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To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room—a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o'clock struck, when she wakened of herself "as sure as clockwork," and left the household very little peace afterwards. It was a June morning, and early as it was, the room was full of sunny warmth and light.
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A NOVICE AMONGST THE GREAT FOLK.
At ten o'clock on the eventful Thursday the Towers' carriage began its work. Molly was ready long before it made its first appearance, although it had been settled that she and the Miss Brownings were not to go until the last, or fourth, time of its coming. Her face had been soaped, scrubbed, and shone brilliantly clean; her frills, her frock, her ribbons were all snow-white. She had on a black mode cloak that had been her mother's; it was trimmed round with rich lace, and looked quaint and old-fashioned on the child. For the first time in her life she wore kid gloves; hitherto she had only had cotton ones. Her gloves were far too large for the little dimpled fingers, but as Betty had told her they were to last her for years, it was all very well. She trembled many a time, and almost turned faint once with the long expectation of the morning. Betty might say what she liked about a watched pot never boiling; Molly never ceased to watch the approach through the winding street, and after two hours the carriage came for her at last. She had to sit very forward to avoid crushing the Miss Brownings' new dresses; and yet not too forward, for fear of incommoding fat Mrs. Goodenough and her niece, who occupied the front seat of the carriage; so that altogether the fact of sitting down at all was rather doubtful, and to add to her discomfort, Molly felt herself to be very conspicuously placed in the centre of the carriage, a mark for all the observation of Hollingford. It was far too much of a gala day for the work of the little town to go forward with its usual regularity. Maid-servants gazed out of upper windows; shopkeepers' wives stood on the door-steps; cottagers ran out, with babies in their arms; and little children, too young to know how to behave respectfully at the sight of an earl's carriage, huzzaed merrily as it bowled along. The woman at the lodge held the gate open, and dropped a low curtsey to the liveries. And now they were in the Park; and now they were in sight of the Towers, and silence fell upon the carriage-full of ladies, only broken by one faint remark from Mrs. Goodenough's niece, a stranger to the town, as they drew up before the double semicircle flight of steps which led to the door of the mansion.
"They call that a perron, I believe, don't they?" she asked. But the only answer she obtained was a simultaneous "hush." It was very awful, as Molly thought, and she half wished herself at home again. But she lost all consciousness of herself by-and-by when the party strolled out into the beautiful grounds, the like of which she had never even imagined. Green velvet lawns, bathed in sunshine, stretched away on every side into the finely wooded park; if there were divisions and ha-has between the soft sunny sweeps of grass, and the dark gloom of the forest-trees beyond, Molly did not see them; and the melting away of exquisite cultivation into the wilderness had an inexplicable charm to her. Near the house there were walls and fences; but they were covered with climbing roses, and rare honeysuckles and other creepers just bursting into bloom. There were flower-beds, too, scarlet, crimson, blue, orange; masses of blossom lying on the greensward. Molly held Miss Browning's hand very tight as they loitered about in company with several other ladies, and marshalled by a daughter of the Towers, who seemed half amused at the voluble admiration showered down upon every possible thing and place. Molly said nothing, as became her age and position, but every now and then she relieved her full heart by drawing a deep breath, almost like a sigh. Presently they came to the long glittering range of greenhouses and hothouses, and an attendant gardener was there to admit the party. Molly did not care for this half so much as for the flowers in the open air; but Lady Agnes had a more scientific taste, she expatiated on the rarity of this plant, and the mode of cultivation required by that, till Molly began to feel very tired, and then very faint. She was too shy to speak for some time; but at length, afraid of making a greater sensation if she began to cry, or if she fell against the stands of precious flowers, she caught at Miss Browning's hand, and gasped out—
"May I go back, out into the garden? I can't breathe here!"
"Oh, yes, to be sure, love. I daresay it's hard understanding for you, love; but it's very fine and instructive, and a deal of Latin in it too."
