It would have been hard to say

Lady William, on this eventful afternoon, had gone out with Mab on one
of her rambles. The air was full of spring, the buds bursting on every
tree, the cottage gardens all blooming with those common flowers which
can be got anywhere, which are the inheritance of the poorest, and are
more beautiful, spontaneous, and abundant than any other: the early
primroses, daffodils and Lent lilies, the rich dark wallflowers that
fill the air with sweetness. Mab had a little basket with her, in which
to bring home any wild thing that pleased her in the woods and slopes of
Denham Hill, on the other side of the water. It was a long walk, but
neither mother nor daughter was afraid of a long walk. They came back,
breathing of every sweet-wildness of the spring, just as Mrs. Swinford,
disappointed and angry, was leaving a card, with a message, at the
cottage door; but the carriage had disappeared along the road long
before they reached their own end of Watcham. It had been a lovely
afternoon, warm, yet fresh with the dewy moisture of the April breezes,
that germinating weather, and sparkle of showers and waters which is not
damp. Several showers had fallen upon them in their ramble, but done no
harm; they had taken shelter, after a laughing run against the wind and
the bright falling veil of rain, under the trees, or in a cottage when
one was near, and shaken the rain-drops off their dresses, and carried
the freshness of the outside atmosphere, as if they had been nymphs of
the air, into the little wayside houses. It would have been hard to say
whether mother or daughter was youngest in these runs and shelterings.
Lady William was almost more swift of foot than Mab, who more easily got
out of breath, and was built on heavier lines; and though the girl’s
colour was higher, the delicate flush on the other’s cheek spoke of
almost finer health and brightness in its fluctuations and changes. They
were both equally interested about the plants and roots which Mab
grubbed up from under the trees, but hers was the delight of superior
knowledge, as she discovered a rare something here and there, a flower
peculiar to one place or another. Mab was altogether absorbed in her
botany and her researches, flushed with her digging, eager about her new
treasures. But her mother was more free for the delights of the sweet
air and sensations of the spring, the freedom of the woods, and
sometimes would burst out singing, and sometimes fling bits of moss at
her child, as she held the basket.

‘Isn’t that beautiful, Mab?’

‘Yes, mother,’ Mab would say, digging, her head bent over the mossy
soil, nothing free of her but the ear which took in the sound of the
poetry in a kind of subdued pleasure which mingled with her humbler
sensations.

‘You are a little grub,’ said Lady William; ‘you are never so happy as
when you are probing among the roots and the dead leaves.’

‘And you are of the kind of the birds, mother, and I like to hear you up
among the branches,’ said Mab. I do not mean to say that Lady William
was a musician, or that you could hear the bits of songs she sang, which
had been Mab’s lullaby as a baby, and amusement through all her
childhood–a few yards from where she stood. They were nothing but the
spontaneous utterances of her fresh spirit, like breathing, or the
trilling of the birds, to which Mab compared them. Mab did not herself
require utterances, givings forth, of that kind. She worked away and was
silent, wholly given to what she was about. But she admired the trill
and movement of the lighter spirit, and thought her mother the most
delightful human creature that had ever been upon this earth.

The basket was tolerably heavy when they came back, and Mab was still a
little flushed with her hard work. The sky was very sweet and subdued in
colour, a great band of softened gold binding the growing grayness of
the afternoon, approaching night–and opening, as it were, a glimpse
into the heavens, a broad shining pathway, reflected fully in the river,
between the awakening greens and browns of the spring country and the
soft clouds above. It was still light, but evening was in the air, and
among the folds of the clouds a few mild stars were already visible. The
cows were coming lowing home; the children were leaving off their games;
and people coming up from the river, who found a little chill in the air
after the sun had gone down. The mother and daughter met everybody on
their progress home. The doctor, another botanist, who sniffed at Mab’s
basket, and affected contempt at her brag of the peculiar coltsfoot she
had found, which grew nowhere but on Denham Hill. ‘Common, common,’ he
said, ‘you’ll find it everywhere,’ as one connoisseur says to another,
upon most new acquisitions; but that was because he had never had such
luck himself, Mab felt convinced. And they met the tall curate, Mr.
Osborne, stalking off to a meeting, who stopped to ask whether Lady
William would not help in a temperance tea party of his, where the
ladies and gentlemen were to amuse the villagers, and make them forget
that there was such a thing on earth, or rather, in Watcham, as the ‘Why
Not?’ or the ‘Blue Boar.’ Mr. Osborne wore his Inverness cape, as usual,
and a quantity of books and pamphlets under it; but there was something
a little different from his ordinary aspect in his looks. After he had
passed he made a step back again, and called Lady William, with a
hesitating voice.

