How was she obliged to him?

While Leo Swinford was making his first attempt to revolutionise, or
perhaps pauperise, the parish under the irregular and unofficial
guidance of Miss Grey and Mab, who had, of course, no public standing at
all, though he would have been a bold Rector indeed who had disowned the
abounding services and constant help of Miss Grey–other incidents were
going on of still more importance to the conduct of this history.
Notwithstanding the indignation with which she had received the
suggestion that money was strong enough to unlock all doors and solve
all problems, it was astonishing how soon that unauthorised and
unofficial Providence of the parish found ways and means to disembarrass
Leo of a considerable sum of money, and to produce a list of
requirements for which that vulgar dross would be very useful. She
adopted all Mab’s suggestions as to the Lloyd couple and old George,
permitting that little weekly allowances should be given them to keep
them in life and comfort; and she pronounced and sealed the doom of a
group of cottages which, though they were not ugly, like Riverside,
rather the contrary, a picturesque group, making quite a feature in the
level country, were not fit to live in, as Mr. Swinford was reluctantly
brought to allow. He did not like pulling to pieces the venerable walls
and high-pitched roofs, with their growths of lichen, which were a
picture in themselves, and struggled long in the name of art against
that dire necessity. Indeed, the case was a parable, since we are all
but too willing to pull down the ugly but not uncomfortable tenements of
White the baker, though it costs us a pang to do away with the
unwholesome prettiness of our own. But while Leo’s education in the
duties of a proprietor was thus progressing, there was another young man
whose training was going on in a very different way. Jim’s Sophocles
became more and more hard upon him as the spring days grew longer, and
the east winds blew themselves out, and the sun grew warm. What was the
good of all that Greek? he asked himself, and there was reason in the
question. If he were to be sent out to a ranch it would not help him
much to know about Electra and Antigone. Less tragic heroines, and lore
less elevated, would serve the purpose of the common day; or if he went
into a merchant’s office, there is no commercial correspondence in
Greek, even if modern Greek was the least like the classic. What, then,
was the use of it? And yet the Rector would hear no reason, but kept
grinding on and on. Jim had some cause for his dissatisfaction: and he
could not have understood the reluctance of his father, once a scholar
in his time, to resign for his son all hope of the honours which Jim
neither wished for nor prized. But the Rector could not wind himself up
to the point of deciding that what he fondly hoped were his boy’s
talents should be hidden either in a ranch or in an office. He kept
hoping, as we all hope, that fate would take some turn, that some
opening would come which would still permit of a happier conclusion. And
nothing was settled from day to day, and nothing done except that
Sophocles, that sop to anxiety, that poor expedient to occupy the lad
who hated it. It is a commonplace to add that if the vexed and unhappy
Rector had contrived a means to make his son’s prospects worse and his
life more untenable, he could scarcely have hit upon a better. To send
him away had a hope in it, though it might have been destruction, but to
keep him unwilling and embittered at home, held in this treadmill of
forced and unprofitable labour, was the destruction made sure and
without hope.

Jim was too sore and vexed with this fate from which there seemed no
escape, yet too well assured that it was his own fault, and that nothing
he could do was likely to restore him to the old standing-ground in
which everything that was good was hoped and believed of him–to make
any manly protest against it. There was no such power in him, poor boy.
It was his nature to drift, and to resent the drifting, but to take no
initiative of his own. When he was upbraided, as he was so often for his
idleness and uselessness, he would make angry retorts now and then, that
he would work fast enough if he had anything to do except that beastly
Greek: but these retorts were growled out under his breath, or flung
over his shoulder as he escaped, and the angry father paid no attention
to them, and did not perceive the reason that lay underneath this angry
folly. Even when the Rector adjured him, as he did sometimes, to say
what he would do, to strike out some path of his own, poor Jim had
nothing to say. He had no path of his own; he had only an angry
perception that the one upon which he was now drifting was the worst:
but if they would only let him alone, Jim did not care otherwise much
about it. What he proposed was to do nothing at all except a little
boating and lawn tennis, or skating in winter. He did not think of the
future, nor ask anything of it. If they would but let him alone.

