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make a point of welcoming his friends. They can't go on mourning for a mother for ever. I expect we shall see a great deal of them; and that the two families will become very intimate. After all, these good Hollingford people are terribly behindhand, and I should say, rather commonplace.'

CHAPTER XXI

THE HALF-SISTERS

It appeared as if Mrs. Gibson's predictions were likely to be verified; for Osborne Hamley found his way to her drawing-room pretty frequently. To be sure, sometimes prophets can help on the fulfilment of their own prophecies; and Mrs. Gibson was not passive.

Molly was altogether puzzled by his manners and ways. He spoke of occasional absences from the Hall, without exactly saying where he had been. But that was not her idea of the conduct of a married man, who, she imagined, ought to have a house and servants, and pay rent and taxes, and live with his wife. Who this mysterious wife might be, faded into insignificance before the wonder of where she was. London, Cambridge, Dover, nay even France, were mentioned by him as places to which he had been on these different little journeys. These facts came out quite casually, almost as if he was unaware of what he was betraying; sometimes he dropped out such sentences as these:--'Ah, that would be the day I was crossing! It was stormy, indeed! Instead of our being only two hours, we were nearly five.' Or, 'I met Lord Hollingford at Dover last week, and he said,' &c. 'The cold now is nothing to what it was in London on Thursday--the thermometer was down at 15 degrees.' Perhaps, in the rapid flow of conversation, these small revelations were noticed by no one but Molly; whose interest and curiosity were always hovering over the secret she had become possessed of, in spite of all her self-reproach for allowing her thoughts to dwell on what was still to be kept as a mystery.

It was also evident to her that Osborne was not too happy at home. He had lost the slight touch of cynicism which he had affected when he was expected to do wonders at college; and that was one good result of his failure. If he did not give himself the trouble of appreciating other people, and their performances, at any rate his conversation was not so amply sprinkled with critical pepper. He was more absent, not so agreeable, Mrs. Gibson thought, but did not say. He looked ill in health; but that might be the consequence of the real depression of spirits which Molly occasionally saw peeping out through all his pleasant surface-talk. Now and then, he referred to 'the happy days that are gone,' or, 'to the time when my mother was alive,' when talking directly to her; and then his voice sank, and a gloom came over his countenance, and Molly longed to express her own deep sympathy. He did not often mention his father; and Molly thought she could read in his manner, when he did, that something of the painful restraint she had noticed when she was last at the Hall still existed between them. Nearly all that she knew of the family interior she had heard from Mrs. Hamley, and she was uncertain as to how far her father was acquainted with them; so she did not like to question him too closely; nor was he a man to be so questioned as to the domestic affairs of his patients. Sometimes she wondered if it was a dream--that short half hour in the library at Hamley Hall--when she had learnt a fact which seemed so all-important to Osborne, yet which made so little difference in his way of life--either in speech or action. During the twelve or fourteen hours or so that she had remained at the Hall afterwards, no further allusion had been made to his marriage, either by himself or by Roger. It was, indeed, very like a dream. Probably Molly would have been rendered much more uncomfortable in the possession of her secret if Osborne had struck her as particularly attentive in his devotion to Cynthia. She evidently amused and attracted him, but not in any lively or passionate kind of manner. He admired her beauty, and seemed to feel her charm; but he would leave her side, and come to sit near Molly, if anything reminded him of his mother, about which he could talk to her, and to her alone. Yet he came so often to the Gibsons', that Mrs. Gibson might be excused for the fancy she had taken into her head, that it was for Cynthia's sake. He liked the lounge, the friendliness, the company of two intelligent girls of beauty and manners above the average; one of whom stood in a peculiar relation to him, as having been especially beloved by the mother whose memory he cherished so fondly. Knowing himself to be out of the category of bachelors, he was, perhaps, too indifferent as to other people's ignorance, and its possible consequences.

Somehow, Molly did not like to be the first to introduce Roger's name into the conversation, so she lost many an opportunity of hearing intelligence about him. Osborne was often so languid or so absent that he only followed the lead of talk; and as an awkward fellow, who had paid her no particular attention, and as a second son, Roger was not pre-eminent in Mrs. Gibson's thoughts; Cynthia had never seen him, and the freak did not take her often to speak about him. He had not come home since he had obtained his high place in the mathematical lists: that Molly knew; and she knew, too, that he was working hard for something--she supposed a fellowship--and that was all. Osborne's tone in speaking of him was always the same: every word, every inflexion of the voice breathed out affection and respect--nay, even admiration! And this from the _nil admirari_ brother, who seldom carried his exertions so far.

