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- Wives and Daughters - 40/139 -


shall want it less than ever.'

'Hush, my dear,' said Mrs. Gibson; and, addressing the squire, she added, 'The visiting here is not all one could wish for so young a girl--no young people, no dances, nothing of gaiety; but it is wrong in you, Molly, to speak against such kind friends of your father's as I understand these Cockerells are. Don't give so bad an impression of yourself to the kind squire.'

'Let her alone! let her alone!' quoth he. 'I see what she means. She'd rather come and be in my wife's sick-room than go out for this visit to-night. Is there no way of getting her off?'

'None whatever,' said Mrs. Gibson. 'An engagement is an engagement with me; and I consider that she is not only engaged to Mrs Cockerell, but to me--bound to accompany me, in my husband's absence.'

The squire was put out; and when he was put out he had a trick of placing his hands on his knees and whistling softly to himself. Molly knew this phase of his displeasure, and only hoped he would confine himself to this wordless expression of annoyance. It was pretty hard work for her to keep the tears out of her eyes; and she endeavoured to think of something else, rather than dwell on regrets and annoyances. She heard Mrs. Gibson talking on in a sweet monotone, and wished to attend to what she was saying, but the squire's visible annoyance struck sharper on her mind. At length, after a pause of silence, he started up, and said,--

'Well! it's no use. Poor madam; she won't like it. She'll be disappointed! But it's but for one evening!--but for one evening! She may come to-morrow, mayn't she? Or will the dissipation of such an evening as she describes, be too much for her?'

There was a touch of savage irony in his manner which frightened Mrs Gibson into good behaviour.

'She shall be ready at any time you name. I am so sorry: my foolish shyness is in fault, I believe; but still you must acknowledge that an engagement is an engagement.'

'Did I ever say an engagement was an elephant, madam? However, there's no use saying any more about it, or I shall forget my manners. I'm an old tyrant, and she--lying there in bed, poor girl--has always given me my own way. So you'll excuse me, Mrs Gibson, won't you; and let Molly come along with me at ten to-morrow morning?'

'Certainly,' said Mrs. Gibson, smiling. But when his back was turned, she said to Molly,--

'Now, my dear, I must never have you exposing me to the ill-manners of such a man again! I don't call him a squire; I call him a boor, or a yeoman at best. You must not go on accepting or rejecting invitations as if you were an independent young lady, Molly. Pay me the respect of a reference to my wishes another time, if you please, my dear!'

'Papa had said I might go,' said Molly, choking a little.

'As I am now your mamma your references must be to me, for the future. But as you are to go you may as well look well dressed. I will lend you my new shawl for this visit, if you like it, and my set of green ribbons. I am always indulgent when proper respect is paid to me. And in such a house as Hamley Hall, no one can tell who may be coming and going, even if there is sickness in the family.'

'Thank you. But I don't want the shawl and the ribbons, please: there will be nobody there except the family. There never is, I think; and now that she is so ill'--Molly was on the point of crying at the thought of her friend lying ill and lonely, and looking for her arrival. Moreover, she was sadly afraid lest the squire had gone off with the idea that she did not want to come--that she preferred that stupid, stupid party at the Cockerells'. Mrs. Gibson, too, was sorry; she had an uncomfortable consciousness of having given way to temper before a stranger, and a stranger, too, whose good opinion she had meant to cultivate: and she was also annoyed at Molly's tearful face.

'What can I do for you, to bring you back into good temper?' she said. 'First, you insist upon your knowing Lady Harriet better than I do--I, who have known her for eighteen or nineteen years at least. Then you jump at invitations without ever consulting me, or thinking of how awkward it would be for me to go stumping into a drawing-room all by myself; following my new name, too, which always makes me feel uncomfortable, it is such a sad come-down after Kirkpatrick! And then, when I offer you some of the prettiest things I have got, you say it does not signify how you are dressed. What can I do to please you, Molly? I, who delight in nothing more than peace in a family, to see you sitting there with despair upon your face?'

Molly could stand it no longer; she went upstairs to her own room--her own smart new room, which hardly yet seemed a familiar place; and began to cry so heartily and for so long a time, that she stopped at length for very weariness. She thought of Mrs. Hamley wearying for her; of the old Hall whose very quietness might become oppressive to an ailing person; of the trust the squire had had in her that she would come off directly with him. And all this oppressed her much more than the querulousness of her stepmother's words.

