She might have been crushed altogether by his discovery

The Rector, when he came home upon that day, when Jim’s alliance with
Mr. Osborne began, did not show any such pleasure in the circumstances
as his wife expected. He mumbled and coughed, and with a lowering brow
said that anything was an excuse that kept the boy from his work, and
that if Jim picked up Osborne’s fads in addition to his own faults they
would make a pretty hash of it altogether. Mrs. Plowden, however, made
the less of this that the Rector was evidently in but an indifferent
state of temper and spirits generally. ‘He has been put out about
something,’ his interpreter said to the girls; ‘something has gone wrong
with him in town; he has not got his business done as he wished.’ But
what that business was, his wife was obliged to allow that she did not
know. ‘I can’t help thinking,’ she said, ‘that it’s something about your
uncle Reginald. What else could Emily have come over in such hot haste
about? And then your father going up to town in this wild way without
giving any reason. I can’t imagine what can be the cause unless it was
something about Reginald. They are dreadful for sticking to each other,
the Plowdens; they would think, perhaps, that I would make a remark, and
I am sure that there are plenty of remarks I might make, for if ever
there was a man who was utterly unbearable in a house it was Reginald
Plowden, and nothing in the world would make me consent to have him here
again, nothing! Your father has had something on his mind for some time
back. Don’t you remember he burst in one day as if he were full of
something to tell us, and then stopped short all at once?’

‘But that looked as if it was good news, mamma. He had met Mr. Swinford
and he was just going to tell us.’

‘What good news could come to us through Leo Swinford?’ cried Mrs.
Plowden scornfully: which was to poor Emmy as if somebody had given her
a blow in the face. She fell back quite suddenly behind her sister, and
attempted no reply.

‘It did look at first as if it was something good,’ Mrs. Plowden
allowed; ‘but when I tried to draw it out of him he only got into a fuss
you know, as he does so often, and told me I’d hear it all in good time.
I am sure ever since he has had something on his mind; and when he came
back from town last night he could have torn us all in pieces. If it is
not about Reginald I am sure I can’t imagine what it can be.’

‘It may be something about Aunt Emily, mamma.’

‘What could there be about Emily? No, she has heard from Reginald, that
is what it is, and he has told her he was sending back her money, or
something of that sort, and your father has gone up to town to see if it
was true. And he has found out, of course, that it was not true, as I
could have told him before he went a step on such an errand. And now he
can’t contain himself for rage and disappointment, and if I’m not
mistaken, he has gone over to tell your aunt Emily that she is not to
think of it any more.’

‘He did walk over to the cottage,’ one of the girls said; and the other
added:

‘How do you find out things, mamma? Now I am sure I never should have
thought of anything of that kind.’

‘My dears,’ said Mrs. Plowden with a certain complaisance, ‘you never
knew Reginald Plowden. And I do. You cannot gather grapes off thorns, or
figs off thistles; and if there ever was thorns and thistles in flesh
and blood, Reginald Plowden is the man. That your Aunt Emily should
still expect to get her money back from him, just shows what a thing
family affection is; but she might as well expect it to drop down from
those lilac-trees.’

The girls did not say anything in reply; but Emmy, for her part, thought
of quite a different explanation. She believed that Leo Swinford, whose
proceedings had been so great an object of interest, and of whom she
knew both by her own observation and by common report that he was
‘always at the cottage,’ had offered himself and his fortune to Lady
William. Proposed to Aunt Emily!–that was how poor Emmy put it. A girl
cannot but think such a proposal wholly ridiculous, if not an absolute
infatuation. Her respect for her aunt made her still believe and hope
that the proposal had been rejected; but this wonderful event would
quite account for the ‘something on his mind,’ which it was very clear
the Rector had. What he had gone to town about, however, and whether
his mission could have any bearing upon this disquieting question, Emmy
could not say. Florence was so preoccupied with other matters that upon
this, even though it cost her sister so much disquietude, she expressed
no opinion at all.

