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hope and plain-sewing, intermixed though it was by tuition, was not disagreeable. Her wedding-dress was secure. Her former pupils at the Towers were going to present her with that; they were to dress her from head to foot on the auspicious day. Lord Cumnor, as has been said, had given her a hundred pounds for her trousseau, and had sent Mr. Preston a _carte-blanche_ order for the wedding-breakfast in the old hall in Ashcombe Manor-house. Lady Cumnor--a little put out by the marriage not being deferred till her grandchildren's Christmas holidays--had nevertheless given Mrs. Kirkpatrick an excellent English-made watch and chain; more clumsy but more serviceable than the little foreign elegance that had hung at her side so long, and misled her so often.
Her preparations were thus in a very considerable state of forwardness, while Mr. Gibson had done nothing as yet towards any new arrangement or decoration of his house for his intended bride. He knew he ought to do something. But what? Where to begin, when so much was out of order, and he had so little time for superintendence? At length he came to the wise decision of asking one of the Miss Brownings to take the trouble of preparing all that was immediately requisite in his house, for old friendship's sake; and resolved to leave all the more ornamental decorations that he proposed, to the taste of his future wife. But before making his request to the Miss Brownings he had to tell them of his engagement, which had hitherto been kept a secret from the townspeople, who had set down his frequent visits at the Towers to the score of the countess's health. He felt how he should have laughed in his sleeve at any middle-aged widower who came to him with a confession of the kind he had now to make to the Miss Brownings, and disliked the idea of the necessary call: but it was to be done, so one evening he went in 'promiscuous,' as they called it, and told them his story. At the end of the first chapter--that is to say, at the end of the story of Mr. Coxe's calf-love, Miss Browning held up her hands in surprise.
'To think of Molly, as I have held in long-clothes, coming to have a lover! Well, to be sure! Sister Phoebe--' (she was just coming into the room), 'here's a piece of news! Molly Gibson has got a lover! One may almost say she's had an offer! Mr. Gibson, may not one?--and she's but sixteen!'
'Seventeen, sister,' said Miss Phoebe, who piqued herself on knowing all about dear Mr. Gibson's domestic affairs. 'Seventeen, the 22nd of last June.'
'Well, have it your own way. Seventeen, if you like to call her so!' said Miss Browning, impatiently. 'The fact is still the same--she's got a lover; and it seems to me she was in long-clothes only yesterday.'
'I'm sure I hope her course of true love will run smooth,' said Miss Phoebe.
Now Mr. Gibson came in; for his story was not half told, and he did not want them to run away too far with the idea of Molly's love-affair.
'Molly knows nothing about it. I haven't even named it to any one but you two, and to one other friend. I trounced Coxe well, and did my best to keep his attachment--as he calls it--in bounds. But I was sadly puzzled what to do about Molly. Miss Eyre was away, and I couldn't leave them in the house together without any older woman.'
'Oh, Mr. Gibson! why did you not send her to us?' broke in Miss Browning. 'We would have done anything in our power for you; for your sake, as well as her poor dear mother's.'
'Thank you. I know you would, but it wouldn't have done to have had her in Hollingford, just at the time of Coxe's effervescence. He's better now. His appetite has come back with double force, after the fasting he thought it right to exhibit. He had three helpings of blackcurrant dumpling yesterday.'
'I am sure you are most liberal, Mr. Gibson. Three helpings! And, I daresay, butcher's meat in proportion?'
'Oh! I only named it because, with such very young men, it's generally see-saw between appetite and love, and I thought the third helping a very good sign. But still, you know, what has happened once, may happen again.'
'I don't know. Phoebe had an offer of marriage once--' said Miss Browning.
'Hush! sister. It might hurt his feelings to have it spoken about.'
'Nonsense, child! It's five-and-twenty years ago; and his eldest daughter is married herself.'
'I own he has not been constant,' pleaded Miss Phoebe, in her tender, piping voice. 'All men are not--like you, Mr Gibson--faithful to the memory of their first love.'
Mr. Gibson winced. Jeanie was his first love; but her name had never been breathed in Hollingford. His wife--good, pretty, sensible, and beloved as she had been--was not his second; no, nor his third love. And now he was come to make a confidence about his second marriage.