She turned hastily round not to lose another word of Lady Agnes' lecture on orchids, and Molly turned back and passed out of the heated atmosphere. She felt better in the fresh air; and unobserved, and at liberty, went from one lovely spot to another, now in the open park, now in some shut-in flower-garden, where the song of the birds, and the drip of the central fountain, were the only sounds, and the tree-tops made an enclosing circle in the blue June sky; she went along without more thought as to her whereabouts than a butterfly has, as it skims from flower to flower, till at length she grew very weary, and wished to return to the house, but did not know how, and felt afraid of encountering all the strangers who would be there, unprotected by either of the Miss Brownings. The hot sun told upon her head, and it began to ache. She saw a great wide-spreading cedar-tree upon a burst of lawn towards which she was advancing, and the black repose beneath its branches lured her thither. There was a rustic seat in the shadow, and weary Molly sate down there, and presently fell asleep.
She was startled from her slumbers after a time, and jumped to her feet. Two ladies were standing by her, talking about her. They were perfect strangers to her, and with a vague conviction that she had done something wrong, and also because she was worn-out with hunger, fatigue, and the morning's excitement, she began to cry.
"Poor little woman! She has lost herself; she belongs to some of the people from Hollingford, I have no doubt," said the oldest-looking of the two ladies; she who appeared to be about forty, though she did not really number more than thirty years. She was plain-featured, and had rather a severe expression on her face; her dress was as rich as any morning dress could be; her voice deep and unmodulated,—what in a lower rank of life would have been called gruff; but that was not a word to apply to Lady Cuxhaven, the eldest daughter of the earl and countess. The other lady looked much younger, but she was in fact some years the elder; at first sight Molly thought she was the most beautiful person she had ever seen, and she was certainly a very lovely woman. Her voice, too, was soft and plaintive, as she replied to Lady Cuxhaven,—
"Poor little darling! she is overcome by the heat, I have no doubt—such a heavy straw bonnet, too. Let me untie it for you, my dear."
Molly now found voice to say—"I am Molly Gibson, please. I came here with Miss Brownings;" for her great fear was that she should be taken for an unauthorized intruder.
"Miss Brownings?" said Lady Cuxhaven to her companion, as if inquiringly.
"I think they were the two tall large young women that Lady Agnes was talking about."
"Oh, I daresay. I saw she had a number of people in tow;" then looking again at Molly, she said, "Have you had anything to eat, child, since you came? You look a very white little thing; or is it the heat?"
"I have had nothing to eat," said Molly, rather piteously; for, indeed, before she fell asleep she had been very hungry.
The two ladies spoke to each other in a low voice; then the elder said in a voice of authority, which, indeed, she had always used in speaking to the other, "Sit still here, my dear; we are going to the house, and Clare shall bring you something to eat before you try to walk back; it must be a quarter of a mile at least." So they went away, and Molly sat upright, waiting for the promised messenger. She did not know who Clare might be, and she did not care much for food now; but she felt as if she could not walk without some help. At length she saw the pretty lady coming back, followed by a footman with a small tray.
"Look how kind Lady Cuxhaven is," said she who was called Clare. "She chose you out this little lunch herself; and now you must try and eat it, and you'll be quite right when you've had some food, darling—You need not stop, Edwards; I will bring the tray back with me."
There was some bread, and some cold chicken, and some jelly, and a glass of wine, and a bottle of sparkling water, and a bunch of grapes. Molly put out her trembling little hand for the water; but she was too faint to hold it. Clare put it to her mouth, and she took a long draught and was refreshed. But she could not eat; she tried, but she could not; her headache was too bad. Clare looked bewildered. "Take some grapes, they will be the best for you; you must try and eat something, or I don't know how I shall get you to the house."
"My head aches so," said Molly, lifting her heavy eyes wistfully.
"Oh, dear, how tiresome!" said Clare, still in her sweet gentle voice, not at all as if she was angry, only expressing an obvious truth. Molly felt very guilty and very unhappy. Clare went on, with a shade of asperity in her tone: "You see, I don't know what to do with you here if you don't eat enough to enable you to walk home. And I've been out for these three hours trapesing about the grounds till I'm as tired as can be, and missed my lunch and all." Then, as if a new idea had struck her, she said,—"You lie back in that seat for a few minutes, and try to eat the bunch of grapes, and I'll wait for you, and just be eating a mouthful meanwhile. You are sure you don't want this chicken?"
