She thought it would be a wrong thing to neglect opportunities

Mrs. Brown walked quickly through the darkening house. She met a footman
with a lamp, who stood bewildered at the strange figure, and a housemaid
in the upper corridor, who stopped her to ask what she wanted, but was
soon intimidated by her look and voice. The stranger wanted no guidance,
no indication, to which side to turn, as the maid perceived, who stood
watching her, and saw her swift, familiar approach to Mrs. Swinford’s
door. ‘Missis will go out of her senses,’ said Mary Jane to herself, and
she hurried away, to be out of it, whatever might happen. ‘Nobody can
say as I let her in,’ the young woman said.

Madame Julie, the maid, came to the door in answer to Mrs. Brown’s light
knock, but not before that lady, waiting for no one, had opened it and
stepped into the ante-room in which Julie sat. Mrs. Swinford’s apartment
was as complete as English comfort and French refinement could make it.
The ante-room, in which Julie sat, was finer than any of the village
drawing-rooms, kept comfortable by many carpets and thick curtains, and
lighted by a large window turned to the west, by the remaining light in
which she regarded with alarm and fury the bold intruder.

‘What you want here?’ she said in her doubtful English, unintimidated by
the aspect of the lady who had overawed Mary Jane. ‘Madame reçoit
personne,’ she added, in a less assured tone.

‘Moi exceptée toujours, Julie,’ said Mrs. Brown.

Upon which Julie started and clasped her hands. ‘Mon Dieu!’ she said,
‘Madame Artémise!’

‘You need not announce me, I’ll find my way by myself. Has she lights,
Julie? Is she alone?’

‘You will startle Madame out of her life, Madame Artémise.’

‘Not a bit. What is pleasant harms no one, and you know she is always
happy to see me.’

Julie knew, yet did not look quite sure. ‘I will say but a word, a
_petit mot_. Madame will not look up, but it will prepare her. Ah, she
hears us talk!’ for a bell at this moment tinkled into the stillness.
Julie put aside the curtain and opened a door, from which came a gleam
of light, and a voice saying querulously, ‘You are talking with some
one; how often must I say no one must come here?’

‘It is not Julie’s fault: it is I, Cecile, come to welcome you home.’

Mrs. Swinford rose up from the couch upon which she had been reclining,
with a cry. She made a step forward, and allowed herself to drop into
the arms which the visitor held forth. It was a strange embrace,
apparently altogether on one side; the other passive, receiving only the
marks of affection. Yet there was something in the _abandon_ with which
the great lady let herself go into the stranger’s arms, which showed
almost a greater warmth in the receiver than giver of the embrace. She
put down her head on Mrs. Brown’s shoulder with a murmur of welcome and
satisfaction; then raised it to wave an angry hand towards Julie,
bidding her go. The maid retired without a word. She was a middle-aged
Frenchwoman, very neat, and rather grim, black-haired, and
dark-complexioned, with a black gown, and hair elaborately dressed. She
obeyed her mistress in utter silence, closing the door noiselessly
behind her, but threw her head and body, like a pendulum, to and fro as
she went back to the work which she had been doing under the west window
by the waning light. Evidently this stranger was no welcome apparition
to Julie, any more than to more important persons in the house.

‘What wind has blown you here? and where do you come from, just when I
felt such enormous need of you?’ Mrs. Swinford said.

‘Some people would say it was an ill wind; and you know I feel always
when you want me,’ said Mrs. Brown.

‘You must have known that when I came here, where there are so many
horrible associations, I must have wanted you. It is an instinct.
Listen, Artémise. Leo has forced me here against my will. He has all his
father’s foolish notions, with more added of his own. And he has the
upper hand, which his father never had—-’

‘Sometimes, my dear.’

‘Once, you mean,’ said Mrs. Swinford. She was old, though she kept that
fact at bay, and did not admit it by any outward sign: but she flushed
over all her face like a girl at these words. ‘Once, no more: and you
know how that is brought back to me here, and every incident of the
time. That woman at my very door, bearing the name—- which she never
would have had but for me.’

‘I never liked the expedient, Cecile.’

‘Why, it was you who—- and it was the only way. But now that the whole
dreadful tale is swept away into the past, and everybody, except you and
me, has forgotten it, there she sits at my door, calm, with that name.
And I have to receive her; to call her friend; to kiss her—- imagine!
I have kissed Emily Plowden, and called her by that name!’

