promised anything

Jim strolled down into the village when the boat came to shore. It was
before the hour at which he had concluded he would go home, which, as
was natural, was considerably later than the hour proposed by Mab. What
was the good, he said to himself, of going in before dinner, or at least
before the time which was necessary to get ready for dinner? In that
hour, as everybody knows, very little can be done. Mrs. Plowden and the
girls would be in the drawing-room talking about what had happened in
the afternoon, and the Rector would not have come in. So it was quite a
certainty in Jim’s mind that no Sophocles would come of it if he had
returned home when Florence did, as she begged him to do. He would not
have worked; and, indeed, it would be a kind of breaking of his word if
he had done so then, for had he not promised his father to work after
dinner, which was quite a different thing? And it was more amusing to
prowl along through the village on the outlook for anything that might
happen, than to go in and listen to the girls chattering, probably about
the Swinfords. And Jim was sick of the very name of the Swinfords. He
had that distaste which a young man who has fallen into objectionable
ways so often acquires of party-givings and society in what his mother
called ‘his own rank of life.’ He flattered himself that what he did
dislike was the conventionalities and stiffness of society, and that his
own desire to see ‘life’ was a more original and natural sort of thing.
He liked to hear what the people said when they were at their ease in
inn parlours and tap-rooms. He liked, it is to be feared, what
accompanied these sayings. And the more familiar he became in such
localities, the more ‘out of it’ he felt in the drawing-rooms, and among
the staid and quiet folk who represented society in Watcham. So that the
Swinfords represented nothing but a succession of fresh annoyances to
Jim. If they gave parties, as his mother and the girls hoped, he would
be obliged to get himself up in gorgeous attire and take a part in these
entertainments. There was a time when he, too, would have been excited
by such a prospect; but that had departed after his first experiences of
the life of the somewhat disreputable undergraduate, into which he had
been so unfortunate as to fall. Now that he could not lounge into any
resort where he could meet his peers in that class, Jim found his
distaste for the home society grow upon him. He was tired to death of
the girls. The old ladies bored him, which was not so wonderful. The
correct old General and the clergymen about were old fogeys, which
indeed was true enough. Where was the poor boy to find any one whom he
could talk to with the freedom of those delightful but too brief terms
at the University where he had been taught what life meant? It had been
a shock to his own remaining scruples, and all the force of tradition,
when he first strayed into the public-house. Oh no; not the
public-house, but the little inn at Watcham, which was quite a pretty
little house, all brilliant with flowers, and where people from town
came down to stay in the summer; it was so nice, so quaint, so
respectable, and so near the river. But it is a very different thing
coming to stay at an inn for the sake of being near the river, and
stealing in in the evening to the same place for society and amusement.
There was nothing disreputable going on in the parlour of the ‘Swinford
Arms,’ or the ‘Blue Boar,’ as it was vulgarly called, in reference to
the Swinford crest, which presented that aspect to the common eye. The
people who went there were respectable enough–the tradesmen in the
village, good decent men who liked to see the papers and talk them over
with the accompaniment of a glass of something, and a pipe: and the
veterinary surgeon, who was a great deal about the country, and talked
familiarly of Sir Thomas Barnes, and the Mortlocks of Wellwood, the
great hunting people. It made a young man who felt acutely that he did
not belong to the class of the tradesmen, more satisfied with himself to
talk with a man who spoke of such people familiarly in a sort of
hail-fellow well met way, even though he was only the vet. But by
degrees as Jim acquired the habit of dropping in in the evenings to the
‘Blue Boar,’ he got to think that the village shopkeepers were very good
fellows, and their opinions well worth hearing. So they were, indeed, as
a matter of fact: solid, decent men, whose measured glass of something
probably did them no harm, and whose wives were rather glad than
otherwise that they had this little enlivenment in the evening of a
little respectable society in the parlour of the ‘Blue Boar,’ which was
itself as respectable as could be desired. But yet it was not
respectable, alas! for Jim.