When a young man in the country is what he calls bullied at home, work
demanded of him which he hates, aims and purposes insisted upon which he
does not possess, it is an infinite relief to him to escape to the
society of those who will flatter and soothe, and make him feel himself
a fine fellow and a gentleman in spite of all. Such was the company in
the ‘Blue Boar’ where the Rector’s son was thought much of, and his
opinions greatly looked up to, notwithstanding a conviction on the part
of the honest tradespeople who frequented the parlour that it was a
thousand pities he ever came there. They asked themselves why didn’t his
father look to it, and see that Mr. Jim had summut to do, and friends of
his own kind–in the same breath with which they flattered him as the
nicest young gentleman, and considered it a pleasure to hear what he
thought of things; but it was a long time before any one among them
could make up his mind to utter the words which were on all their lips,
and to tell Mr. Jim that the parlour of the ‘Blue Boar,’ though it was
so respectable, was not the place for a young gentleman; and in the
meantime the incense of their admiration and pride in his companionship
was balm to the youth, notwithstanding his own knowledge that he ought
not to be there.

And there was another place which was becoming still more agreeable to
poor Jim. Since that first visit when she called him in, in the
darkening, he had paid many visits at the schoolroom to Mrs. Brown. He
could not go anywhere without passing the door, and in the evening, when
it was not very easy to see who went or came, she was almost always
there, looking out, breathing the air as she said, after the day’s work,
and keeping a watch for Jim. He was flattered by this watch for him even
more than by the admiration of the shopkeepers, and yet at the same time
half ashamed. For there was no depravity about the boy, and these
attentions on the part of a woman who was no longer young embarrassed
him greatly, and gave him a sense of danger which, however, in her
presence was entirely soothed and smoothed away. There was a sense of
danger but still more a sense of ridicule, which seized him whenever he
left her, and made him resolve with a blush never to go near her again.
And, yet again, there was safety too. Had Mrs. Brown had a daughter, a
girl whom he might have fallen in love with, whom people might have
talked about, Jim felt that the circumstances would have been quite
different; then, indeed, it would have been a duty to have stayed away:
but a woman who might be his mother! If she liked to talk to him it was
ridiculous, but it couldn’t be any harm. Nobody thought it anything
wrong that Osborne the curate should pay long visits to Miss Grey, and
take tea with her, and all that; and why not Jim to Mrs. Brown who was
much more amusing, and who had no society? She was a capital one to
talk; she had been a great deal about the world; she knew hundreds of
people: and there was always a comfortable chair ready for him, and she
had an art in manufacturing drinks which nobody Jim knew was equal to.
It never occurred to him to inquire why she looked out for him in the
evenings, and made those exquisite drinks for him. It was ridiculous,
but it was not disagreeable, and in the evening as he prowled along,
unwilling to go into the dull familiar house, where there was reproach
more or less veiled in every eye, where even Florry, who stood by him
the most, would rush out unexpectedly with an ‘Oh, Jim! why can’t you do
something and please papa?’–there was a wonderful seduction in the
sight or half-sight, for it was generally dark, of Mrs. Brown’s handsome
head looking out from the door. ‘Good evening, Mr. Plowden; I hope you
are coming in a little to cheer me up.’ It was said so low that,
supposing somebody else to be passing, which was very rare, it could
reach no other ear but Jim’s. Sometimes he resisted the call; sometimes
when she was not at the door he went in of himself. It was all quite
easy and irregular, and out of the way. The entrance to Mrs. Brown’s
house was close to a lane which led to the Rectory, and thus it was easy
for him to dart in without being observed. Once, he felt sure, Osborne
passing had turned half-back to stare, and saw where he was going.
Confound that fellow! but, what did it matter what Osborne saw? He had
never been friendly with Jim, never showed any relish for his society,
which had rankled in the young man’s breast, though he was too proud
ever to have breathed a consciousness of the fact. But, whatever he was,
the curate was not a sneak who would go off to the Rectory and betray
what he had seen. Jim dived into the doorway, however, with an
accelerated pace of which he was ashamed; and the ridicule of it came
over him with a keener heat and flush. A woman old enough to be his
mother! But what was the difference? That fellow Osborne would go off
all the same to little Nelly Grey.