‘Do you see–young Plowden often?’ he said, in the most awkward way.

‘Jim!’ she said, surprised, ‘my nephew?’

‘Don’t be vexed; I think he goes to—- places which he had better
avoid,’ said the curate. Lady William looked at him, but there was
nothing further to be learned from his cloudy face.

‘That is very possible,’ she said. ‘Do you mean—- there?’ for she had
heard something of the ‘Blue Boar,’ which was now beginning to light up,
and looked cheerful enough across the village green. The curate gave a
little stamp of impatience as he saw some one else approaching, and said
quickly:

‘I can’t say any more,’ and stalked away, leaving, as such monitors so
often do, a prick of pain behind him, but nothing that could do any
good. It was the General who was coming, and he walked a few steps with
the ladies, congratulating them on their walk.

‘For I should not wonder if it rained to-morrow,’ he said. And then he
told them of Mrs. Swinford’s visit, and how she had gone from door to
door. ‘You see you have missed something; you have not had that honour.’

‘I am glad that we went for our long walk,’ Lady William said. And then,
finally, they met Mr. Swinford, who came up joyfully, with his hat in
his hand, and his head uncovered from the moment he saw them.

‘Ah, I have found you at last,’ said Leo; ‘I have waited for you in the
cottage, sitting inside by the invitation of Miss Patty, who is very
kind to me, and observing the proceedings of my mother.’

‘I hear she has been paying visits.’

‘To everybody, which is not, perhaps, the way to make the visit prized;
but she does not like the English climate, and she is used, you know, to
do as she likes,’ he said, with a smile.

‘Surely, in such matters as that she has a very good right.’

‘Yes, to be sure,’ he said doubtfully, and then laughed. ‘She came to
see you, too–and I lay there, like a spider in a web, wondering if she
would also come in to wait for you; but Miss Patty was not so kind to my
mother as to me. I heard her answer unhesitatingly, “Not at home!” with
a voice like that of a groom of the chambers. She has great
capabilities, Patty.’

‘And did you not go out, to say—-’

‘What should I have said? I was waiting, feeling that you would probably
snub me for my pains, and why should I interfere with my mother? She
left a card with a message pencilled on it, which I had the honourable
feeling not to read. It got upon my nerves to be in the same room with
it, and if I had not come out to meet you I should have yielded to the
temptation.’

‘That would have been as bad as opening a letter,’ said Mab, who had as
yet taken no part.

‘Would it, do you think? It was open; there would have been no seal
broken; but, at all events, I resisted temptation, so you must praise me
and not censure, Miss Mab.’

‘And how did you know,’ said Mab, while her mother pondered, ‘that we
were coming this way!’

‘Give me the basket and I will tell you. What is in it? Worms? But also
clay and earth. Have you not mud enough already in Watcham, that you
must bring in more from the woods?’

‘Give me my basket again,’ said Mab indignantly; ‘there’s a clump of
wood anemones, beauties, and the famous coltsfoot that only grows at
Denham. I have hunted for it for years, and I only found it to-day. Give
it me back.’

‘I am not worthy to carry such treasures,’ said Leo, ‘but the contact
will do me good.’

‘All the same you haven’t answered,’ said Mab. ‘Who told you we were
coming this way?’

‘If you must know, it was the accomplished Patty again. She offered me
tea, which I declined, and she offered me also my mother’s card, which
in my high sense of honour I declined too, and then she said, “My lydy
was a-going to Denham Hill, and you’ll meet ’em sure, if you go that
way.” Patty is my friend, Miss Mab; she has a higher opinion of me than
you have.’

‘We must hurry home now, Mab; we have been too long away,’ said Lady
William, with a serious face. ‘It does not do for a woman of my age to
go out on your long grubbings. Come, Leo, give me the basket, and let us
run home.’

‘I can run too,’ he said. ‘Are you really sorry, is that what you mean,
that you missed my mother?’

‘I cannot quite say that honestly. No, I am not sorry I missed your
mother. Perhaps she and I have been too long apart to bridge over the
difference now. How I used to admire your mother, Leo! How beautiful she
was!’