CHAPTER XVII

TROUBLE AT HAMLEY HALL

If Molly thought that peace dwelt perpetually at Hamley Hall she was sorely mistaken. Something was out of tune in the whole establishment; and, for a very unusual thing, the common irritation seemed to have produced a common bond. All the servants were old in their places, and were told by some one of the family, or gathered, from the unheeded conversation carried on before them, everything that affected master or mistress or either of the young gentlemen. Any one of them could have told Molly that the grievance which lay at the root of everything, was the amount of the bills run up by Osborne at Cambridge, and which, now that all chance of his obtaining a fellowship was over, came pouring down upon the squire. But Molly, confident of being told by Mrs. Hamley herself anything which she wished her to hear, encouraged no confidences from any one else.

She was struck with the change in 'madam's' looks as soon as she caught sight of her in the darkened room, lying on the sofa in her dressing- room, all dressed in white, which almost rivalled the white wanness of her face. The squire ushered Molly in with,--

'Here she is at last!' and Molly had scarcely imagined that he had so much variety in the tones of his voice--the beginning of the sentence was spoken in a loud congratulatory manner, while the last words were scarcely audible. He had seen the death-like pallor on his wife's face; not a new sight, and one which had been presented to him gradually enough, but which was now always giving him a fresh shock. It was a lovely tranquil winter's day; every branch and every twig of the trees and shrubs were glittering with drops of the sun-melted hoarfrost; a robin was perched on a holly-bush, piping cheerily; but the blinds were down, and out of Mrs. Hamley's windows nothing of all this was to be seen. There was even a large screen placed between her and the wood- fire, to keep off that cheerful blaze. Mrs. Hamley stretched out one hand to Molly, and held hers firm; with the other she shaded her eyes.

'She is not so well this morning,' said the squire, shaking his head. 'But never fear, my dear one; here's the doctor's daughter, nearly as good as the doctor himself. Have you had your medicine? Your beef-tea?' he continued, going about on heavy tiptoe and peeping into every empty cup and glass. Then he returned to the sofa; looked at her for a minute or two, and then softly kissed her, and told Molly he would leave her in charge.

As if Mrs. Hamley was afraid of Molly's remarks or questions, she began in her turn a hasty system of interrogatories.

'Now, dear child, tell me all; it's no breach of confidence, for I shan't mention it again, and I shan't be here long. How does it all go on--the new mother, the good resolutions? let me help you if I can. I think with a girl I could have been of use--a mother does not know boys. But tell me anything you like and will; don't be afraid of details.'

Even with Molly's small experience of illness she saw how much of restless fever there was in this speech; and instinct, or some such gift, prompted her to tell a long story of many things--the wedding- day, her visit to Miss Brownings', the new furniture, Lady Harriet, &c., all in an easy flow of talk which was very soothing to Mrs. Hamley, inasmuch as it gave her something to think about beyond her own immediate sorrows. But Molly did not speak of her own grievances, nor of the new domestic relationship. Mrs. Hamley noticed this.

'And you and Mrs. Gibson get on happily together?'

'Not always,' said Molly. 'You know we didn't know much of each other before we were put to live together.'

'I didn't like what the squire told me last night. He was very angry.'

That sore had not yet healed over; but Molly resolutely kept silence, beating her brains to think of some other subject of conversation.

'Ah! I see, Molly,' said Mrs. Hamley; 'you won't tell me your sorrows, and yet, perhaps, I could have done you some good.'

'I don't like,' said Molly, in a low voice. 'I think papa wouldn't like it. And, besides, you have helped me so much--you and Mr. Roger Hamley. I often, often think of the things he said; they come in so usefully, and are such a strength to me.'

'Ah, Roger! yes. He is to be trusted. Oh, Molly! I've a great deal to say to you myself, only not now. I must have my medicine and try to go to sleep. Good girl! You are stronger than I am, and can do without sympathy.'

Molly was taken to another room; the maid who conducted her to it told her that Mrs. Hamley had not wished her to have her nights disturbed, as they might very probably have been if she had been in her former sleeping-room. In the afternoon Mrs. Hamley sent for her, and with the want of reticence common to invalids, especially to those suffering from long and depressing maladies, she told Molly of the family distress and disappointment.

She made Molly sit down near her on a little stool, and, holding her hand, and looking into her eyes to catch her spoken sympathy from their expression quicker than she could from her words, she said,--

'Osborne has so disappointed us! I cannot understand it yet. And the


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