Do you want to speak to somebody?

Mab went home from her visit to Mrs. Brown a very different girl from
that little person who had run off from the group of her friends to ask
the co-operation of the schoolmistress–which had seemed to her a very
amusing mission. She had wondered much how it would be taken–with
satire or with pleasure. Mrs. Brown’s tongue was one which could sting,
Mab knew; but a tongue is all the more amusing for that, when its sting
is not for one’s self. Mab rather liked to hear her sending her arrows
from right to left. She had thought that probably it was misfortune that
caused this, and the sense which people who have seen better days are
apt to entertain that it is somehow a wrong to themselves that other
people should be prosperous. We are all, unfortunately, too apt to feel
so. Blatant prosperity, smiling and smooth, how hard it is for the rest
of us not to hate its superior well-being, even if we do not think that
it is something taken from ourselves. But that was a very different
thing from the dreadful confidences which Mab had received, and which
made of her, even herself, who had certainly nothing to do with Mrs.
Brown’s sin, a heavy-laden and burdened spirit. Little Mab, who had run
down to the schoolhouse as light as a feather–though she was not, as
the reader is aware, one of your thread-paper girls–came back from it
as if she had carried that pack upon her back which Christian had in the
_Pilgrim’s Progress_. The pack belonged to Christian himself, and he had
a right to bear it; but, I repeat, Mab had nothing to do with Mrs.
Brown’s sins. And I am not at all sure what Mab conceived these sins to
be; she knew nothing about them: they were something vaguely terrible,
vaguely yet frightfully guilty to her childish sense of purity and
rectitude. And yet Mrs. Brown was the schoolmistress, the woman who had
all the Watcham girls in her hands; and Mab alone, of all the parish,
knew that she was not fit to be trusted with that charge. She walked
home with the tread and the air of a woman of fifty, her soft brow lined
with prodigious scores of thought, her spiritual back bent under this
burden. Mab knew, while all the parish lay in darkness. And Mab, the
Rector’s niece, and a district visitor, and Lady Bountiful from her
cradle, had a duty to the parish which a person less bound with ties of
duty might not have thought of. There was her duty to the parish, and,
on the other hand, there was her duty to her penitent; for, though she
had not asked to have that high office, still Mab felt that she had been
adopted as the confessor of the sinner. Sinner was a better name for her
than penitent, for she was not penitent; but yet she had trusted Mab.
And what was the person so trusted to do?–betray it to the parish, or
to any one in the parish? Oh, no, no! And yet was not that to betray the
parish and its trust and confidence in herself? If you can imagine any
subject more likely to score with wrinkles a brow of seventeen, such a
divination is beyond my powers. Mab thought and thought, turning the
question over and over in her mind with more curiosity than if she had
been a philosopher in search of a new theory. What it is right to do
between two conflicting duties is a question for a moralist more than a
philosopher, if there is, indeed, any difference between the two. It was
a tremendous question. She did not see her friend, the General, though
he took off his hat and waved it in cordial greeting as she passed his
garden hedge; nor Miss Grey, who had run after her, but finally gave up
the chase, unable to make Mab hear her call. Lady William was waiting,
though not impatiently, for the mid-day meal, which was the chief repast
in the cottage, when Mab reached home: her mother called out to her to
make haste, for Anne in the kitchen was apt to lose her temper when her
ladies were unpunctual. But Mab was too much confused to make haste. She
did not come down for a quarter of an hour, until Anne was half-wild,
and Patty in the highest agitation. The dinner had already been sent in,
which should have pacified Anne, but she was something of an artiste, in
feeling at least, and could not bear her dishes to be spoiled. Mab heard
her voice from the depths of the kitchen intoning comminations, and saw
that Patty had tears in her eyes, though they sent out pretty sparks of
satisfaction at sight of the laggard.

‘Oh, Miss Mab, the soup’s cold,’ she ventured to say, even Patty thus
raising a protest.