The Rector, as had been perceived, had gone towards the cottage when he
went out with care upon his brow. He had not, after all, as the reader
will understand, proclaimed the wonderful news about Mab when he went
home after his meeting with Lord Will. He reflected to himself that it
might be some time before he could set his sister’s position quite
straight, and that in the meantime the report of Mab’s heiress-ship
would flash all over the parish, and that any question, any hesitation,
any delay, on the subject would attract the curiosity and interest of
the village folks. Mab an heiress! It would go from one end of the
county to the other, and questions as to when she would come into her
fortune would come from all sides; very likely that last horror of
impertinent gossip which reveals what everybody leaves behind him to the
admiration of the public, would communicate the news in spite of all
precautions. Lord John’s death intestate and the amount of his fortune
would be in all the papers, with a list of the kindred concerned. But at
all events, the Rector said to himself, he would say nothing till the
matter was more assured. It was not an easy thing to do. He felt it
bursting from his lips during the first day when he allowed himself to
mention Lord Will simply to relieve his mind, but by main force kept the
other communication back. And to say that it was not with the most
dreadful difficulty that he kept his mouth shut on those many occasions
when it is so natural to let slip to your wife the secret that is in
your heart, would be to do Mr. Plowden great injustice. He was not in
the habit of keeping things to himself. Even the secrets of the parish,
it must be allowed, sometimes slipped–things that ought to have been
kept rigorously inviolate. He had not, perhaps, the most exalted opinion
of his wife’s discretion, and yet she was his other self–a being
indivisible, inseparable, with whom he could not be on his guard. But
she had shown great discrimination when she said that the Plowdens stuck
to each other. Nothing would have made him confess to his wife that
there was any insecurity in the position of his sister. Emily was a
thing beyond remark, a creature not to be criticised. He would have
nothing said about her–not a word of compassion. There are a great many
men who deliver over their sisters and mothers without hesitation to be
cut in small pieces by their wives, but here and there occurs an
exception. Emily was James Plowden’s ideal and the impersonation of the
family honour and credit. He could not have a word on that subject, and
thus he was strengthened in his resolution to say nothing of Mab’s
prospects–until, at least, they were established beyond any kind of
doubt.

This did not by any means look like the position in which they were now.
Mr. Plowden went into the cottage almost with a little secrecy–looking
round him before he opened the little garden gate–for the gossips in
the parish were quite capable of reporting that there was something odd
and unusual in the Rector’s constant visits to his sister, and that
certainly something must be ‘up.’ To be sure it was only his second
business visit–but even so much as that was unlike his usual habits,
and he was extremely anxious that no question should be raised on the
subject. He found her in the drawing-room, at her usual sewing. Mab was
out, which was a thing of which the Rector was glad. She looked up
hastily at the sight of him, reading his face, as women do with their
eyes, before he had time to say a word.

‘You have not succeeded, James?’

‘How do you know I have not succeeded?’ he asked crossly. ‘I have not,
perhaps, done all that I hoped to do–but Rome was not built in a day.
It was absurd to expect that I had only to go up to London–an hour in
the train–and walk into old Gepps’ parsonage and find him still there.’

‘You did not find him at all?’

‘No, I didn’t find him at all. I never expected to find him, considering
that he was an older man than my father, and that my father has been
dead for sixteen years.’

‘To be sure,’ said Lady William faintly.

‘I found his name, however, all right, and the place–not quite in the
City, as I thought–St. Alban’s proprietary chapel, Marylebone.’

‘Ah!’

‘Do you remember the name?’

‘No,’ said Lady William; ‘I’m afraid I don’t remember even the name.’

‘Well, never mind; Gepps was incumbent then. And a very good place, too,
for anything that was to be kept quiet–hidden away in a labyrinth of
little streets; not so noticeable as the City, where an old church in
the midst of warehouses is often something to see. Lady Somebody or
other’s proprietary chapel; incumbent, the Rev. T. I. Gepps. No doubt
that was the one.’

