The General will step round

‘Miss Grey knows, of course, everything about them. Miss Grey knows the
whole story. She has been the longest here.’

‘Yes,’ said Miss Grey, ‘I know, I suppose, all the outs and ins of it;
or, if not all, a great part; all is a big word to say. I don’t suppose
anybody knows all–about the simplest of us–except the Almighty who
made us, and understands all our curious ways.’

‘That is a true speech,’ said the old General, ‘for curious are our
ways, and strange are the devices we have to hide ourselves from
ourselves.’

‘Come, Stephen,’ said Mrs. FitzStephen, ‘let us have none of your
philosophising. You like a story, or gossip, if you like to call it so,
just as well as any of us; draw your chair nearer the fire, and listen
to what Miss Grey has got to tell us, for I can read a whole story in
her eye.’

It was General FitzStephen’s drawing-room in which this conversation was
taking place, in the March afternoon, when evening was falling. It had
been cold and boisterous all day, with the March wind, which the farmer
loves, drying and parching everything outside; the roads all gray and
dusty; the fields looking as if every drop of sap in every green blade
or leaf had retired to the heart of the plant. The wind had blown itself
out, and fallen a little before the darkening, and Miss Grey, out, like
all the rest of the world, for a little walk, had been met and
apprehended by the General and his wife, and brought in for tea. How
much this was on Miss Grey’s account and how much for their own, I would
not undertake to say. They were fond of Miss Grey, and so was everybody
at Watcham: and people had a way of thinking that she was lonely and
wanted cheering up–which, in most cases, only meant that they wanted
cheering up themselves, and that there was nobody in the village who
knew so well how to do this as the little lonely spinster. The
FitzStephens’ house was exceedingly cosy, and though it was not large,
it was much larger than Lady William’s, and more pleasantly built; with
cheerful irregularities in the shape of bow-windows, which gave more
light, and agreeable little recesses and corners to talk in. It was not
so plain in any way. It was almost richly furnished with warm Persian
carpets and thick curtains, and a great deal of wadding and cushioning.
The General and his wife had, indeed, reached a proficiency in the art
of making each other comfortable, which only an elderly pair, without
children, can attain, and which, in their hands becomes a fine art.
There were no rough corners in their house; nothing that was not padded
and made soft. The draughts, which Lady William could only faintly
struggle against, they shut out by curtains, artistically-planned, to
the arrangement of which they had given their whole mind, two together,
which everybody knows is better than one, and each for the other, which
is better still: for not a suspicion, nor even a sensation, of
selfishness can be in the man who is afraid of a chill for his wife, or
the woman whose whole soul is bent on keeping her husband comfortable.
The candles had not been lighted, but the firelight was shining brightly
through the room, giving a brightness which no other artificial light
possesses: and, through the windows, the yellow glow of a spring sunset,
with a little pink in it, but none of winter’s violent and frosty red,
came in. Thus, between the day and the night, with the sweetness of the
western light outside like a picture, and the warm domestic glow within,
Mrs. FitzStephen’s pretty tea-table was the most pleasant thing one
could see on an evening while it was still cold. They had generally some
one to share that darkening hour with them, and make it more cheerful;
and on this particular evening there were two, Miss Grey, as has been
said, and the wife of the Archdeacon, Mrs. Kendal, as quiet a meek woman
as ever was, not capable of doing much in the way of addition to the
mirth, but quietly receptive of it, which is the next best thing.

It is a curious fact, which I don’t seem to have seen commented on, how
well and easily a kind old man who has fallen into quiet society along
with his wife in the evening of his days, takes to the feminine element
which is apt to preponderate in it. An old lady rarely makes herself at
home with men in the same way, or if she does it is perhaps with the
young friends of her sons who look up to her as a mother. But old
soldiers as well as old parsons, to whom that might seem more natural,
fall into ladies’ society with a relish and satisfaction that is
amazing. Pride of sex, which is rarely wanting, takes refuge, we may
suppose, in the little superiority so willingly accorded, the deferences
and flatteries with which he is surrounded, and which he repays with
little gallantries and pretty speeches with which the ladies on their
side are amused and pleased. General FitzStephen was a great hero among
all the ladies at Watcham, and he took his place among them with little
sense of incongruity, with a pleasant ease and simplicity, not sighing
for anything better, not wasting, or so it seemed, a thought upon his
club or his men. He liked Miss Grey to come in to tea as well as his
wife did, and was as pleased with Mrs. Kendal as with her husband–more
so, indeed, for he thought and said that the Archdeacon was an old
woman, an expression which he never employed to any lady. For Lady
William he had a sort of devotion, but that was not remarkable, for Lady
William was of a different species, and not unlikely to secure the
homage of any age or kind of man.

