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- Wives and Daughters - 60/139 -


'Here, Miss Kirkpatrick! No, it's not for you, miss!' as Molly, being nearer to the door, offered to take it and pass it to Cynthia. 'It's for Miss Kirkpatrick; and there's a note for her besides!'

Cynthia said nothing, but took the note and the flowers. She held the note so that Molly could read it at the same time she did.

I send you some flowers; and you must allow me to claim the first dance after nine o'clock, before which time I fear I cannot arrive.--R. P.

'Who is it?' asked Molly.

Cynthia looked extremely irritated, indignant, perplexed--what was it turned her cheek so pale, and made her eyes so full of fire?

'It is Mr. Preston,' said she, in answer to Molly. 'I shall not dance with him; and here go his flowers--'

Into the very middle of the embers, which she immediately stirred down upon the beautiful shrivelling petals as if she wished to annihilate them as soon as possible. Her voice had never been raised; it was as sweet as usual; nor, though her movements were prompt enough, were they hasty or violent.

'Oh!' said Molly, 'those beautiful flowers! We might have put them in water.'

'No,' said Cynthia; 'it's best to destroy them. We don't want them; and I can't bear to be reminded of that man.'

'It was an impertinent familiar note,' said Molly. 'What right had he to express himself in that way--no beginning, no end, and only initials. Did you know him well when you were at Ashcombe, Cynthia?'

'Oh, don't let us think any more about him,' replied Cynthia. 'It is quite enough to spoil any pleasure at the ball to think that he will be there. But I hope I shall get engaged before he comes, so that I can't dance with him--and don't you, either!'

'There! they are calling for us,' exclaimed Molly, and with quick step, yet careful of their draperies, they made their way downstairs to the place where Mr. and Mrs. Gibson awaited them. Yes: Mr. Gibson was going; even if he had to leave them afterwards to attend to any professional call. And Molly suddenly began to admire her father as a handsome man, when she saw him now, in full evening attire. Mrs Gibson, too--how pretty she was! In short, it was true that no better-looking a party than these four people entered the Hollingford ball-room that evening.

CHAPTER XXVI

A CHARITY BALL

At the present time there are few people at a public ball besides the dancers and their chaperones, or relations in some degree interested in them. But in the days when Molly and Cynthia were young--before railroads were, and before their consequences, the excursion-trains, which take every one up to London now-a-days, there to see their fill of gay crowds and fine dresses--to go to an annual charity-ball, even though all thought of dancing had passed by years ago, and without any of the responsibilities of a chaperone, was a very allowable and favourite piece of dissipation to all the kindly old maids who thronged the country towns of England. They aired their old lace and their best dresses; they saw the aristocratic magnates of the country side; they gossipped with their coevals, and speculated on the romances of the young around them in a curious yet friendly spirit. The Miss Brownings would have thought themselves sadly defrauded of the gayest event of the year, if anything had prevented their attending the charity-ball, and Miss Browning would have been indignant, Miss Phoebe aggrieved, had they not been asked to Ashcombe and Coreham, by friends at each place, who had, like them, gone through the dancing stage of life some five- and-twenty years before, but who liked still to haunt the scenes of their former enjoyment, and see a younger generation dance on 'regardless of their doom.' They had come in one of the two sedan- chairs that yet lingered in use at Hollingford; such a night as this brought a regular harvest of gains to the two old men who, in what was called the 'town's livery,' trotted backwards and forwards with their many loads of ladies and finery. There were some postchaises, and some 'flys,' but after mature deliberation Miss Browning had decided to keep to the more comfortable custom of the sedan-chair; 'which,' as she said to Miss Piper, one of her visitors, 'came into the parlour, and got full of the warm air, and nipped you up, and carried you tight and cosy into another warm room, where you could walk out without having to show your legs by going up steps, or down steps.' Of course only one could go at a time; but here again a little of Miss Browning's good management arranged everything so very nicely, as Miss Hornblower (their other visitor) remarked. She went first, and remained in the warm cloak-room until her hostess followed; and then the two ladies went arm-in-arm into the ball-room, finding out convenient seats whence they could watch the arrivals and speak to their passing friends, until Miss Phoebe and Miss Piper entered, and came to take possession of the seats reserved for them by Miss Browning's care. These two younger ladies came in, also arm-in-arm, but with a certain timid flurry in look and movement very different from the composed dignity of their seniors (by two or three years). When all four were once more assembled together, they took breath, and began to converse.

'Upon my word, I really do think this is a better room than our Ashcombe Court-house!'