But Lady William was not very severe. ‘You little sluggish thing,’ she
said. ‘What have you been doing? Patty and I have been suffering much
from Anne. And I fear the soup will be quite cold.’

‘Oh, that’s all the better,’ said Mab, trying to pluck up a spirit, ‘for
it’s a very warm day.’

‘I am glad you find it so,’ said Lady William, with a shiver. ‘May is
seldom so hot in England as to make cold soup desirable. And how did the
practice go off, and where have you been? for I saw Emmy and Florry go
home a long time ago.’

‘I have been to Mrs. Brown. They wanted her to act something. She is a
very funny woman. She was at her lunch, or dinner, or whatever she calls
it. She gave me an apple, which she called _Pomme au sucre_, and I never
tasted anything so nice.’

‘Oh, she is like that, is she?’ said Lady William; ‘the woman who has
seen better days.’

‘Yes, mother, she is like that,’ said Mab; even to say so much as this
relieved her mind a little, though she had no idea what was meant by the
question or reply.

‘And is she going to–act? To act, did you say?–that will be an odd
thing for the schoolmistress to do.’

‘They thought–she might do Lady Macbeth–or something.’

‘Or something!’ said Lady William, just as Mrs. Brown had done: ‘that
will be still more odd,’ she added, with a laugh. ‘And is she going to
do it, Mab? I shall see this woman, then, at last.’

‘No, she is not going to do it, mother. She laughed at the idea. She
said, “Lady Macbeth–or something,” just as you did. She is a very
strange woman, but I don’t think that you would like her.’

‘Probably not,’ said Lady William. ‘It is, perhaps, unkind to say it,
but I am not very fond of the decayed gentlewoman in general. It would
serve me right,’ she said, with half a smile and half a sigh, ‘to end
like that myself.’

‘But how could that be?’ said Mab. It was one of those questions to
which there is no answer possible. Nor did she expect an answer. But it
brought a little cloud over Lady William’s brow. Indeed, it was all Lady
William could do to keep her face tolerably unclouded, and her
conversation as cheerful as usual for Mab’s sake. And this struggle on
her mother’s part kept Mab’s unusually serious face from being noticed
as it otherwise must have been. After that there were no further
questions asked about Mrs. Brown, and Mab went out to her gardening and
the many other occupations which filled up her time. But whatever she
was doing this heavy question hung upon her mind, and she carried with
her the burden that was like Christian’s, yet which she had not, like
him, any right to bear. Her duty to the parish was to denounce the woman
who ought not, with her mysterious guiltiness, to have the training of
the girls of Watcham. And her duty to her penitent was to keep
everything jealously within her own breast which had been confided to
her, so to speak, under the seal of confession. Mab had, as was natural,
a tremendous sense of her responsibility to both, but how she was to
reconcile the two was more than she could think of. She determined at
last upon a compromise, which was not indeed half sufficient to meet the
case, but which was the only thing she could think of. She herself, she
concluded, would for the future go constantly to the school, and thus
neutralise any evil that might be produced by Mrs. Brown. She would go
and watch over the girls, and see that their morals were all right, and
that nothing was said or done to lead them astray. By dint of thinking
it over the whole afternoon, shutting herself up alone to wrestle with
it, refraining even from tea in order that her deliberations might be
unbroken–this was the middle course to which Mab attained. She could
not betray Mrs. Brown. That was out of the question: and it was also
dreadful to think of betraying the parish, which, alas! if it knew what
Mab knew, would not continue Mrs. Brown in her place for a single day;
but if Mab took it upon herself–her little innocent self–to watch over
the girls, to be there early and late, guarding them from every
allusion, from every lesson that could hurt them–would not that make up
for the silence? She would watch the children as nobody else could
watch. She would have eyes like the lynx and ears like those who heard
the grass growing. This was what Mab determined upon in the anxiety of
her soul.