It was therefore a very cheerful old party that was assembled round the
FitzStephen fire, none among them under fifty-five, the General within
easy sight of three-score and ten, but all very well, with the exception
of Mrs. Kendal, who had been more or less of an invalid all her life,
but enjoyed her ill-health on the whole, and was as likely to live now
as at thirty. She sat lost in the deepest of easy-chairs on the side of
the fire opposite the window and where there was least light. Miss Grey
was on the sofa in the full light of the fire, which sparkled in a pair
of beautiful brown eyes she had, which looked none the worse for the
number of years which had passed over their possessor. Miss Grey was
very small, a little bit of a woman, with scarcely body enough to lodge
a soul which was not little at all: at least the part of it which was
heart, if there are any divisions in our spiritual being, was so big as
to rim over continually. She was very dark, with hair that had been
black before it became iron-gray, and a gipsy complexion of olive and
cherry. Her feet and hands were not so small as would have become her
tiny person, but as they were feet that were always in motion for the
good of her poor fellow-creatures, and hands that were noted in their
service, these things are the less necessary to look into.

Mrs. FitzStephen was remarkable for little more than the neatness of her
cap, and the trimness of her dress and person generally. She had been
what people call a pretty little woman, and on that character she lived.
She was a pretty little woman still according to the limitations of her
age, and her husband was still proud of her simple and somewhat faded
beauty. He had always been pleased to hear it said what a pretty little
woman Mrs. FitzStephen was, and he was still pleased with the thought.
She had not changed for him. She was seated in front of the low
tea-table, on a low chair, making the tea. The General, who was tall,
looked taller than ever moving about in the little glowing room between
the firelight and the dark, handing to the ladies their cake and tea.

‘We are all quite new people in the place in comparison with Miss Grey,’
said Mrs. Kendal, in her little invalid voice, ‘though we used to come
here, the Archdeacon and I, long ago, before he was the Archdeacon or I
was delicate: dear me, we used to go on the water! he was a great
boating man once—-’

‘I remember,’ said Miss Grey, ‘he once took the duty for old Mr.
Plowden, before the present Rector left College. I remember you very
well–you were the bride–and there were ever so many little parties
made—-’

‘To be sure,’ said the Archdeacon’s wife, sitting up in her chair–‘dear
me–it is so strange to think of the time when one was young—-’

‘Emily was a little thing who was about everywhere–the child of the
parish I used to call her. A girl who has lost her mother is so often
like that, everybody’s child. I don’t say it’s not very nice as long as
they’re children. One gets more used to them. She was always dancing
about through everybody’s house–thank you, General, I couldn’t take any
more cake–there wasn’t a house in the parish, rich or poor, but Emily
was dancing out and in—-’

‘Very bad for the child,’ said Mrs. FitzStephen.

‘Do you think so?’ said Miss Grey; ‘well, I don’t know, as long as she
was a child.’

‘If it was bad for the child, my dear, the woman has come handsomely out
of it,’ said the General, carrying the cake into the dark corner to Mrs.
Kendal. ‘My dear lady, one morsel more–to keep me company.’

‘Oh! General, on that inducement–but only a very, very small piece—-

‘It’s bad when the child grows into a woman,’ said little Miss Grey,
shaking her little head; ‘she was as dear a girl as ever lived–not one
of them now is fit to hold the candle to what she was. Mab?–Mab’s a
darling, the honestest little straightforward thing: and she would have
been safer than Emily–she would never have been taken in–as her mother
was.’

‘Dear Miss Grey,’ said Mrs. FitzStephen, ‘another cup of tea: and you
were going to tell us about the Swinfords–for we all know there was
something: she was a Seymour, wasn’t she, of a very good family?’

‘But foreign blood in her,’ said Miss Grey; ‘I think her mother was a
Russian; she always was fond of foreign things and foreign ways; he was
a dear, good, quiet man. It never came into his head that anything could
go wrong—-’

‘No: why should it, in a quiet neighbourhood like this—-?’

