He went on, without noticing her, talking to himself,—’I’ve a great mind to leave the place;—and what food for scandal that piece of folly would give rise to!’ Then he was silent for a time; his hands in his pockets, his eyes on the ground, as he continued his quarter-deck march. Suddenly he stopped close to Miss Browning’s chair. ’I’m thoroughly ungrateful to you, for as true a mark of friendship as you’ve ever shown to me. True or false, it was right I should know the wretched scandal that was being circulated; and it could not have been pleasant for you to tell it me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.’
’Indeed, Mr. Gibson, if it was false I would never have named it, but let it die away.’
‘It’s not true though!’ said he, doggedly, letting drop the hand he had taken in his effusion of gratitude.
She shook her head. ‘I shall always love Molly for her mother’s sake,’ she said. And it was a great concession from the correct Miss Browning. But her father did not understand it as such.
’You ought to love her for her own. She has done nothing to disgrace herself. I shall go straight home, and probe into the truth.’
’As if the poor girl who has been led away into deceit already would scruple much at going on in falsehood,’ was Miss Browning’s remark on this last speech of Mr. Gibson’s; but she had discretion enough not to make it until he was well out of hearing.
AN INNOCENT CULPRIT
With his head bent down—as if he were facing some keen-blowing wind— and yet there was not a breath of air stirring—Mr. Gibson went swiftly to his own home. He rang at the door-bell; an unusual proceeding on his part. Maria opened the door. ’Go and tell Miss Molly she is wanted in the dining-room. Don’t say who it is that wants her.’ There was something in Mr. Gibson’s manner that made Maria obey him to the letter, in spite of Molly’s surprised question,—
‘Wants me? Who is it, Maria?’
Mr. Gibson went into the dining-room, and shut the door, for an instant’s solitude. He went up to the chimney-piece, took hold of it, and laid his head on his hands, and tried to still the beating of his heart.
The door opened. He knew that Molly stood there before he heard her tone of astonishment.
‘Hush!’ said he, turning round sharply. ‘Shut the door. Come here.’
She came to him, wondering what was amiss. Her thoughts went to the Hamleys immediately. ‘Is it Osborne?’ she asked, breathless. If Mr Gibson had not been too much agitated to judge calmly, he might have deduced comfort from these three words.
But instead of allowing himself to seek for comfort from collateral evidence, he said,—’Molly, what is this I hear? That you have been keeping up a clandestine intercourse with Mr. Preston—meeting him in out-of-the-way places; exchanging letters with him in a stealthy way.’