She had persuaded her mother to go to the entertainment, though it was a
dissipation to which Lady William was noways inclined. But Mab,
notwithstanding the sad check that had been put upon her by the
forenoon’s proceedings, was very anxious about the delights of the
evening, which were of a kind unusual in Watcham, where there was so
very little going on. A concert was of the rarest occurrence. A little
comedy had once been known to be played in the large room of the ‘Blue
Boar’ by a strolling company, and, as we are aware, there had been a
dance at General FitzStephen’s. But the occasions that occurred in
Watcham of putting on a best cap or a flower in your hair and sallying
forth in the evening without your bonnet, to meet other persons under
the same beatific conditions, were so very rare that nobody wished to
miss the curate’s entertainment. There had been very grave and serious
questions among the ladies as to the point of costume, some being of
opinion that as the entertainment was primarily for the working people,
it would be ‘better taste’ on the part of the ladies and gentlemen not
to go in evening dress, or at all events to shroud their glories in
bonnets on one side, and great-coats on the other. This, however, had
been boldly combated by Mrs. Plowden, who maintained that it would be
much better for ‘the poor things’ to have the exhilarating spectacle for
once in a way of ladies in their evening toilettes, and gentlemen with
shirt-fronts that could be seen half a mile off. It would do them good,
the Rector’s wife said, to see that the best people were ready to mingle
with them thus on a sort of equal terms, coming to enjoy themselves just
as the boatmen did. And it was absolutely necessary that the young
ladies who were to perform should be arrayed and made to look their
best; it would have been very hard upon them to step down from the
platform amongst a mass of bonnets, and thus be made conspicuous in the
assembly even when they had finished their exertions in its behalf. I
don’t think that Mrs. Plowden had the least difficulty in bringing the
others to her opinion, and accordingly the front seats in the schoolroom
where the performance was to take place, were peopled by a small, and
select, but distinguished audience, which rather over-shadowed, it must
be allowed, and put out the homely ranks behind, and made the curate
gnash his teeth when he saw immediately in front of his presiding chair
all the shining shirt-fronts and frizzed or smooth locks, or
lace-covered heads of the familiar little society of Watcham. Poor
higher classes! They wanted a little amusement to the full as much, or
perhaps more, than the boatmen and their wives from Riverside. And,
perhaps, had they been at the back and the others in front, Mr. Osborne
would not have minded. As it was, perhaps in this as in greater matters
all was for the best–for General FitzStephen’s high head prevented the
curate from seeing how old George from the landing yawned over the
quartette of the violinists from Winwick. Breeding is everything in such
cases, for the General was quite as much bored as old George; yet he
applauded when it was over (partly in thankfulness for that fact) as if
he had never heard anything so beautiful before.

As for Mab, she was able to forget for the moment her interview with
Mrs. Brown. Not only was it pleasant to be out in the evening–though
only in a white frock high up to the neck, which was in reality a
morning dress, but quite enough in Lady William’s opinion for such an
entertainment; but the excitement of feeling that she had really a part
in the performance through the songs of Emmy and Florence, and the
recitation of Jim, enlivened her spirits and raised her courage. The
Rectory girls sang two duets, far better in Mab’s opinion than all the
other performers, and she felt sure that if Florence, whose voice was so
much the strongest, had but had the courage to sing alone–! But this
was a suggestion that Florence had crushed at once. It was bad enough to
stand up there in face of all these people with Emmy to support her: but
alone!

‘Don’t you think it was rather silly of Florry to be so particular,’
whispered Mab, ‘when they have all known her–almost since she was
born?’

‘No. I don’t think it was silly,’ said Miss Grey decisively.

‘Oh! but you never think any one silly,’ said Mab.

‘Don’t I!’ said Miss Grey, with a truculence which left all the swearing
roughs of Riverside far behind. ‘I know who I think silly,’ said that
enraged dove.

Mab’s eyes ranged over all the people on the platform in astonishment,
to see who could be the object of this outburst.

‘Not poor Jim?’ she said, faltering.

‘Jim is worth a dozen of him,’ said Miss Grey.

