr. Gibson, I'm afraid it's all true. I would not have sent for you if I hadn't examined into it. Do ascertain the truth before you do anything violent, such as horsewhipping or poisoning.'

With all the _inconsequence_ of a man in a passion, Mr. Gibson laughed out, 'What have I said about horsewhipping or poisoning? Do you think I'd have Molly's name dragged about the streets in connection with any act of violence on my part. Let the report die away as it arose. Time will prove its falsehood.'

'But I don't think it will, and that's the pity of it,' said Miss Browning. 'You must do something, but I don't know what.'

'I shall go home and ask Molly herself what's the meaning of it all; that's all I shall do. It's too ridiculous--knowing Molly as I do, it's perfectly ridiculous.' He got up and walked about the room with hasty steps, laughing short unnatural laughs from time to time. 'Really what will they say next? "Satan finds some mischief still for idle tongues to do."'

'Don't talk of Satan, please, in this house. No one knows what may happen, if he's lightly spoken about,' pleaded Miss Browning.

He went on, without noticing her, talking to himself,--'I've a great mind to leave the place;--and what food for scandal that piece of folly would give rise to!' Then he was silent for a time; his hands in his pockets, his eyes on the ground, as he continued his quarter-deck march. Suddenly he stopped close to Miss Browning's chair. 'I'm thoroughly ungrateful to you, for as true a mark of friendship as you've ever shown to me. True or false, it was right I should know the wretched scandal that was being circulated; and it could not have been pleasant for you to tell it me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.'

'Indeed, Mr. Gibson, if it was false I would never have named it, but let it die away.'

'It's not true though!' said he, doggedly, letting drop the hand he had taken in his effusion of gratitude.

She shook her head. 'I shall always love Molly for her mother's sake,' she said. And it was a great concession from the correct Miss Browning. But her father did not understand it as such.

'You ought to love her for her own. She has done nothing to disgrace herself. I shall go straight home, and probe into the truth.'

'As if the poor girl who has been led away into deceit already would scruple much at going on in falsehood,' was Miss Browning's remark on this last speech of Mr. Gibson's; but she had discretion enough not to make it until he was well out of hearing.

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.

'Papa!'

'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


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