« PreviousContinue »
what you'll have for dinner, without never a one interfering with you."
"If that's all!" said Miss Browning, drawing herself up, "I can do that; and, perhaps, better than a woman who has a husband to please."
"No one can say as I didn't please my husbands—both on 'em, though Jeremy was tickler in his tastes than poor Harry Beaver. But as I used to say to 'em, 'Leave the victual to me; it's better for you than knowing what's to come beforehand. The stomach likes to be taken by surprise. And neither of 'em ever repented 'em of their confidence. You may take my word for it, beans and bacon will taste better (and Mr. Ashton's Nancy in her own house) than all the sweetbreads and spring chickens she's been a-doing for him this seventeen years. But if I chose, I could tell you of something as would interest you all a deal more than old Nancy's marriage to a widower with nine children—only as the young folks themselves is meeting in private, clandestine-like, it's perhaps not for me to tell their secrets."
"I'm sure I don't want to hear of clandestine meetings between young men and young women," said Miss Browning, throwing up her head. "It's disgrace enough to the people themselves, I consider, if they enter on a love affair without the proper sanction of parents. I know public opinion has changed on the subject; but when poor Gratia was married to Mr. Byerley, he wrote to my father without ever having so much as paid her a compliment, or said more than the most trivial and commonplace things to her; and my father and mother sent for her into my father's study, and she said she was never so much frightened in her life,—and they said it was a very good offer, and Mr. Byerley was a very worthy man, and they hoped she would behave properly to him when he came to supper that night. And after that he was allowed to come twice a week till they were married. My mother and I sate at our work in the bow-window of the Rectory drawing-room, and Gratia and Mr. Byerley at the other end; and my mother always called my attention to some flower or plant in the garden when it struck nine, for that was his time for going. Without offence to the present company, I am rather inclined to look upon matrimony as a weakness to which some very worthy people are prone; but if they must be married, let them make the best of it, and go through the affair with dignity and propriety: or if there are misdoings and clandestine meetings, and such things, at any rate, never let me hear about them! I think it's you to play, Mrs. Dawes. You'll excuse my frankness on the subject of matrimony I Mrs. Goodenough there can tell you I'm a very outspoken person.
"It's not the out-speaking, it's what you say that goes against me, Miss Browning," said Mrs. Goodenough, affronted, yet ready to play her card as soon as needed. And as for Mrs. Dawes, she was too anxious to get into the genteelest of all (Hollingford) society to object to whatever Miss Browning (who, in right of being a deceased rector's daughter, rather represented the selectest circle of the little town) advocated—celibacy, marriage, bigamy, or polygamy.
So the remainder of the evening passed over without any further reference to the secret Mrs. Goodenough was burning to disclose, unless a remark made apropos de rien by Miss Browning, during the silence of a deal, could be supposed to have connection with the previous conversation. She said suddenly and abruptly,—
"I don't know what I have done that any man should make me his slave." If she was referring to any prospect of matrimonial danger she saw opening before her fancy, she might have been comforted. But it was a remark of which no one took any notice, all being far too much engaged in the rubber. Only when Miss Browning took her early leave (for Miss Phoebe had a cold, and was an invalid at home), Mrs. Goodenough burst out with—
"Well! now I may speak out my mind, and say as how if there was a slave between us two, when Goodenough was alive, it wasn't me; and I don't think as it was pretty in Miss Browning to give herself such airs on her virginity when there was four widows in the room,—who've had six honest men among 'em for husbands. No offence, Miss Airy!" addressing an unfortunate little spinster, who found herself the sole representative of celibacy now that Miss Browning was gone. "I could tell her of a girl as she's very fond on, who's on the high road to matrimony; and in as cunning a way as ever I heard on; going out at dusk to meet her sweetheart, just as if she was my Betty, or your Jenny. And her name is Molly too,—which, as I have often thought, shows a low taste in them as first called her so;—she might as well be a scullery-maid at once. Not that she's picked up anybody common; she's looked about her for a handsome fellow, and a smart young man enough!"