There was only one face that was not friendly and bright. And that was,
Mab supposed, because Mr. Osborne was so anxious that everything should
go off well. Florence, the duet just over, was standing within three
steps of him, with a little group about her congratulating her on her
success, and the sound of the applause behind was still riotous in the
room. Old George was very audibly exclaiming at the top of his gruff
voice: ‘That’s your sort now! that’s somethin’ as a man can understand;’
while some of the Riverside lads, the people Mr. Osborne had been so
anxious about, kept on clapping their big rough hands persistently, when
everybody else had stopped, not daring to cry encore to the young
ladies, but signifying their wishes very clearly in that way. The two
girls hesitated and lingered, kept by their friends from retiring while
this noisy but timid call went on, which presently was joined in by all
the front benches, under the leadership of the General, who was not at
all shy, and cried ‘encore’ lustily. Mr. Osborne grew more gloomy than
ever, and called imperiously for the next performers. ‘We must stick to
the programme,’ he cried; ‘we shall never get done at this rate,’ and
the Winwick amateurs came up again with their fiddles, while Emmy and
Florry stole away, escaping abashed from their friends, who were
discomfited too. It was then that Miss Grey said between her closed
teeth, ‘I know who I think is silly;’ as if she would have liked to
crush that person in her little hand which (in a very ill-fitting glove)
she clenched as she spoke. If he had been a butterfly he would have had
no chance in that clenched fist of Miss Grey.

And then Jim came up smiling and delivered his ‘Ride,’ and was applauded
till the roof rang, chiefly, however, because he was Jim, and there was
something about racing horses in what he had read. ‘That’s your sort,’
old George said again, but more doubtfully; ‘though I’d like to have
known a little more about them horses,’ he added; and shortly after the
entertainment came to an end. There was no doubt it had been a great
success. While the common people streamed out, not sorry to be able to
stretch their limbs and let loose their opinion, and indemnify
themselves for having been silent so long, the audience in the front
benches lingered to pay their respects and congratulations, and to
assure the curate that everything had gone off beautifully. ‘I hope the
Riverside people enjoyed it. I am sure _I_ did,’ said General
FitzStephen. Mr. Osborne looked at that gallant officer as if he would
have liked to knock him down. He could not have shown a more angry and
clouded face had the entertainment been a failure. ‘Oh yes. I suppose it
has done well enough,’ he said. Mab, who did not know what all this
meant, but who was able to perceive that something was wrong, was fixing
her wits upon this mystery, and very anxious to know what it meant, when
she suddenly heard a little cry from her mother, whose eyes were fixed
upon the last stragglers of the crowd going out, and who suddenly broke
off in the midst of a conversation, and with every appearance of
excitement suddenly rushed out after some one–Mab could not tell whom.
Mab rushed after her mother full of astonishment and eager curiosity,
but only to find Lady William standing outside looking vaguely round her
with an anxious, bewildered look upon her face. ‘What is it, mother? Who
is it?’ Mab cried. ‘Do you want to speak to somebody?’ ‘I am certain,’
cried Lady William, ‘I saw her in the crowd. She turned round for a
moment and I saw her face.’ ‘Who is it, mother? Who is it, mother?’
cried Mab. But Lady William did not make any reply to her. She turned
round to another who had rushed after her (‘_That_ Leo Swinford, of
course,’ Mab said to herself) and put out her hand to him, as if he,
and not her child, could help her. ‘I have seen her, I am sure I have
seen her!’ she cried–and she repeated in a tone of rising excitement
what she had said before–‘with a black veil over her head. She turned
round as she went out of the door; and there was Artémise. Oh, find her
for me; find her, Leo!’ Lady William cried.

Next morning, however, there came a crisis which drove all thought of
anything else for the moment out of Lady William’s mind.