'Well, well,' said he; 'at any rate, I thought I must do something to protect Molly from such affairs while she was so young, and before I had given my sanction. Miss Eyre's little nephew fell ill of scarlet fever--'
'Ah! by-the-by, how careless of me not to inquire. How is the poor little fellow?'
'Worse--better. It doesn't signify to what I've got to say now; the fact was, Miss Eyre couldn't come back to my house for some time, and I cannot leave Molly altogether at Hamley.'
'Ah! I see now, why there was that sudden visit to Hamley. Upon my word, it's quite a romance.'
'I do like hearing of a love-affair,' murmured Miss Phoebe.
'Then if you'll let me get on with my story, you shall hear of mine,' said Mr. Gibson, quite beyond his patience with their constant interruptions.
'Yours!' said Miss Phoebe, faintly.
'Bless us and save us!' said Miss Browning, with less sentiment in her tone; 'what next?'
'My marriage, I hope,' said Mr. Gibson, choosing to take her expression of intense surprise literally. 'And that's what I came to speak to you about.'
A little hope darted up in Miss Phoebe's breast. She had often said to her sister, in the confidence of curling-time (ladies wore curls in those days), 'that the only man who could ever bring her to think of matrimony was Mr. Gibson; but that if he ever proposed, she should feel bound to accept him, for poor dear Mary's sake;' never explaining what exact style of satisfaction she imagined she should give to her dead friend by marrying her late husband. Phoebe played nervously with the strings of her black silk apron. Like the Caliph in the Eastern story, a whole lifetime of possibilities passed through her mind in an instant, of which possibilities the question of questions was, Could she leave her sister? Attend, Phoebe, to the present moment, and listen to what is being said before you distress yourself with a perplexity which will never arise.
'Of course it has been an anxious thing for me to decide who I should ask to be the mistress of my family, the mother of my girl; but I think I've decided rightly at last. The lady I have chosen--'
'Tell us at once who she is, there's a good man,' said straightforward Miss Browning.
'Mrs. Kirkpatrick,' said the bridegroom elect.
'What! the governess at the Towers, that the countess makes so much of?'
'Yes; she is much valued by them--and deservedly so. She keeps a school now at Ashcombe, and is accustomed to housekeeping. She has brought up the young ladies at the Towers, and has a daughter of her own, therefore it is probable she will have a kind, motherly feeling towards Molly.'
'She's a very elegant-looking woman,' said Miss Phoebe, feeling it incumbent upon her to say something laudatory, by way of concealing the thoughts that had just been passing through her mind. 'I've seen her in the carriage, riding backwards with the countess; a very pretty woman, I should say.'
'Nonsense, sister,' said Miss Browning. 'What has her elegance or prettiness to do with the affair? Did you ever know a widower marry again for such trifles as those? It's always from a sense of duty of one kind or another--isn't it, Mr. Gibson? They want a housekeeper; or they want a mother for their children; or they think their last wife would have liked it.'
Perhaps the thought had passed through the elder sister's mind that Phoebe might have been chosen for there was a sharp acrimony in her tone; not unfamiliar to Mr. Gibson, but with which he did not choose to cope at this present moment.
'You must have it your own way, Miss Browning. Settle my motives for me. I don't pretend to be quite clear about them myself. But I am clear in wishing heartily to keep my old friends, and for them to love my future wife for my sake. I don't know any two women in the world, except Molly and Mrs. Kirkpatrick, I regard as much as I do you. Besides, I want to ask you if you will let Molly come and stay with you till after my marriage?'
'You might have asked us before you asked Madam Hamley,' said Miss Browning, only half mollified. 'We are your old friends; and we were her mother's friends, too; though we are not county folk.'
'That's unjust,' said Mr. Gibson. 'And you know it is.'
'I don't know. You are always with Lord Hollingford, when you can get at him, much more than you ever are with Mr. Goodenough, or Mr Smith. And you are always going over to Hamley.'
Miss Browning was not one to give in all at once.
'I seek Lord Hollingford as I should seek such a man, whatever his rank or position might be: usher to a school, carpenter, shoemaker, if it were possible for them to have had a similar character of mind developed by similar advantages. Mr. Goodenough is a very clever attorney, with strong local interests and not a thought beyond.'
'Well, well, don't go on arguing, it always gives me a headache, as
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