‘Oh, Mr. Jim, what a pleasure to see you!’ cried Mrs. Brown. ‘I had
almost given up hope: for it is near the Rectory dinner, isn’t it, and
you will be wanted at home—-’

‘Oh, I am not such a good little boy as all that,’ said Jim, with an
uneasy laugh; ‘I am not so afraid of being late.’

‘That’s very bad, very bad,’ said Mrs. Brown. ‘I am sure the young
ladies are always in time and punctual; they come to see me sometimes,
you know, and they always recommend punctuality. It’s a great virtue. I
have all the ladies to come to see me, but I sometimes think, Mr. Jim,
if they were to know—-’

‘I don’t know what, I am sure,’ said Jim, growing very red, yet looking
at her steadily; ‘there is nothing I could tell that would make them
less respectful to you, Mrs. Brown–only that you were once in a better
position, and better off than you are now; my mother and the rest may be
a little narrow, but they would never think the less of you for that.’

Mrs. Brown was not a woman who was easily disconcerted; she could have
borne the assault of all the ladies of the parish and given them as
good, nay, much more than they could have given her: for though Mrs.
Plowden had a good steady command of words when she was scolding the
servants at the Rectory, she never could have stood for a moment before
the much more nimble and fiery tongue of the schoolmistress. But before
Jim’s assertion of her irreproachableness and conviction that her only
disadvantage was that she had seen better days, Mrs. Brown was utterly
silenced; she could not answer the boy a word; she was a woman quite
ready to laugh at the idea of innocence in a young man, but when she was
thus brought face to face with it, instead of laughing she was struck
dumb; she could not make him any reply; she pretended to be busy with
the lamp, raising and then lowering the light, and then she left the
room altogether without a word. Poor Jim felt that he must have offended
her by this untoward allusion to better days. Did she think by any
chance that he was taunting her with her poverty, or that anybody in the
world, at least anybody at Watcham, could think the less of her? Perhaps
he ought not even to have said that; he ought to have made sure that it
went without saying, a certainty that it was half an offence to put into
words. As, however, he sat pondering this in doubt and fear, Mrs. Brown
came back all smiles, bringing that familiar tall glass foaming high
with the drink which nobody in Watcham could compound–nobody he had
ever known before.

‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I thought you were angry; and here you come like–like
Hebe, you know–with nectar in your hand.’

‘I am rather an elderly Hebe,’ she said, ‘but it’s a pretty comparison
all the same. If I were young and blooming instead of being old and
dried up, I should have made you a curtsey for your compliment; but
there’s this compensation, Mr. Jim, that a Hebe of seventeen, which is,
I believe, the right age, would probably not know how to make up a drink
like this. Taste it, and tell me if it isn’t the very nicest I have made
for you yet?’

‘It is nectar,’ said Jim fervently; ‘but,’ he added, ‘do you know, I
wish you wouldn’t make me such delicious things to drink. Why should I
give you all this trouble, and’–he paused, and added,
embarrassed–‘expense too?’

Mrs. Brown laughed and clapped her hands. ‘Expense, too!’ she cried;
‘how good! Oh, you don’t know how I get the materials, and how little
they cost me; people I used to employ in–in what you call my better
days, are so faithful to me. As you say, Mr. Jim, the world isn’t at all
such a hard place as one thinks; and even the ladies of the parish–but
you do amuse me so with your stories of the parish–it’s such an odd
little world, isn’t it? Tell me, what are they saying about Leo
Swinford? Has any one made up her mind to marry him? That’s what I
expect to hear every day.’

‘I don’t know anybody that wants to marry him,’ said Jim. ‘I suppose he
must take the first step in anything of that kind.’

‘Do you think so, really?’ said Mrs. Brown. ‘Now, do you know, I am not
at all so sure of that; the ladies will think of it first, I’ll promise
you. He is a nice young man, with a good estate; and he hadn’t been a
week in the parish, I’ll answer for it, before two or three ladies had
settled who was to have him–and as for the young ones themselves—-
Oh, my dear Mr. Jim, you are too good-hearted; you don’t think, then, of
the plans and schemes that may be laid for you?’

‘Me!’ said Jim, with a blush; and then he shook his head. ‘Nobody
approves of me enough to make any plans about me.’