When the Rector first discovered that this was where his son went when
he went out in the evenings to take a walk, as he said, Mr. Plowden’s
feelings would be difficult to describe. The misery, the shame, the
acute and intolerable sense of downfall were perhaps exaggerated. But
who can say what the descent is from the drawing-room of the Rectory to
the parlour of the village public-house? which is what it really was, no
doubt, though it was a most respectable little inn, and frequented in
summer by the best of company. The first interview between the father
and the son was very painful, but not without hope, for Jim himself was
very well aware of all that it meant, and did not stand against his
father’s reproaches. ‘I know it is not a place for the Rector’s son,’ he
said, humbly enough. ‘It’s not a place for anybody’s son,’ the Rector
said. ‘Do you think even White and Slaughter would like their sons to go
there?’ This was an argument Jim was not prepared for, and he
acknowledged with humility that he did not think they would. The Rector
was very gentle with the boy that first time. He pointed out that for
Slaughter and White, and even the vet., it was a sort of club where they
went to meet their friends–and whether or not there might be any
objections morally to their glass of something, yet at all events it was
a very moderate indulgence, and went no further. ‘I don’t say it is
quite right even for them; but that’s a very different question,’ Mr.
Plowden said, and Jim acknowledged the self-evident truth. The Rector
said nothing to his wife for that first time, nor for several times
afterwards; but he could not conceal his anxiety when Jim disappeared in
the evening, as, after a few very quiet and dull nights at home, he
again began to do. When Mrs. Plowden heard she cried, almost with
indignation, ‘But why didn’t you speak to him, James?’ Speak to him!
After two or three interviews poor Mr. Plowden soon began to recognise
how little use there was in that.

Jim, accordingly, when he left the girls to stroll down the village
street, did so against the remonstrances of Florry, who tried hard to
persuade him to come back and hear what mamma and Emmy had been doing at
the Hall, then offered herself to share his walk, with equal
seriousness. ‘I like a stroll by myself,’ Jim said.

‘It will very soon be dark, Jim; it is no fun walking in the dark.’

‘Not for you. But let me alone; if I like it, that’s enough, Flo.’

‘Oh, Jim, mamma is so pleased when you come in early,’ cried Florence,
pleading; ‘it does us all so much good. If you only saw the difference
in poor papa’s face when he knows you’re in the drawing-room.’

‘I shouldn’t be in the drawing-room in any case. I’ve got my Greek to
do.’

‘Still better if you are at your Greek. Oh, Jim, do for once come home
with me!’

‘I’ll come in in half an hour–will that satisfy you? I only want to
shake myself up a bit after sitting there with nothing to do.’

‘Well, mind you don’t forget: in half an hour,’ said Florence.

He went off waving his hand to her. Then thrusting his hands into his
pockets, with that idle lounging step of the man who is ready for any
mischief, but has none immediately in sight, he strolled away. Florence
stood looking after him, with anxiety in every line of her face, until
she remembered Mab looking on, whom it was necessary to keep from
knowing if possible: and then the poor girl laughed. ‘Isn’t he lazy?’
she said; ‘and it does vex papa so. Papa thinks Jim should like
Sophocles as much as he does, which is nonsense, isn’t it? But Jim says
that old people never can understand young ones, and perhaps it’s true.’

‘Mother always understands me,’ said Mab, with a child’s unhesitating
confidence.

‘Oh,’ said Florence. Her secret thought was, ‘What is there in you, you
little thing, to understand?’ She said after a moment, ‘Boys are so
different!’ with a sigh.

‘You should not nag at him so much,’ said Mab, with a reflection of her
mother’s sentiments, who as yet knew little of Jim’s case, and gave her
opinion privately in the bosom of her own home that the boy was being
driven out of his senses by never being left alone.