‘Was it like my description? But, to be sure, it may have been changed,
or restored, or something.’

‘I can tell nothing about that. It has been changed with a vengeance.
Emily, the chapel has been burned down—-’

She gave a little scream of annoyance, but more because of the face he
had put on, than from any perception in her own mind of the significance
of the words.

‘A few of the things were saved–the books, I mean–but not all, not
all, by any means: and all those between 1860 and 1870 perished.’

‘What do you say, James?’

She began to awaken to a little consciousness that this concerned her,
which she had not at first understood. ‘The books?’–she took it up but
vaguely now–‘the books? What–what does that mean, James?’

‘It means that of the period of your marriage there is no record
at all. Do you understand me, Emily? No record, no certificate
possible–nothing. It is as if you had planned it all. A clergyman who
is dead; a chapel which is burned down; a registry which is destroyed.
That is what it might be made to look by skilful hands–as if you had
invented the whole.’

She sat half stupefied looking at him, the work still in her hands, her
needle in her fingers, looking up at him more astonished than was
compatible with speech. ‘The clergyman dead, the chapel burnt down, the
registry destroyed!’ She said these words in a kind of half-conscious
tone–repeating them after him, yet not knowing what she had said.

‘That is about the state of the case; if you had meant to deceive, you
couldn’t have done better all round.’

Lady William looked at him with a curious half smile, yet wistful wonder
in her eyes. ‘But,’ she said, ‘I did not want to deceive.’ There was a
sort of startled amusement in her tone, mingling with something of
reality, a question half rising, a faint feeling of the possibility, and
that even, perhaps, her brother—-‘James,’ she cried, ‘you do not
imagine that I–I—-’

The words failed her; the colour forsook her face, and she sat looking
up at him dismayed; her work fallen into her lap, but the needle still
in her hand.

‘Of course I do not imagine that you–nor, did I doubt that, could I
doubt for a moment when there’s my father’s hand and date upon it. And I
suppose that would be evidence in a court of justice,’ the Rector said,
knitting his brows–‘I’m rather ignorant on such subjects, and I don’t
know. But I suppose it would be evidence. I could prove my father’s
handwriting, and that I found his notebooks, and produce the rest of
them, and so forth. But it’s touch and go to rely upon a thing so close
as that.’

‘The books destroyed!’ she said, repeating the words, ‘the church burned
down, the clergyman dead. Do such things happen? all to overcome a poor
woman? If it was in a book one would say how impossible–how absurd—-

‘Emily,’ said the Rector, ‘you must forgive me for saying it, but that’s
just what your whole story is–impossible and absurd. It has been so
from the beginning; people have no right to launch themselves on such a
career. You had it always in your power not to take the first step. I
blame my father almost more than you–he ought not to have allowed you
to do it: but I blame you too. For even a girl of nineteen is old enough
to know what’s possible and what’s impossible. You ought not to have
allowed yourself to be launched upon such a bad way. After your
ridiculous marriage you might have expected everything else that was
ridiculous to follow. It is all of a piece. Nobody would believe one
word of it from the beginning to the end–if it was, as you say, in a
book.’

Lady William listened to this tirade with a curious piteous look, almost
like a child’s; a look that was on the verge of tears and yet had a
faint appealing smile in it, an appeal against judgment. Oh what a
foolish girl that had been, that girl of nineteen, that ought to have
known better! and what a good thing for her if she had known better; if
she had been able by her own good sense and judgment to overcome those
about her: the foolish old father, the false friend who led her into the
net. Listening to her brother’s voice so long, long after the event, and
looking back upon the thing that was so impossible, the thing which
between them these foolish people had done–she could see very well how
preposterous it was, and how it could have been resisted. Mab (all these
thoughts flew through her mind while the Rector was speaking) would not
have done it. But Mab’s mother had done it, and could not even now see
what else she could have done among these three people surrounding her,
arranging everything for her. And there was a sort of whimsical,
ridiculous humour in the idea that all these complications must have
followed from that foolish beginning. What could she expect but that the
clergyman should die, the church be burned down, and the books
destroyed? To the disturbed and disappointed Rector, thoroughly put out,
touched in mind and in temper by a _contretemps_ so painful and
disconcerting, there was nothing whatever ludicrous in the thought. But
to her, whose whole life hung upon it, her child’s fortune, her own good
name, everything that was worth thinking of in the world, there was an
absurdity which had almost made her laugh in the midst of her despair.