‘Was she, indeed?’ he said, with a sort of polite attention, but
surprised. Perhaps it is curious at any time for a man to realise that
his mother may have been beautiful and admired. ‘I should not have
thought,’ he said, ‘with submission, that her features, for instance—-

‘Women don’t think of features,’ said Lady William, with a little
impatience. ‘It was she, not her features, that was beautiful. She had
so much charm–when she pleased. It must always be added, that when she
did not please–but we are not going to discuss your mother. She is a
wonderful creature to be imprisoned here.’

‘You are not imprisoned here,’ he said, almost angrily, who are still
more wonderful: and you forget that my mother is old, and has had her
day.’

‘The day will not be over as long as she lives; and as for me, I am not
imprisoned; I dwell among my own people.’

‘How curious,’ he said, ‘pardon me, that the people here should be your
own people! I say nothing against them, don’t fear it; they are very
good people, but not—-’

‘Thanks,’ she said, with a half laugh, ‘it was I who used to be the
black sheep. Mrs. Plowden is not sure that she approves of me now; and
if—-’

‘If what?’

‘Nothing,’ said Lady William, with the slightest tinge of angry colour
in her face.

‘That is just like mother,’ said Mab; ‘she gives you a word as if she
were going to say something of importance, and then she tells you it is
nothing. I have known her to do it a hundred times.’

‘There is nothing like the criticism of one’s children,’ said Lady
William, with a laugh. ‘You, with your mother, Leo, and Mab with hers,
you are two iconoclasts. Now, the humble people, like my good Emmy, are
very different; they do not criticise. And then you despise them as
common, you two—- Ah! here we are at our own door.’ She turned and
held out her hand to Leo, who looked at her surprised.

‘Are you not going to ask me in?’ he said, holding part of the basket,
for which Mab, too, had held out her hands.

They all stood looking at each other in front of the cottage door.

‘It is late,’ said Lady William, with some hesitation–‘yes, if you wish
it: but don’t you think it would be better to get back to the Hall
before it is dark?’

‘No,’ said Leo, ‘why should I hurry back to the Hall? Of course I wish
it; and you never told me before that I was not to come.’

‘I do not say so now, but—-’

‘But what?’

‘Nothing,’ said Lady William, with a faint smile.

‘I told you that was her way,’ cried Mab, triumphant. ‘“Nothing,” and
one is sure that she means heaps of things more than she ever says.’

He followed her into the little drawing-room, where there was still a
little bright fire, though it was no longer cold. Mrs. Swinford’s card
was lying upon a small table conspicuously, though there was not light
enough to read its pencilled message. Lady William hesitated a little,
not sitting down, giving her visitor no excuse for doing so. He followed
her movements with a disturbed aspect, standing within the door,
watching her figure against the light. Mab, who had seized the basket
when he put it down, had gone off to put her treasures in safety. ‘I
perceive,’ he said at last, ‘that I have done something wrong. What have
I done wrong? Am I troubling you coming in when you did not want me?
Then tell me so, dear lady, and send me away.’

‘Leo,’ said Lady William, ‘you should not have remained here while your
mother was at the door; I do not like it; it puts me in a very
uncomfortable position. Why didn’t you go and tell her we were out, Mab
and I?’

‘I am your devoted servant, dear lady,’ said Leo, ‘but I am not your
groom of the chambers, and Patty is. How could I have taken her duties
out of her hands?’

‘That is all very well for a laugh,’ she said, ‘but it vexes me very
much; it is very uncomfortable; why should you have been in my
drawing-room while your mother was sent away from the door?’

‘You mean I ought not to have come in to wait.’

‘That for one thing, certainly; but being in, you should certainly not
have allowed—-’

‘What?’ said the young man.

Lady William did not say ‘Nothing’ again, but she stood at the window
looking out with her back turned to him, and as strong an expression of
discomfort and vexation in her attitude and eloquent silence as if she
had used many words.

‘I see,’ he said, ‘I have been very indiscreet; I have vexed you though
I did not mean it. I don’t make any excuse for myself, except that I
thought at first you were coming back immediately. Forgive me: and I
will go away, and never at any time will I do it any more.’

She gave a little laugh, turning round. ‘No, I don’t think you will do
it again; but, unfortunately, that does not alter the fact that you have
done it, and made me very uncomfortable. Are you going away? Then good
night; you will have a pleasant walk up to the Hall.’

‘Not nearly so pleasant as if it had been an hour later,’ he said.