‘I don’t think we nag at him,’ said Florence meekly: and then the two
girls parted, Mab taking the way to the cottage, and Florry that which
led to the Rectory. ‘You don’t want to hear what they have got to say?’
Florry said, with a faint smile, before the other left her.

‘I shall hear it from mother,’ said Mab, ‘and I don’t know that I care.’

So the cousins separated–with thoughts so different. And Jim strolled
away in the other direction with a thirst which was both physical and
mental, in his whole being. It was physical, alas! and that was perhaps
in its immediate development the worst: but it was also mental, a
craving for something he knew not what; something that would supply the
atmosphere, the novelty, he wanted, the something he had not got. He
knew very well at other moments that the inn parlour, and the village
society, and the pipes and the glass–in his own case so often
repeated–would not give that. Ordinarily, he thought Oxford would give
it and the society of the young men with whom he sometimes talked
metaphysics, though usually it was only horses and racing, and boats and
bumps, and the qualities of the different dogs of the circle, that they
discussed; but still, it was not to be denied that there was something
in Jim’s being which thirsted, as well as that fatal thirst in his body,
which, alas! it was so much more easy to satisfy. The drab-coloured
house at home, with its habits fixed like iron; the evening round the
lamp; the mother’s prolonged talk about her neighbours, and about people
she once knew, and about getting on; his father’s scanty, careless
replies; the girls’ talk, which was very often about their dresses, and
how things were worn now–all these had become wearisome to the young
man: and he did not care at all for his Sophocles. He had found in
Oxford that opening out of the restricted household circle for which his
young being craved; but it had not been the best of openings, and now
poor Jim prowled down the village street, wanting that something which
he could not tell how to attain to, neither what it was. He did not want
to go to the ‘Blue Boar.’ He had never yet gone in daylight openly, but
under cover of night, when the parlour window looked so bright in the
dull village street. It wanted some courage to go now, in cold blood as
it were, when there was no reason for it, and he felt all that it meant,
the son of the Rectory going in, in the light of day, to the village
public-house. He did not want to do it, if he could only find somewhere
else to go.

It happened in this way that Jim was very ready to be led in any quarter
where a little novelty or amusement was to be found. Not in any quarter;
for supposing he had at that moment met the good old General, whose
company could do him nothing but good, who had told him, perhaps, that
he had a young nephew, perhaps a pretty niece, to whom he wished to
introduce the Rector’s son, Jim would at once have found that he had to
go back to his Greek: he would not have gone to the General’s, nor to
any house, as his mother said, ‘in his own rank of life.’ And why this
should be I am quite unable to tell. Houses which were in his own rank
of life did not seem to him to have what he wanted; he would have felt
sure in advance that the General’s nephew would be a prig, or perhaps an
insolent young soldier, thinking nobody was anybody who was out of the
service; and the General’s niece, ugly and stupid. This he would have
felt sure of, though he could not have told why. Neither can I tell
why, nor any of those to whom it would be of the greatest advantage to
make this all-important discovery. It would be even more important than
finding out how to resist a deadly disease; and in the one case as in
the other, there are many surprises and many experiments. But nobody as
yet has been able to find out the way.

It was while he was thus moving along on the other side of the street,
not desiring to go to the ‘Blue Boar,’ yet not knowing where else to go,
and having within him an imperious wish to go somewhere, that Jim
suddenly heard in the soft stillness of the evening air–for the wind
had quite fallen as night came on–a pleasant voice saying, ‘Good
evening, Mr. Plowden’; a voice which was quite new to him, and which he
could not associate with anybody in Watcham. He knew everybody in
Watcham, great and small, so that it was not easy to take him by
surprise. He turned round, startled, and saw a woman, a lady, standing
in the half-light in the door of the house next to the schools, which
was appropriated to the village schoolmistress. He knew there was a new
schoolmistress, for he had heard it talked of, but he had not seen her,
so that this was about the only person in Watcham whose voice he did not
know. Jim stopped suddenly and made a clutch at his cap. I hope he would
on any occasion have taken off his hat to the schoolmistress, but at all
events this voice made it imperative, for it was a refined voice, the
voice of a lady, or else an exceedingly good make-believe.