‘I am very sensible of the folly of it now,’ she said, commanding her
voice, ‘and I know all the misery that has been involved better than any
one can tell me–but it is too late now to think of that. We must think
in these dreadful circumstances what is now to be done.’

‘You see, Emily,’ said Mr. Plowden, ‘I never knew the rights of it till
the other day. I knew there was something queer and hasty about it, a
sort of running away; but you know that till you came back here a widow
with your little girl I had heard actually nothing–and, indeed, not
very much until you came to the Rectory the other day.’

‘That is quite true; and I am very sorry, James.’

‘I don’t say it to upbraid you, my dear. My father was much more to
blame than you were. I would not like to have any of my daughters
exposed to such a temptation, even at their age. And Florence is
twenty-three. And you were always a spoiled child, getting everything
your own way.’ The Rector had gradually worked out his impatience and
had gone round the circle to tenderness and indulgence again. He put his
hand on her shoulder, and patted it as he might have done a child. ‘My
poor girl,’ he said, ‘my poor Emily!’ with the voice of one who brings
tidings of death, and a face as long as a day without bread, as the
French say.

She looked up at him with a gaze of alarm.

‘James!’ she cried, ‘do you think it is all over with us? Don’t say so,
for Heaven’s sake! I’ll find Artémise if I seek her through all the
country; I’ll find evidence somehow. Don’t condemn us with that dreadful
tone.’

‘Condemn you!’ said Mr. Plowden, ‘never will I condemn you, Emily. Even
if you had done something wrong instead of only something very foolish,
you may be sure I should have stood by you through thick and thin. No,
my poor dear, you shall get no condemnation from me; and Jane, I am
sure, has far too much sense and too good a heart—-’

Here the Rector’s voice broke a little. The idea that his wife would
have to be made the judge of his sister, and might almost, indeed, hold
Emily’s reputation in her hands, was more than he could bear.

‘Jane!’ said Lady William, with a ring in her voice as sharp and keen as
that of her brother’s was lachrymose; but, happily, she had sufficient
command of herself not to express the exasperation which this suggestion
of being at Jane’s mercy caused her. She said, however, with a painful
smile, ‘You are throwing down your arms too soon; I don’t intend to be
discouraged so easily. Now I know that the fight will be desperate I can
rouse myself to it. It is evident that the one thing that is
indispensable is to find Artémise.’

‘Who is Artémise? Some French maid or other?’ said the Rector, with a
tinge of disdain.

‘Artémise is Miss Mansfield, who was with us–a cousin, or some people
thought a half-sister, of Mrs. Swinford. Their father was a strange man,
more French than English, and that is the reason of their names,
and–many other odd things. She is a strange woman, and has a strange
history. She was at the Hall, a sort of governess–when—- And she was
sent with me that night. And without her I don’t think–but we need not
enter into those old stories now. One thing I know is that she is
living, and that Leo Swinford has seen her–not very long ago.’

‘A disreputable witness,’ said Mr. Plowden, shaking his head, ‘is not
much better than no witness at all.’

He was in a despondent mood, and ready to throw discouragement upon
every hope.

‘I don’t know that she is disreputable; and at all events she was
present,’ said Lady William. ‘That must always tell–in a court of
justice, as you say: though God grant that it may never come there.’

‘I suppose you can lay your hand upon her without any difficulty,
through Mr. Swinford,’ the Rector said, suddenly adopting an indifferent
tone as if with the rest of the business he had nothing to do.