Molly did as she was bid, and leant back, picking languidly at the grapes, and watching the good appetite with which the lady ate up the chicken and jelly, and drank the glass of wine. She was so pretty and so graceful in her deep mourning, that even her hurry in eating, as if she was afraid of some one coming to surprise her in the act, did not keep her little observer from admiring her in all she did.
"And now, darling, are you ready to go?" said she, when she had eaten up everything on the tray. "Oh, come; you have nearly finished your grapes; that's a good girl. Now, if you will come with me to the side entrance, I will take you up to my own room, and you shall lie down on the bed for an hour or two; and if you have a good nap your headache will be quite gone."
So they set off, Clare carrying the empty tray, rather to Molly's shame; but the child had enough work to drag herself along, and was afraid of offering to do anything more. The "side entrance" was a flight of steps leading up from a private flower-garden into a private matted hall, or ante-room, out of which many doors opened, and in which were deposited the light garden-tools and the bows and arrows of the young ladies of the house. Lady Cuxhaven must have seen their approach, for she met them in this hall as soon as they came in.
"How is she now?" she asked; then glancing at the plates and glasses, she added, "Come, I think there can't be much amiss! You're a good old Clare, but you should have let one of the men fetch that tray in; life in such weather as this is trouble enough of itself."
Molly could not help wishing that her pretty companion would have told Lady Cuxhaven that she herself had helped to finish up the ample luncheon; but no such idea seemed to come into her mind. She only said,—"Poor dear! she is not quite the thing yet; has got a headache, she says. I am going to put her down on my bed, to see if she can get a little sleep."
Molly saw Lady Cuxhaven say something in a half-laughing manner to "Clare," as she passed her; and the child could not keep from tormenting herself by fancying that the words spoken sounded wonderfully like "Over-eaten herself, I suspect." However, she felt too poorly to worry herself long; the little white bed in the cool and pretty room had too many attractions for her aching head. The muslin curtains flapped softly from time to time in the scented air that came through the open windows. Clare covered her up with a light shawl, and darkened the room. As she was going away Molly roused herself to say, "Please, ma'am, don't let them go away without me. Please ask somebody to waken me if I go to sleep. I am to go back with Miss Brownings."
"Don't trouble yourself about it, dear; I'll take care," said Clare, turning round at the door, and kissing her hand to little anxious Molly. And then she went away, and thought no more about it. The carriages came round at half-past four, hurried a little by Lady Cumnor, who had suddenly become tired of the business of entertaining, and annoyed at the repetition of indiscriminating admiration.
"Why not have both carriages out, mamma, and get rid of them all at once?" said Lady Cuxhaven. "This going by instalments is the most tiresome thing that could be imagined." So at last there had been a great hurry and an unmethodical way of packing off every one at once. Miss Browning had gone in the chariot (or "chawyot," as Lady Cumnor called it;—it rhymed to her daughter, Lady Hawyot—or Harriet, as the name was spelt in the Peerage), and Miss Phœbe had been speeded along with several other guests, away in a great roomy family conveyance, of the kind which we should now call an "omnibus." Each thought that Molly Gibson was with the other, and the truth was, that she lay fast asleep on Mrs. Kirkpatrick's bed—Mrs. Kirkpatrick née Clare.
The housemaids came in to arrange the room. Their talking aroused Molly, who sat up on the bed, and tried to push back the hair from her hot forehead, and to remember where she was. She dropped down on her feet by the side of the bed, to the astonishment of the women, and said,—"Please, how soon are we going away?"
"Bless us and save us! who'd ha' thought of any one being in the bed? Are you one of the Hollingford ladies, my dear? They are all gone this hour or more!"
"Oh, dear, what shall I do? That lady they call Clare promised to waken me in time. Papa will so wonder where I am, and I don't know what Betty will say."