‘Good evening,’ he replied vaguely. He could not very well make out her
face, but yet there was something in it which it appeared to him he had
seen before.

‘You do not remember me?’ she said.

‘You have newly come to the school, I suppose,’ he said. ‘I beg your
pardon. I don’t think I have seen you before.’

‘You have seen me before, but not here, and if I were quite sure you did
not remember me I should be very glad.’

‘That is rather a queer thing to say,’ said Jim.

‘Perhaps; but it is a true thing. I wanted to ask you, if you did
remember me, not to do so–at least, to say nothing about it.’

‘This is more mysterious still.’

‘Yes, I daresay it does sound mysterious; but it is important to me. I
don’t know whether to trust to you in this way, that if you remember me
after you will say nothing about it; or to be frank and recall myself to
your mind.’

‘You had better let me judge,’ said Jim.

Here was the something he wanted, perhaps–an adventure, a mystery; of
all things in the world the least likely thing to find in Watcham
village street.

The woman–lady he called her–gave a glance round to see if any one was
looking, then suddenly stepping back, bade him come in. There was
nothing in the house of the schoolmistress that looked like mystery. He
knew it well enough. He had been there with his mother when he was a
child. He had come with errands from her to the late mistress. The
narrow passage and the tiny little sitting-room that opened off from it
were as familiar to him as the Rectory. He walked into the parlour,
which, however, startled him, as if it had been a new place which he had
never seen before. How well he remembered the black haircloth sofa, the
square table with its heavy woollen table-cover, which left so little
room for coming or going. It was newly furnished, draped with curtains
much more fresh than anything in the Rectory, a small sofa with pretty
chintz, an easy-chair or two, the small tables which were not so common
in those days. Jim did not notice those things in detail, but the
general effect was such as to turn his head.

‘Hullo!’ he said, in his surprise.

‘You see the difference in the room? No; I wouldn’t have my
predecessor’s old things. I have done it almost all with my own hands.
Isn’t it nice?’

‘It is very different,’ said Jim. His home was dingy, but it was
natural, and he had an undefined sense that this was not natural. There
was something fictitious in the air of the little room with its poor,
coarsely-papered walls–a sort of copy of a boudoir out of a novel, or
on the stage. He was not very learned in such things, and yet it seemed
to him to be part of a _décor_ rather than a room to live in. In Mrs.
Peters’ time it was very ugly, but as honest as the day.

‘Sit down,’ she said, ‘and let me give you a cup of tea; or perhaps–for
I think I know gentlemen’s tastes–there may be something else that you
will like better. Sit down, at least, and I will try if I can find
something to your taste; for I want to make a little bargain with you,
Mr. Plowden, that may be for my advantage and yours, too. Sit down for a
moment, and wait for me here.’

She vanished as she spoke, and left him much bewildered in the little
bedizened room. It occurred to him during the moment he was left there
that perhaps, on the whole, it would have been better had he gone after
all to the parlour in the ‘Blue Boar.’ But his entertainer reappeared in
a minute or two, bearing in her hands a tray, upon which stood a tall
glass, foaming as nothing ever foamed in the ‘Blue Boar.’ I don’t
pretend to say what its contents were. They were foaming, and highly
scented, and they pleased Jim Plowden, I am sorry to say, better than
tea.

‘That is something like what we had at Nuneham that lovely day. Don’t
you recollect me now?’

‘Mrs. Brown!’ cried Jim. It was not a name which said very much to the
ordinary ear. It would, indeed, be difficult to say less. But the new
schoolmistress made him a curtsey such as had never been seen in Watcham
before.