‘I don’t see what else you could do. It was your own doing, the whole
affair. I will always stand by you, through thick and thin. But I never
approved of _that_, Cecile. It was too heavy a responsibility. If you
like to do certain things you know you will have to pay for them. You
get nothing for nothing in this world. But I don’t like meddling with
another creature’s life.’

‘I detest you when you preach, Artémise; you have so fine a position for
that; hands so clean! From whence do you come now? from wandering to and
fro upon the earth—-’

‘Seeking whom I may devour? No, I am devouring no one; I have settled
myself–at your very door, too–to do good, my dear.’

‘To do—- good!’

‘You are surprised. Don’t you know there comes a time when we would all
like to be sisters of charity? But I have not gone so far as that. I
have a very nice little post in the village, gained chiefly by a
recommendation you once gave me, and your poor husband—- naturally
that had great weight here–and other things. I am schoolmistress of the
girls’ school, Watcham parish. At your service, Madame Cecile.’

Mrs. Swinford uttered that exclamation, which means so little in French
and so much in English. She did not join in the laugh with which her
visitor broke off. She was a more tragical person altogether than Mrs.
Brown.

‘Mistress of the school, living in the village! You are welcome, as you
know, to live with me. Why should you demean yourself in such a way? Why
do you always try to compromise—-’

‘Not you, Mrs. Swinford. I have never compromised you. I don’t choose to
be your dependent; to eat that bitter bread. But you have never had any
trouble brought into your life by me.’

‘Not that of being ignorant for years together where you are? of not
knowing what you are doing? whether you may be in want? whether you may
be ill? if you may have died—-’

‘On some roadside, or in some hospital, nobody knowing anything about
me,’ said Mrs. Brown, with a harsh little laugh, ‘and not a bad thing
either, and probably the way it will happen at the last. But I should
always, unless it was sudden, take care that you knew. It is a curious
thing,’ she said, laughing again, and winking her eyes rapidly, as if to
shake off some moisture, ‘that you and I, two such women as we are, not
of the soft kind, should in a sort of a way, not caring much for anybody
else, love each other, Cecile!’

We need not be sentimental and talk of it at least,’ said the other; ‘I
see nothing wonderful in it. With others always contradiction and
contrariety, but between you and me understanding–even when you take
upon you, so much younger as you are, not to approve.’

‘Oh, I must always reserve that power–if I were only four, instead of
forty,’ said Mrs. Brown.

‘Forty and a little more.’

‘If you think I am in any danger of forgetting the little
more–forty-six–a sensible age. You would not imagine at that discreet
period of existence that my chief friend in Watcham should be a young
man.’

Mrs. Swinford shrugged her shoulders as if nothing could be more
perfectly indifferent to her.

‘Who keeps me informed of all that is going on,’ she added, after a
moment’s pause.

‘Ah!’ Even this, however, did not awake the great lady’s interest; for
what were the village news to her?

‘I hear of Leo’s proceedings. He seems to mean to turn everything upside
down.’

‘The foolish boy! he has got it into his head that he has neglected his
duties. What are his duties? I know not. One, that he does not regard,
is to make life as pleasant as time and circumstances will admit to his
mother. It is not much I ask. To reside where I can breathe. To see a
few people whom I like, who understand me. To be kept from sordid
calculations and cares. What he thinks more important is to come back
here to look after his people, as he calls them. His people! How are
they his people? They pay him rent, that is all. And he thinks more of
them than of what is comfort and life to me!’

‘I feel very much for you, Cecile, in many ways,’ said Mrs. Brown, not
without a hidden tone of satire, ‘but do you know, I cannot see that
you are much deficient in point of comfort here.’

Mrs. Swinford looked round the pretty room with an air of disgust. It
would have been difficult to imagine anything more luxurious. The old
grandfather’s decorations had been removed or softened with a taste more
French than English, yet exquisite in its way. The curtains were of the
softest rich stuffs. The walls were hung with a few bright pictures,
little English water-colours, French genre subjects, as cheerful and
smiling as could be desired. It was lighted with soft lamps carefully
shaded, giving a subdued silvery light. There were books of all kinds,
from those in rows of beautiful binding, which filled the low bookcases,
to the French novels in yellow paper, which occupied the table at Mrs.
Swinford’s hand. If there was anything wanting to the beauty or comfort
of this wonderful little room it was difficult to find it out. Mrs.
Brown instantly compared it with the sitting-room in the schoolhouse,
and burst into a laugh.

