MRS MASON had spent a full week at Gowan Brae before the quiet of the well-ordered family was interrupted by the return of the new-married pair. They at length came, accompanied by Mr Flinders, who, with Mr Mollins, went immediately into Mr Stewart's business-room, Bell meantime going into the parlour. On seeing Mrs Mason she drew herself up haughtily, with a look expressive of surprise; and, in return to her salutation, dropped a very distant curtsey. The good woman perfectly understood the meaning of her behaviour; but, not at all discomposed by it, placidly resumed her work.
'Well,' said Mary, ' I suppose your time has been pleasantly spent at Mount Flinders, as you have stayed so much longer than you intended.'
'One's time is always spent pleasantly there,' returned Bell. ' How can it be otherwise with people who always keep company with people of fashion like themselves ! It is some advantage, indeed, to have such neighbours : so gay and so agreeable; and we have been so happy ! Do you know we never sat down to dinner till six o'clock, nor have gone to bed till past three in the morning.'
'Then,' said Mary, smiling, 'you dined at the same hour that our ploughmen dine all the winter; and as to going to bed at three in the morning, the shepherd has kept still genteeler hours than you, for I believe that during the last week he has never gone to bed till daybreak.'
'I wonder how you can talk of such vulgar wretches,' returned Mrs Mollins. ' If you would but do yourself justice, you might soon rise out of the low sphere in which you have been buried. You ought now to aspire to something superior. I am sure I shall always be happy to assist you; and, with Mr Mollins's connections, you may get into the genteelest society when you please. Do you know that Lord Dashmore has been two days at Mount Flinders, and paid Mr Mollins and me such attention? He has invited us to spend our Christmas at Dashmore Lodge. Won't it be charming ! But his lordship has quite a friendship for Mr Mollins. They played together at billiards all the morning: and Mr Harry Spend assured me that Mr Mollins was by far the most graceful player of the two; but every one observes what a fine figure Mr Mollins has.'
'But, my dear Bell, did not Mr Mollins tell my father that business called him immediately to England ? How is it, then, that he contrives to spend his Christmas at Dashmore Lodge?'
'How little you know of genteel life !' cried Mrs Mollins. ' Do you think that men of fashion tie themselves down to rules of going here or there to a day, as my father does? Mr Mollins ought, to be sure, to visit his estate in Dorsetshire this winter, but a few weeks' delay can be of no consequence. And, besides, were he to go there at Christmas time, he must entertain all his neighbours, which, he says, would be a great bore; so he thinks it better to put it off till they have gone up to Parliament, and then he will leave me at Bath, and take a dash down by himself. But I hear the gentlemen coming in; pray don't say that I mentioned—'
At that moment the door opened; and Mr Stewart entered, saying, with a disturbed air, that his daughter's presence was necessary, and that he wished Mrs Mason and Mary to accompany her to his writing-chamber. While he spoke, Mr Flinders softly came up, and laying his hand upon his shoulder, ' I wish, Mr Stewart,' said he, ' I really wish I could persuade you to consent with cheerfulness. You cannot fail to offend Mr Mollins by betraying such a want of confidence in his honour. Has he not promised, on the word of a gentleman, to make a settlement on Mrs Mollins suitable to his fortune ?'
'Where is his fortune !' cried Mr Stewart, peevishly. ' He may carry it all on his back for aught I know to the contrary.'
'I do assure you, you wrong my friend Mollins greatly,' replied Mr Flinders. ' Mr Spurton told me lie had hunted over his estate in Dorsetshire many times, and that his father kept the best pack of hounds in the country. Do you think, my dear sir, that if I had not known him to be a man of fortune—'
'Pho !' said Mr Stewart, ' if he is a man of foitune, why should he scruple to secure to my daughter this small sum?'
'Because you see, my dear sir, that to settle formally such a trifling matter would be, in his opinion, a sort of disgrace; and, besides, I dare say he wants the money.'
'I dare say he does,' said Mr Stewart, drily, ' and he must have it too. But I shall take all here to witness my intentions.' Mr Stewart then advanced to Mrs Mason to give her his arm, while Mr Flinders, Mrs Mollins, and Mary, stepped before them into the other room.
Mollins, who, as they entered, was sitting at the table, leaning his head upon his hand, apparently buried in thought, roused himself on seeing them, and was about to speak with his usual flippancy, when, perceiving Mrs Mason, he started, and momentarily changed colour, his complexion quickly varying from the pale hue of ashes to the deepest crimson.
Mrs Mollins observing her husband's confusion, went up and whispered to him : ' I don't wonder at your being surprised, my dear, to find such people here; but don't appear to mind it; my father has such odd notions!'
'Does she know me?' cried Mollins, eagerly; ' has he told you that she knows me?'
' No,' said Mrs Mason, who overheard the question ; ' Mrs Mollins does not know that I have ever had the honour of seeing you; perhaps if she had—but you and I shall talk of that another time, Mr Mollins. We are here, I understand, just now upon business. I hope I may tell Mr Stewart that you are willing to settle his daughter's fortune in any way he pleases.'