It came in the shape of a letter laid upon her innocent breakfast table,
along with the little bunch of correspondence, very small, and very
unimportant, which was all that the post generally brought to that
peaceable house. Lady William had, of course, a friend or two with whom
occasionally she exchanged those utterly unimportant letters which form
so large a portion in the lives of some unoccupied women. It would be
hard to grudge these poor ladies so innocent a pleasure, but their
letters were not exciting enough to make a woman like Lady William, who
felt that she had herself a great deal to do, and did not want that
gentle stimulant, very impatient for the arrival of the post: and her
mild correspondence waited for her quite contentedly on both sides till
she had performed various little morning duties, and was ready to sit
down to breakfast. The long blue envelope, however, alarmed her a little
whenever she saw it, and yet there was nothing so very alarming in it,
for it was a similar envelope, directed in the same writing, as that
which brought her the cheque for her quarterly allowance, which, as it
happened, was now a little overdue. She lingered, however, over the
letter–though it did enclose a cheque, which she took out and laid upon
the table–much longer than she was wont to linger over the letters of
Messrs. Fox and Round. She read it carefully over, and then she folded
it up, put it in its envelope, and poured out the coffee. But before she
touched her own cup, returned to the letter; took it once more from its
envelope, read it all over again, and put it back once more. Mab had a
little letter of her own to read, all about nothing, from a girl of her
own age, so that she did not for a minute or so observe these
proceedings of her mother. But she very soon did so, and divined not
only from them, but from the manner in which Lady William swallowed her
coffee and pushed away the innocent rolls on the table as if they had
done her some harm, that all was not as usual. When Lady William spoke,
however, it was in a voice elaborately calm.

‘Are you going out this morning, Mab?’

‘Yes, mother–I am going—-’ Mab paused a moment. She had got up that
morning with her mind full of the weighty determination of last night;
but it seemed to her that if she said she was going to the school it
might partly betray the secret which was not hers, but which lay so
heavy on her soul. ‘I think,’ she went on, correcting herself, ‘I will
run over and see how they feel at the Rectory, now it’s over, about last
night. And I will probably look in at the school,’ she added, for to
have a secret from her mother was dreadful to her, ‘before I come back.’

‘If you are going to the Rectory,’ said Lady William, ‘tell your Uncle
James that I should like to see him, Mab.’

‘Yes, mother;’ but Mab could not help glancing aside at the letter with
an awakened interest, and wondering what Uncle James, so infrequent a
visitor on ordinary occasions, could be wanted for–again.

‘You are right, Mab,’ said her mother, ‘it is about business and about
this letter in particular. And if you can give him my message without
anybody else knowing, I shall be all the better pleased.’

‘Is it about–Uncle Reginald, mother?’

‘About Reginald! Oh no, you may make your mind easy. It is not about
Reginald. It is,’ she said, with a sudden desire for sympathy,
‘something much more important to you and me; but I cannot tell you
now,’ she added, remembering herself, ‘you will know of it all in time.’

‘Is it from Mr. Leo, mother?’ said Mab, growing very pale, and towering
over the table as she looked at her mother, with severity, yet terror,
as if she had suddenly grown a foot in stature. Lady William, altogether
engrossed in other thoughts, gave her a look of astonishment which was
balm to Mab’s soul.

‘From Leo!’ she said, amazed. ‘Why should it be from Leo? I told you,’
she said, with a little impatience, ‘that it was a letter of importance,
which none of his little communications could be. Tell your uncle,’ she
continued, falling into her usual tone, ‘that I have received a letter
on which I wish to consult him. Remember that I have no secrets,’ she
said, suddenly looking up; ‘I don’t want you to make a mystery; but if
you could see him–by himself, to give him my message—-’

‘Oh yes, I can do that easily,’ said Mab, in the relief of her mind. ‘I
want to say something to him about Mrs. Brown.’

‘I must see this Mrs. Brown,’ said Lady William, with a smile. ‘She
seems to have a fascination for you, Mab.’