‘Oh! I like to hear you speak of a quiet neighbourhood. When the Hall
was in full swing it was about as quiet as–as Windsor Castle in the old
days, before Her Majesty knew what trouble was; always something going
on, the town full of visitors; entertainments that were in _The Morning
Post_, and every kind of pleasure. They used to come down in the middle
of the summer, from their town house, for a few days at a time, and
bring half the town with them; and in autumn in the time of the
partridges—-’

‘There could never be much shooting,’ said the General with
satisfaction, as on a subject he knew.

‘At the other end of the estate, the forest end–I have heard there was
not very much, but it was very good; that is to say, it didn’t last very
long, but as long as it lasted–at all events the shooting might be only
a pretence: but the house was always full, that is the only thing I
know—-’

‘I daresay,’ said Mrs. FitzStephen, ‘it will be so again; a young man
fond of company, like young Mr. Swinford.’

‘Oh! you may be sure it will be so again. I don’t know about him; but I
do know about Mrs. Swinford—-’

‘Now, don’t be spiteful, Miss Grey; when one lady does not approve of
another it is the right thing to say that she is spiteful—-’ the
General said in an explanatory way, to take away the sting of the word
which had come out unawares.

‘And it is very pleasant in a country place to see a little company,’
said Mrs. Kendal, ‘not that I care for great parties–nor the
Archdeacon; but it makes a little stir—-’

‘It keeps a movement in the air,’ said Mrs. FitzStephen, retiring from
the fire.

‘Well, there will be plenty of it,’ said Miss Grey.

‘But, my dear lady, we must not have you cross–cross is what you never
were; and society don’t you know, in this paradise of Watcham is the
only thing we want.’

‘It would be very nice,’ said Mrs. FitzStephen, with a little sigh;
‘though we have all done without it nicely, with our little tea
parties, and a friend from town from Saturday to Monday, and so forth.’

‘I never wish for more,’ said Mrs. Kendal, ‘nor the Archdeacon; it is
just what we like: but dear me, when I was young–I’ve danced sometimes
all night.’

‘We’ve heard the chimes at midnight,’ said the General, rubbing his
hands; ‘so I don’t see any great occasion, my dear ladies, to be
afraid.’

Miss Grey said nothing, but there was a little twitter and thrill in
her, half visible in the firelight, as of a bird stirring on a bough;
perhaps this proceeded from a little nodding of her head, very slight,
but continued like a little protest under her breath.

‘And then think of the young ladies,’ said General FitzStephen jauntily;
‘I have always heard that Lady William met her husband there—-’

‘There is not much chance for any of them to meet their husbands here: I
often try to induce the General to ask a nice young man–from Saturday
to Monday, you know–the only way we could ever induce a man from town
to come here: but he says it isn’t good enough–and asks his old fogies
instead—-’

‘The old fogies are more agreeable to us, my dear,’ said the General,
‘and the young ladies must find their husbands for themselves: but when
the Hall is full of fine company as our dear friend predicts—-’

Upon which Miss Grey, nodding, introduced what seemed an entirely new
and uncalled-for assertion.

‘James Plowden,’ she said, ‘though he is the Rector, is not a wise man
any more than his father was before him—-’

‘My dear lady!’ cried the General.

‘Miss Grey!’ said Mrs. Kendal mildly, out of the dark.

‘Nelly, Nelly!’ cried Mrs. FitzStephen, who was the one most intimate
with the culprit.

‘James Plowden,’ repeated Miss Grey, ‘is no Solomon, as you all very
well know. I am saying nothing against him–he’s a very good man: but
though he hasn’t very much wisdom, if he thought one of his girls was to
get a prince for her husband in the same way as his sister got hers, he
is not the man I think him, if he ever let one of them put a foot inside
that door.’

They all said ‘Lady William!’ with a joint cry, which, though it was
very quietly uttered by each individual, rose into quite an outcry when
uttered by the whole.

‘Poor little Emily!’ said Miss Grey, putting up her handkerchief to her
eyes, ‘that’s how I think of her–though if she gets any pleasure out
of her title, poor child, if you can call that a title—-’

‘Of course it is a title–she takes precedence of all of us,’ said Mrs.
FitzStephen.