The child began to cry, and the housemaids looked at each other in some dismay and much sympathy. Just then, they heard Mrs. Kirkpatrick's step along the passages, approaching. She was singing some little Italian air in a low musical voice, coming to her bedroom to dress for dinner. One housemaid said to the other, with a knowing look, "Best leave it to her;" and they passed on to their work in the other rooms.
Mrs. Kirkpatrick opened the door, and stood aghast at the sight of Molly.
"Why, I quite forgot you!" she said at length. "Nay, don't cry; you'll make yourself not fit to be seen. Of course I must take the consequences of your over-sleeping yourself, and if I can't manage to get you back to Hollingford to-night, you shall sleep with me, and we'll do our best to send you home to-morrow morning."
"But papa!" sobbed out Molly. "He always wants me to make tea for him; and I have no night-things."
"Well, don't go and make a piece of work about what can't be helped now. I'll lend you night-things, and your papa must do without your making tea for him to-night. And another time don't over-sleep yourself in a strange house; you may not always find yourself among such hospitable people as they are here. Why now, if you don't cry and make a figure of yourself, I'll ask if you may come in to dessert with Master Smythe and the little ladies. You shall go into the nursery, and have some tea with them; and then you must come back here and brush your hair and make yourself tidy. I think it is a very fine thing for you to be stopping in such a grand house as this; many a little girl would like nothing better."
During this speech she was arranging her toilette for dinner—taking off her black morning gown; putting on her dressing-gown; shaking her long soft auburn hair over her shoulders, and glancing about the room in search of various articles of her dress,—a running flow of easy talk came babbling out all the time.
"I have a little girl of my own, dear! I don't know what she would not give to be staying here at Lord Cumnor's with me; but, instead of that, she has to spend her holidays at school; and yet you are looking as miserable as can be at the thought of stopping for just one night. I really have been as busy as can be with those tiresome—those good ladies, I mean, from Hollingford—and one can't think of everything at a time."
Molly—only child as she was—had stopped her tears at the mention of that little girl of Mrs. Kirkpatrick's, and now she ventured to say,—
"Are you married, ma'am; I thought she called you Clare?"
In high good-humour Mrs. Kirkpatrick made reply:—"I don't look as if I was married, do I? Every one is surprised. And yet I have been a widow for seven months now: and not a grey hair on my head, though Lady Cuxhaven, who is younger than I, has ever so many."
"Why do they call you 'Clare?'" continued Molly, finding her so affable and communicative.
"Because I lived with them when I was Miss Clare. It is a pretty name, isn't it? I married a Mr. Kirkpatrick; he was only a curate, poor fellow; but he was of a very good family, and if three of his relations had died without children I should have been a baronet's wife. But Providence did not see fit to permit it; and we must always resign ourselves to what is decreed. Two of his cousins married, and had large families; and poor dear Kirkpatrick died, leaving me a widow."
"You have a little girl?" asked Molly.
"Yes: darling Cynthia! I wish you could see her; she is my only comfort now. If I have time I will show you her picture when we come up to bed; but I must go now. It does not do to keep Lady Cumnor waiting a moment, and she asked me to be down early, to help with some of the people in the house. Now I shall ring this bell, and when the housemaid comes, ask her to take you into the nursery, and to tell Lady Cuxhaven's nurse who you are. And then you'll have tea with the little ladies, and come in with them to dessert. There! I'm sorry you've over-slept yourself, and are left here; but give me a kiss, and don't cry—you really are rather a pretty child, though you've not got Cynthia's colouring! Oh, Nanny, would you be so very kind as to take this young lady—(what's your name, my dear? Gibson?),—Miss Gibson, to Mrs. Dyson, in the nursery, and ask her to allow her to drink tea with the young ladies there; and to send her in with them to dessert. I'll explain it all to my lady."
Nanny's face brightened out of its gloom when she heard the name Gibson; and, having ascertained from Molly that she was "the doctor's" child, she showed more willingness to comply with Mrs. Kirkpatrick's request than was usual with her.
