‘How shocking!’ said Miss Phoebe, duly impressed.
’Besides, he plays at billiards and he bets at races, and some people do say he keeps race-horses.’
‘But is not it strange that the earl keeps him on as his agent?’
’No! perhaps not. He’s very clever about land, and very sharp in all law affairs; and my lord is not bound to take notice—if indeed he knows—of the manner in which Mr. Preston talks when he has taken too much wine.’
’Taken too much wine. Oh, sister, is he a drunkard? and we have had him to tea!’
‘I did not say he was a drunkard, Phoebe,’ said Miss Browning, pettishly. ’A man may take too much wine occasionally, without being a drunkard. Don’t let me hear you using such coarse words, Phoebe!’
Miss Phoebe was silent for a time after this rebuke.
’Presently she said, ‘I do hope it was not Molly Gibson.’
’You may hope as much as you like, but I’m pretty sure it was. However, we’d better say nothing about it to Mrs. Goodenough; she has got Cynthia into her head, and there let her rest. Time enough to set reports afloat about Molly when we know there’s some truth in them. Mr. Preston might do for Cynthia, who’s been brought up France, though she has such pretty manners; but it may have made her not particular. He must not, and he shall not, have Molly, if I go into church and forbid the banns myself; but I’m afraid—I’m afraid there’s something between her and him. We must keep on the lookout, Phoebe. I’ll be her guardian angel, in spite of herself.’
Mrs. Gibson came back full of rose-coloured accounts of London. Lady Cumnor had been gracious and affectionate, ’so touched by my going up to see her, so soon after her return to England;’ Lady Harriet charming and devoted to her old governess; Lord Cumnor ’just like his dear usual hearty self;’ and as for the Kirkpatricks, no Lord Chancellor’s house was ever grander than theirs, and the silk gown of the Q.C. had floated over housemaids and footmen. Cynthia, too, was so much admired; and as for her dress, Mrs. Kirkpatrick had showered down ball-dresses and wreaths, and pretty bonnets and mantles, like a fairy godmother. Mr. Gibson’s poor present of ten pounds shrank into very small dimensions compared with all this munificence.
‘And they’re so fond of her, I don’t know when we shall have her back,’ was Mrs. Gibson’s winding-up sentence. ’And now, Molly, what have you and papa been doing? Very gay, you sounded in your letter. I had not time to read it in London; so I put it in my pocket, and read it in the coach coming home. But, my dear child, you do look so old-fashioned with your gown made all tight, and your hair all tumbling about in curls. Curls are quite gone out.’ We must do your hair differently,’ she continued, trying to smooth Molly’s black waves into straightness.