‘You should see the rooms in which I live,’ she said, ‘and yet I don’t
think they are bad rooms. I have known worse. I consider myself very
well off. Oh, you are different, a great lady as you have always been,
and I only a waif and stray.’

‘That was at your own will, Artémise.’

‘I know; I blame nobody. I have been the wilful one that have always
taken my own way; you have generally succeeded in making other people
take yours.’

Mrs. Swinford smiled faintly, and then she said, her face resuming its
discontented expression:

‘That is over; now, it is my son I have to deal with; my son, who owes
me everything.’

‘Be reasonable; he owes you his birth, of course, and a great deal of
petting when he was a boy—-’

‘And the sacrifice of my life,’ said Mrs. Swinford. ‘Do you think I ever
would have done what I did and given up all I cared for, if it had not
been for Leo? Do you think I would have cared for scandal or anything
but for the boy? or for what his father might say or do? The whole thing
was for him. Emily may thank him for her title, as they call
it–ridiculous title! When I hear that name and her rank, talked of–her
rank, forsooth–and that she takes precedence of everybody–even, I
suppose, she will, with a fierce laugh, ‘of me—-’

‘Ah!’ said Mrs. Brown, ‘that’s something, I did not think of that; but
take care, Cecile, that she does not take precedence of you in other
ways.’

‘In what way? You mean, I suppose, that she is younger and has a sort of
beauty! I cannot deny that she has a sort of beauty. She is not the
common pretty girl that Emily Plowden was. It is not for nothing that I
helped to plunge her into the world. She knows something of life, and
though she will never make anything of the advantages she possesses,
still she has them. You may imagine I looked at her with sharp eyes
enough, remembering what she used to be and what she was. But her world
is not my world, and what do I care for her village precedence, or for
any comparison that may be made here?’

‘There will be no comparison made, Cecile.’

Mrs. Brown looked with a curious pitying glance at the woman, who was
old, yet had never given up the pretensions of youth. She was nearly
twenty years younger, and saw the futility of these pretensions with
perfect lucidity of vision; but there was kindness as well as pity in
her eyes. Did not her glass say anything to this old woman, that she
should talk of comparison between her and Lady William’s mature but
unfaded years? Did not common sense say anything? As Mrs. Brown was much
more near to Lady William’s age than Mrs. Swinford’s, the case was
perfectly clear to her eyes.

‘No, I do not suppose so,’ Mrs. Swinford said; ‘and my hope is that he
will tire of it presently. What attraction can he find in a country
village in England? There is nothing. His philanthropy, bah! his people,
ridiculous! It is ignorance that makes him talk of his people as if he
were a great potentate, when he is only a country gentleman.’

‘It is his breeding,’ said Mrs. Brown. ‘How was he to find out the
difference in Paris? and you always treated him, you who are, as I tell
you, a great lady by nature, as if he were a _grand seigneur_.’

‘I must be patient,’ said Mrs. Swinford; ‘it is difficult, but I must be
patient: I gave him three months to be sick of the life, and the half of
the time is not gone; I don’t think he will hold out a month more—-’

‘Unless there should in the meantime arise some other attraction.’

‘What other attraction?’ Mrs. Swinford caught her visitor by the arm.
‘An attraction–in this village? Artémise, you have heard of something!
A woman? who is she? I must know, I must know!’

‘Do not be frightened. But I think you are imprudent, Cecile; you should
have filled the house with company, you should have come back in a
storm of gaiety; he should have known nothing of the village at all.’

‘Who is she?’ said Mrs. Swinford, tightening her grasp on the other’s
arm; ‘some wretched girl with a baby face.’

‘It is no girl, it is nothing of that sort; it is a woman as old, nearly
as old as I am. I told you I had a young admirer too, who comes to me
for the superiority of my conversation, and my knowledge of the world.
So does Leo; to discuss the world, and things in general, and the topics
of the day.’

‘You are either laughing at everything, as has been your custom all your
life, or you are announcing to me a great danger; the loss of all my
power.’

‘Do not always be so high heroical. Let me tell you my own story first.
My young friend is Jim, the Rector’s son. He saw me with a gay party in
Oxford, and I thought that he would betray me. But he is as innocent as
a child, and respects and admires me as one who has seen better days. I
keep him from vulgar dangers; from the “Blue Boar”–but you don’t know
the perils of the “Blue Boar”—-’

‘What are all these puerilities to me?’ said Mrs. Swinford. ‘You weary
me. Do you think it is interesting to me, this story of the Rector’s
son?’