Molly was an obliging girl, and fond of children; so, as long as she was in the nursery, she got on pretty well, being obedient to the wishes of the supreme power, and even very useful to Mrs. Dyson, by playing at tricks, and thus keeping a little one quiet while its brothers and sisters were being arrayed in gay attire,—lace and muslin, and velvet, and brilliant broad ribbons.
"Now, miss," said Mrs. Dyson, when her own especial charge were all ready, "what can I do for you? You have not got another frock here, have you?" No, indeed, she had not; nor if she had had one, could it have been of a smarter nature than her present thick white dimity. So she could only wash her face and hands, and submit to the nurse's brushing and perfuming her hair. She thought she would rather have stayed in the park all night long, and slept under the beautiful quiet cedar, than have to undergo the unknown ordeal of "going down to dessert," which was evidently regarded both by children and nurses as the event of the day. At length there was a summons from a footman, and Mrs. Dyson, in a rustling silk gown, marshalled her convoy, and set sail for the dining-room door.
There was a large party of gentlemen and ladies sitting round the decked table, in the brilliantly lighted room. Each dainty little child ran up to its mother, or aunt, or particular friend; but Molly had no one to go to.
"Who is that tall girl in the thick white frock? Not one of the children of the house, I think?"
The lady addressed put up her glass, gazed at Molly, and dropped it in an instant. "A French girl, I should imagine. I know Lady Cuxhaven was inquiring for one to bring up with her little girls, that they might get a good accent early. Poor little woman, she looks wild and strange!" And the speaker, who sate next to Lord Cumnor, made a little sign to Molly to come to her; Molly crept up to her as to the first shelter; but when the lady began talking to her in French, she blushed violently, and said in a very low voice,—
"I don't understand French. I'm only Molly Gibson, ma'am."
"Molly Gibson!" said the lady, out loud; as if that was not much of an explanation.
Lord Cumnor caught the words and the tone.
"Oh, ho!" said he. "Are you the little girl who has been sleeping in my bed?"
He imitated the deep voice of the fabulous bear, who asks this question of the little child in the story; but Molly had never read the "Three Bears," and fancied that his anger was real; she trembled a little, and drew nearer to the kind lady who had beckoned her as to a refuge. Lord Cumnor was very fond of getting hold of what he fancied was a joke, and working his idea threadbare; so all the time the ladies were in the room he kept on his running fire at Molly, alluding to the Sleeping Beauty, the Seven Sleepers, and any other famous sleeper that came into his head. He had no idea of the misery his jokes were to the sensitive girl, who already thought herself a miserable sinner, for having slept on, when she ought to have been awake. If Molly had been in the habit of putting two and two together, she might have found an excuse for herself, by remembering that Mrs. Kirkpatrick had promised faithfully to awaken her in time; but all the girl thought of was, how little they wanted her in this grand house; how she must seem like a careless intruder who had no business there. Once or twice she wondered where her father was, and whether he was missing her; but the thought of the familiar happiness of home brought such a choking in her throat, that she felt she must not give way to it, for fear of bursting out crying; and she had instinct enough to feel that, as she was left at the Towers, the less trouble she gave, the more she kept herself out of observation, the better.
She followed the ladies out of the dining-room, almost hoping that no one would see her. But that was impossible, and she immediately became the subject of conversation between the awful Lady Cumnor and her kind neighbour at dinner.
"Do you know, I thought this young lady was French when I first saw her? she has got the black hair and eyelashes, and grey eyes, and colourless complexion which one meets with in some parts of France, and I know Lady Cuxhaven was trying to find a well-educated girl who would be a pleasant companion to her children."
"No!" said Lady Cumnor, looking very stern, as Molly thought. "She is the daughter of our medical man at Hollingford; she came with the school visitors this morning, and she was overcome by the heat and fell asleep in Clare's room, and somehow managed to over-sleep herself, and did not waken up till all the carriages were gone. We will send her home to-morrow morning, but for to-night she must stay here, and Clare is kind enough to say she may sleep with her."