‘I am glad,’ she said, ‘that you remember me; though I ought to have
been pleased and satisfied that you did not–for a woman, however she
may came down in the world, never likes to think that she has been
forgotten. I have recalled myself to your recollection, Mr. Plowden, in
order to say that I hope you won’t say anything to your father or any
one of where we met last. I was then, if you remember, chaperon, to some
young ladies.’

‘Oh yes, indeed, I remember perfectly,’ cried Jim, ‘your nieces.’

‘Well, yes, my nieces if you like; and I was not at all like a village
schoolmistress, was I? Things happen so in this life; but it would do me
no good, Mr. Plowden, with the Rector or the other good people, to know
that I had been–well, helping you to squander your money at Oxford only
last year.’

‘You did not help me to squander my money, Mrs. Brown. I was only one of
the guests. I had no money to squander; but I fear what you mean is that
you have come down in the world. I am very sorry, I am as sorry as I can
be. It is very different, this, from anything you have been accustomed
to; but instead of saying nothing about it, which I can understand as a
matter of pride, don’t you think it would be better for me to tell my
mother, who though she has her own ways which you might perhaps not care
for, is very kind, and would, I am sure, try to make things as pleasant
as she could and as little hard, and ask you up to the Rectory and all
that?’

Mrs. Brown turned her back upon Jim, and he feared that she wept. But I
don’t think she wept, though when she turned round again she had her
handkerchief to her eyes. She said, ‘I am sure your mother is goodness
itself, Mr. Plowden; but I am a proud woman, as you perceive. No, you
must not breathe a word to your mother. I have one friend who knows all
about me; and that is Mrs. Swinford, at the Hall; but except her and
yourself I want nobody to know. Will you promise me that nobody shall
know from you, Mr. Jim?’

How did she know his name, Jim? How did she remember him at all, a
little, young, ignorant freshman much honoured to make one of the
brilliant water party of which she and her nieces had been the soul? He
was ready to have promised anything, everything she asked.

‘She was nice enough to us,’ said Mrs. Plowden, ‘but very
hoighty-toighty with your aunt. Did you observe that, Emmy? Poor Aunt
Emily was very kind. She said in such a pretty way, “That is Emily
Plowden now,” and really Emmy looked so very like her at that
moment–with the charm of youth, of course, added on–that nobody could
help remarking it. Mr. Swinford looked from one to the other, making a
little comparison I could see–and you may imagine in whose favour it
was.’

‘It was in my sister’s favour, of course,’ said the Rector. There was
something in the way in which he emphasised the _my_, as if to mark the
difference between his daughter, who was her mother’s as well as his,
and his sister who was all his own, that might have been amusing to a
bystander, but to Mrs. Plowden was not amusing at all.

‘It is most curious,’ she said, ‘the way you always stand up for your
own family—-’

‘Whom do you mean by my own family? Emmy is my own family, I suppose?’

‘You know very well what I mean. I mean your side of the house in
opposition to mine. One would think that nobody born was ever equal to
your people–not even your own children.’

‘My own children are as God has made them,’ said the Rector. He added,
as if she had been somehow of a superior manufacture, ‘But my sister
Emily was the sweetest creature I ever saw when she was Emmy’s age. Emmy
is a good girl, and she is very nice-looking or she could not be
supposed to be like my sister. But as for comparing the one to the
other, my dear, it only shows how little you know.’

‘Upon my word!’ cried Mrs. Plowden, not without reason, ‘I hope my Emmy
may be compared to any one. Your sister had always a great deal too much
intellectual pride about her to please me. She was not content to be
nice-looking, which nobody ever denied, but she went in for being
clever, too. I know you don’t approve of women taking that sort of
position, James. Indeed, you have said as much a hundred times–and now
to go on raving about your sister, as if we haven’t all had sisters that
were out of the common in our day!’

‘My dear, I didn’t know there was anybody out of the common connected
with you. My impression is I never heard you brag of that before–no
more than poor Emily ever did about being more clever than the rest of
us. Poor girl, it hasn’t come to much in her case.’