‘That is, perhaps, too much to say; but at least she may be found–or I
hope so,’ Lady William replied.

‘And now I must go,’ said Mr. Plowden. ‘Of course, anything and
everything I can do, Emily–when you have tried what is to be
accomplished in your own way—-’ He turned towards the door, and then
returned again, with a still more cloudy face. ‘My dear sister,’ he
said, in a tone of solemnity and tenderness adapted to the words, ‘you
may have to seek his help for this; but for all our sakes do not, any
more than you can help, have young Mr. Swinford here.’

Lady William looked up quickly with a half-defiant glance.

‘Above all’ said the Rector impressively, ‘while there is any sort of
doubt, any sort of cloud, and when every step you take will be
remarked—- Don’t make me enter into explanations, but, for all our
sakes, don’t have Mr. Swinford always here.’

It is almost needless to say that the Rector left his sister in a state
of mind in which exasperation healthily and beneficially contended with
despair. She might have been crushed altogether by his discovery; but he
had managed to mingle with that so many other sentiments that Lady
William felt herself no broken-down and miserable woman, but a creature
all full of fight and resistance–tingling, indeed, with pain, and
scorched with a fire of injury, feeling insulted and outraged to the
depths of her being, but all the same full of angry strength and force,
determined that nothing as yet was lost, and that sooner than yield
herself to the tolerance of her sister-in-law and indulgent
interpretations of her friends, who would pity and assure each other
that whatever dreadful thing had really happened, poor Emily, a mere
child at the time, was innocent–there was nothing she was not capable
of doing. To change from Lady William–in a sort, the head of the little
community–to poor Emily, was a thought which fired her blood. For that,
as well as for her child, the small motive thrusting in in the immediate
present into the foreground–there was nothing she would not do. To find
Artémise was a trifle to her roused and indignant soul. If she went out
herself on foot with a lanthorn, she said to herself with a vehemence
which soon turned into an angry laugh, she would find her. The lanthorn
and the search on foot turned it all into stormy ridicule, as the
Rector’s suggestion that the little, dingy, dark private chapel had been
burned and the books destroyed as a natural consequence of her folly in
being married there, had done. Lady William felt the laughter burst out
in the middle of the bitter pain. For the pain was bitter enough down in
the breast from which that stormy humour burst, so sharp that she could
not sit still, but went raging about like–as she said to herself–a
wild beast, pushing the crowded furniture aside, holding her hands
together as if to keep down the anguish by physical torture. A
thumbscrew or a deadly boot to crush her flesh would have been something
of a relief to her in the active anguish of her soul. Mab to hear that
her mother was—- Oh no; never that her mother was—- but only that
there was a doubt, a horrible peradventure, a failure of proof.

Lady William paused in her movement to and fro and tried to look at it
for a moment through Mab’s eyes. That is often a very good thing to do,
but a difficult. We forget nature when the question is one so
all-important as this, what a child will think of its mother. Often we
believe in an opinion too favourable, without inquiry, forgetting what a
formidable criticism is that which our children make of us from their
cradles, learning our habitual ways so much better than we know them
ourselves. But there are some ways in which the natural judgment of
candid and clear-sighted youth may give any who is unjustly accused
comfort. In the light of Mab’s eyes (though they were neither bright nor
beautiful) Lady William felt for a moment that her trouble melted away.
Mab might not see the fun–that she should see fun at such a crisis of
her life!–of James’s suggestion of the connection between the burning
of the church and the folly of the marriage: but she would be utterly
stolid like a block of stone to any idea of shame. No one could cast
suspicion upon her mother’s honour to Mab. Lady William thought she
could see the girl’s look of utter disdain on any one who could suggest
such a suspicion even by a glance. There was once a lady known to fame
who, moved by a hot fit of jealous pain and misery, left the house in
which she was being entertained, and walked home alone at night up the
long length of Piccadilly. A man who met her, moved, I suppose, by her
solitude and the unusual sight, followed, and at last addressed her.
When her attention was attracted she turned round upon him, looked at
him, and uttering the one word ‘Idiot!’ walked on, as secure as if she
had been surrounded by a bodyguard of chivalry. Somehow that incident
floated into Lady William’s memory. That was what Mab would do. She
would think, if she did not say ‘Idiot!’ and pass by, too contemptuous
almost to be angry, feeling it unnecessary to answer a word to the depth
of imbecility which was capable of such a thought.