There was an implied blame running through this speech, that Molly felt like needle-points all over her. Lady Cuxhaven came up at this moment. Her tone was as deep, her manner of speaking as abrupt and authoritative, as her mother's, but Molly felt the kinder nature underneath.
"How are you now, my dear? You look better than you did under the cedar-tree. So you're to stop here to-night? Clare, don't you think we could find some of those books of engravings that would interest Miss Gibson."
Mrs. Kirkpatrick came gliding up to the place where Molly stood; and began petting her with pretty words and actions, while Lady Cuxhaven turned over heavy volumes in search of one that might interest the girl.
"Poor darling! I saw you come into the dining-room, looking so shy; and I wanted you to come near me, but I could not make a sign to you, because Lord Cuxhaven was speaking to me at the time, telling me about his travels. Ah, here is a nice book—Lodge's Portraits; now I'll sit by you and tell you who they all are, and all about them. Don't trouble yourself any more, dear Lady Cuxhaven; I'll take charge of her; pray leave her to me!"
Molly grew hotter and hotter as these last words met her ear. If they would only leave her alone, and not labour at being kind to her; would "not trouble themselves" about her! These words of Mrs. Kirkpatrick's seemed to quench the gratitude she was feeling to Lady Cuxhaven for looking for something to amuse her. But, of course, it was a trouble, and she ought never to have been there.
By-and-by, Mrs. Kirkpatrick was called away to accompany Lady Agnes' song; and then Molly really had a few minutes' enjoyment. She could look round the room, unobserved, and, sure, never was any place out of a king's house so grand and magnificent. Large mirrors, velvet curtains, pictures in their gilded frames, a multitude of dazzling lights decorated the vast saloon, and the floor was studded with groups of ladies and gentlemen, all dressed in gorgeous attire. Suddenly Molly bethought her of the children whom she had accompanied into the dining-room, and to whose ranks she had appeared to belong,—where were they? Gone to bed an hour before, at some quiet signal from their mother. Molly wondered if she might go, too—if she could ever find her way back to the haven of Mrs. Kirkpatrick's bedroom. But she was at some distance from the door; a long way from Mrs. Kirkpatrick, to whom she felt herself to belong more than to any one else. Far, too, from Lady Cuxhaven, and the terrible Lady Cumnor, and her jocose and good-natured lord. So Molly sate on, turning over pictures which she did not see; her heart growing heavier and heavier in the desolation of all this grandeur. Presently a footman entered the room, and after a moment's looking about him, he went up to Mrs. Kirkpatrick, where she sate at the piano, the centre of the musical portion of the company, ready to accompany any singer, and smiling pleasantly as she willingly acceded to all requests. She came now towards Molly, in her corner, and said to her,—
"Do you know, darling, your papa has come for you, and brought your pony for you to ride home; so I shall lose my little bedfellow, for I suppose you must go?"
Go! was there a question of it in Molly's mind, as she stood up quivering, sparkling, almost crying out loud. She was brought to her senses, though, by Mrs. Kirkpatrick's next words.
"You must go and wish Lady Cumnor good-night, you know, my dear, and thank her ladyship for her kindness to you. She is there, near that statue, talking to Mr. Courtenay."
Yes! she was there—forty feet away—a hundred miles away! All that blank space had to be crossed; and then a speech to be made!
"Must I go?" asked Molly, in the most pitiful and pleading voice possible.
"Yes; make haste about it; there is nothing so formidable in it, is there?" replied Mrs. Kirkpatrick, in a sharper voice than before, aware that they were wanting her at the piano, and anxious to get the business in hand done as soon as possible.
Molly stood still for a minute, then, looking up, she said, softly,—
"Would you mind coming with me, please?"
"No! not I!" said Mrs. Kirkpatrick, seeing that her compliance was likely to be the most speedy way of getting through the affair; so she took Molly's hand, and, on the way, in passing the group at the piano, she said, smiling, in her pretty genteel manner,—
"Our little friend here is shy and modest, and wants me to accompany her to Lady Cumnor to wish good-night; her father has come for her, and she is going away."