‘I am not one to be always blowing a trumpet about my family,’ said Mrs.
Plowden angrily; ‘but if you think my brother Thurston is nobody—-’

‘Not in the least; he is a very nice fellow, and a Q.C.’

‘Or my sister Florence!’ said the Rector’s wife, ‘poor Florry’s
godmother–and the girl takes after her, I’m glad to say–and it’s to
her credit, whatever you may think.’

‘Oh, your sister Florence!’ said the Rector. This was a point that had
been argued between them often before, for, as a matter of fact, though
Emily Plowden was understood to have done very little good for herself
by her distinguished marriage, yet it was a distinguished marriage, and
one of which the Rector’s wife herself was more proud than any one. She
quoted Lady William in her own family in a way which made her brother
who was a Q.C. and her sister who was Florence’s godmother very angry.
‘I wish you would not be always dinning that eternal Lady William into
our ears,’ was what these good people said. But at home, in face of her
husband, Mrs. Plowden liked to show her independence, and that she and
her brothers and sisters were as remarkable as he and his brothers and
sisters any day.

‘Well,’ said Mrs. Plowden, ‘they were really more nice to Emmy, though
she is only my daughter, than they were to your sister Emily, James. I
did not think that Emily was received as her rank demands. They were
more civil to me, a simple clergyman’s wife, than they were to her. Now,
though one is always pleased, of course to be put in the first place, I
don’t think it was right. Oh! not Mr. Swinford, he was very attentive;
but in such cases the man does not count, and the old lady—-’

‘Is she really an old lady, mamma?’ said Florry, who had not yet found
the opening for her anxious questions which she desired.

‘Well–her son is not quite young. He is not like Jim; he is a
full-grown young man of the world. As for Mrs. Swinford, she is so
curled and frizzed and powdered and everything done to her, that you
can’t tell how old she is. But it is always safe to say the old lady
when there is a son quite old enough to marry. Of course she will be the
old lady as soon as he gets a wife.’

‘I am sure, mamma, it would not make you an old lady if Jim were to
marry,’ said Emmy, always exemplary in her sentiments.

‘Jim!’ Mrs. Plowden said, with a sort of shriek. And then she added:
‘Poor Jim’s not a landed proprietor like Mr. Swinford. He can never make
me a Dowager, poor boy! And what chance has he of ever marrying? none
that I know of, without any money, and not even a profession. Alas!
there is a great difference between Leo Swinford and Jim.’

‘Is Leo his name? What an odd name!’

‘But pretty, don’t you think–and so uncommon?’ said Emmy.

Emmy had a slightly dazzled look about the eyes, as one that has seen
visions. She had been into that fairy palace, and come into absolute
contact with Prince Charming. Florry knew that the details of the
interview were not likely to come out until they two came face to face
in their room, with no father or mother in the way.

‘By the way,’ said the Rector, as if it had not been the prominent thing
in his mind all the time, ‘did Jim come back with you from the river,
Flo?’

‘He thought he would like a little stroll before he came back–for half
an hour. He promised me faithfully he would come back in half an hour.’

‘It is more than half an hour now,’ said the Rector, with his watch in
his hand; and then he sighed and went away.

‘Oh, children,’ said Mrs. Plowden, when his steps had died out in the
distance of the rambling house, ‘how often must I tell you not to be so
pointed with your half-hours? How can a young man tell, if he strolls
out in the evening, exactly to a moment when he’s to get back? He may
meet a friend, or some little accident may happen, and he is kept,
without any doing of his. And there is your father with his watch in his
hand as if he had never been a young man himself. I don’t want you, I am
sure, to be anything but truthful–but if you could throw a little veil
over such things! Now, however soon he may come, and however right he
may be, your father will never forget having looked at his watch. He
will say you can never trust in his word because of that half-hour.’

‘I only said what he told me, mamma,’ said Florence, half offended.