Yes; it made her quieter, it calmed her down, it delivered her from that
worst and deepest horror, to look at it through Mab’s sensible, quiet
eyes. But when Lady William remembered that James would tolerate her,
and be kind, and that everybody else would say, ‘Poor Emily!’ the
intolerableness of the catastrophe caught her once more–and the
advantage which even her brother even James, who loved her in his way,
who would spare no trouble for her, had taken of it already. While there
was a shade, while there was a shadow of a doubt upon her, she must not
admit Leo Swinford ‘for all our sakes.’ Women do not habitually swear,
or I think Lady William would have used bad words, had she known any,
when this intolerable recollection came into her mind, just as, if she
had not been bound by the inevitable bonds of education and natural
self-control, she might have broken the china or the furniture to
relieve herself. A gentlewoman cannot do either of these things,
fortunately, or unfortunately, for her, and they are outlets which must
sometimes be of use. But the quick movement with which she dashed her
hands together when that last thought came into her mind, upset a little
table upon which was a plant, one of Mab’s especial nurslings just
shaping for flower, as well as various other nicknacks of less
importance. The sense of guilt and shame with which she saw what she had
done, the compunction with which she stooped over the broken flower-pot,
and gathered up the fortunately uninjured plant, and the specially
prepared soil in which it had been placed, and which was but dirt to
Patty, who came dashing in at the sound of the crash to set matters
right–did Lady William as much good as smashing a window or two might
have done to a poor woman out of Society. She was very penitent and much
ashamed of herself, and horribly amused all the same. To express her
rage, her injured feelings, her pride and desperation, by breaking a
flower-pot, was again where bathos and ridicule came in.

‘I’ll sweep it all up, my lady,’ cried Patty, ‘and there won’t be no
harm.’

‘Miss Mab’s leaf-mould? No, you shan’t do anything of the kind. Find me
another flower-pot, and let us gather it all up carefully, and put it
back.’

‘Miss Mab’s full of fads,’ said Patty, under her breath.

But Lady William did not allow herself such freedom of criticism, and
she had scarcely gathered up the mould and built it securely round the
plant in the new pot before Mab came in. ‘Oh, are you filling it up with
fresh mould, mother?. My poor auricula! It will never produce a prize
bloom now, and I had such hopes.’

‘You ungrateful child! when I have gathered up every scrap of your
famous mould with my own dirty hands!’

‘Poor mother,’ cried Mab, ‘that can never bear to dirty her hands! let
me see them.’

Mab kissed the fingers which Lady William held out, smiling. ‘After all
it is clean dirt, nice mould carefully made, and with everything nice in
it both for the colour and the health. Mother, your hands are a little
like the auriculas, velvety and soft.’

‘And brown, and purple,’ said Lady William, laughing. Who is it that
says that if we would not cry we must laugh? Heaven knows how true it
is.

‘It must have been Patty that did it,’ said Mab. ‘That child will never
learn to take care. And, oh! the little Dresden shoe is broken that I
got off the Christmas tree, and the silver things all scattered. I wish
Patty might get a whipping; it is the only thing that would make her
take care.’

‘Whip me, then, Mab, for it was I. I was vexed and angry—-’

‘You! angry, mother?’

‘It is not a thing that never happens, Mab.’

‘No, said Mab judicially; ‘it is not a thing that never happens: but it
only happens when you are put out. And I should like to know what had
put you out.’

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

‘Oh! mother; you may say that to other people–but to me! Of course, I
shall find out.’

‘It was something your uncle James said to me, Mab.’