'Ah, Roger!' he said one day. Molly caught the name in an instant, though she had not heard what had gone before. 'He is a fellow in a thousand--in a thousand, indeed! I don't believe there is his match anywhere for goodness and real solid power combined.'

'Molly,' said Cynthia, after Mr. Osborne Hamley had gone, 'what sort of a man is this Roger Hamley? One can't tell how much to believe of his brother's praises; for it is the one subject on which Osborne Hamley becomes enthusiastic. I've noticed it once or twice before.'

While Molly hesitated on which point of the large round to begin her description, Mrs. Gibson struck in,--

'It just shows what a sweet disposition Osborne Hamley is of--that he should praise his brother as he does. I daresay he is senior wrangler, and much good may it do him! I don't deny that; but as for conversation, he's as heavy as heavy can be. A great awkward fellow to boot, who looks as if he did not know two and two made four, for all he is such a mathematical genius. You would hardly believe he was Osborne Hamley's brother to see him! I should not think he had a profile at all.'

'What do you think of him, Molly?' said the persevering Cynthia.

'I like him,' said Molly. 'He has been very kind to me. I know he isn't handsome like Osborne.'

It was rather difficult to say all this quietly, but Molly managed to do it, quite aware that Cynthia would not rest till she had extracted some kind of an opinion out of her.

'I suppose he will come home at Easter,' said Cynthia, 'and then I shall see him for myself.'

'It's a great pity that their being in mourning will prevent their going to the Easter charity ball,' said Mrs. Gibson, plaintively. 'I shan't like to take you two girls, if you are not to have any partners. It will put me in such an awkward position. I wish we could join on to the Towers party. That would secure you partners, for they always bring a number of dancing men, who might dance with you after they had done their duty by the ladies of the house. But really everything is so changed since dear Lady Cumnor has been an invalid that perhaps they won't go at all.'

This Easter ball was a great subject of conversation with Mrs Gibson. She sometimes spoke of it as her first appearance in society as a bride, though she had been visiting once or twice a week all winter long. Then she shifted her ground, and said she felt so much interest in it, because she would then have the responsibility of introducing both her own and Mr. Gibson's daughter to public notice, though the fact was that pretty nearly every one who was going to this ball had seen the two young ladies--though not their ball dresses--before. But, aping the manners of the aristocracy as far as she knew them, she intended to 'bring out' Molly and Cynthia on this occasion, which she regarded in something of the light of a presentation at Court. 'They are not out yet,' was her favourite excuse when either of them was invited to any house to which she did not wish them to go, or invited without her. She even made a difficulty about their 'not being out' when Miss Browning--that old friend of the Gibson family--came in one morning to ask the two girls to come to a very friendly tea and a round game afterwards; this mild piece of gaiety being designed as an attention to three of Mrs. Goodenough's grandchildren--two young ladies and their school-boy brother--who were staying on a visit to their grandmamma.

'You are very kind, Miss Browning, but you see I hardly like to let them go--they are not out, you know, till after the Easter ball.'

'Till when we are invisible,' said Cynthia, always ready with her mockery to exaggerate any pretension of her mother's. 'We are so high in rank that our sovereign must give us her sanction before we can play a round game at your house.'

Cynthia enjoyed the idea of her own full-grown size and stately gait, as contrasted with that of a meek, half-fledged girl in the nursery; but Miss Browning was half puzzled and half affronted.

'I don't understand it at all. In my days girls went wherever it pleased people to ask them, without this farce of bursting out in all their new fine clothes at some public place. I don't mean but what the gentry took their daughters to York, or Matlock, or Bath to give them a taste of gay society when they were growing up; and the quality went up to London, and their young ladies were presented to Queen Charlotte, and went to a birthday ball, perhaps. But for us little Hollingford people, why we knew every child amongst us from the day of its birth; and many a girl of twelve or fourteen have I seen go out to a card- party, and sit quiet at her work, and know how to behave as well as any lady there. There was no talk of "coming out" in those days for any one under the daughter of a squire.'

'After Easter, Molly and I shall know how to behave at a card-party, but not before,' said Cynthia, demurely.

'You're always fond of your quips and your cranks,' my dear,' said Miss Browning, 'and I wouldn't quite answer for your behaviour: you sometimes let your spirits carry you away. But I'm quite sure Molly will be a little lady as she always is, and always was, and I have known her from a babe.'

Mrs. Gibson took up arms on behalf of her own daughter, or rather, she took up arms against Molly's praises.

'I don't think you would have called Molly a lady the other day, Miss


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