Molly did not know how it was afterwards, but she pulled her hand out of Mrs. Kirkpatrick's on hearing these words, and going a step or two in advance came up to Lady Cumnor, grand in purple velvet, and dropping a curtsey, almost after the fashion of the school-children, she said,—
"My lady, papa is come, and I am going away; and, my lady, I wish you good-night, and thank you for your kindness. Your ladyship's kindness, I mean," she said, correcting herself as she remembered Miss Browning's particular instructions as to the etiquette to be observed to earls and countesses, and their honourable progeny, as they were given that morning on the road to the Towers.
She got out of the saloon somehow; she believed afterwards, on thinking about it, that she had never bidden good-by to Lady Cuxhaven, or Mrs. Kirkpatrick, or "all the rest of them," as she irreverently styled them in her thoughts.
Mr. Gibson was in the housekeeper's room, when Molly ran in, rather to the stately Mrs. Brown's discomfiture. She threw her arms round her father's neck. "Oh, papa, papa, papa! I am so glad you have come;" and then she burst out crying, stroking his face almost hysterically as if to make sure he was there.
"Why, what a noodle you are, Molly! Did you think I was going to give up my little girl to live at the Towers all the rest of her life? You make as much work about my coming for you, as if you thought I had. Make haste, now, and get on your bonnet. Mrs. Brown, may I ask you for a shawl, or a plaid, or a wrap of some kind to pin about her for a petticoat?"
He did not mention that he had come home from a long round not half an hour before, a round from which he had returned dinnerless and hungry; but, on finding that Molly had not come back from the Towers, he had ridden his tired horse round by Miss Brownings', and found them in self-reproachful, helpless dismay. He would not wait to listen to their tearful apologies; he galloped home, had a fresh horse and Molly's pony saddled, and though Betty called after him with a riding-skirt for the child, when he was not ten yards from his own stable-door, he refused to turn back for it, but went off, as Dick the stableman said, "muttering to himself awful."
Mrs. Brown had her bottle of wine out, and her plate of cake, before Molly came back from her long expedition to Mrs. Kirkpatrick's room, "pretty nigh on to a quarter of a mile off," as the housekeeper informed the impatient father, as he waited for his child to come down arrayed in her morning's finery with the gloss of newness worn off. Mr. Gibson was a favourite in all the Towers' household, as family doctors generally are; bringing hopes of relief at times of anxiety and distress; and Mrs. Brown, who was subject to gout, especially delighted in petting him whenever he would allow her. She even went out into the stable-yard to pin Molly up in the shawl, as she sate upon the rough-coated pony, and hazarded the somewhat safe conjecture,—
"I daresay she'll be happier at home, Mr. Gibson," as they rode away.
Once out into the park Molly struck her pony, and urged him on as hard as he would go. Mr. Gibson called out at last:
"Molly! we're coming to the rabbit-holes; it's not safe to go at such a pace. Stop." And as she drew rein he rode up alongside of her.
"We're getting into the shadow of the trees, and it's not safe riding fast here."
"Oh! papa, I never was so glad in all my life. I felt like a lighted candle when they're putting the extinguisher on it."
"Did you? How d'ye know what the candle feels?"
"Oh, I don't know, but I did." And again, after a pause she said,—"Oh, I am so glad to be here! It is so pleasant riding here in the open, free, fresh air, crushing out such a good smell from the dewy grass. Papa! are you there? I can't see you."
He rode close up alongside of her: he was not sure but what she might be afraid of riding in the dark shadows, so he laid his hand upon hers.
"Oh! I am so glad to feel you," squeezing his hand hard. "Papa, I should like to get a chain like Ponto's, just as long as your longest round, and then I could fasten us two to each end of it, and when I wanted you I could pull, and if you didn't want to come, you could pull back again; but I should know you knew I wanted you, and we could never lose each other."