‘I am aware it wearies you; one sees that on your still fine
countenance, Cecile: but I am coming to what will interest you. In the
same way Leo frequents a cottage, a very genteel cottage, far superior
to the schoolmistress’s house. There is a mother and a daughter in it.
He may be falling in love with the daughter, but I think not, for the
little thing is plain. But the mother is not plain; she is a woman who
has known the world. She has been buried here, among the bucolics, for
years. But when she sees a man of manners, who also knows the world, is
there anything wonderful in it if she likes his conversation too?’

‘Artémise, who is she? Tell me her name.’

Mrs. Brown did not say a word, but looked at her companion with
wondering eyes.

Next day the village was roused into great excitement by the appearance
of a carriage from the Hall, in unusual state, with the coachman and
footman in their gala liveries–or so at least it appeared to the
unsophisticated ideas of the villagers, who came out to gape at the
sight. A carriage passing is nothing wonderful in Watcham, however
gorgeous–but a carriage which drives about from door to door, paying
visits–this was a thing that happened seldom; the great people in the
neighbourhood, the Lenthalls and Lady Wade, and the rest, would come
occasionally to leave a card at the FitzStephens’, or to show civility
to the people in the Rectory: but the sight of the prancing horses, and
the footman attending his mistress from door to door, was a delight to
the eyes such as seldom happened. The children were coming from school,
and they ran in a little crowd to see and make their remarks with the
usual frankness of a population in which the sharpness of town had crept
in, modifying the bashfulness, but not the dull candour inaccessible to
notions of civility, of the country. The Watcham children were,
fortunately, more interested in the appearance of the servants than they
were in that of the mistress, though some of the girls whispered
together and indulged in pointed laughter at the lady who had to be
assisted from the carriage, and who picked her steps, with such an
expression in every turn of her person of impatient disgust, along the
garden paths. Mrs. Swinford felt it a personal injury that the houses
had all gardens and no entrance for the carriage, so that it was
absolutely necessary for her, however reluctant, to walk so far before
she could reach the door. But she was civil to the FitzStephens’, who
both met her at their drawing-room door with effusion, and handed her to
the most comfortable chair–which, however, Mrs. Swinford turned from
the light before she would sit down.

‘My eyes will not support so much light. You seem to make really no use
of curtains and blinds in this country,’ she said.

‘My husband likes all the light he can get,’ said Mrs. FitzStephen:
though she had been, as the reader knows, a pretty woman, and was a
fool, according to her visitor’s ideas, to face the day and show her
wrinkles as she did. But the General’s wife had no idea that her old
beauty required to be taken care of in this way.

‘It is all very well for men,’ said Mrs. Swinford–but she explained no
further. She added: ‘I do not make calls generally, and country visits
are an abomination, even when one can drive up to the door.’

‘We take your call as all the greater compliment,’ said the General,
with his finest bow; but Mrs. FitzStephen remembering that she herself
was a Challoner, and certainly as good as any Swinford of them all, not
to speak of the claims of the FitzStephens–was not quite so complacent.

‘It is a pity,’ she said, ‘that we have no drive, and that our garden
must be crossed on foot. We feel it very much when we have company. It
is impossible to put up an awning all the way.’

‘Oh, you sometimes have company!’ said the fine lady.

‘We are even looking forward to a dance, in ten days,’ said the General,
‘a little ridiculous, you may think, for a quiet couple without children
like my wife and me: but a dance is more pleasant to the young people
than anything else.’

‘And consider,’ said his wife, ‘there is no need to do anything to amuse
them, except to provide good music and as nice a floor as possible. They
do the rest themselves.’

Mrs. Swinford looked round upon the small drawing-room with an air of
inquiry which she did not attempt to disguise. ‘I am not much interested
in amusing young people,’ she said; ‘where do they dance?’ in a tone
that showed she was quite satisfied no dancing could take place there.

Mrs. FitzStephen grew red, and the General confused. They were very fond
of this pretty drawing-room. Compliments upon its furniture and
arrangements were familiar to them, and they were in the habit of
deprecating too much praise by a fond apology as to its diminutive size.
‘Oh, it is too small for anything,’ Mrs. FitzStephen was in the habit of
saying, with a mild inference that she was herself accustomed to
something much larger. But the great lady’s seeming simple question
dashed all their little pretences. Fortunately she left them no time to
reply. ‘You have your little society in the village?’ she said.

