“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’m 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’m 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 Phœbe, who had not the character of esprits-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 Phœbe’s breast.

“It is handsome,” that lady replied. “It is a likeness of my dear mother; Dorothy has got my father on. The miniatures were both taken at the same time; and just about then my uncle died and left us each a legacy of fifty pounds, which we agreed to spend on the setting of our miniatures. But, because they are so valuable, Dorothy always keeps them locked up with the best silver, and hides the box somewhere; she

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