“Well, I think the least you can do is to tell us something of Mr. Sheepshanks’s conversation, now you have torn yourself away from him.”

“Conversation! did I call it conversation? I don’t think I said much. I listened. He really has always a great deal to say. More than Preston, for instance. And, by the way, he was telling me something about Preston;—old Sheepshanks thinks he’ll be married before long—he says there’s a great deal of gossip going on about him and Gibson’s daughter. They’ve been caught meeting in the park, and corresponding, and all that kind of thing that is likely to end in a marriage.”

“I shall be very sorry,” said Lady Harriet. “I always liked that girl; and I can’t bear papa’s model land- agent.”

“I daresay it’s not true,” said Lady Cumnor, in a very audible aside to Lady Harriet. “Papa picks up stories one day, to contradict them the next.”

“Ah, but this did sound like truth. Sheepshanks said all the old ladies in the town had got hold of it, and were making a great scandal out of it.”

“I don’t think it does sound quite a nice story. I wonder what Clare could be doing to allow such goings- on,” said Lady Cuxhaven.”

“I think it’s much more likely that Clare’s own daughter—that pretty, pawky Miss Kirkpatrick—is the real heroine of this story,” said Lady Harriet. “She always looks like a heroine of genteel comedy; and those young ladies were capable of a good deal of innocent intriguing, if I remember rightly. Now, little Molly Gibson has a certain gaucherie about her which would disqualify her at once from any clandestine proceedings. Besides, ‘clandestine’! why, the child is truth itself. Papa, are you sure Mr. Sheepshanks said it was Miss Gibson that was exciting Hollingford scandal? Wasn’t it Miss Kirkpatrick? The notion of her and Mr. Preston making a match of it doesn’t sound so incongruous; but, if it’s my little friend Molly, I’ll go to church and forbid the banns.”

“Really, Harriet, I can’t think what always makes you take such an interest in all these petty Hollingford affairs.”

“Mamma, it’s only tit for tat. They take the most lively interest in all our sayings and doings. If I were going to be married, they would want to know every possible particular—when we first met, what we first said to each other, what I wore, and whether he offered by letter or in person. I’m sure those good Miss Brownings were wonderfully well-informed as to Mary’s methods of managing her nursery, and educating her girls; so it’s only a proper return of the compliment to want to know on our side how they are going on. I’m quite of papa’s faction. I like to hear all the local gossip.”

“Especially when it is flavoured with a spice of scandal and impropriety, as in this case,” said Lady Cumnor, with the momentary bitterness of a convalescent invalid. Lady Harriet coloured with annoyance. But then she rallied her courage, and said with more gravity than before—.

“I am really interested in this story about Molly Gibson, I own. I both like and respect her: and I do not like to hear her name coupled with that of Mr. Preston. I can’t help fancying papa has made some mistake.”

“No, my dear. I’m sure I’m repeating what I heard. I’m sorry I said anything about it, if it annoys you or my lady there. Sheepshanks did say Miss Gibson, though, and he went on to say it was a pity the girl had got herself so talked about; for it was the way they had carried on that gave rise to all the chatter. Preston himself was a very fair match for her, and nobody could have objected to it. But I’ll try and find a more agreeable piece of news. Old Marjory at the lodge is dead; and they don’t know where to find some one to teach clear-starching at your school; and Robert Hall made forty pounds last year by his apples.” So they drifted away from Molly and her affairs; only Lady Harriet kept turning what she had heard over in her own mind with interest and wonder.

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