At this unexpected and most unintentional carrying of the war into her
own country Mab flushed crimson, and cried quickly: ‘Oh no, nothing of
the sort. I don’t even _like_ her. She is not like any one else I ever
saw.’

‘I must see her–one of these days,’ said Lady William vaguely: and then
the faint smile died off her face, and she turned to contemplate the
long blue letter which lay by her plate. It looked a dangerous thing
among the little inoffensive white and gray envelopes. Lady William’s
letters were chiefly gray, written upon that ugly paper which people,
and especially ladies, use out of economy, and which is one of the
additional (small) miseries of life.

Mab felt much ashamed of her foolish question as she went out, but hoped
her mother had forgotten, or had not attached any meaning to it. It was
all the fault of the horrid people who talked–as if there was anything
strange in Mr. Swinford’s visits. ‘Where else should he go?’ Mab said
indignantly to herself. ‘To the FitzStephens or the Kendalls, who are
six times as old as he is? or to the Rectory, where Aunt Jane would talk
to him all the time, and the girls never could get in a word? How
different mother is! I don’t think I have ever seen any one so nice as
mother! Well, of course, she is mother, which is a great thing in her
favour; but not, perhaps, in the way of society. Emmy and Florry are
very fond of Aunt Jane. She is very nice and kind if you are ill, and
all that; but I am sure they would rather talk a little themselves
sometimes, rather than just listen to her, especially when it is Mr.
Leo.’ This was the result of Mab’s unprejudiced observation, and she was
much ashamed of herself for having been moved to ask the very
inappropriate question which her mother had not paid any attention to,
thank heaven. Mab, as good luck would have it, met the Rector at his own
door, and conveyed her message in the most natural way in the world.
‘Mother would like to see you, Uncle James. Would you go into the
cottage as you pass? She has got a letter.’

‘Oh, she has got a letter?’ said the Rector.

Mab longed to say, ‘Not a letter from Leo Swinford, an important letter,
a letter about business,’ but she restrained her inclination. Probably
Uncle James had never thought upon that other subject. She went on
quickly to the Rectory, in order to carry out her own programme which
she had in a way bound herself to by announcing it to her mother. But
she did not find the girls at the Rectory very anxious to talk over the
events of the previous night. Mrs. Plowden, indeed, had no objection to
discuss it fully; but it was in its connection with Jim that she thought
of it most.

‘If it had not been for Jim,’ Mrs. Plowden said, ‘Mr. Osborne might just
have kept all his music and his things to himself. Oh yes, I daresay,
the FitzStephens, and Kendalls, and ourselves, and those people from the
villas would have come; but, as for the men from Riverside, they came
for Jim, not for him. And did you hear, Mab, what a noise they made with
their cheers and their clappings after Jim’s piece? They thought that
the gem of the whole evening. They came chiefly to hear that. As for Mr.
Osborne, with his little speeches and his fiddles from Winwick—-’

‘Oh, mamma,’ cried Emmy, ‘the violins were a great treat. We have not
heard any music like that in Watcham for ever so long.’

‘Well, you may say what you like about fiddles,’ said the Rector’s wife,
‘but there’s always something a little like a village fair in them to
me. And the poor people were bored beyond anything. They liked your
songs, girls, and wanted to encore them if Mr. Osborne would have
allowed it; and they liked that piano bit, with the tunes from the
_Pinafore_. They understood that, and so do I, I allow; but what do they
care for a classical quartette? I don’t myself, and I know more about
music than they can be supposed to do. But a fine, stirring thing like
Jim’s “Ride to Aix”—-’

‘It was Mr. Browning’s “Ride to Aix,” mamma.’

‘As if I did not know that! But, all the same, it was Jim’s ride to me.
Don’t you think he did it great justice, Mab? I never heard it come off
so well. The people were so attentive. That and the duets were certainly
the success of the evening; and what it would have been without them I
can’t tell.’