‘Oh, that is merely an idea. You will really like it better. Mab ought
to be here to thank you for carrying her basket. Good night, Leo,’ Lady
William said. She stepped out into the narrow passage after him to see
him away; and, at the moment, in the open doorway Mab appeared with a
cry of surprise.

‘Oh, are you going so soon? Are you not going to stop for tea?’

‘I am sent away,’ he said.

‘By mother?’

‘Yes. To make sure of amendment another time,’ he said ruefully, and
went away with so much the air of a schoolboy under punishment, that Mab
came in open-mouthed to her mother.

‘Oh! what have you been doing to Mr. Leo? Oh! why have you sent him
away?’

Lady William made no answer, but rang the bell, as it very seldom was
rung in this small house; an unusual occurrence, which brought Patty in
with a rush, still rubbing a candlestick she held in her hand.

‘Patty, did you ask Mr. Swinford to come in and wait till Miss Mab and I
came back?’

‘Yes, my lydy,’ said Patty, with sharp eyes that gleamed in the light.

‘And you did not ask Mrs. Swinford, when she called, to come in and
wait?’

‘Oh, no, my lydy,’ cried Patty, aggrieved.

‘Why?’ said her mistress solemnly.

‘Oh, my lydy!’ said Patty, thunderstruck.

‘Yes, why?’ I want to know, why should Mr. Swinford wait for me and not
Mrs. Swinford? I do not wish anybody to be asked to wait for me when I
am out. If you were ever to do it again, I don’t know what I might be
obliged to say.’

‘Oh, my lydy,’ said Patty, ‘I thought as Mr. Swinford was a young
gentleman as perhaps made it a little cheerful for Miss Mab—- and I
thought as the old lady wasn’t a pleasure for nobody; and I thought—-

‘If that is true of old ladies, why should you stay with me, Patty, who
am an old lady, too, and not a pleasure to anybody—-’

‘Oh, my lydy!’ said Patty, bursting into a torrent of tears.

‘Go, you little goose, and think no more of it; but ask nobody to wait
for me. Now remember! you are here to do what you are told, but never to
think. Thinking is the destruction of little maids. Ask Anne if she ever
ventured to think when she was a girl like you.’

‘Yes, my lydy,’ said Patty, drying her eyes.

It is not necessary to make a room snug with curtains drawn and the
draught shut out, in the month of April as it is in early March, so that
it was some time even after the lamp was brought in before the wistful
clearness in the east, and that gleam of yellow, ‘the daffodil sky’ of
the other quarter, which turns to ethereal tints of green, and has so
many gradations of colour all its own, was shut out. Lady William liked
to see the sky when she was in a cheerful or excited, not a sad mood.
Such moods came to her as to every one by times; but she was angry and
active to-night. Mab was not much used to such moments of commotion, to
her mother’s slightly disturbed condition, and the scolding which had
made Patty cry. Scolding was very infrequent in the cottage. Now and
then Lady William would launch a fiery arrow; she would throw a distinct
terrible light of displeasure upon dusty corners and silver badly
cleaned. Sometimes even Mab would be brought to a sudden perception that
her faults were quite visible and apparent, notwithstanding all her
mother’s love and indulgence. But a moment like this, when all was
disturbed and broken without any apparent motive, was astonishing to the
girl. It was not for some time that Mab felt even the courage to
inquire: only after tea when Lady William’s hasty ejaculations and
movements of anger had almost died away.

‘But, mother, now that we are cool,’ said Mab—-

‘Cool? I have never been anything but cool.’

‘Now,’ continued the girl, ‘that it is over, what was there so very bad
in letting Mr. Leo come in to wait?’

‘And not his mother?’ said Lady William. ‘There would have been nothing
particular, though very absurd if everybody who called had been asked in
to wait. Fancy coming back to find the room crowded like a dentist’s
waiting-room! But to bring in one and leave out another! Though I
confess,’ said Lady William, with an angry flush, ‘that if the little
goose had done so, and brought in Mrs. Swinford to find her son waiting,
I should have been still more uncomfortable.’

‘Then you scolded her, mother, for what it was best to do?’

‘Nothing of the sort; her sin was inviting a gentleman to come in and
wait for us who—- Oh, it is too horrid altogether, and if Mrs.
Swinford had found him—-’

‘Mother, what then?’ cried Mab, a little alarmed.