‘Don’t you be too sure of that,’ she said airily; ‘but Leo Swinford is a
new man, and he’s got a quantity of money. Now, answer me my question,
for I’ve known him all his life, and I take an interest in him: who is
going to marry him? Does your—-’ She paused, and the mischief in her
eyes yielded to alarm for a moment. However much a youth may be in your
bonds, and capable of guidance, yet it is possible that he may rebel if
you question him about his mother; so she changed what she was about to
say. ‘Does your–aunt,’ she proceeded, ‘Lady William, don’t you know, as
everybody calls her–think of him for her little fat girl? Oh, I beg
your pardon; I think she is a very nice little girl, but she is fat;
when she grows older she will fine down.’

Jim’s delicacy was not offended by this statement. He laughed. ‘Yes,’ he
said, ‘Mab is fat; but she is a nice little girl for all that.’

‘A dear little girl,’ said Mrs. Brown; ‘she comes and gives me advice
about the children. You would think she was seventy instead of
seventeen. Well, is she to be the bride. Have the parish ladies given
their votes for her?’

‘For Mab!’ Jim repeated with wonder. ‘Mab’s not that kind of girl at
all. She does not go in for–for marrying or so forth. She’s too young.
She thinks of her garden, and of boating, and that sort of thing. She is
a very jolly girl. She has got a will of her own, just. The ladies might
give their votes as much as they please, it would not matter for that.’

‘Of course I may be mistaken,’ said Mrs. Brown, ‘I am the poor
schoolmistress. I don’t judge the gentry from their own point of view as
you do. I have to look up from such a very, very long way down.’ She
laughed, and Jim laughed too, though he did not quite know why. ‘But I
know that he is always at Lady William’s. What a little cottage she
lives in to be a lady of title, Mr. Jim; not very much bigger than
mine!’

‘Aunt Emily is not rich,’ said Jim, with a little uneasiness, feeling
that he ought not to be discussing his relation.

‘Poor lady; but if she marries her daughter to Leo Swinford? I know he
is there almost every day.’

‘Yes, so I hear,’ said Jim, ‘but I don’t believe he thinks of marrying
any one. He goes to see Aunt Emily. He goes for a good talk. There are
not many people to talk to here.’

‘To talk to a middle-aged lady, when there are plenty of young ones? Oh
no, Mr. Jim, you must not try to persuade me of that.’

‘But,’ said Jim, stammering a little, ‘it’s quite true. What difference
is there? just as I come to see you, and Osborne–but perhaps that’s not
quite the same thing.’

‘Osborne—-’ said Mrs. Brown. ‘Oh, the curate, the good young curate.
As you come to see me–thank you, Mr. Jim, how nice you are!–Leo goes
and sits with your dear aunt. And Mr. Osborne–to whom does Mr. Osborne
go? Oh, I owe him something; he is so nice to me about the school. Tell
me where he goes to have his talk.’

‘Well, perhaps it’s not quite the same thing,’ said Jim, confused;
‘Miss Grey, you know she is almost like another curate, she knows as
much about the parish; but if he goes and has tea with her, I don’t
quite see, don’t you know, what anybody could say–how anybody could
object–or what is out of the way, don’t you know, in me—-’

‘Going to sit a little in the evening with Mrs. Brown,’ said the
schoolmistress with a burst of laughter, clapping her hands. ‘And quite
right too; the analogy is perfect. So there are three of us,’ she said,
‘whom the young men prefer. You can’t think how nice, and cheering, and
pleasant for an old person; to think of three old ladies, Lady William,
Miss Grey, and me! How much I am obliged to you, my dear Mr. Jim!’

How was she obliged to him? What had he said? Jim felt very
uncomfortable, though he could not have told why.