‘Oh, we are not confined to the village,’ said Mrs. FitzStephen sharply,
‘we have a tolerably large list–I expect the Lenthalls, and some
others.’

Mrs. Swinford again permitted her eyes to stray–with a slight elevation
of the eyebrows–round the tiny room.

‘We did not venture to send an invitation to the Hall,’ said the
General, with an uneasy laugh. ‘We scarcely ventured to hope–though I
am happy to say that Mr. Swinford is coming, my dear.’

‘If you mean me,’ said Mrs. Swinford, ‘I never go out–at least to
balls–since I have ceased to dance.’

‘Ah well, those days soon pass over,’ said the good old soldier, ‘we
find other amusements at our age.’

Mrs. Swinford gave him a look–which did not reduce the gallant General
to ashes, for he was not at all aware what she meant.

‘My husband is very fond of seeing the young people enjoy themselves,’
said Mrs. FitzStephen; ‘that amuses him more than anything for himself.’

‘Oh come, my dear, you must not give me too good a character,’ said the
General. ‘I like a snug little dinner-party too, and a good talk.’

‘Do you talk here, too, as well as dance?’ said Mrs. Swinford, with an
ineffable smile.

‘Oh, my dear lady, I assure you we have sometimes quite remarkable
conversations. The Rector is an exceedingly well-informed man, and young
Osborne has a great deal to say for himself, though he is taken up with
fads–too much. And then, above all, there is Lady William—-’

‘Oh, Emily! I had forgotten Lady William, as you call her.’

‘One can’t live in Watcham and leave out Lady William, I assure you, my
dear madam,’ the General said; ‘besides her rank, which of course places
her in the front of all.’

‘Ah, to be sure!’ said Mrs. Swinford, with a little gurgling laugh,
which stopped and then ran on again, as if with a ridicule impossible to
restrain–‘Her rank! I had forgotten her rank–such rank as it is.’

‘We think a good deal of it here,’ said Mrs. FitzStephen. ‘Lady Wade,
you know, is only a baronet’s wife, and of course has to give place. It
gives quite a little distinction to our village; everybody even in the
county, at this end of it at least, must give way to Lady William. It is
a great feather in our cap.’

Mrs. Swinford went on laughing, breaking into fresh little runs of
merriment from time to time. ‘This is really amusing,’ she said. ‘Poor
Emily: and does she talk too?’

‘She is an exceedingly cultivated woman, and one who has seen the world.
I know few greater treats than to discuss either books or people with
Lady William,’ said the General, with great gravity, holding up his head
as if he were in uniform–which indeed this fine attitude almost
persuaded his admiring wife that he was. What a champion for any one to
have! But Mrs. Swinford went on with her little exasperating laugh like
the vibration of an electric bell. It was very disconcerting to the
pair, who were a little proud of their friendship with Lady William, and
liked to wave her flag in any stranger’s eyes.

‘You see,’ said the great lady, ‘Emily Plowden, poor girl, was in the
bread and butter stage when I knew her best: and to hear now of her
rank, and then of her accomplishments, is a new experience. I cannot
convey to your minds the amusement it causes me.’

‘Ah!’ said General FitzStephen gravely, ‘as I feel when I hear of a
little ensign who came out to India at sixteen, and is now in command of
my old regiment.’

Mrs. Swinford’s laugh ran on like the endless irritating tinkle of that
electric bell. ‘More,’ she said, ‘for the boy would gain his promotion;
but Emily!–it is more amusing than you can have any idea of to see that
she takes it _au grand sérieux_, the rank and all.’

‘Perhaps, General,’ said Mrs. FitzStephen quickly, ‘you will ring for
tea, instead of standing there,’ which was the most uncalled-for,
unjustifiable attack: for why should not he stand there, and where else
could he have stood but respectfully in front of her chair, listening to
their guest? He roused himself with a little start, and did what he was
told, but not without a look of surprised appeal at his wife’s face.

‘No tea,’ said Mrs. Swinford, rising; ‘I have not acquired the habit:
but I am sure the General will kindly give me his arm to my carriage. I
walk so little, I stumble; I have not the use of gravel walks.’