Her limpid gaze, so full of innocent surprise, seemed to bring back all
Lady William’s annoyance. ‘You must take it for granted, Mab, that there
are some things I know better than you do,’ she said. ‘By-the-bye, give
me her card; let us see what message she left.’

The card did not seem to afford Lady William any more satisfaction. It
was a very highly-polished card, and the pencil had cut into it, and the
writing was difficult to read. She put it down with a heightened colour,
throwing it from her hand. ‘I wonder if she thinks I put any faith in
her _câlineries_,’ she said.

‘What are _câlineries_, mother?’ said Mab, taking up the card, which was
inscribed as follows: ‘_Chère Petite_,–Much regret not to find you.
Come to see me to-morrow; I have something important for your welfare to
say.’ ‘_Chère Petite_,’ repeated Mab, ‘that is a _câlinerie_, I suppose.
It seems queer to call you _Petite_–but I suppose she knew you when you
were quite little.’

‘She knew me, certainly, when the title was more appropriate than it is
now.’

‘That must be the reason; and perhaps she thought you might like it.
Some ladies,’ said Mab, with her serious, almost childish, face, ‘like
to be thought young.’

‘I don’t think she can have thought I would like it, Mab,’ said Lady
William, with a little shiver. ‘Close the window and draw the curtain,
please. I have a sort of uncomfortable feeling of somebody looking in.’

‘You are uncomfortable altogether to-night, mother.’

‘Yes, I suppose it’s my nerves; it’s–that woman. I never thought I had
any nerves before.’

‘Oh, but you have,’ cried Mab; ‘I know better than that. Not nerves,
perhaps, like Aunt Jane, but—- There is somebody in the garden. Shall
I go and see who it is?’

Lady William started up and looked over Mab’s shoulder. Whether she
thought it might be Leo come again, or what other intruder at this
untimely hour, I cannot tell. But she said, in a tone that was half
relief and half annoyance: ‘Your Aunt Jane in person, Mab, and the
girls. What can they want now?’ Her tone was a little fretful. They were
in the way of wanting a great many things from her at the Rectory, and
frequently her advice on one subject or another, which they did not
generally take.

‘It will be about their dresses for the FitzStephens’ party,’ said Mab,
to whom the ladies outside were beckoning that she should open the door
to them. But Lady William shook her head.

‘Run and let them in, at all events. They have not rung the bell,’ she
said, drawing the curtains with an impatient movement. The little room
looked so full that it could contain no more when the three ladies came
in; but they knew all its accommodations, and settled themselves in
their places at as great a distance as possible from the little bright
fire. ‘It is such a mild night there is no occasion for it,’ said Mrs.
Plowden, ‘but you always keep up fires, Emily, later than any one.’

‘Do I? It’s cheerful at least.’

‘And the window open! That’s rather wasteful, don’t you think? I like to
do either one thing or another; to shut up the house and keep all the
heat in, as one does on winter nights, or else to throw up all the
windows, and get the full advantage of the air. But I don’t see the good
of dispersing all the heat outside, as if it could warm the garden. That
would be a very good idea; but I’m afraid it would not be a success if
you were to try it ever so much.’

‘I suppose,’ said Lady William, ‘you have come to tell me something; not
to talk about the fire.’

‘I don’t know. We came over just to see you. It’s such a lovely night I
thought I should like a walk. I said to Emmy, after James had gone back
to his study, I think I’d like to have a little run; it’s so sweet
to-night, not cold at all. Let’s run out and see your Aunt Emily, I
said. I knew you were sure to be in.’

‘Oh, yes, we are always sure to be in.’

‘And, except ourselves, you are the only person of whom that can be
said; for the FitzStephens are always dining with the Kendals or the
Kendals with the FitzStephens; and Miss Grey, she goes in later to tea,
not to put the table out, or she is at one of Mr. Osborne’s meetings, or
has some parish tea party of her own. We are never sure to find anybody
but you; and it is such a thing in a little place like this to know
somebody you can depend upon to be in, if you find it dull or want a
little run.’

‘I am afraid that Mab and I can’t do much to help your dulness.’

‘Oh, yes, you can. You can always talk nicely, Emily, on almost any
subject; and I always say it is such a good thing for the girls only to
hear you talk. And Mab is the most sensible little thing that ever was.
I always tell the girls it’s quite a treat to hear her; no nonsense, but
so sensible, and taking up things so quick!’

‘It is very kind of you, Jane, to have so good an opinion of my little
girl.’

