Cynthia at Bay

Mrs. Gibson was slow in recovering her strength after the influenza; and, before she was well enough to accept Lady Harriet’s invitation to the Towers, Cynthia came home from London. If Molly had thought her manner of departure was scarcely as affectionate and considerate as it might have been—if such a thought had crossed Molly’s fancy for an instant, she was repentant for it, as soon as ever Cynthia returned; and the girls met together face to face, with all the old familiar affection, going upstairs to the drawing-room, with their arms round each other’s waists, and sitting there together hand in hand. Cynthia’s whole manner was more quiet than it had been, when the weight of her unpleasant secret rested on her mind, and made her alternately despondent or flighty.

“After all,” said Cynthia, “there’s a look of home about these rooms which is very pleasant. But I wish I could see you looking stronger, mamma! that’s the only unpleasant thing. Molly, why didn’t you send for me?”

“I wanted to do”—— began Molly.

“But I wouldn’t let her,” said Mrs. Gibson. “You were much better in London than here, for you could have done me no good; and your letters were very agreeable to read; and now Helen is better, and I’m nearly well, and you’ve come home just at the right time, for everybody is full of the Charity Ball.”

“But we are not going this year, mamma,” said Cynthia decidedly. “It’s on the 25th, isn’t it? and I’m sure you’ll never be well enough to take us.”

“You really seem determined to make me out worse than I am, child,” said Mrs. Gibson, rather querulously, she being one of those who, when their malady is only trifling, exaggerate it, but when it is really of some consequence, are unwilling to sacrifice any pleasures by acknowledging it. It was well for her in this instance that her husband had wisdom and authority enough to forbid her going to this ball, on which she had set her heart; but the consequence of his prohibition was an increase of domestic plaintiveness and low spirits, which seemed to tell on Cynthia—the bright, gay Cynthia herself—and it was often hard work for Molly to keep up the spirits of two other people as well as her own. Ill-health might account for Mrs. Gibson’s despondency; but why was Cynthia so silent, not to say so sighing? Molly was puzzled to account for it; and all the more perplexed, because from time to time Cynthia kept calling upon her for praise for some unknown and mysterious virtue that she had practised; and Molly was young enough to believe that, after any exercise of virtue, the spirits rose, cheered up by an approving conscience. Such was not the case with Cynthia, however. She sometimes said such things as these, when she had been particularly inert and desponding:—

“Ah, Molly, you must let my goodness lie fallow for a while! It has borne such a wonderful crop this year. I have been so pretty-behaved—if you knew all!” Or, “Really, Molly, my virtue must come down from the clouds! It was strained to the utmost in London; and I find it is like a kite—after soaring aloft for some time, it suddenly comes down, and gets tangled in all sorts of briars and brambles; which things are an allegory—unless you can bring yourself to believe in my extraordinary goodness, while I was away, giving me a sort of right to fall foul of all mamma’s briars and brambles now.”

But Molly had had some experience of Cynthia’s whim of perpetually hinting at a mystery which she did not mean to reveal, in the Mr. Preston days, and, although she was occasionally piqued into curiosity, Cynthia’s allusions at something more in the background fell in general on rather deaf ears. One day the mystery burst its shell, and came out in the shape of an offer made to Cynthia by Mr. Henderson—and refused. Under all the circumstances, Molly could not appreciate the heroic goodness so often alluded to. The revelation of the secret at last took place in this way. Mrs. Gibson breakfasted in bed: she had done so ever since she had had the influenza; and, consequently, her own private letters always went up on her breakfast-tray. One morning she came into the drawing-room earlier than usual, with an open letter in her hand.

“I’ve had a letter from Aunt Kirkpatrick, Cynthia. She sends me my dividends—your uncle is so busy. But what does she mean by this, Cynthia?” (holding out the letter to her, with a certain paragraph indicated

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