'And how prettily it is decorated!' piped out Miss Piper. 'How well the roses are made! But you all have such taste at Hollingford.'

'There's Mrs. Dempster,' cried Miss Hornblower; 'she said she and her two daughters were asked to stay at Mr. Sheepshanks'. Mr Preston was to be there, too; but I suppose they could not all come at once. Look! and there is young Roscoe, our new doctor. I declare it seems as if all Ashcombe were here. Mr. Roscoe! Mr. Roscoe! come here and let me introduce you to the Miss Brownings, the friends we are staying with. We think very highly of our young doctor, I can assure you, Miss Browning.'

Mr. Roscoe bowed, and simpered at hearing his own praises. But Miss Browning had no notion of having any doctor praised, who had come to settle even on the very verge of Mr. Gibson's practice, so she said to Miss Hornblower,--

'You must be glad, I am sure, to have somebody you can call in, if you are in any sudden hurry, or for things that are too trifling to trouble Mr. Gibson about; and I should think Mr. Roscoe would feel it a great advantage to profit, as he will naturally have the opportunity of doing, by witnessing Mr. Gibson's skill!'

Probably Mr. Roscoe would have felt more aggrieved by this speech than he really was, if his attention had not been called off just then by the entrance of the very Mr. Gibson who was being spoken of. Almost before Miss Browning had ended her severe and depreciatory remarks, he had asked his friend Miss Hornblower,--

'Who is that lovely girl in pink, just come in?'

'Why, that's Cynthia Kirkpatrick!' said Miss Hornblower, taking up a ponderous gold eyeglass to make sure of her fact. 'How she has grown! To be sure it is two or three years since she left Ashcombe--she was very pretty then--people did say Mr. Preston admired her very much; but she was so young!'

'Can you introduce me?' asked the impatient young surgeon. 'I should like to ask her to dance.' When Miss Hornblower returned from her greeting to her former acquaintance, Mrs. Gibson, and had accomplished the introduction which Mr. Roscoe had requested, she began her little confidences to Miss Browning.

'Well, to be sure! How condescending we are! I remember the time when Mrs. Kirkpatrick wore old black silks, and was thankful and civil as became her place as a schoolmistress, and as having to earn her bread. And now she is in a satin; and she speaks to me as if she just could recollect who I was, if she tried very hard! It isn't so long ago since Mrs. Dempster came to consult me as to whether Mrs Kirkpatrick would be offended, if she sent her a new breadth for her lilac silk-gown, in place of one that had been spoilt by Mrs Dempster's servant spilling the coffee over it the night before; and she took it and was thankful, for all she's dressed in pearl-grey satin now! And she would have been glad enough to marry Mr. Preston in those days.'

'I thought you said he admired her daughter,' put in Miss Browning to her irritated friend.

'Well! perhaps I did, and perhaps it was so; I am sure I can't tell; he was a great deal at the house. Miss Dixon keeps a school in the same house now, and I am sure she does it a great deal better.'

'The earl and the countess are very fond of Mrs. Gibson,' said Miss Browning. 'I know, for Lady Harriet told us when she came to drink tea with us last autumn; and they desired Mr. Preston to be very attentive to her when she lived at Ashcombe.'

'For goodness' sake don't go and repeat what I've been saying about Mr. Preston and Mrs. Kirkpatrick to her ladyship. One may be mistaken, and you know I only said "people talked about it."'

Miss Hornblower was evidently alarmed lest her gossip should be repeated to the Lady Harriet, who appeared to be on such an intimate footing with her Hollingford friends. Nor did Miss Browning dissipate the illusion. Lady Harriet had drunk tea with them, and might do it again; and, at any rate, the little fright she had put her friend into was not a bad return for that praise of Mr. Roscoe, which had offended Miss Browning's loyalty to Mr. Gibson.

Meanwhile Miss Piper and Miss Phoebe, who had not the character of _esprit-forts_ to maintain, talked of the dresses of the people present, beginning by complimenting each other.

'What a lovely turban you have got on, Miss Piper, if I may be allowed to say so: so becoming to your complexion!'

'Do you think so?' said Miss Piper, with ill-concealed gratification; it was something to have a 'complexion' at forty-five. 'I got it at Brown's, at Somerton, for this very ball. I thought I must have something to set off my gown, which isn't quite so new as it once was; and I have no handsome jewellery like you'--looking with admiring eyes at a large miniature set round with pearls, which served as a shield to Miss Phoebe's breast.

'It is handsome,' that lady replied. 'It is a likeness of my dear


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