‘As if there was any use in saying what he told you!’ cried Mrs.
Plowden, ‘when you know that’s Jim’s weakness never to be sure when he
is coming in; and to say in half an hour is just as easy as in—- Jim!
why, here he is, as exact as clockwork. Run and tell your father,
Florry: he can put his watch in his pocket. Oh, I am so glad! It is
always a little triumph for us womenfolk who believe whatever you say,
you troublesome Jim!’

‘Do you believe whatever I say, mother?’

‘Oh, more than I ought–more than I ought. And oh, Jim, if you only knew
the pleasure of it, the pride of it! To see you walking in at your time
as a gentleman should–and like a gentleman in every way!’

The words were, perhaps, capable of various interpretations; but the
little party in the Rectory drawing-room knew precisely what they meant;
and Jim knew very well that his mother, in the darkness of the room,
where no lights as yet were lighted, was crying quietly to herself over
his virtue and punctuality. It struck him with a sort of mingled shame
and ridicule to think that, perhaps, had she known where he had been,
she would not have been so much content. I may say that it was much more
like an hour and a half than half an hour since he had left the two
girls at the landing-place; so that he was not precisely a model of
exactness after all.

When Jim came in all the other subjects in the world went out; and as he
had no interest in the Hall and its inhabitants there was no further
gossip about the Swinfords in the Rectory family that night, until,
indeed, the evening was over, and the girls found themselves face to
face in the room which they shared, which was a long and low one, under
the eaves, with a number of small windows, and space enough to make up
for a slanting roof on one side. It was indeed quite a large room, with
two little beds, two little white-draped toilet tables, two sets of
drawers, everything double, as the two were who had lived in it all
their lives. All their little confidences had been made to each other
there, all that had happened had been discussed; their whole life, which
was not eventful, had passed in this dim chamber, where the light came
in through greenish lattices, and under the shadow of the waving trees.
They came upstairs, following each other very demurely, each with her
candle, but when they were safe in their shelter, and had shut their
door, each put down her candle on her own table, and they rushed
together, seizing each other’s hands. ‘Oh, Emmy, tell me!’ cried the
one who had been left at home.

‘There is nothing to tell, indeed,’ said Emmy, ‘except what you have
heard already.’

‘I have heard nothing about _him_,’ said her sister.

‘Oh, Flo, dear! all that nonsense was amusing enough as long as he was
only a dream. He has been a dream for so long; but now he’s a man, just
like another.’

‘Not like any other in the world, Em.’

‘That is, to you and me; but, thank heaven, nobody knows except us two,
and it is all over. He is like any other man, rather more nicely
dressed, rather more careful of his clothes.’

‘Oh, Emmy!’

‘That doesn’t sound like our hero, does it? I suppose it is because he
is half French: red stockings and patent-leather shoes, as Mab said.’

‘Well,’ said Florry, ‘if true hearts are more than coronets, they are
certainly more than patent-leather shoes.’

‘That is very true, but somehow it goes dreadfully against one’s ideal.
And, Flo, he is not–tall.’

Florence burst into a somewhat agitated laugh. ‘What does that matter?’
she said.

‘Oh, nothing at all. I know that little men are just as nice, sometimes
nicer, than big ones; but you know what we always thought: and he is not
the least like it–not one little bit.’

Emmy looked as if she were going to cry; for the fact was that Mr.
Swinford had been, by a piece of girlish romance not very uncommon among
such unsophisticated girls as those of the Rectory, the hero of an
entirely visionary castle in the air on the part of this young lady.
Florence was more wise; she had the ideas of her century, and was very
strongly convinced that for her sister to marry well was a thing most
essential at the present crisis of the family fortunes; but she had been
very indulgent to Emmy’s romance, possibly from the conviction that this
was the only way in which her sister could be moved to take such a
step–and partly because she had herself a sentimental side, and was
deeply convinced that no true marriage could be made without love.

‘Well,’ she said soothingly, ‘never mind; he may be everything that is
delightful in himself, even though he is short and not handsome.’

‘I never said he was not handsome,’ said Emmy, with some indignation,
‘nor yet short. How exaggerated you are! I said he was not tall. He is
very nice-looking. Not the way we used to think; not dark-haired and
with deep dark eyes as we used to imagine–and not fair either, which is
perhaps better: but yet very nice–in his own way.’

‘Brown!’ cried Florence, ‘sober, sensible, common brown–like most
people. After all, that must be the best and safest since Providence
makes the most of us of that hue.’

‘If you think he is common,’ said Emmy indignantly, ‘you are making the
greatest mistake. He is not heroic–in appearance: but unusual–to a
degree.’ Emmy’s powers of language were not great, but her feeling was
unmistakable. ‘I never saw any one at all like him,’ she said. ‘If he is
not like a man in a poem or on the stage, he is just as little like the
ordinary man you meet. Fancy, it was he who made the tea! His mother
said he always did it. The way she calls Leo at every moment is the most
curious thing. She has a sweet voice, but it is so imperious, as if she
never thought it possible that any one could resist her; and, though it
is quite low, he hears her before she has half called him, whatever he
may be doing.’

‘All that is very interesting,’ said Florence, ‘but’–she seized her
sister’s hands and looked anxiously into her face–‘of course you can’t
see how things are to go the first time–but, Emmy, oh, tell me—-!’

Emmy shook her head; she withdrew her hands; her eyes drooped before her
sister’s gaze. ‘How can you ask?’ she said, ‘how could anybody tell? He
was very nice, of course–as he would have been to the housemaid if we
had sent her, or to Mrs. Brown at the school.’

‘Mamma said he was exceedingly nice to you, and not so nice to Aunt
Emily.’

‘Ah, that was Mrs. Swinford she was thinking of. Mamma naturally thinks
of her. No, no, Flo, we must not deceive ourselves; it was all the other
way. If there is any one here whom Mr. Swinford thinks it worth his
while to talk to and make friends with, it will neither be you nor me.’

‘Me, no! I never thought of such a thing. But why not you, Emmy? and, if
not you, who else?’

Emmy clasped her hands together and shook her head. She had been shaking
it for at least a minute before she let the words ‘Aunt Emily’ drop from
her lips, with an accent of something like despair.

‘Aunt Emily!’ said Florence in the profoundest surprise: her tone
changed in a moment into one of disdain. ‘Aunt Emily! why, she is old
enough to be–she is almost as old as mamma. She has nothing to do with
it at all.’

‘Do you remember,’ said Emmy, with some solemnity, ‘_that_ French novel
which we found in Uncle Thurston’s room?’

Florence nodded her head. It had been a fearful joy to find in their
uncle’s room anything so wildly wicked, so universally condemned, as a
yellow French novel. It had not been so delightful in the attempt to
read it–for the girls were far too innocent to understand the
stimulating fare there placed before them. But it was a terrible and
alarming memory in their lives.

‘Well, the heroine in that was a widow,’ cried Emmy. ‘She was the one
everybody thought of. And Mr. Swinford is quite French, and Aunt Emily
doesn’t look old, and she is really handsome. Don’t you know when people
want to be very complimentary to me they say I am like Aunt Emily?–only
when they want to be very complimentary.’

‘So you are; and the more he thinks of her the more he ought to turn to
you, who are so like her.’

‘Oh! do you think so? I, for my part, feel sure that he will like her
best. She will be able to talk to him. She has been in Paris, where he
comes from. She will be like the people he has been used to.’

‘Oh! not like the people in Uncle Thurston’s novel!’

‘I did not mean that; but she can talk, and she is what people call
elegant, and you’ll see he’ll think more of her than either of you or
me.’

‘It is impossible,’ cried Florence, with the confidence of youth. ‘A
woman with a grown-up daughter!’

‘Wait,’ said Emmy oracularly, ‘and you will see.’