‘A courtesy title,’ said the General.

‘Dear, I never knew there was anything against it,’ said Mrs. Kendal.

‘I hope she gets some pleasure out of it, poor dear,’ said Miss Grey;
‘little else has she ever got. A horrible man, who never, I believe,
made himself pleasant to her, never for one day: and a horrible life for
I don’t know how many years. If there had been a mother, or if he hadn’t
been—- well, I won’t call him names now he’s in his grave–such a
sacrifice would never have been made.’

‘But I suppose she liked him at the time,’ said one of the ladies.

‘And no doubt he was in love with her,’ said another; ‘Lord Portcullis’
son, and she a country clergyman’s daughter.’

‘Oh, as for that, God knows: she was perhaps dazzled with the miserable
title, and her father of course, who was only a silly old man–and then
she was besought and persuaded, God knows how, by those who did it for
their own sake, not hers—-’

‘But what reason could any one have?’ said Mrs. FitzStephen; ‘my dear
Nelly Grey, you must be making up a story in your head; what cause could
any one have, unless to satisfy the man who was in love with a girl, or
to help forward the girl to a match above her? These are the only two
reasons possible, and there’s no harm in them; we would, any of us, do
it,’ she said.

‘Not if the man was of bad character,’ said the General.

‘And if the girl was not in love with him? Oh, I don’t call that
romantic at all,’ Mrs. Kendal said.

Miss Grey shook her head again, shook it till her little bonnet, and all
that could twitter and tremble about her, shook too.

‘You’re all good people,’ she said; ‘you don’t know the mystery of a
wicked woman’s heart–or for that matter of a man’s either.’

‘Nelly,’ said Mrs. FitzStephen, almost sharply, ‘what can you know, a
little single woman, about mysteries and wicked persons? A soldier’s
wife like me, that has been knocked about the world—-’

‘Or, oh, dear me, a clergyman’s!’ said Mrs. Kendal, ‘and they are told
everything—-’

‘Whatever you may know, you don’t know Mrs. Swinford,’ said Miss Grey,
hastily tying her bonnet-strings–‘No, I must go home, thank you; I want
to be in before it’s quite dark. And really there’s not much to tell;
nothing that I’ve seen with my eyes, as you may have, my dear, knocking
about as a soldier’s wife; or as a clergyman’s wife may have heard
dreadful things trickling out through her husband. No, I’ve no husband.
I haven’t knocked about the world. I may have fancied things, being
always so quiet here. But good-night, for I must go; it’s nearly dark,
and my little maid is always frightened if I’m not in before dark—-’

‘The General will step round with you, Nelly dear–General, you’ll put
on your greatcoat—-’

‘Of course I am going,’ said the General. It was a duty he never was
negligent of, to see a lady who came by herself to tea safely home.

‘I have been on a tour of inspection,’ said Leo Swinford. He had met on
another beautiful afternoon all the villagers, that is, the gentry of
the village, party by party, and he had repeated to them all the same
phrase: ‘A tour of inspection!’ Perhaps he liked the words, for he had
the love of his adopted country for significant and appropriate phrases;
and it seemed to that simplicity, which lies at the bottom of so much
that is conventional on the other side of the Channel, that it was
highly appropriate, and very English and business-like, to describe his
prowl about the village in such words. But it was not until, after many
little pauses and talks, he had come upon Lady William and her daughter,
that he went further into the matter. When he saw the two figures coming
along, one of which at least was like no one else in Watcham, Leo felt
that he had reached the society in which he could speak freely: so,
though he repeated his phrase, he did not stop there. ‘I know now,’ he
said, nodding his head in half disgust, half satisfaction, ‘what is
meant in England when you speak of the slums.’

‘The slums!’ said Mab, who leant across her mother a little, with an ear
attentive to hear what he should say; ‘but there are no slums in
Watcham; it is in London and in the East End that there are slums. We
have no slums here.’

Leo was too polite to say that what he said was not intended for little
girls; but he gave that scarcely perceptible shrug of his shoulders
which means the same thing, and answered with a smile:

‘I did not suppose, Miss Mab, that you were ever permitted to go there.’

‘Not permitted,’ said Mab; ‘mother! why shouldn’t I be permitted? I hope
I know every cottage in Watcham, and about all the people, though of
course they change a little. Mother, I suppose he has been down by
Riverside.’

