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don't invent stories about me. I have engaged myself to Mr Roger Hamley, and that is enough.'
'Enough! more than enough!' said Roger. 'I will not accept your pledge. I am bound, but you are free. I like to feel bound, it makes me happy and at peace, but with all the chances involved in the next two years, you must not shackle yourself by promises.'
Cynthia did not speak at once; she was evidently revolving something in her own mind. Mrs. Gibson took up the word.
'You are very generous, I am sure. Perhaps it will be better not to mention it.'
'I would much rather have it kept a secret,' said Cynthia, interrupting.
'Certainly, my dear love. That was just what I was going to say. I once knew a young lady who heard of the death of a young man in America, whom she had known pretty well; and she immediately said she had been engaged to him, and even went so far as to put on weeds; and it was a false report, for he came back well and merry, and declared to everybody he had never so much as thought about her. So it was very awkward for her. These things had much better be kept secret until the proper time has come for divulging them.'
Even then and there Cynthia could not resist the temptation of saying,--
'Mamma, I will promise you I won't put on weeds, whatever reports come of Mr. Roger Hamley.'
'Roger, please!' he put in, in a tender whisper.
'And you will all be witnesses that he has professed to think of me, if he is tempted afterwards to deny the fact. But at the same time I wish it to be kept a secret until his return--and I am sure you will all be so kind as to attend to my wish. Please, _Roger!_ Please, Molly! Mamma! I must especially beg it of you!'
Roger would have granted anything when she asked him by that name, and in that tone. He took her hand in silent pledge of his reply. Molly felt as if she could never bring herself to name the affair as a common piece of news. So it was only Mrs. Gibson answered aloud,--
'My dear child! why "especially" to poor me! You know I'm the most trustworthy person alive!'
The little pendule on the chimney-piece struck the half-hour.
'I must go!' said Roger, in dismay. 'I had no idea it was so late. I shall write from Paris. The coach will be at the "George" by this time, and will only stay five minutes. Dearest Cynthia--' he took her hand, and then, as if the temptation was irresistible, he drew her to him and kissed her. 'Only remember you are free!' said he, as he released her and passed on to Mrs. Gibson.
'If I had considered myself free,' said Cynthia, blushing a little, but ready with her repartee to the last,--'if I had thought myself free, do you think I would have allowed that?'
Then Molly's turn came; and the old brotherly tenderness came back into his look, his voice, his bearing.
'Molly! you won't forget me, I know; I shall never forget you, nor your goodness to--her.' His voice began to quiver, and it was best to be gone. Mrs. Gibson was pouring out, unheard and unheeded, words of farewell; Cynthia was rearranging some flowers in a vase on the table, the defects in which had caught her artistic eye, without the consciousness penetrating to her mind. Molly stood, numb to the heart; neither glad nor sorry, nor anything but stunned. She felt the slackened touch of the warm grasping hand; she looked up--for till now her eyes had been downcast, as if there were heavy weights to their lids--and the place was empty where he had been; his quick step was heard on the stair, the front door was opened and shut; and then as quick as lightning Molly ran up to the front attic--the lumber-room, whose window commanded the street down which he must pass. The window- clasp was unused and stiff, Molly tugged at it--unless it was open, and her head put out, that last chance would be gone.
'I must see him again; I must! I must!' she wailed out, as she was pulling. There he was, running hard to catch the London coach; his luggage had been left at the 'George' before he came up to wish the Gibsons good-by. In all his hurry, Molly saw him turn round and shade his eyes from the level rays of the westering sun, and rake the house with his glances--in hopes, she knew, of catching one more glimpse of Cynthia. But apparently he saw no one, not even Molly at the attic casement, for she had drawn back when he had turned, and kept herself in shadow; for she had no right to put herself forward as the one to watch and yearn for farewell signs. None came--another moment--he was out of sight for years.
She shut the window softly, and shivered all over. She left the attic and went to her own room; but she did not begin to take off her out-of- door things till she heard Cynthia's foot on the stairs. Then she hastily went to the toilet-table, and began to untie her bonnet- strings; but they were in a knot, and took time to undo. Cynthia's step stopped at Molly's door; she opened it a little and said,--'May I come in, Molly?'