‘It would have been much more satisfactory without them, mamma,’ cried
Florry, half turning a shadowed countenance towards her mother. ‘Mr.
Osborne did not want mere amusement for the people–he wanted them to
take pledges, and turn from drinking. That was his object, don’t you
know–and a far better object than hearing two poor little country birds
like Emmy and me sing. And I approve of it,’ said Florence a little
loudly, as if she would have liked all the world to hear.

Mrs. Plowden looked at Mab and shrugged her shoulders behind her
daughter. ‘I can’t think what has come over Florry,’ she said. ‘She has
grown so domineering of late–I dare not say a word.’

What Mab thought was that poor Florry looked dark, and pale, and out of
heart–she seemed to be losing her good looks and her merry ways. It was
rare, very rare, when she put forth any of her old arts of mimicry which
the elders laughed yet pretended to frown at, and which all the young
ones delighted in; but I will not have it supposed that Mab was so
precocious as to divine what was the matter with Florence–for this, to
tell the truth, never came into her unconscious thoughts.

The Rector hurried along to see his sister after he had received Mab’s
message. He was anxious and disturbed about the state of affairs, and
very desirous to find some way of setting his poor Emily straight, and
making her independent, as she would be gloriously, did this great
fortune come to Mab. If, perhaps, he was at the same time not quite
sorry that she had been brought to see she was not so able to do
everything for herself as she supposed, and had it proved to her in the
most effectual way that to have respectable relatives to fall back upon
was the greatest blessing a woman could have, it was no more than
natural: and certainly above all, his desire was to be able to help her,
and ‘pull her through:’ but it would be uphill work he felt, and require
all the efforts that he himself could make. His brow was full of care
when he went into the room in which she sat expecting him; not, indeed,
looking so serious as he did, but, still, with work enough for all her
thoughts.

‘Well?’ he said, as he drew a chair opposite to her, and sat down on the
other side of the table at which she sat at her work. He bent forward
across this little table, fixing upon her a look of such solemnity that
Lady William’s first impulse (though, heaven knows, she was not in a
merry mood) was to laugh at his portentous looks, which would have been
very inappropriate and improper, and would have shocked Mr. Plowden more
than words could say. As she checked herself in this impulse there burst
from her instead something which was half a sob and half also a chuckle:
but he took it as a sob, which was much the best.

‘My dear,’ he said, ‘my dear!’ putting his hand upon hers, ‘it can’t be
so bad as that you should cry about it. We will stick to you, whatever
happens. Come, Emily, take heart, take heart!’

‘I am not losing heart,’ she said. ‘I have expected it, you know. It is
a distinct demand for my certificates. And now the moment is come when I
must decide what to do.’

‘Is this the letter?’ he said. It was lying on the table between them,
and Mr. Plowden took it up and read it over with great care, making
little comments of distress with his tongue against his palate, ‘Tchich,
tchuch,’ as he did so. Lady William went on with her work, raising her
eyes to him from time to time as he read. His arrival and his tragic
looks had amused her for the moment, but those distressful, inarticulate
remarks acted after a while on her imagination and nerves.

‘You think it a very bad business, James? How I wish,’ she said, ‘that
John, who never was a friend of mine, could have lived for ever, or
carried his dirty money with him to the grave!’

‘I don’t think that is a very Christian wish, Emily.’

‘What, to wish him alive and in enjoyment of all he ever possessed?’

‘Oh, well, perhaps that is one way of looking at it,’ said the Rector,
‘but, my dear, the noble family to which in fact you belong—-’

‘And which show their belief in me so nobly,’ said Lady William, this
time permitting herself to laugh.

‘The noble family to which you belong,’ repeated Mr. Plowden with a
little irritation, ‘will be very much benefited by this money. That nice
young Lord Will as good as said so: and your own daughter, Emily, if all
goes well, and we are able to establish your rights—-’

‘If!—-’ she cried, with a flash of her eyes which seemed for the
moment to set the room aflame.

‘You know what I mean. I at least have no doubt what your rights are:
the question now is what is the best thing to do.’

‘Yes,’ said Lady William, ‘we are in front of something definite at
last. I have done little but think about it, as you may suppose, ever
since you brought me that crushing news: and it seems to me that there
are several ways that are open to us: the first—-’

‘Emily,’ said the Rector, ‘by far the best, and first step to take, in
my opinion, is to consult Perowne–which we should have done long ago.’

‘What could Mr. Perowne do? He could not rebuild the chapel and restore
the books and bring back poor Mr. Gepps to life again. He might put my
answer into formal words, but that is quite unnecessary. I have not the
least inclination to consult Mr. Perowne—-’

‘Still, he must know how such things are managed better than we can do,’
murmured the Rector.

‘Such things–what things? You speak as if this was a common case.’

‘No, no, Emily, no, no—-’

‘When it is, perhaps, such a case as never occurred before,’ she said.
‘I can answer these men formally to their questions, but to him I should
have to go into the whole matter, explaining everything from the first
step to the last. No, I will not ask Mr. Perowne for his opinion,’ she
said. Her countenance, naturally so soft in colour, was suffused with a
sudden flush. ‘Anything but that,’ she repeated, in almost an angry
tone.

It is so difficult to be purely business-like in matters where men and
women are concerned. Mr. Perowne, the ‘man of business’ employed by the
old Rector of Watcham, the father of Emily Plowden–had taken upon him
to admire that young lady, and to make certain overtures which were not
received graciously in the days that were gone. Lady William would
rather have died than disclose all the circumstances of her marriage, as
well as the possible doubt that might be thrown upon it, to her former
lover. It was no figure of speech to say this; she would rather have
died. But to her brother it all seemed very foolish, and to show an
arrogant confidence in her own judgment which he did not share.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘of course, it is your own business, and I cannot
interfere with you, Emily: but that lawyer should meet lawyer is surely
a much better way than that you should think you could encounter Messrs.
Fox and Round–who are, of course, experienced in all sorts of
villainy–in your own strength.’

‘It is a mere simple statement of fact that has to be made to them,’ she
said. ‘I will write and say I have no certificates, but that one person
is still alive who was present at my marriage if she can be found: and
that my father—-’

‘For goodness’ sake!’ cried the Rector. ‘What, what do you mean–you are
going to show your hand at once to these men, and let them see that you
have no proof at all?’

‘My father’s diary is the best of evidence,’ she said. ‘The law is not
such a bugbear as you make it out to be. There must be some sense and
justice in it: my father’s word, a clergyman, and a man of honour—-’

‘They may say it is a got-up thing, and what so easy as for me to write
that entry in an old book? I write very like my father.’

‘What folly, James! You! as little likely to cheat as my father, a
clergyman, and a man of honour too!’

‘We might say,’ said the Rector, ‘for I have been thinking it over too,
my dear Emily–that you were married at St. Alban’s Proprietary Chapel,
Backwood Street, Marylebone, on such a day and year, by the incumbent,
the Reverend T. I. Gepps: and leave it to them to got a copy of the
register for themselves–if they can,’ he added grimly. ‘The books, of
course, ought to have been saved, and perhaps some of them may be. It is
their business to find all that out.’

This specious suggestion staggered Lady William for the moment. ‘But
when they find out that the church is burnt, the book destroyed, and the
clergyman dead–which is a catastrophe almost too complete for the
theatre–they may think we have chosen the place on that account, and
that we mean fraud and nothing else.’

‘I,’ cried the Rector, ‘meaning fraud–and you! It would be just as easy
to suppose that I had forged the entry in my father’s diary. I hope we
are two honourable people.’

Lady William shook her head.

‘I hope so too: but I could not send them on such a wildgoose chase,
which would certainly harm us in the end, without letting them know the
truth.’

‘Oh, the truth,’ cried the Rector. ‘Isn’t it all the truth, both one
thing and the other? The truth is all very well and can’t be altered
were you to harp upon it for ever, but what they want and what we want
is the proof.’