‘Very likely,’ said Lady William, ‘where the houses do not look
attractive, we must allow. But Mab is right, Leo, though perhaps she
should not be so ready with her opinion. The houses do not look nice,
nor, in some cases, the people that are in them; but we have nothing
very bad here.’

‘I don’t know, then, what you call very bad; it must be something beyond
my conception. I should like to clear all those houses off the face of
the earth. It is ugly; it is loathsome. How can the children grow up
with any sense of what is good in dens like those? I have come home with
the meaning to do my best for the people who belong to me, you know. I
have not very clear ideas of what my duty is, perhaps; I only know it
has been neglected for many, many years.’

‘That is true, perhaps,’ said Lady William; ‘but after all, you know,
the squire of the parish is not everything, and we have all helped to
keep things going. You don’t know our aspect of poverty, Leo; perhaps it
looks worse than it is. You will find plenty to do, no doubt. If you
announce your intentions, I know several people who will be delighted to
tell you just what you must do; my brother, of course, first of all.’

‘Shall I put myself, then, in the Rector’s hands?’

‘Oh, don’t let him, mother,’ said Mab (that little girl again: how these
little creatures are allowed to put themselves in the front in
England!), ‘Uncle James has so many fads. He wants a new organ (we do
want it very much) and a new infant school, and he is always, always
after the drains! But I know a great many things that it would be
delightful to do.’

‘Of course your advice will be the best,’ said her mother. ‘My dear Leo,
it is so new to us to find a man delivering himself over to be fleeced,
for the good of the people.’

‘Do not use such a word; I am so much in earnest; I am so anxious to do
everything I can do. All these years I have been receiving revenues from
this place and giving nothing back; and I am lodged like a prince, while
these poor people, who do their duty to their country better than I have
ever done, are in–what do you call them, sties, stables, worse, a great
deal worse, than my horses—-’

‘You must not run away with that idea,’ said Lady William. ‘Mab, where
can he have been?’

‘I tell you, on Riverside, mother; there are some houses there, old,
damp, horrid places; it is quite true.’

‘Dear lady,’ said Mr. Swinford, laying his hand lightly on Lady
William’s arm, ‘you consult this child: but what can she know of the
miseries which at her age one does not understand?’

Mab kept down by an effort the reply which was breaking from her lips.
Child! to a woman of seventeen! and to be told she did not understand:
she that knew every soul on Riverside, and what they worked at, and how
many children there were, and every domestic incident! She kept leaning
across her mother to catch every word, and cast terrible looks at the
accuser, though she commanded herself, and allowed Lady William to
reply.

‘You forget,’ said Lady William gently, ‘that to us there is no horror
about our poor neighbours, Leo. We know most of them as well as we know
our own relations, perhaps better; for on that level nothing is hid;
whereas on our own, if there is trouble in a house, there is often an
attempt to conceal, or perhaps even to deceive outsiders, and pretend
that everything is well.’

‘But, the very absence of concealment–the brutal frankness–the
vice–the horror—-’

‘Mother, I suppose Mr. Swinford means when the men drink, and everything
goes wrong?’

‘Yes, Mab, that is what he means; it is not so common in France as in
England. It is the root of everything here. They are not unkind
generally when they can be kept from drink. Mr. Osborne, the curate, is
a fanatic on that subject, and one can’t wonder. He would like you to
oppose the giving of licenses, Leo, and to shut up every place in
Watcham where drink is to be got. I am very much with him in my heart.
But I would not advise you to give yourself altogether up to his
guidance either.’

‘Not to the Rector’s, nor to the curate’s (whom I have not seen), nor to
Miss Mab’s? To yours, then, dear lady, which is what I shall like best
of all.’

‘No, not to mine. I share all of these extravagances, one now, and the
other to-morrow. Sometimes I am all for Mr. Osborne’s way, sometimes I
sympathise with my brother. You must put yourself in nobody’s hands, but
examine everything, and judge for yourself what it is best to do.’

‘Ah!’ said Leo, throwing up his hands, ‘you give me the most difficult
part of all. I will pull down their evil-smelling places, and build them
better; or they shall have money, money to get clothes instead of rags,
to be clean. These are things I understand; but to examine and form
conclusions as if I were a statesman or a philanthropist–can’t it be
done with money? I hear it said that anything can be done with money.’