When Leo Swinford said that he was lodged like a prince there was little
extravagance in the phrase. He was lodged like a prince indeed in the
age of reason, not that of subdued æstheticism like this. The rooms in
the Hall were spacious and lofty, and decorated with mirrors and gilding
and marble, generally false marble, to an extent very rarely seen in
England. And they were hung with pictures which would have been worth a
king’s ransom had the names upon them been genuine, which of course they
were not. A Swinford of a hundred years ago, Leo’s great-grandfather,
had been one of those dilettanti of the eighteenth century to whom the
languid Italy of those days was at once an idol and a place of plunder.
He had filled his house with copies, with supposed antiques picked up
here and there, with much old furniture and false statuary and bronzes.
All the splendid names of art flourished on the walls; I am not sure
that there was not a fragment, so called, of Phidias, from some classic
excavation, and I am certain that there were several Raphaels, and even
a Michael Angelo (the day of Botticelli was not yet). The cabinets and
carvings which were genuine gave an air of reality to much that was
false. If it was not true art, it was at least a good representation of
the age when connoisseurs were few, when the craft of the copyist was in
great request, and when it was fondly hoped, with that stupidity which
belongs to the cultured person in all ages, that the model of the
Italian palace, designed for skies and customs so different from ours,
might be made to improve the natural beauty of an English house; the
attempt was a mistake, but here and there, when carried out regardless
of expense, it was not without effect, and the Hall was a good specimen
of its period. A hundred years is a respectable period of time, and an
example of the aims and meaning of a past century is worth preserving.
But the large suites of rooms opening from each other, with large
windows and doors, and no system of warming, were chilly and severe in a
season still scarcely genial–England in this respect, with the cheerful
open fires upon which we pride ourselves, being so much inferior to
France with its calorifères, or Germany with its endless stuffy but
effective stoves, in the art of keeping a house warm. Our houses, alas,
are far from being warm, as many a shivering invalid knows.

It was on a Saturday, late in the afternoon in the beginning of April,
but before the blasts were altogether over, that another visitor who was
not at all so well received as Lady William and the Plowdens, walked
briskly up the avenue and along by the side of the lake towards the
Hall. She went quietly, looking neither to the right nor the left, with
the air of a person who knew very well where she was going; and she was,
I think, better dressed than Lady William, with something like fashion
in the fit of her garments and the fall of her draperies, not
over-dressed either, in black with a little veil over her face, a woman
with a presence which all the poor in Watcham recognised as that of a
lady, and a person who had seen better days. How it was that her air and
aspect which impressed all the others, even Mrs. Plowden and most of the
other ladies of the parish, failed to impress Morris the butler I cannot
tell. There are mysteries in all crafts, and though he was for a moment
slightly flustered by her bearing, Morris put himself straight in the
middle of the doorway and opposed Mrs. Brown’s entrance with a decision
which he would not have ventured to exhibit in face of little Miss Grey,
who had the air of being dressed out of a rag-bag, or the humblest
curate’s wife. ‘Not at home,’ Morris said with the utmost audacity,
looking the visitor full in the face.

‘I know,’ said Mrs. Brown, ‘but I will come in till you have sent up my
name, for I know that she will see me.’

‘It is quite contrary to my lady’s habits to see any one at this hour,’
said Morris, who was a person of education–‘if you will state your
business I will report it to Madame Julie, who will convey it to her
mistress at a fitting time, and then, if Mrs. Swinford will receive
you—-’

Mrs. Brown laughed.

‘Do you ask all the ladies that call to state their business?’ she said,
with an air of amusement which confused Mr. Morris.

‘Ladies,’ he said, with a slight falter in his assurance, ‘who call at
the usual hours is a different thing.’

‘Why, it isn’t six o’clock,’ said Mrs Brown, ‘and if I had not known
Mrs. Swinford I should not have thought it too late. But it is precisely
because it is too late that I am here; for I’ve no business except to
see your lady, Morris, so you may as well go at once and not keep me
standing here.’

Morris began to grow more and more uncertain in spite of himself.
Everything was against her; her look, though how he knew that, it would
be difficult to tell; her composure, not angry as a real lady should
have been (in his opinion) and indisposed to bandy words. A curate’s
wife would have retired in high dudgeon before he had enunciated his
first phrase. Little Miss Grey would have transfixed him with a look,
and turned away; but this visitor was not disinclined even to chaff the
butler, therefore she was no lady. Yet there was something in her
patronage, in her composure, and last of all in that sudden use of his
own name, which gave the man a vague sensation of alarm.