'You are very good, Mrs Mason,' cried Mollins in great confusion ; ' you were always good. I—I shall be guided by you entirely—only—only promise—you know what I mean—you-'
'I do know what you mean,' said Mrs Mason, ' and I shall promise to be your friend if I find that you deserve it.' Then, without taking any notice of the exclamations of surprise and astonishment that were bursting from every tongue, she invited Mr Mollins to a private conference in the adjoining room. In about half an hour they returned, and Mr Mollins, addressing himself to Mr Stewart, said, that as Mrs Mason had convinced him of the propriety of signing the papers he had shown him, he was now willing to do it immediately. The papers were signed and witnessed in solemn silence: Mr Flinders biting his lip all the while, not knowing what to make of the sudden turn which the appearance of Mrs Mason had given to the business. He began to entertain some unfavourable suspicions with regard to Mollins; but recollecting the obligations he had been under to him for introducing him to two lords and a sporting baronet at the cockpit, gratitude sealed his lips, and he took leave without any apparent diminution of regard.
'I am glad that he is gone !' cried Mary. 'We may now speak freely, and I am sure we all long to know how you and Mr Mollins come to be so well acquainted. My sister won't say so, but I see she is dying to hear.'
'I want to hear nothing about it,' cried Mrs Mollins ; 'but I know you always take a pleasure in mortifying me—I know you do.'
'Bell,' said Mr Stewart, ' if Mr Mollins has no acquaintances of whom he need be more ashamed, I congratulate you. I rejoice at least that I shall now have an opportunity of knowing who and what your husband is ; for I confess that-'
'And what should you know of any one at Gowan Brae?' cried Mrs Mollins. 'I am sure if it was not for seeing the Court Calendar at Mount Flinders, I should not have known the names of above twenty people in my life. But you have such a hatred to strangers, and such a prejudice against any one that is in the least genteel, that I believe you would rather have seen me married to a shoemaker than to a gentleman.'
'You had better not speak against shoemakers, my dear,' said Mrs Mason, ' as you happen to be nearly connected with several of them. I have on my feet at the present moment a pair of shoes made by your father-in-law, and I never wore better in my life; and though I believe he never was out of his native village, he is a very honest man.'
'Mr Mollins' father a shoemaker!' cried Bell; ' I wonder what you will say next. I declare I am quite diverted.' She then burst into an hysterical laugh, which ended in a passionate flood of tears. Poor Mary, who was really sorry for her sister, endeavoured to soothe the raging storm, but was repelled with indignation ; and Mrs Mason, who knew better how to treat such cases, begged her to desist until the tempest had spent itself. She then drew near, and in a gentle voice said, ' Believe me, I should hate myself, Mrs Mollins, if I could take pleasure in distressing you; but I have thought it better that you should know the truth than expose yourself to ridicule, by speaking of your husband's family, or of his circumstances or situation, in such a tone as that you lately assumed.'
Mrs Mollins, who was now quite exhausted, uttered a deep groan; then, after a few heavy sobs, cried, ' If I have been deceived I shall never see him again. No, I shall never live with him. I shall die sooner—Oh !' —then covering her face with her hands, she again wept bitterly.
'My dear Bell,' said Mr Stewart, taking her hand affectionately, 'you are still my child, your father's house will be ever open to you. But remember the vows that are upon you. You have bound yourself by ties that are as indissoluble as they are sacred, and though your husband were the lowest, nay, even the worst of mankind, your fate is bound in his.'
'But her husband is neither the one nor the other,' said Mrs Mason. ' He is, as I have told you, the son of an honest tradesman who lives in a small village in Yorkshire, and-'
'And—and—the—the estate in Dorsetshire, how did he come by it?' sobbed Mrs Mollins.
'He came by it,' said Mrs Mason, ' as people who forsake the direct path of truth come by all they boast of, telling one falsehood to support another; a species of lying, which, as it goes under the appellat ion of quizzing or humming, is often mistaken for wit.'
'Scoundrel ! villain !' cried Mr Stewart, vehemently.
'Nay, my good sir, be not so violent,' said Mrs Mason. ' He has been wrong, but he has been led step by step into error, and I really hope his heart is not corrupted. I think it is a proof of it that he has permitted me to tell all I know concerning him without disguise.'
Mr Stewart beckoning her to proceed, she thus continued:—
'When I first saw him he was about ten or twelve years old, and had obtained great praise for managing the horse he rode at our village races. I did not see the race, but I saw the little fellow when he came to my lady for his reward. She liked his appearance, and engaged him for a page; for she had always two that attended in the drawing-room, dressed in coats covered with lace. Jack was a great favourite with all the house. He was indeed a very good-natured boy, but was spoiled among the servants; and as he grew too tall for a page, my lady, when he was about sixteen, got him into one of the offices about Court as an under clerk. His salary was very small, but as he had a great ambition to be a gentleman, he was highly delighted with the promotion, and might have gone on very well had he not been led to gambling in the lottery. He had at one time, as we were told, pawned all his clothes, and was on the very brink of desperation, when fortune turned, and he got a prize of about 1500 pounds. The sum appeared to him immense : he gave up his employment, and purchasing a commission in a newly-raised regiment, commenced his career as a gentleman and man of fashion. One good trait still remained ; he did not forget his friends in this change of circumstances, but sent fifty pounds to his old father, and presents to his mother and sisters, who still speak of him as the best-hearted creature in the world.'
'Then there is some good in him !' cried Mr Stewart. ' O yes, there must be some good in him. Come, he is not so bad as I thought, after all.'
'Indeed there is good in him,' said Mrs Mason. ' He has only been led astray by vanity, and the foolish wish of being thought a great man. Had he been contented to rest upon his character for respectability, he would never have been otherwise than respectable 3 but his ambition to be genteel led him into the society of the showy and the dissipated, among whom he soon spent all his money; and when his regiment was disbanded, he found himself so much in debt, that he was obliged to leave England; and having met with the Flinders' at Bath, came down to this country, where he hoped to retrieve his fortune by a lucky marriage. In order to support the appearance of a gentleman, he borrowed money on his half-pay ; and having once been asked whether he belonged to the Mollins's of Mollins Hall, in Dorsetshire, he resolved to acknowledge the relationship, and accordingly gave himself out for the head of the family. You now know as much as I do, excepting with respect to a snare into which he was led by a gambler of the name of Spurton, whom he met at Edinburgh, and which might have led to fatal consequences. But from these he is now happily rescued. I must, however, in justice to poor Jack, say a few words more. He sincerely loves your daughter, and as he was in quest of a fortune far greater than hers, he would never have married her but from motives of affection. He at first, indeed, was made to believe that she was a great heiress; for so Mrs Flinders gave out; and before he was undeceived, his affections were engaged to her; so that they are, in this respect, exactly upon a footing.'
'They are, in every respect, upon a footing,' cried Mr Stewart. ' If his father is an honest tradesman, what is her father but an honest farmer? Believe me, I am quite relieved. You have taken a weight off my heart, Mrs Mason, by your account. If he has sense to apply to business, I shall put him in the way of doing it, and all may yet be well. Go, Mary, and bring him to us. I believe the poor fellow is ashamed to show his face.'
Mary went out and soon returned, leading in her brother-in-law, who wore indeed a very humbled and mortified aspect; and though much cheered by the reception given him by Mr Stewart, he seemed evidently afraid to approach his wife, who, with averted face, sat sad and dejected, twisting the string of her apron in the corner. Some days elapsed before she could be brought into spirits; but the absolute annihilation of all her vain hopes and aspiring views had already produced a salutary effect upon her temper.
Of all the plans of life that were suggested to Mollins, that which seemed most agreeable to his wishes was an employment in the West Indies, which he knew it was at present in the power of Mr Flinders to procure for him. But an application to Mr Flinders would necessarily be productive of explanations so mortifying, that it was vehemently opposed by Mrs Mollins, who said she would rather starve than be so looked down on by Mrs Flinders, who now respected her, because she thought she was married to a man of fortune.
'And if Mrs Flinders respects her friends only on account of their fortunes, I would not give that pinch of snuff for her respect,' cried Mr Stewart.
'O, it is not fortune that Mrs Flinders minds,' said Mrs Mollins; it is only being genteel and stylish— and—and all that.'
'And what right has Mrs Flinders to be genteel, and stylish, and all that, except from fortune?' returned Mr Stewart. ' Who are those Flinders?' Are they not the grandchildren of old Winkie Flinders that kept the little public-house at the end of the green loan? And was not the father of this Flinders transported for hen-stealing ? and did he not marry a planter's widow, and defraud her children, who, for aught I know, are now begging their bread, while this Flinders and his cousin, who was a broken milliner, are revelling in the fortune that should by right have been theirs !'
'O dear sir, you have such a memory for these tilings. But you know that nobody minds them but yourself; and that all the great people court Mr and Mrs Flinders, both in town and country.'
'Yes, yes,' said Mr Stewart, ' the vulgar of all ranks are mean and selfish. But don't mistake me, Bell; I do not despise the Flinders' on account of their want of birth, but on account of their paltry attempts at concealing the meanness of their origin by parade and ostentation. It is they, and such as they, who, by giving a false bent to ambition, have undermined our national virtues, and destroyed our national character; and they have done this by leading such as you to connect all notions of happiness with the gratification of vanity, and to undervalue the respect that attends on integrity and wisdom.'
After some further discussion, the application to Mr Flinders was agreed on; but it failed of the expected success; so that poor Mollins would still have remained unprovided for, had it not been for the friendship of his wife's cousin, the honest manufacturer whose attentions she had treated with such contempt. By the interest of this worthy man, an employment under government was obtained for Mollins, on condition that he and his wife should live in retirement, far from those temptations to extravagance which experience had proved they were so little able to resist.