‘Oh, it is merely the truth, Emily. I have always heard the Marquis was
a very sensible man, and we all know there was once a Prime Minister in
the family. Of course that’s a great thing to begin with. I can’t boast
anything like that on my side, and I can’t say I think the Plowdens are
remarkable for common sense, do you? Our children have other qualities.
My poor Jim complains that his father is always at him because he does
not stick to his Greek, and how can you expect a young man to stick to
his Greek when it is only in that interrupted broken way? James thinks
he gives him his full attention. But you know what a parish is, Emily.
Sometimes it’s a christening, or some sick person to see, or a funeral.
And then James has to tell him, “I can’t hear you, Jim, to-day.” Now, I
ask you, Emily, honestly, do you think a boy can be expected to stick to
his Greek like that?’

‘I quite agree with you, Jane; it is very hard upon him.’

‘Of course it is hard; everything’s hard. And he doesn’t know what’s the
good of it, or what it’s for. He cannot go into the Church, and it
requires so much, all the technicalities, you know, to be a
schoolmaster; and if James makes up his mind at the end to put him into
an office, or to send him–which is terrible to think of,’ cried poor
Mrs. Plowden, putting her handkerchief to her eyes–‘abroad–what use
would all that Greek be?’

‘It is quite true,’ said Lady William, ‘and I wish we could persuade
James to make up his mind. Do you know what friends Jim has in the
parish; where he goes; who are his companions? Some one said something
to me—-’

‘Oh, what did they say to you? Who spoke to you? Tell me what any one
has to say about my boy.’

‘It was nothing, after all; it was Mr. Osborne. He said Jim went to some
house where it would be better he should not go.’

‘Mr. Osborne!’ cried the Rector’s wife. ‘Oh, Emily, that one who belongs
to Jim should listen to that man! There is a man,’ cried the troubled
mother, ‘who, if he liked, might have done almost anything with Jim. Not
preaching to him; that’s not what I mean. But he is a young man, only
five years older; a University man, a man wishing to have good
influence. Where does he go to exercise this good influence, Emily? To
Riverside; to the men who don’t care, who laugh at him behind his
back–and to get the old women to give up their glass of beer, and the
little children, that know nothing, to take his blue ribbon. Oh, and
there was Jim in his way,’ said the poor mother, ‘Jim at his door, a
University man, too; his Rector’s son, his own kind. Did he ever try to
get a good influence over Jim? to ask him of an evening, to take him for
walks, to give him an interest? Never, never, never! He goes about the
parish and makes the poor women promise to give up their drop of beer.
What does he know about what they need, about their innocent drop of
beer, him a strong young man, well fed, wanting nothing? But my Jim,
that was what he wanted, a strong man of his own kind; a young man that
he had no suspicion of; that didn’t need to preach. That’s what the boy
wants, Emily; not his father, that is angry, or me that only cries, but
one like himself. Is it better to gain a good influence over poor old
Mrs. Lloyd than over Jim, or to hold temperance meetings when he might
do a brother’s part to get hold of that boy?’

‘Oh, mamma, what are you saying?’ said Emmy, still anxious to save
appearances. ‘Aunt Emily will think that dear Jim—-’

Florence said nothing, but sat staring into the vacant air with wide
open eyes full of trouble, while Mrs. Plowden, altogether broken down,
put her head upon Lady William’s shoulder and cried.

‘It’s mamma’s nerves,’ said Emmy again; ‘she has been upset to-day. You
are not to think, Aunt Emily, that anything dreadful has happened.
Nothing is wrong with Jim; it is only that papa is angry with him, and
mamma has got it on her nerves, and–mamma, this was not what you came
to talk of, you know.’

Mrs. Plowden raised her head after a minute with a piteous smile. ‘Thank
you, Emily, you’re always kind,’ she said; ‘and it’s only my nerves, as
Emmy says. I get agitated, and then everything looks black, as if it
never would come right again. It isn’t that there’s anything to be
frightened about, and you know what a true good heart my Jim has, and
that’s everything, isn’t it? That’s everything,’ the poor lady said.

‘What mamma really wanted to ask you, Aunt Emily,’ said Emmy, ‘was
whether you had seen Mrs. Swinford. She has been to call at the
Rectory.’