‘You seem to know my name,’ he said, ‘but you haven’t even taken the
trouble, ma’am, to give me yours.’

Upon which the visitor broke into a laugh.

‘Mine is not very distinguished, Morris,’ she said, ‘I am Mrs. Brown,
but not the dressmaker from the village to ask for orders from Julie, as
you seem to suppose. Come, come, there’s been enough of this.’ As she
spoke, she passed Mr. Morris adroitly, and entered the great lofty hall
which formed the vestibule of the Swinford mansion. ‘There has been no
change made, I see,’ she said, with a rapid glance round; ‘do you mean
to tell me, Morris, that your lady is going to support all this and make
no change?’

The hall was almost dark, the lamps as yet unlighted, and only a dim
evening light in the row of long windows. Some one stirred, however, in
a corner, and came forward, only half distinguishable in the twilight.

‘Morris,’ said this half-seen person, ‘you know my mother never receives
at this hour—-’

‘Ah, Leo,’ said the visitor, with a slight quaver in the assurance of
her voice, ‘is it you?’

When Morris heard his master called Leo, he retired discreetly with a
momentary sense that the sky, or rather the gilded roof of the hall, was
falling upon him. Had it occurred to him, so assured in his duties, to
make a tremendous mistake? The feeling at first gave him a sensation not
to be put into words, and his impulse was to take immediate flight; but
on reflection, he felt it so very unlikely that he could have made a
mistake, that he subsided into the shelter of one of the pillars and
waited to see what would happen. Mr. Leo Swinford was known among the
servants as a most affable gentleman; but Morris was well aware that his
master was not one to submit to any impertinence. It was a moment of
great excitement, almost too thrilling–for a butler has the pride of
his profession, like another, and it would have been dreadful to him to
have to acknowledge that he had made a mistake.

‘I fear I must say that you have the advantage of me,’ Leo said, with a
coldness that was balm to Morris’s soul.

The visitor came forward with a short laugh, to one of the windows.

‘You have a short memory,’ she said; ‘but yet if you remember we met
only the other day.’

Then there was a little pause, and then Mr. Swinford said in a tone
which was half rage and half contempt:

‘I thought I made my sentiments clear enough that day: but I might have
known—-’

‘Yes,’ said the lady, ‘I think you might have known; but I don’t blame
you, Leo, your views and mine don’t agree, and never will; all the same
you can take off your bulldog and make him understand that the house is
free to your relations. I needn’t trouble you otherwise; of course I
have come to see your mother, and I hope I know my way.’

Morris behind his pillar beheld aghast an alert shadow glide through the
gloom across the hall and up the stairs. There was now so little light
that she looked like a ghost, a darkness moving through the gloom, but
in no other way ghostlike, quite vigorous, full of life. The man could
not move; he was humiliated in his tenderest point–a relation! and to
think he should have made such a mistake; but on the whole, Morris was
consoled by the fact that it was a relation; relations are not always
equals, they are not always friends; sometimes the people of the house
would prefer to have them shut out. If it had been a lady of a county
family, perhaps, or some intimate friend, it would have been different.
He gradually began to raise again his drooping spirits; he was about to
start away from his post of observation when his master called him
briskly, having probably heard the noise of his retiring feet. Morris
did not like to be caught eavesdropping; he was a functionary of a very
high ideal; he allowed a moment to elapse, during which he judiciously
and stealthily edged further off, and answered, as from a distance, ‘Did
you call, sir?’ with the air of a man who has heard imperfectly, being
so far off.

‘Come here, quick,’ said Leo impatiently. ‘Morris, I want to speak to
you about that lady; you refused to let her in.’

‘I am very sorry, sir, very sorry if I made a mistake; but my lady’s
orders are, after half-past five, no one, unless there’s an exception.’

‘Just so, you are quite right; but probably there will be an exception;
I don’t suppose my mother knew Mrs. Brown was here; she is a very old
friend. Of course you must take my mother’s orders on the matter; but I
suppose an exception will be made.’