‘Oh!’ said Mab, satisfied; ‘I am not surprised if he was in it. He does
say such strange things. But he means well enough. Come out, then,
mother, for a walk. That always does you more good than anything.’

‘It is too early; it is not noon yet. It is dissipated going away from
one’s work at this time of the day.’

But the conclusion was that the two ladies did go out, and went to the
river-side, where Lady William sat down on a bench by the landing-place,
while Mab made certain investigations in respect to the boats. It was a
fine morning, but not over bright–one of those gray days in the
beginning of May, when Nature seems to veil herself capriciously by way
of making the after-glory more glorious. The day was gray, with breaks
of quiet light, not bright enough to be called sunshine, through the
clouds, and all the new foliage tempered and softened in its fresh
greenness of spring by the neutral tints that enveloped everything. The
river flowed quietly upon its way, stopping for nothing, indifferent
whether overhead there was sunshine or clouds, working away at the tall
growing reeds on the edge, and sweeping round them, pushing them back
out of its way, sapping the camp-shedding on the other side, hollowing
out the bank that intruded into the current. The soft, strong flowing
carries one’s thoughts with it, whatever they may be, and Lady William
gradually gave way to that silent coercion, and let her more painful
reflections escape her, and the thoughts she could not get rid of swell
round and round her mind like the circles of the stream. The scenery was
not remarkable at that point. From the river, indeed, the pretty little
landing-place, with its bit of green bank, its marshalled boats, and the
old red-and-white houses behind, made a delightful touch of life and
colour: but to the spectators on the bank there was nothing exciting to
be seen, only the grassy shore opposite, the trees, a brown cow or two
coming down to the river, or a passing boat full of travellers, or of
merrymakers, as the chance might be. How softening, pacifying, composing
it was! Mab’s voice talking to the boatman on the river’s edge came
softly through the harmonious air. Who can think, in the mild calm of
such a day, of confusion, or trouble, or shame?

‘I am in much luck,’ said Leo Swinford’s voice behind her, ‘to find you
here; you are not usually to be found out in the morning.’

‘No,’ said Lady William, telling him the reason with a burst of assumed
cheerfulness. ‘It is possible that all Mab’s hopes of her auricula are
spoiled by my fault; yet she forgives me,’ she said. Then suddenly she
put forth her hand and gripped his arm, with a change on her face–‘Leo,
where is Artémise? Find me Artémise!’

‘What is the matter, dear lady?’ he said.

‘Ah! it is of no importance what is the matter. I will tell you
afterwards. It is only this, that I must find Artémise–if I take a
lanthorn myself and go out and search for her.’

‘Ah! you laugh,’ he said, ‘and I am relieved. It is Mrs. Mansfield you
mean–is she Mansfield now?–I think not, nor can I tell what her name
is. Certainly I can find her. I saw her once, as I told you–twice–here
in this village, as if she were living here; and then she came to see my
mother. I am sure she has been with my mother since; but I have not seen
her again.’

‘With your mother is not the question. Your mother, I fear, Leo, would
rather I did not see her. She likes no one to meddle with those she
cares for.’

‘Does she really care for this woman?’

‘Can you ask me? They are near relations, and dear friends, and love
each other.’

‘Are you sure of all that?’ he said; ‘from my mother I have never
heard—-’

‘But it is true.’

‘The last I suppose is true,’ said Leo reluctantly. ‘My mother is fond
of her–though why—-’

Lady William gave him a look, as if there might be two sides to the
question; then she said: ‘It is of the utmost importance to me to see
her, Leo–and soon. Will you give me your attention, and remember it is
no mere wish–for an old friend.’

‘An old friend! I cannot conceive that she should ever have been a
friend of yours.’

‘Yet, more than that; I desire to see her more than the dearest friend I
have in the world.’

‘Your bidding shall be done, dear lady: should I go myself and take the
lanthorn–as you say. But that will not be necessary. I shall find her;
I hope, more easily–or whatever else you are pleased to wish for,’ he
added in a lower tone. ‘That is too easy. Set me some task that will
prove what I can do.’