'Certainly,' said Molly, longing to be able to say 'No' all the time. Molly did not turn to meet her, so Cynthia came up behind her, and putting her two hands round Molly's waist, peeped over her shoulder, putting out her lips to be kissed. Molly could not resist the action-- the mute entreaty for a caress. But in the moment before she had caught the reflection of the two faces in the glass; her own, red-eyed, pale, with lips dyed with blackberry juice, her curls tangled, her bonnet pulled awry, her gown torn--and contrasted it with Cynthia's brightness and bloom, and the trim elegance of her dress. 'Oh! it is no wonder!' thought poor Molly, as she turned round, and put her arms round Cynthia, and laid her head for an instant on her shoulder--the weary, aching head that sought a loving pillow in that supreme moment! The next she had raised herself, and taken Cynthia's two hands, and was holding her off a little, the better to read her face.
'Cynthia! you do love him dearly, don't you?'
Cynthia winced a little aside from the penetrating steadiness of those eyes.
'You speak with all the solemnity of an adjuration, Molly!' said she, laughing a little at first to cover her nervousness, and then looking up at Molly. 'Don't you think I have given a proof of it? But you know I've often told you I've not the gift of loving; I said pretty much the same thing to him. I can respect, and I fancy I can admire, and I can like, but I never feel carried off my feet by love for any one, not even for you, little Molly, and I am sure I love you more than--'
'No, don't!' said Molly, putting her hand before Cynthia's mouth, in almost a passion of impatience. 'Don't, don't--I won't hear you--I ought not to have asked you--it makes you tell lies!'
'Why, Molly!' said Cynthia, in her turn seeking to read Molly's face, 'what's the matter with you? One might think you cared for him yourself.'
'I?' said Molly, all the blood rushing to her heart suddenly; then it returned, and she had courage to speak, and she spoke the truth as she believed it, though not the real actual truth.
'I do care for him; I think you have won the love of a prince amongst men. Why, I am proud to remember that he has been to me as a brother, and I love him as a sister, and I love you doubly because he has honoured you with his love.'
'Come, that's not complimentary!' said Cynthia, laughing, but not ill- pleased to hear her lover's praises, and even willing to depreciate him a little in order to hear more. 'He's well enough, I daresay, and a great deal too learned and clever for a stupid girl like me; but even you must acknowledge he is very plain and awkward; and I like pretty things and pretty people.'
'Cynthia, I won't talk to you about him. You know you don't mean what you are saying, and you only say it out of contradiction, because I praise him. He shan't be run down by you, even in joke.'
'Well, then, we won't talk of him at all. I was so surprised when he began to speak--so--' and Cynthia looked very lovely, blushing and dimpling up as she remembered his words and looks. Suddenly she recalled herself to the present time, and her eye caught on the leaf full of blackberries--the broad green leaf, so fresh and crisp when Molly had gathered it an hour or so ago, but now soft and flabby, and dying. Molly saw it, too, and felt a strange kind of sympathetic pity for the poor inanimate leaf.
'Oh! what blackberries! you've gathered them for me, I know!' said Cynthia, sitting down and beginning to feed herself daintily, touching them lightly with the ends of her taper fingers, and dropping each ripe berry into her open mouth. When she had eaten about half she stopped suddenly short.
'How I should like to have gone as far as Paris with him,' she exclaimed. 'I suppose it would not have been proper; but how pleasant it would have been. I remember at Boulogne' (another blackberry) 'how I used to envy the English who were going to Paris; it seemed to me then as if nobody stopped at Boulogne, but dull, stupid school-girls.'
'When will he be there?' asked Molly.
'On Wednesday, he said. I'm to write to him there; at any rate he is going to write to me.'
Molly went about the adjustment of her dress in a quiet, business-like manner, not speaking much; Cynthia, although sitting still, seemed very restless. Oh! how much Molly wished that she would go.
'Perhaps, after all,' said Cynthia, after a pause of apparent meditation, 'we shall never be married.'
'Why do you say that?' said Molly, almost bitterly. 'You have nothing to make you think so. I wonder how you can bear to think you won't, even for a moment.'
'Oh!' said Cynthia; 'you must not go and take me _au grand serieux_. I daresay I don't mean what I say, but you see everything seems a dream at present. Still, I think the chances are equal--the chances for and against our marriage, I mean. Two years! it's a long time; he may change his mind, or I may; or some one else may turn up, and say I'm engaged to him: what should you think of that, Molly? I'm putting such a gloomy thing as death quite on one side, you see; yet in two years how much may happen.'
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