‘Yes, yes,’ said Mrs. Plowden; ‘that was what we wanted, to be sure.
Emily, you won’t think anything more of the little fuss I’ve made about
Mr. Osborne, will you? You would think I meant that he intended to
slight my son. You know I couldn’t mean that. And he is a very good
curate, and James puts great confidence in him. It’s my nerves that get
the better of me. But Emmy always brings me up to the mark. Yes, about
Mrs. Swinford, that was it; did she come here, too?’

‘I believe so; but before we came in. She left a card with a message—-

‘My dear Emily, I don’t think Mrs. Swinford is a very nice woman,’ said
Mrs. Plowden solemnly.

‘Don’t you?’ said Lady William, with a faint smile.

‘You see, girls,’ said the Rector’s wife, ‘your aunt will never say
anything. Perhaps it is prudent, but it’s a little confusing. One
doesn’t know what to say.’

‘If you think you will hurt my feelings, Jane, by speaking plainly,
don’t let that weigh upon your mind. I know very well what Mrs. Swinford
is, and I don’t care to make myself her champion.’

‘I don’t think she’s a nice woman,’ repeated the Rector’s wife; ‘I don’t
think she’s a good woman. She looks to me–notwithstanding that she
professes to be so fond of you, and Emily this and Emily that–as if she
would like to do you a bad turn.’

Lady William took this alarming statement quite calmly. ‘Indeed I should
not be surprised,’ she said, ‘but I don’t think it is in her power.’

‘We must try and make sure that it is not in her power. Don’t you think
she could perhaps do you harm with the family? It occurred to me, and
you will wonder to hear that it occurred to James. He said to me, “If
that woman can injure Emily she will.” Dear Emily, you have never been
such very good friends with the family, and they have never seen Mab.
You know I’ve always wanted you to do something. If you were to put
yourself forward a little—-’

‘You are very kind, Jane, and James too. I don’t think the family can do
us much harm; we have what they chose to give us, and they will not give
us anything more, nor do I wish it. I have my pride, too.’

‘But their countenance, Emily!’

‘Their countenance!’ cried Lady William, rising to her feet with a quick
start of indignation. ‘To me! I want none of their countenance; I can’t
help bearing their name, and they cannot take it from me.’

‘Oh, my dear, my dear, there can be no question of that! They can’t take
away your rank, nor Mrs. Swinford either, whatever she may do. My
conviction,’ said Mrs. Plowden, nodding her head, ‘is that she can’t
bear the thought of your rank. If you should meet anywhere _out_, and
you were to pass before her, Emily–that’s the thought that she can’t
bear.’

A gleam of light passed over Lady William’s face. ‘That would be a
little compensation,’ she said, half to herself. ‘But don’t put such
hopes in my head,’ she added laughing; ‘she and I will never meet _out_,
alas!’

‘If it was only for that I should like to give a dinner party at the
Rectory and ask her, Emily–just to show her. Oh, I should like that! It
might look strange, James giving his arm to his own sister, but I should
never mind how it looked. And it would be a kind of duty, by way of
welcoming them back. But you know, Emily, though Mary Jane is an
excellent parlourmaid, she is not equal to a formal party. We should
require to have a butler, or some one who would look like a butler. And
the dinner-service is very shabby and a great many pieces broken. I am
sure I would do it with the greatest pleasure, and, indeed, would think
it a duty; but only—-’

‘No, my kindest Jane, you will do nothing of the sort for me. As for
Mrs. Swinford, she will go out to no parties in the village. Don’t
imagine for a moment that I want to be avenged upon her in that very
small way.’

‘Avenged! I did not think of it in that light. And do you know James was
very cool to her to-day, scarcely civil. I thought she had been very
nice to you in the old times.’

‘Don’t let us talk of the Swinfords for ever,’ said Lady William, ‘we
have had enough of them for one day. Let me know what the girls are
going to wear at the FitzStephens’, and who is to be there—-’

This new subject, notwithstanding that Mrs. Plowden had her head full of
graver matters, was too interesting to be dropped quickly, and there
ensued a long conversation, which Lady William, having set it going,
left to be carried on by the others. Mrs. Plowden had naturally a great
deal to say, and Emmy, whose heart was full of the consciousness that
any social occasion where she could see and be seen was more important
now in her life than it had ever been before, lent her attention with
great earnestness to her mother’s view, to Mab’s remarks, and to the
occasional word with which Lady William kept up the talk. Only Florence
took no part in it. She had taken up a book, and so appeared to have her
attention fixed; I don’t know if she held it upside down, but I am very
sure that she did not read a page. Her mind was occupied with affairs of
her own.