Every one around the table looked curious and intent on the disclosures being made, except the hostess, Mrs. Dawes, who smiled intelligence with her eyes, and knowingly pursed up her mouth until Mrs. Goodenough had finished her tale. Then she said demurely,—
"I suppose you mean Mr. Preston and Miss Gibson?"
"Why, who told you?" said Mrs. Goodenough, turning round upon her in surprise. "You can't say as I did. There's many a Molly in Hollingford, besides her,—though none, perhaps, in such a genteel station in life. I never named her, I'm sure."
"No. But I know. I could tell my tale too," continued Mrs. Dawes.
"No ! could you, really ?" said Mrs. Goodenough, very curious and a little jealous.
"Yes. My uncle Sheepshanks came upon them in the Park Avenue,—he startled 'em a good deal, he said; and when he taxed Mr. Preston with being with his sweetheart, he didn't deny it."
"Well! Now so much has come out, I'll tell you what I know. Only, ladies, I wouldn't wish to do the girl an unkind turn,—so you must keep what I've got to tell you a secret." Of course they promised; that was easy.
"My Hannah, as married Tom Oakes, and lives in Pearson's Lane, was a-gathering of damsons only a week ago, and Molly Gibson was a-walking fast down the lane,—quite in a hurry like to meet some one,—and Hannah's little Anna-Maria fell down, and Molly (who's a kind-hearted lass enough) picked her up; so if Hannah had had her doubts before, she had none then."
"But there was no one with her, was there?" asked one of the ladies, anxiously, as Mrs. Goodenough stopped to finish her piece of cake, just at this crisis.
"No : I said she looked as if she was going to meet some one,— and by-and-by comes Mr. Preston running out of the wood just beyond Hannah's, and says he, 'A cup of water, please, good woman, for a lady has fainted, or is 'sterical or something.' Now though he didn't know Hannah, Hannah knew him. 'More folks know Tom Fool, than Tom Fool knows,' asking Mr. Preston's pardon; for he's no fool whatever he be. And I could tell you more,—and what I've seed with my own eyes I seed her give him a letter in Grinstead's shop, only yesterday, and he looked as black as thunder at her, for he seed me if she didn't." ladies, I'll wish you a very good night. I cannot abide waste; and I'll venture for it Hetty's letting the candle in the lantern run all to grease, instead of putting it out, as I've told her to do, if ever she's got to wait for me."
"It's a very suitable kind of thing," said Miss Airy; "why do they make such a mystery of it?"
"Some folks like it," said Mrs. Dawes; "it adds zest to it all, to do their courting underhand."
"Ay, it's like salt to their victual," put in Mrs. Goodenough. "But I didn't think Molly Gibson was one of that sort, I didn't."
"The Gibsons hold themselves very high?" cried Mrs. Dawes, more as an inquiry than an assertion. "Mrs. Gibson has called upon me."
"Ay, you're like to be a patient of the doctor's," put in Mrs. Goodenough.
"She seemed to me very affable, though she is so intimate with the Countess and the family at the Towers; and is quite the lady herself; dines late, I've heard, and everything in style."
"Style! very different style to what Bob Gibson, her husband, was used to when first he came here,—glad of a mutton-chop in his surgery, for I doubt if he'd a fire anywhere else ; we called him Bob Gibson then, but none on us dare Bob him now; I'd as soon think o' calling him sweep!"
"I think it looks very bad for Miss Gibson !" said one lady, rather anxious to bring back the conversation to the more interesting present time. But as soon as Mrs. Goodenough heard this natural comment on the disclosures she had made, she fired round on the speaker:—
"Not at all bad, and I'll trouble you not to use such a word as that about Molly Gibson, as I've known all her life. It's odd, if you will. I was odd myself as a girl; I never could abide a plate of gathered gooseberries, but I must needs go and skulk behind a bush and gather 'em for myself. It's some folk's taste, though it mayn't be Miss Browning's, who'd have all the courting done under the nose of the family. All as ever I said was that I was surprised at it in Molly Gibson; and that I'd ha' thought it was liker that pretty piece of a Cynthia as they call her; indeed, at one time I was ready to swear as it was her Mr. Preston was after. And now,