Mrs. FitzStephen watched the lady sweep away. She had very high-heeled
shoes and a long dress, too long for walking. The General’s wife watched
her along the gravel path, which she thought it very insolent of any
one to object to. Mrs. Swinford did not sweep (except indoors) or glide,
or march, majestically, as would have been consonant with her
pretensions, but accoutred as she was, hobbled, not more gracefully than
if she had been any old woman in the village. Her step showed she was an
old woman, however she might ignore that fact, and it gave the General’s
wife, whom she had rubbed so persistently the wrong way, a certain
characteristic feminine satisfaction to feel that it was so. Also Mrs.
FitzStephen strongly disapproved of the respectful and devoted air with
which her husband conducted the great lady. It was Stephen’s way; he
could not help it. He was an old—-, taken in by any woman that would
take the trouble. But what could she mean about Lady William, and all
those scoffs at her rank? Could there be any doubt about her rank? It
might be a courtesy title, but what did that matter? The daughter-in-law
of a marquis held precedence over quite a number of people who were Lady
So-and-So. Lady Wade never disputed it, and the Wades had an old
baronetcy. They were not upstart people. What did the–the–Mrs.
FitzStephen paused for a word–the old hag mean?

‘Oh, she meant nothing but spite,’ said the General when he came back,
‘feminine spite such as you all entertain towards your neighbours when
they are prettier or wiser than you.’

‘Perhaps you will tell me what woman I regard with feminine spite,’ Mrs.
FitzStephen very reasonably said.

‘Oh, you, my dear, you’ve no occasion; you are a pretty woman still, and
can hold your own: but that poor old soul,’ said the General, ‘as you
may have perceived, I had almost to carry her down the walk; that poor
old creature must be seventy if she is a day–and to see her old
subaltern taking the _pas_ from her: I am not subject to the same kind
of feelings–but I confess I don’t like it myself, if it comes to that,’
the General said.

Mrs. Swinford went on to the Rectory with a curious smile upon her face.
She drove past the school-room door and saw her friend standing at it,
sheltered in the depth of the doorway, by no means unlike a spider
standing at watch, having laid all its nets, till some silly fly buzzes
in. A salutation of the eyes only passed between the two women, the
schoolmistress and the great lady of the Hall. In the daylight they
resembled each other, though Mrs. Brown’s plain black gown was not
becoming to her dark good looks, and every particular of Mrs. Swinford’s
attire was calculated to enhance her antiquated beauty. There was a
softening in both pairs of eyes as they met. They were not good women;
their aims were not fine nor the means they were disposed to use; but
yet, curiously enough, they loved each other. It was a strange sight to
see. The walk from the little gate of the Rectory to the door was still
more trying to Mrs. Swinford than the other had been. It made her quite
sure that she had no vocation to call at houses where there was no
drive. Her dress was long, and she resented the fact that it must trail
on the gravel and get dirty and damp. As for holding it up, it did not
occur to her: that any one should think she hobbled, or was not a glass
of fashion and mould of form wherever she went would have been
incredible to her; but she resented much the length of that walk, and
that she should be exposed to such trouble and annoyance in the act of
doing what she thought her duty. Had it been only her duty, however,
Mrs. Swinford would have cared very little for fulfilling it; but she
had a different motive now.

There was a dreadful hurry-scurry in the Rectory drawing-room when she
was seen approaching. The antimacassars, I am sorry to say, were much
tumbled and untidy, and the loose covers of the chairs anything but what
might be desired. Both mother and daughters flew with one impulse to the
arranging of the room. Jim had been seated by the fireside all the
afternoon with a bad cold, which they had been nursing; but he fled at
once into his own cold room, which might, his mother thought, be very
bad for him, but could not be helped in the circumstances. Florence ran,
with more sense than any one would have given her credit for, to tell
the parlourmaid to bring in a more elegant, less substantial tea than
usual, and to give her father a hint in his study–‘Mrs. Swinford,
papa!’ while Mrs. Plowden and Emily stood nervously awaiting the visit,
anxious to go out and meet her and bring her in by the drawing-room
window, which would have saved the old lady a few steps; but kept back
by the fear that it might be thought indecorous, too familiar, not
dignified enough. Mrs. Swinford looked round upon the Rectory
drawing-room as she had done on Mrs. FitzStephen’s, but with a different
air. ‘You have made wonderfully few changes,’ she said; ‘it is just the
same damp little place it used to be.’ She was like so many of those
great ladies, not careful of people’s feelings; but that was, no doubt,
mainly from want of thought.