‘Of course, sir,’ said Morris politely, with a sense of giving way from
his absolute right as guardian of the Swinford House; ‘if it’s your–or
my lady’s wish—-’

This sacrifice made the master of the house laugh, and cleared his brow
for the moment; and presently he retired into the great gilded pillared
room which was the library. He was not without a little pride in the
grandiose decorations which had been his ancestors’ doing; but as he
cast his eye round the great room, with the gilded gallery that ran
round it, he thought, with a sigh, of the luxurious apartment in Paris
in which he had been brought up. The one was so warm and gay, the other
so glittering and cold; he believed there were a great many dummies on
those huge shelves; unquestionably there were a great many worthless
books; it was too big, too grand, too full of pretension to be made a
home of, and everything was new and laborious and dull around him, even
his own unaccustomed works of beneficence, which had been amusing at
first. Had he been allowed to give up a portion of his income in order
to make happy all the poor people without any trouble to himself!–but
he had begun to be bored by Miss Grey and her intimate knowledge of
everybody’s wants, and to cease to be amused by the curate, who was all
for shutting up the public-houses, those public-houses which Leo, in the
toleration of his foreign training, looked upon as the only means of
necessary relaxation which the poor people possessed. There was only one
thing among his new surroundings that did not cease to amuse him, and
that was the little, the very little drawing-room in which of an evening
he found Lady William sitting in the firelight, and where he could talk
of all that was in his heart. It was, perhaps, a little later than
usual, for he had been detained by various matters of business, but
still it was not too late, and in a few minutes more he had put on the
coat with the fur lining which had made such a sensation in Watcham, and
was walking very briskly down the avenue, with the gloom deepened and
the vexation lightened, wondering how much he might tell her, and
whether she would remember Mrs. Brown.

Now I wonder much whether the reader would rather hear what passed that
evening in Lady William’s drawing-room in the firelight, at the hour
when people can talk more confidentially and cosily, only half seeing
each other’s faces, than at any other time; or whether he (or she) would
prefer to be present at the interview in Mrs. Swinford’s boudoir, which
was going on at the same moment. I know which I prefer myself. The
simple people in the world who have no mysteries about them, who have
their little humours and follies, but mean no harm, and do no harm as
far as human judgment can guide them, are familiar and well known. I
know what they are thinking about, and what they say, and how much or
how little they mean. But with the others there is a strain. I know, of
course, very well what Mrs. Swinford and Mrs. Brown had to talk about
and what they said, but it is a kind of artificial knowledge, and I
don’t like having much to do with these women of the world. There are
different kinds of women of the world; but the lady who was Leo
Swinford’s mother was not of the good kind, neither was her old friend,
or her relation, or whoever Mrs. Brown was. They were of the kind who
are enemies of the good, perhaps not absolutely meaning to be so, but
because they were intent each of them on her own way, and on pleasing
herself; and looked upon every obstacle to that, only as something to be
cleared away. Therefore, if the gentle reader pleases, we will put off
their talk for a while, and go cheerfully down with Leo through the dark
avenue, and by the side of the little wistful lake, in which the
clearness of the evening sky is reflected, and along the quiet country
road; till we come to the village green where the lights are beginning
to shine in the windows, past the church with its low spire rising
against the sky, and the Rectory behind its damp and level lawn; and at
last arrive at the quarter where the best houses stand out against the
west, with their trees budding and the crocuses ablow in all the
borders, and a pleasant scent of wallflowers in the air. Lady William’s
garden was more full of wallflowers than any of the others, and the
narcissus were coming out, and the primroses taking the place of the
crocuses; jealous people said because, if anything, it had the finest
south exposure; but chiefly because Mab was the head gardener, and had a
genius for that art. General FitzStephen was in his garden when Leo
passed, and called ‘good evening’ to him over the privet hedge, for the
General knew very well where the young man was going, and thought it
very natural. The old gentleman was fond of little Mab, and hoped that
it was she, though she was so ridiculously young, that was to make this
great match; but he did not feel so sure as he would have liked to do,
whether this was what Leo meant.