Lady William cast at him a keen look from under her eyelids. She
remembered her brother’s adjuration, ‘for all our sakes.’ ‘A romantic
task,’ she said, ‘that would prove what you could do is quite different.
I ask my friend to help me in a way I really want; but no one ever
wanted a white cat that would go through a ring–or was it a shawl? I
forget.’

‘I never thought,’ he said, with an uneasy laugh, ‘that you would send
me off in search of a white cat.’

‘I might, though,’ she said, ‘if the white cat would turn out an
enchanted princess and make you happy all your life after–which I hope
is what will happen one of these days. And my gracious nephew, Leo, did
he leave you as he said?’

Leo replied with another question: ‘How does Miss Mab like it that she
is to be an heiress? I have not seen her to ask her.’

‘You can see her at once. She is there, you see, with her friends the
boatmen; but you must not ask her, please, for she knows nothing of
heiress-ship as yet.’

‘Ah!’ he said, ‘you are afraid to turn her head.’

‘I am not at all afraid of her head, but I am afraid of other things.
Tell me, why did he come here? The Pakenhams are not generous people,
and they are not rich, and I should have known nothing of Lord John’s
fortune. Was it out of kindness to his cousin, whom he did not know,
that he came here?’

‘Ah, who can tell?’ said Leo. ‘He thought, perhaps, that you were sure
to see it in the papers.’

‘But even then I should not have known that Mab had any right.’

‘Who can tell?’ said Leo again, shaking his head, ‘what are the motives
of these people who are above rule, who do not require to behave like
ordinary mortals? He thought, perhaps, yes, of his little cousin–he
thought, perhaps, most likely of himself. He might have thought with all
that fortune that it might be well if Miss Mab, perhaps, should–what do
you call it?–take a fancy to him, and return it all to his pocket,
which is not too full. How can you tell what any one’s motives are, not
to speak of a Lord Will?’

‘It is true,’ said Lady William, with a sigh; ‘but I suppose my best
course now is to wait–to take no steps till I hear from the lawyers.’

‘Perhaps, instead, your own lawyer—-’

‘Ah, I have had so little need of one–of course there is a man of
business who used to manage my father’s affairs. One does not seem to
care,’ she said, with a faint laugh, ‘we poor people, who have nothing
but our poverty–to confide all our affairs even to such a man.’

‘Ah, but they are not men–they are like priests. There is a seal as of
the confessional upon their lips. I should not have thought you, who are
so transparent, so open, would have had such a scruple.’

This was a little duel, though neither suspected the object of the
other. Lady William was eager to find out from Leo what ‘the family’ had
intended to do by sending that messenger, and Leo was eager to persuade
Lady William to confide in him, to show him what her difficulty was, and
how far the broken revelations of his mother’s attack upon her were
true. But neither ventured to unravel the motive which was foremost in
their minds. Both endeavoured to extract the information which the other
had no intention of revealing. But to the spectators who were looking
on, the two people on the bench, who were in reality thus resisting and
eluding each other, had an air of great and tender intimacy as they sat
together, each turned towards the other, pursuing their mutual
investigations by the study, not only of what was said, but what was
looked, by the betrayals of the eyes as well as of the tongue. Even Mab,
returning from her long talk with old George the boatman, was a little
struck by the absorbed attention of Leo to her mother, and of her mother
to Leo. With what interest they were talking; seeing no one else that
was near; paying no attention to anything that passed! Lady William was
not wont to lose herself thus in conversation. She had always an eye for
what was going on; for the passing boats on the river, or even for the
clouds and brightness of the sky–and much more for her little girl who
was hanging about anxious to join her, yet daunted a little by this too
animated, too eager talk. Mab had heard a stray word here and there on
the subject of Leo Swinford and his visits, to which she had paid no
attention, but such words will sometimes linger without any desire of
hers in a little girl’s ear.