"I'm rather lost in that plan of yours; the details, as you state them, are a little puzzling; but if I make them out rightly, I am to go about the country, like the donkeys on the common, with a clog fastened to my hind leg."
"I don't mind your calling me a clog, if only we were fastened together."
"But I do mind you calling me a donkey," he replied.
"I never did. At least I didn't mean to. But it is such a comfort to know that I may be as rude as I like."
"Is that what you've learnt from the grand company you've been keeping to-day? I expected to find you so polite and ceremonious, that I read a few chapters of Sir Charles Grandison, in order to bring myself up to concert pitch."
"Oh, I do hope I shall never be a lord or a lady."
"Well, to comfort you, I'll tell you this: I'm sure you'll never be a lord; and I think the chances are a thousand to one against your ever being the other, in the sense in which you mean."
"I should lose myself every time I had to fetch my bonnet, or else get tired of long passages and great staircases long before I could go out walking."
"But you'd have your lady's-maid, you know."
"Do you know, papa, I think lady's-maids are worse than ladies. I should not mind being a housekeeper so much."
"No! the jam-cupboards and dessert would lie very conveniently to one's hand," replied her father, meditatively. "But Mrs. Brown tells me that the thought of the dinners often keeps her from sleeping; there's that anxiety to be taken into consideration. Still, in every condition of life, there are heavy cares and responsibilities."
"Well! I suppose so," said Molly, gravely. "I know Betty says I wear her life out with the green stains I get in my frocks from sitting in the cherry-tree."
"And Miss Browning said she had fretted herself into a headache with thinking how they had left you behind. I'm afraid you'll be as bad as a bill of fare to them to-night. How did it all happen, goosey?"
"Oh, I went by myself to see the gardens; they are so beautiful! and I lost myself, and sat down to rest under a great tree; and Lady Cuxhaven and that Mrs. Kirkpatrick came; and Mrs. Kirkpatrick brought me some lunch, and then put me to sleep on her bed,—and I thought she would waken me in time, and she didn't; and so they'd all gone away; and when they planned for me to stop till to-morrow, I didn't like saying how very, very much I wanted to go home,—but I kept thinking how you would wonder where I was."
"Then it was rather a dismal day of pleasure, goosey, eh?"
"Not in the morning. I shall never forget the morning in that garden. But I was never so unhappy in all my life, as I have been all this long afternoon."
Mr. Gibson thought it his duty to ride round by the Towers, and pay a visit of apology and thanks to the family, before they left for London. He found them all on the wing, and no one was sufficiently at liberty to listen to his grateful civilities but Mrs. Kirkpatrick, who, although she was to accompany Lady Cuxhaven, and pay a visit to her former pupil, made leisure enough to receive Mr. Gibson, on behalf of the family; and assured him of her faithful remembrance of his great professional attention to her in former days in the most winning manner.
MOLLY GIBSON'S CHILDHOOD.
Sixteen years before this time, all Hollingford had been disturbed to its foundations by the intelligence that Mr. Hall, the skilful doctor, who had attended them all their days, was going to take a partner. It was no use reasoning to them on the subject; so Mr. Browning the vicar, Mr. Sheepshanks (Lord Cumnor's agent), and Mr. Hall himself, the masculine reasoners of the little society, left off the attempt, feeling that the Che sarà sarà would prove more silencing to the murmurs than many arguments. Mr. Hall had told his faithful patients that, even with the strongest spectacles, his sight was not to be depended upon; and they might have found out for themselves that his hearing was very defective, although, on this point, he obstinately adhered to his own opinion, and was frequently heard to regret the carelessness of people's communication nowadays, "like writing on blotting-paper, all the words running into each other," he would say. And more than once Mr. Hall had had attacks of a suspicious nature,—"rheumatism" he used to call them, but he prescribed for himself as if they had been gout—which had prevented his immediate attention to imperative summonses. But, blind and deaf, and rheumatic as he might be, he was still Mr. Hall the doctor who could heal all their ailments—unless they died meanwhile—and he had no right to speak of growing old, and taking a partner.
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