‘Oh, mother, a great deal,’ said Mab eagerly; ‘don’t discourage him: a
little money is such a help. I know people who could be made so happy
with just a little. There are the old Lloyds, who will have to go to the
workhouse if their son does not send them something, and he is out of
work. And there is George, who can’t go fishing any longer for his
rheumatism, and poor dear Lizzie Minns, who is so afflicted, and won’t
live to be a burden on her people. Oh, don’t tell him no, mother! Mr.
Swinford, people say it is wrong to give money,’ said Mab, turning to
him, always across the figure of Lady William, who was between, with her
eyes, which were not pretty eyes, swimming in tears, ‘but I don’t think
so; not in these kind of cases, where a few shillings a week would make
all the difference: and we haven’t got it to give them, mother and I.’

‘They shall not go to the workhouse, nor die of their rheumatisms,’
cried Leo. He was so moved that the water stood in his eyes too. ‘Tell
me how much it needs, or take my purse, or give me your orders. I was a
fool! I was a fool! thinking the angels shouldn’t know.’

Mab stared a little across her mother, not in the least comprehending
this address, or that she was the angel on behalf of whom Leo upbraided
himself. She understood herself to be stigmatised as a little girl, but
she was not aware that the higher being had anything to do with her. At
the same time she perceived that his heart was touched, and that to the
old Lloyd’s, etc., the best results possible might accrue. As for Lady
William, she was half touched, half amused by the incident; pleased that
her little girl had come out so well, and pleased with Leo’s enthusiasm,
yet ready to laugh at them both. She put up a subduing hand between.

‘Don’t beg in this outrageous way, Mab; and don’t give in to her in that
perfectly defenceless manner, Leo. I shall be compelled to interfere and
stop both of you. But here is somebody coming who knows all about it,
better than Mab, better than I do, far better even than the parson of
the parish. Here is not only the head of all the charities, but Charity
herself embodied. Look at her coming along, that you may know her again
when you see her, one of the great Christian virtues in flesh and
blood.’

Leo winked the tear out of his eye, though he was not ashamed of it, as
a man all English might have been, and laughed in response to this new
appeal, in which he did not know that there might not be a little
satire. He said, ‘I see no white wings nor shining robes. I see a very
small woman in the dress of a–no, I will not say that–but it’s a
little droll, isn’t it? scanty, to say the least, and perhaps shabby.’

‘Oh, if you want an appropriate dress! It ought to be white, with
blazons of gold: but it is only an old black merino, worn rusty in the
service of the poor. Miss Grey, Mr. Leo Swinford wants you to remember
him. He was only a little boy when you saw him last, and he wants to
speak to you about the poor.’

‘Of course I should not have known you again,’ said Miss Grey, ‘for I
don’t know that I ever saw you nearer than in the carriage with your
mamma. But I am very glad to know you, Mr. Swinford, though not much
worth the trouble–and especially to tell you anything I can about the
poor.’

‘He has views,’ said Lady William, ‘of abolishing them off the face of
the earth.’

‘Oh, you’ll never do that,’ said little Miss Grey, with a flash of her
beautiful brown eyes. ‘The poor ye have always with you; never, till you
can make the race perfect, will you get rid of the poor.’

‘He thinks money will be able to do it: and Mab rather agrees with him.’

‘Money!’ said Miss Grey, with a disdain which no words could express.
She turned not to Lady William, who spoke, but to Leo, when she replied,
‘Money is of use, no doubt: but to sow it about and give it to everybody
is downright ruin.’

‘Not to good honest old people, Miss Grey, like the Lloyds and old
Riverside George.’

‘Pensions?’ said the little lady, with her head on one side like a bird.
‘Well, there may be something in that. Come into my house and sit down,
and we can argue it out.’

Miss Grey’s cottage was a smaller cottage even than Lady William’s. It
was lopsided–a house with only one window beside the door; one little
sitting-room with a little kitchen behind.

The little parlour looked as if it could not by any means contain the
party which its little mistress ushered in. ‘Step in, step in,’ she
said, ‘don’t be afraid. There is far more room than you would think. I
have had ten of the mothers here at once, and not so much as a saucer
broken. The ladies know where they can find places, but Mr. