And this sort of conversation was carried on

‘It is a very good thing to have somebody impartial to refer to,’ said
Lady William; ‘all our advisers take a side strongly. Now, Leo, you are
of no faction; you can give us fair advice.’

‘I am of your faction always,’ he said.

‘Ah, but I am of no faction. I am the seeker of advice. We want to be
well advised, Mab and I. By the way, she does take a side strongly, but
I will not tell you which it is.’

‘Expound the case, Miss Mab; I must know before I can say.’

‘So you shall know; but Mab must not tell you, for she has a bias. The
case is this: Mab you see is grown up—-’

He gave a glance at her in her (still) short frock, with her (still)
large waist, and round, artless, almost childish look.

‘I see,’ he said, with a smile.

‘And must presently be introduced into society. The question is, must it
be the society of Watcham, and is the dance at the FitzStephens’ to be
her _début_? or is she to enter the world in a different way, and be
taken to town for a season with all that follows? What is your opinion?’

‘Can there be two opinions?’ he said, opening his eyes wide. ‘This is
not treating me well. I hoped it was to be a difficult and delicate
question, but it is no question at all.’

‘You see,’ said Lady William to her daughter.

‘If you put it to him in that way, mother: but that is not the way.
Imagine, Mr. Leo, what they all want!–that mother, who is, I know,
better than the whole of them, every one, whoever they may be–should go
and–and–petition my uncle and his wife, who have never taken any
notice of us–to take me by the hand and introduce me, as people say,
into society: to introduce me–me, Mab, do you understand, to the Queen
and all the rest; to get me asked to parties with them–me, Mab, do you
understand?’ said the girl, beating upon her breast, ‘only me; and that
is what everybody wants, and mother hesitates and wonders whether she
ought to do it: and I,’ cried the girl, her dull eyes growing bright, ‘I
will obey mother. I have never gone against her yet except in the way of
reason, and if she were to tell me to jump into the river I would do it
(hoping to scramble out somewhere lower down); and I’ll do this of
course if I must, and perhaps escape alive–but never, never of my own
free will. Now say what you think, Mr. Leo. Isn’t it I that am in the
right?’

‘The question has a very different aspect, certainly,’ said Leo, ‘from
Miss Mab’s side.’

‘Hasn’t it?’ said the girl triumphantly. ‘Now I should be proud, mother,
if he who is of your faction should pronounce for me.’

‘But there is a great deal more to be said on both sides,’ said Leo; ‘we
have not come to a decision yet. And just tell me why you should not go
to town yourself as everybody does, and introduce your daughter in your
own person, and show yourself in the world? That would seem so much the
most natural way.’

‘Ah!’ cried Mab, with something like a shout of triumph. ‘That is
something like advice! I did not think much, I tell you true, of
consulting Mr. Leo–but now I see he is a Daniel come to judgment. And
to think that none of us ever thought of that before!’

Lady William grew red and she grew pale. It had not occurred to her,
strangely enough, that any one would suggest this simple alternative.
The other advisers, indeed, knew her position too well to think of it.
She said with a laugh: ‘You speak very much at your ease, you young
people. Where am I to get the money for a campaign in town? I might
squeeze out a few dresses for Mab–that is all I could do. You forget
that I am not a wealthy person like you, Leo. And then I know nobody. We
might as well stay here for anything I could do for her. Yes, the
Lenthalls might invite us, or Lady Wade, who belongs to this
neighbourhood; but nobody else. And we should be ruined! No, no; that is
more impossible than anything else. It must, I fear, be Lady Portcullis,
or nobody. Her aunt is her only hope.’

‘If I am to be sent off to Lady Portcullis like a brown-paper parcel,’
said Mab, ‘I will do what I’m told, mother; but I won’t discuss it any
more. Mr. Leo, I would ask you to stand up for me, if I thought you
could ever stand up against mother.’

‘It’s hard, isn’t it?’ said Leo; ‘but I will try as much as I can.’ He
got up to open the door for her (for by this time they had reached the
cottage), which was a thing Mab hated, feeling the attention very right
for her mother, but a sort of mockery in the case of a little girl like
herself. She submitted with her head bent; and then bolted like a young
colt, which she still was. It must be allowed that the young man, who,
according to all laws, ought to have preferred her company, was relieved
when she was gone. He came quickly back to where Lady William sat, her
head bowed upon her hand in much thought, and drew a low chair, Mab’s
little baby-chair, to her feet.

‘I have a counter proposition to make,’ he said, lightly touching her
hand to draw her attention.

She smiled, and said, ‘What is that?’ with a friendly indifference which
made him frown. It was very clear that his proposition, whatever it
might be, awakened no excitement, scarcely even curiosity, in Lady
William’s breast. He made a very long pause indeed, but she took no
notice until there had been time for various tumults and revolutions of
thought in his mind. Then she looked up, with a little start, to see him
in an attitude which was strangely like supplication, though he was in
reality only seated in the low chair. ‘Well,’ she said, in her easy
tone, ‘what is it? You keep me a long time in suspense.’

‘It was–nothing,’ he said.

‘Ah,’ said Lady William, with a laugh, ‘you pay me back in my own coin.’

‘Rather,’ he said in a changed tone, ‘let us say that it was this. We
must, I suppose, go to London next month–though my mother does not seem
to care for it now as I thought she would. However, we shall go; and why
should not you come too? Come with us; take Miss Mab where you please,
and come back when you please. It would obviate all the difficulties you
were speaking of, and secure all the—- What! You will not listen to
such a simple suggestion as that?’

There had been a great many exclamations on Lady William’s lips as he
went on, but she had smothered them one by one till it was impossible to
keep silence longer. ‘With your mother?’ she said, almost under her
breath.

‘Well: I should like it, oh, a great deal better, if it were with me;
but you think of me as if I were a cabbage, and my mother was your
friend–was she not your friend?–and I am your servant–to mount behind
your carriage, if you like.’

‘Do not speak nonsense, Leo; you are my very kind friend, and the
greatest acquisition, and if you had been going to town with your wife
instead of your mother—- It is not indispensable, don’t you know, that
old friends should continue friends for ever. Your mother was very good
to me once–that is, I believe, for a time: but it would do no good to
go into those old questions. She would not suffer me with her, nor would
I—- No, no; forgive me. That does not mean necessarily any harm, does
it? that we do not now–see things–exactly in the same light—-’

‘Then that is settled,’ he said gloomily, ‘so far as my mother is
concerned; as for me, though, you call me a friend and all that—-’

‘My dear boy,’ said Lady William, ‘you don’t imagine for a moment, I
hope, that I would let you pay my expenses–for the benefit of Mab?’

He paused again, gazing at her, saying nothing; then threw up his hands
with an impatient sigh.

‘And yet friendship is supposed to be something more than words,’ he
said.

‘There is one thing that friendship is not,’ said Lady William; ‘at
least, in England, Leo. It is not money. When that comes in it is
supposed to spoil all.’

‘What an absurd, false, conventional, inhuman, ridiculous view!’

‘Perhaps. Oh! I don’t know that it need tell between two young men.
There is an allowance to be made in that way for _bons camarades_. But I
think it is a just rule on the whole. My poor little experience is that
it is best not to be very much obliged to one’s neighbours. No, no! I
don’t say so for you, Leo. I believe you might give everything you have
to a friend, and never remind him of it–never recollect it even
yourself, as long as you lived.’

‘Is that much to say?’

‘In the way of the world, it is something extraordinary to say; but this
is a totally different question from my little problem, which is urged
upon me by your mother, Leo, as well as by my innocent people–my
brother and sister here.’

‘You think my mother is not innocent–that she had some other motive?’

‘I did not say so; why should she have another motive? Whatever there
may have been between her and me, I, at least, have done her no harm.’

‘Then it must be she who has harmed you?’

‘No; what can any one do to you, outside of yourself? All our troubles
come from our own faults or mistakes. We say faults when we speak of
others, mistakes when it is ourselves. You told me once that Miss
Mansfield–Artémise–had appeared again?’

‘Ah! I should like to know what she had to do with it,’ he cried.

‘Nothing,’ said Lady William; ‘but it would be important to me to know
where to find her. Will you find out for me? There is something which
she only knows which I am anxious to make sure of.’

‘Something important to you?’

‘They tell me so. I was not aware of it, and yet–if you could bring me
to speech of her, Leo, for five minutes. She was never unkind to me.’

‘She is a bird of evil omen!’ cried Leo; ‘wherever she appears some harm
follows.’

‘Ah!’ said Lady William, ‘and you said she was here the other day!’

‘There is something which has happened between you and my
mother–something she has done to you which you will not tell me?’

‘What could she have done to me?’ Lady William made a movement as though
shaking off some annoyance. ‘No; all she has done is to persuade me to
this–about Lady Portcullis and the introduction of Mab into society.
What could be more innocent?’ she said, with a laugh.

‘There is one thing,’ he said, ‘that one ought to do before giving an
opinion. Has Lady Portcullis ever shown any interest? I have met her;
she is very commonplace–one of the rigid English. Oh! very English. You
do not know her? she has not sought your acquaintance? Would she?–has
she ever?–do you think it is likely—-?’

Lady William laughed again, but uneasily, painfully. ‘You are a
sorcerer, Leo–this is the doubt I have never mentioned to any one–not
to Mab herself, not to my brother. Do I think it is likely—-? Since
you ask me, I must answer no; my pride prevented me from saying it–not
even to your mother did I say it–but she–ah!’ Lady William broke off
again, still laughing–and the evening was beginning to fade, but Leo
thought he could see the hot flush on her cheek.

‘I am not my mother’s champion,’ he said; ‘she has her peculiarities.
She may have thought it would embroil you with the family.’

‘That,’ said Lady William, ‘was the least of what she thought!’

‘Dear lady,’ he said, ‘here is some mystery. You know that I am of your
faction whatever happens. But you must tell me before I can do any
good.’

Lady William did not make any immediate reply. She said at last:
‘Artémise: if you can bring me to speech of Artémise, I shall want
nothing more.’ Then with a change of tone–‘Here is Mab coming back; no
more of it–no more of it! there has been too much already. Mab, Leo is
waiting till you give him some tea.’

‘Give it me strong and sweet,’ said Leo, who had jumped up from his low
chair with perhaps a touch of embarrassment–but Lady William felt
none–‘sweet and strong; for my head is a little confused, and I want it
clear.’

‘Is it all about me and my father’s people? That is very good of you,
Mr. Leo,’ said Mab, ‘to take so much interest–and have you converted
mother to my way of thinking?–which is the thing I want most.’

‘I have been doing my best,’ he said, standing up beside her against the
waning light in the window. And then it was for the first time that it
occurred to Lady William—- Well, she was no more a matchmaking mother
than you or I; but to see two young people together–one of them your
own child, and the other a very good match–very well off, and kind, and
true, and good, _par-dessus le marché_–this is a thing which will make
the most unworldly woman think. To be sure, Leo was twice or nearly
twice the age of Mab–but at their respective ages that was of no
consequence. It was true also that Leo gave unmistakable signs at this
present moment of much preferring Emily, the mother, to any
seventeen-year-old; but that Lady William in her wisdom thought less
important still. That would blow over quickly enough; it was scarcely
even worth a thought; but they were smiling at each other in a very
happy, pleasant way, she appealing, he answering the appeal. It was
nothing, but yet it was a suggestion–and how many pleasant things it
would involve! It was far too distant, too misty and vague to suggest to
the mother how she should feel in her cottage if her Mab was spirited
away. But it was a suggestion–and gave a new and agreeable direction to
her thoughts.

Leo remained until the lamp was brought in by little Patty, whose eyes
shone at the sight of him, partly because it pleased her to see ‘a
gentleman’ again in the house (for Patty was a matchmaker, if you
please, and never looked upon a ‘gentleman’ without an immediate
calculation whether or not he would ‘do’ for Miss Mab), and partly
because she felt that she must now be wholly forgiven for any wrong
thing she had done in respect to him, seeing he was allowed to come
back. Patty had never been sure what it was that she had done which was
wrong; but none the less was it evident to her that she herself must
have shared the pardon of the worst offender. And in the meantime there
had been a pleasant little hour over the tea-table; as if to encourage
her mother’s imagination, Mab had for once been seized with an impulse
to talk, which was a thing that happened to her now and then. And it was
beyond doubt that Leo was amused by her chatter, and responded gaily.
They discussed Lord and Lady Portcullis with great mutual satisfaction,
and the Ladies Pakenham, whom Leo had met in Paris; and he gave Mab a
great deal of information as to her family, which the girl received with
a mixture of amusement and offence, proving to her mother that there had
been more things even in little Mab’s thoughts than were dreamt of in
her philosophy. And then the young man went away, and they were left
alone to resume the controversy or not, as fate might decide. Lady
William, who had been brought into very close observation of her
daughter, left the subject in Mab’s hands–but Mab did not enter into it
again. She changed the subject to the FitzStephens’ dance, which was now
so near, and led her mother to a discussion of the dresses they were to
wear, which had the air of absorbing all Mab’s thoughts. ‘Do you think I
will look very fat in white, mother? and my arms so red and healthy,’
she said. And this sort of conversation was carried on until Mab fairly
put her mother, with all her anxieties and questions, to bed. The little
girl was not without questions in her own mind, questions about her
father, about the life she could not remember, or scarcely could
remember, in Paris; about the family and relations she had never seen.
By dint of much reflection it appeared to her that she could recollect a
stiff gentleman with a fat face, who must have been Lord Portcullis
himself. Why was it she knew nothing of her uncle? Why did he take no
notice? Was there any reason for it? or was it her mother’s fault? If
so, Mab was as strongly determined that she was of her mother’s faction
as ever Leo Swinford could be; but more still than Leo Swinford she
wanted to know from the beginning, and find out how and why it all was.

The night of the FitzStephens’ dance was a great one in Watcham. It was
not precisely a dance, to tell the truth, as, to temper the pretensions
belonging to the name of a ball, there was to be a little musical
performance to begin with–a duet from Emily and Florry Plowden, a few
pieces for violin and piano, and so on–which was sufficient to give
something of the air of an impromptu and accidental performance to the
dance, which, of course, was the real meaning of the whole. Some of the
people were so unkind as not to arrive till the music was over, which
was thought exceedingly bad taste by the performers and their families,
and gave the General and his wife a moment of dread lest the party they
had got up so carefully might not be a success after all. But by ten
o’clock the music was over, the piano rolled into its appointed corner,
and the music stands, which had been prepared for the violinists, put
away. The musicians who were engaged for the dance did not want any
music stands, and the assembled party required every scrap of room that
was available. The excellent FitzStephens had done wonders to enlarge
the space. They had taken away everything–almost the fixtures of the
house: doors were unhung, carpets lifted: I cannot really calculate the
trouble that had been taken. Even after the party assembled, the removal
of the chairs on which they had been seated to hear the music was a
matter of labour, for they were not all light chairs like those which
people in Watcham borrow by the dozen from Simpkinson of the ‘Blue
Boar,’ but included a number of comfortable easy-chairs for the ladies
who did not dance, of whom there were a considerable number. The
FitzStephens did not see the necessity of leaving the elder people out.
They were old themselves, and though they delighted in seeing the young
ones enjoy themselves, as they said, yet they liked also to have their
own playfellows, with whom to have a comfortable talk, while they looked
on. What Mrs. FitzStephen would have liked best would have been to keep
the elder ladies apart in the room which was called the General’s study,
which had a door (removed) into the dancing room, by the opening of
which (had it not been crowded by the elder gentlemen) the matrons could
have seen enough of their children’s performances, as well as have been
out of the way. This, however, was the one point which was not
successful in the arrangements, for the mothers preferred to cling to
the walls in the dancing room itself, at the risk of being swept away by
flying skirts, or trodden upon by nimble feet; and the fathers occupied
the doorway in a solemn block, so that nobody could see anything through
them. Even Lady William, who generally was so great a help in getting
people to stay where they were wanted, herself got into a corner in the
dancing room, taking up, it must be admitted, very little room, as she
stood up against the wall to watch how Mab got on among the dancers; and
Miss Grey, in a costume in which she had gone to all the parties in the
neighbourhood for the last twenty years, flitted about like an aged
butterfly, getting the puffs of superannuated tulle about her into
everybody’s way, in order to see not only how Mab got on, but how
everybody got on in whom she was interested, and that meant every girl
in the room. Thus Mrs. FitzStephen had one little point of vexation amid
the perfect success of everything else. But it was so natural. The
General declared that he himself liked to see the dancing, and was not
at all satisfied to be sent away into another room.

The reader, perhaps, would like to know at once how Mab, who was the
_débutante_ of the evening, got on. Her white frock was very simple,
being, as has been said, the manufacture of her mother and herself; but
Lady William was universally allowed to have great taste, and it is
saying a great deal to say that she herself was satisfied with the
effort. As a matter of fact, the finest dressmaker in the world could
not have disguised the fact that Mab’s figure was too solid, and her
well-formed, round arms a little too rosy with health, for perfect
grace. But that solid form and rosy tint agreed very well with the
childish roundness of the face, under the dimpled and infantile softness
of which Mab hid so much good sense and independent judgment of her own.
She looked as she was, like a little girl just escaped from the trammels
of childhood, enjoying the dance with all her might, without thinking
for a moment whether anybody admired her, or what people thought of her
dancing or demeanour, and without the slightest thrill of consciousness
in mind or person. Mab was so popular that she was a little bored at
first by her own success, for many of the most dignified persons
present, men quite old enough to be her father, considered it a right
thing to show their interest in her by ‘coming forward’ and performing a
solemn dance with her–General FitzStephen himself (who might have been
her grandfather) taking her out for a quadrille as he might have taken
Mrs. Swinford had she been there. There passed through Mab’s mind a
devout thanksgiving that Uncle James was a clergyman, or perhaps he
might have asked her too. The Archdeacon, indeed, who was also prevented
by his cloth from any such escapades, insisted on taking her to have an
ice, which she did not want, and which almost lost her one waltz. It
will be seen from this that the dance was all that a first dance ought
to be to Mab. Her card was filled before she had been two minutes in the
room, the gentlemen crowding round her, so that before the end of the
evening she, who accepted everybody at first with smiles and pleasure,
became critical, and actually threw over young Mr. Wade, one of the
county people, whom most girls delighted to dance with, in order to
career over the floor with Jim for the third time in succession, to the
astonishment of everybody. Jim, with whom she was on terms of easy
family intimacy, finding fault with him all the time, was, on the whole,
the dancer she preferred–though there was much to be said for Leo, who
was making himself extremely agreeable, and whose ‘style’ most of the
ladies admired greatly as something quite out of the common, and not in
the least like the careless romping of Bobby Wade, who had been supposed
to be the representative of the fashionable world, and to bring the last
graces of the _beau monde_ to astonish the villagers. That Mr. Swinford,
on the contrary, should be so quiet, so far from any ideas of romping,
filled the ladies with surprise, who had been watching Bobby as the
glass of fashion and the mould of form. But Mab thought, and did not
hesitate to say so, that Leo was a little stiff. She said whatever came
into her head, that daring little girl–she was not afraid of offending
anybody, especially not Mr. Leo, as she called him, to the admiration
and wonder of all the other girls.

Mab, in short, enjoyed herself so much, and was so frankly delighted
with the progress of events, that the questions that were poured upon
her by all the old ladies became superfluous.

‘Well, Mab, are you getting partners?’ Mrs. Plowden said, whose
attention had been riveted upon her own children, and who, in sincerity,
had scarcely noticed Mab until she danced with Jim.

‘Partners! she has never once sat down the whole evening,’ cried Miss
Grey.

Mrs. Plowden was aware that Emmy had not danced the two last dances, and
she felt the humiliation; but she smiled. ‘Everybody is anxious that a
girl should enjoy her first ball,’ she said. ‘Jim wanted you so much to
enjoy yourself to-night.’

‘Well, she paid him back for it,’ said Miss Grey; ‘she threw over Bobby
Wade for him.’

‘Bobby Wade!’ cried Mrs. Plowden.

Bobby Wade had not asked either of the Rectory girls. This little
heartburning ran on along all the line of mothers who sat or stood by
the wall. Mr. Wade and Mr. Swinford were the two men whose approach made
every heart beat. Those who had not been asked by them–or, rather,
whose daughters had not been asked by them–felt the vanity of the whole
affair, and that the apples which were so bright outside were but ashes
within. Leo, for his part, worked very hard that nobody might be left
out; but young Wade did not care in the least, dancing up with his arm
extended to the young lady he fancied, when he pleased, and carrying her
off sometimes under the very nose of her partner.

‘He had better not try that on with me,’ said Jim.

‘What would you do? You couldn’t knock him down in Mrs. FitzStephen’s
room?’

‘No, I don’t suppose I could do that,’ said Jim, ‘for their sakes; but I
should certainly give him to understand—-’

‘How could you give him to understand?’ said Mab, pursuing her cousin
with pitiless practicality. But, as it happened, the proof of what Jim
could do occurred at once, for Mr. Wade made a long step up to her–her
very self–and held out that insolent arm.

‘Our da-ance, I think,’ he said.

‘Indeed, it is nothing of the kind!’ said Mab; ‘I am not engaged to you
at all—-’

Wade opened his eyes very wide, and looked as if he could not believe
his ears. ‘I assure you this is ours–booked first thing in the evening.
Come!’ he said.

‘We are losing half the waltz,’ said Mab to her partner, and they dashed
off, brushing against Mr. Wade’s extended arm. It was very rude, and
Lady William took her daughter very much to task for her want of
politeness.

‘But it wasn’t the least his dance–he had nothing to do with it,
mother.’

‘That may be,’ said Lady William, ‘but it is one thing to refuse a
partner and another nearly to knock him down.’

‘Oh, did we knock him down?’ said Mab, delighted, and softly clapping
her hands. She was disappointed to hear that he had not been knocked
down at all, but was standing in a corner of the room very sulky, and
vowing vengeance upon the little fat thing who had rejected his
condescending offer. When, however, the Rectory girls and some others
surrounded her open-mouthed, to hear what it all meant, Mab took higher
ground. ‘If I hadn’t snubbed him,’ she said, ‘Jim would have punched his
head, or something. He told me he would not stand it, so I thought it
better a girl should do it than a boy. He may sulk, but he cannot do
anything to me. And what do I care for his sulking? He cannot dance a
bit,’ said this high-handed young lady, who had not a dance, not even an
extra, to give to any one; others who were not so deeply engaged did
not, perhaps, feel themselves so free. They surrounded her, however,
with a certain wondering admiration, and those girls who were not
acquainted with Bobby Wade, and who had hitherto been a little ashamed
of the fact, now proclaimed it as a superiority.

‘He is such bad form,’ they all said.

It need scarcely be said that there were other things in Lady William’s
mind than even her child’s success, as she stood up in her corner
watching the dancers. It would be to do great injustice to Mrs.
FitzStephen, a woman of very good connections, and who had taken so much
trouble to make her party everything that a party in a village, out of
London, out of the great world, could be, to say that it was in any
sense of the word common or inferior. They were all very nice people,
some even, as has been seen, from the county, for Bobby Wade had brought
his sisters with him, who really gave themselves no airs at all among
the village folk, though they did what they could to appropriate Leo,
and gave him to understand that he was the only man in the least degree
of their own set. But Lady William, as she looked round the room, was
haunted by an altogether unreasonable regret and discomfort, which she
was indignant with herself for feeling, but which came into her mind in
spite of her. This was not the scene, she said to herself, in which Mab
should be making her first acquaintance with the world. Then, why not?
her self said to her, hotly. It would have been far better for Mab’s
mother if she had never known any other; if she had looked forward to an
innocent dance in the village as her greatest pleasure, and never
stepped out of that simple circle. Ah, but she had done so, the other
visionary party in the argument said. She had stepped out of that
circle, and her daughter was Lord William Pakenham’s daughter as well
as hers: and was it not a wrong to Mab that she should be here where
everybody looked up to the Wades, people who were of no particular
importance, whose origin could not be compared to hers? These things
Lady William was pondering with a grave face, when General FitzStephen
came up to her, dodging between the dancers, to take her to supper.

‘I know you never take supper,’ the General said, ‘but none of the
ladies can move till you do, and I should think you would at least be
glad to sit down a little.’

None of the ladies could move till she did. That was true enough; she
had the benefit, such as it was, of her rank. Lady Wade it was well
known would not come to the village festivities because she was unseated
from her usual priority by the superior claims of Lady William. She had
the advantage, such as it was; but the child—-

‘Mab is having a thoroughly “good time,”’ said the General. ‘You need
not concern yourself with her any more. She is as happy as the night is
long, and I hope the young ones will make it long and keep it up. They
all seem to be enjoying themselves tremendously now.’

‘Yes; they all seem very happy. It is so kind of you—-’

‘To give ourselves the pleasure of seeing them so?’ said the old
General. ‘I don’t call that kindness but selfishness on our parts. My
wife was always fond of young people–which made it more a regret to us
in former times that we had no children of our own.’

‘Yes, indeed; how strange it is–you who would have done them so much
justice–who would have been such perfect parents! and they seem to be
sown broadcast about the streets at everybody’s door.’

‘We must not say that, for, of course, Providence arranges for the
best,’ said the General, ‘and I don’t regret it now–I don’t regret it
now. The worst troubles that people have come through their
children–either they have not enough for them; or they spend everything
their parents have got; or they are ill-behaved; or they are unhappy.
And there is scarcely a moment of their lives that fathers and mothers
are not at their children’s mercy, to be struck to the ground by one
thing or another–perhaps misfortune perhaps death. Oh no, my dear lady,
I do not regret it. I am very glad to be ending my life with my dear
wife without anxiety–now.’

‘And yet I can’t contemplate life at all without my Mab,’ Lady William
said.

‘Ah, my dear lady, that is exactly what I say. You are entirely in her
power. You can’t call your soul your own. If she were to take a perverse
line, or if she were to fall ill—-’

‘For Heaven’s sake, General, don’t be such an evil prophet,’ she said,
with a shiver, and then laughing, ‘I had meant to distinguish myself at
supper, and you have taken all my appetite away.’

‘I don’t believe in your appetite,’ said the fatherly old gentleman; ‘I
have never seen it yet. But seriously, even you must be pleased with
Mab’s little success; and I hear she snubbed Bobby Wade. Do him all the
good in the world to be well snubbed by a little girl. The little fool
thinks he has all the girls at his feet. But Mab will never be of that
mind.’

‘She is independent enough. I wonder what you will think of my puzzle,
General. They say that I ought not to keep her here in the village–that
she ought to come out under her aunt, Lady Portcullis’, auspices,
instead of living so quietly here with me.’

‘They talk nonsense, my dear lady,’ said the General; ‘a girl is always
best, and I think she always looks her nicest, by her mother’s side.’

‘Thank you for that kind opinion, General.’

‘But I can’t see any reason,’ said the old gentleman, ‘why her mother, a
lady whom we all admire and honour, should not herself abandon the quiet
corner a little (though we should miss her dreadfully), and bring out
her daughter, which would be better than any Lady Portcullis in the
world.’

‘Ah, but that is impossible,’ Lady William said quickly. She was moved a
little out of her place by the rush of the procession from the
drawing-room, all the elder ladies going in; but presently she went back
and addressed herself to doing her duty by Mrs. FitzStephen in guiding
these elder ladies as they returned into the smaller room. ‘We may as
well make ourselves comfortable here,’ she said, ‘since all the children
are happy and in full swing.’ It was always Lady William who settled
these things–and so quietly. The ladies were very glad of comfortable
seats after standing half the evening against the wall, and the General
managed to get up the quiet rubber he loved, while still one waltz
followed another, and the whirling figures went round and round.

‘Tell me,’ said Leo Swinford, coming in behind her a little out of
breath, ‘why Miss Wade tells me I am the only one of her set. I am not
of her set, or any set; is it intended to be civil, or what does she
mean?’

‘She means that the rest of us are of the village, and she and you are
of the county, which is a very different thing.’

‘It is a distinction I do not understand. Nobility and gentry!–yes, I
know what that means: but we are not noblesse at all, neither she nor I.
We are more or less rich–no two of us the same–but is that the only
distinction here?’

‘Oh no; there are a great many grades of distinction. The county means
the aristocracy—-’

‘Permit me; you and Miss Mab are the only persons noble here–is that
not so? Ah, you will have to give me many lessons to bring me to a
proper understanding.

‘And yet I condemn Mab to be nobody,’ said Lady William. ‘Yes, that is
what I am doing. Her old friends are very good to her. She has her
little triumph to-night. But it will not always be her first ball. And
it is I who keep her in obscurity. I think I am learning my lesson more
quickly than you do yours.’