In Lady William’s cottage things were a little different from the usual
conditions–for Leo was late, later than he had ever been before–and he
did not like them quite so well as usual. For one thing the lamp was
lighted and the fire very low, the evening being, or so these ladies
thought, warmer than usual; and for another thing they were very busy,
Mab and her mother, over their necessary sewing. As everybody knows, the
coming of summer is a much more troublesome thing, in respect to dress,
than winter, when two warm nice dresses, one for common use and one for
best, is as much as anybody wants. But in summer, besides the best frock
on which Lady William was employed, with her daughter, when we first
made her acquaintance, there are cotton dresses to be thought of, and
things for the warm weather, of which a girl who is always in movement
wants a great many. And indeed, at this present moment the work in hand
was a white frock, which was intended for a party, to be given by the
FitzStephens, which very possibly might end in a dance; and this was
naturally a very interesting piece of work.

‘Shall I put it away, mother?’ said Mab.

‘No,’ said Lady William, ‘a man knows nothing about it, he will think we
are hemming tablecloths; and he would not be any the wiser if he did
know.’

It is curious that Mab, an inexperienced little girl, should have known
better in this respect than her mother, who was so much more acquainted
with the world. She went on with her work, indeed, all the same, but she
shook her head and felt convinced that when Leo Swinford saw what they
were doing, he would perfectly well know; and, indeed, he had scarcely
been ushered in by Patty, and found a chair for himself, than he said at
once:

‘Why, you are making a dress!’

‘Why not?’ said Lady William; ‘we always do.’

‘It is for Miss Mab, and she is going to a party,’ said Leo. ‘Is it a
ball, and will they probably ask me?’

‘Certainly, if you will go; but you are the great man, you know, here,
and they may be afraid to ask you with all the little village people.’

‘I love the village people,’ said Leo; and then he laughed a little,
remembering that there had been of late other thoughts in his mind.

‘You are getting a little tired of them,’ said Lady William; ‘I told you
so; between the time that they amuse you with their little ways, and the
time that you know the real goodness of them, there comes a moment when
you are bored. You must soon go to town for the season, and let Watcham
rest, or yourself.’

‘I have no desire to go to town for the season, or let Watcham rest. I
may be a little tired of the philanthropy: I am not tired of this room,’
he said, looking round upon it affectionately; ‘do you know I don’t
think I ever saw it lighted before.’

‘So brilliantly lighted, _al giorno_,’ said Lady William; ‘the firelight
is kind and hides its little defects. But you are late to-night.’

‘Yes, my mother has had a visit, which sent me out untimely; it annoys
me, and of course I must come and tell you my annoyance. Do you remember
a certain Mansfield woman long ago?’

‘Do I remember her!’

‘Of course you must; there is always mischief where she is. She has
appeared again.’

‘But is that a strange event? She is a relation, and your mother was
much attached to her, too.’

‘I suppose so; though why—-? Can anybody explain these things? And
there is always mischief when she comes. I don’t know what may be
brewing at present, nor why she comes now. Does she live here?’

‘Oh no,’ said Lady William; ‘certainly not, she must have come from
London: everybody that is uncomfortable comes from London. But you must
not be superstitious. Mischief can’t be created if the elements of it
don’t exist, and I see none that she can work upon now.’

‘She might make dissension; she will make dissension, dear lady, between
my mother and me.’

‘Forewarned is forearmed; don’t let her,’ said Lady William, ‘that is
the only thing to say.’

‘But she will be too many for me,’ said Leo, shaking his head yet
smiling; ‘I have no confidence in myself.’

‘You are too superstitious; she must not be too many for you; your
mother’s son is more to her than her cousin.’

‘Is she her cousin? and am I—-’

‘Her son!’ said Lady William, with a laugh; ‘the wonderful question! I
don’t think any doubt can be entertained on that subject.’

‘No, no; I meant am I more strong as son than the other as—- How can
I tell what to say?’

‘My dear Leo! A son is stronger than anything in the world.’

‘Except a daughter,’ he said, looking at Mab.

‘It is the same; one’s own child is more to one than all the world
beside.’

‘Do you know,’ he said, ‘there is one thing that I think is almost
better, that clears away the clouds and brings out the sun, and makes
one see him:–and that is you.’ He put his hand upon hers softly, with a
momentary touch.

‘That is a friend,’ said Lady William hastily. A little uneasy flush
came over her face. She was very conscious, more conscious than was
pleasant, of little Mab sewing on sedately, never lifting her eyes.