‘Oh,’ Mrs. Plowden said: and made a pause, that no explosion might
follow, ‘I assure you,’ she said, ‘it is not damp at all. We have proved
again and again that no water ever comes in. The elevation is small,
but quite sufficient; and as for the furniture and doing it up—-’

‘Yes, I recognise all the old things,’ Mrs. Swinford said, with a
careless wave of the hand (when there was not one thing, not one, except
the Indian cabinet, that had not been renewed!); ‘and another Emily
Plowden just the same. It is only you,’ she said, with a sweet but
careless smile upon the Rector’s wife, ‘that are new—-’

‘New! But we have been here for fifteen years,’ Mrs. Plowden said: and
her visitor smiled again as if in complacent consciousness of having
said the most agreeable thing in the world.

‘I am glad,’ she said, ‘there is no other daughter, no one to disturb
the harmony of what used to be. Oh, but here is the other daughter.’

‘Florence, my second, Mrs. Swinford: not considered like the Plowdens,
but taking more after my side of the house.’

‘I see she is not like the Plowdens,’ said Mrs. Swinford, with the look
of indifference which was natural to her: it was of so little
consequence! ‘The other is a little like Emily.’

‘Like her aunt, our dear Lady William.’

‘You are all much delighted,’ said the great lady, ‘with that name.’

‘My sister-in-law’s name? Well, we like it, for she has no other, poor
thing. We couldn’t call her anything else–as long as she doesn’t change
it or marry again.’

‘Oh, mamma!’ said Emmy and Florry together.

‘No,’ said Mrs. Plowden, ‘I don’t think she will marry again–now. I did
once hope she would; for, though rank is nice, a good husband who would
have looked after her and her little girl would have been nicer: while
the late Lord William, as I have heard—-’

Mrs. Swinford made a little movement of impatience. ‘Have the family,’
she said, ‘taken any notice of Emily–or the little girl?’

‘It is very funny,’ said Florence, ‘to hear Mab, who has such a
character of her own, spoken of as the little girl.’

‘Oh, Florry, hold your tongue, you are always making remarks. The
family, Mrs. Swinford?’

‘Poor little thing, poor little thing,’ said Mrs. Swinford, ‘I think you
were very wise, my dear Mrs. Plowden, in advising your sister-in-law to
marry again. What a thing it would be if after all it was found that
nothing could be done for the little girl!’

‘They have their little annuity,’ said Mrs. Plowden, startled; ‘there
has never been anything said of taking it away. And I could not make
such a statement as that I advised her to marry, for there has really
been no one that she could have married except—-, and he was quite an
old gentleman. Not to say that Emily ever thought of such a thing. She
was not so happy the first time as to have any wish—-’

Mrs. Swinford’s attention had once more flagged, and here she interposed
with her usual calm bearing, addressing Emmy. ‘I thought you had a
brother,’ she said.

Emmy coloured high, being thus suddenly spoken to. ‘Oh yes.’

‘Yes, indeed,’ cried Mrs. Plowden, recovering herself the more easily
that this new subject was one on which she could be eloquent. ‘He has a
bad cold, poor boy, or he would have been here at once to pay his
respects. Is that you, James? Mrs. Swinford is making such kind
inquiries.’

The great lady held out her hand. ‘You have not taken the trouble to
come and see me,’ she said.

The Rector had come in much against his will. He made a bow which had
not his usual ease. ‘I must beg your pardon,’ he said very gravely. ‘I
am aware that I have been negligent.’

‘Ah,’ she said, ‘you did not want to come? but I supposed when your
excellent wife did me so much honour, that bygones were to be bygones;
and Emily—-’

‘My sister acts for herself; I do not try to influence her; and my wife
thinks she knows what is best for her—-’

‘Her family, of course; good woman. She thought it would be a wrong
thing to neglect opportunities, and so did your father, as you may
recollect.’

‘I prefer not to recollect, any more than I can help,’ said the Rector.

‘Which? that Emily has come to great promotion, very high promotion, as
all those ladies think–while she was in my house? There would have been
no title in the case–a title such as it is!–but for my house.’

‘The less that is said on that subject, I think, the better,’ said the
Rector, standing bolt upright before the fire.

‘Oh, James,’ said his wife, ‘when Mrs. Swinford is so kind—-’

‘I gave it,’ said Mrs. Swinford, bending forward, ‘and, my good Rector,
you will take care not to be insolent; I may also, perhaps, take it
away.’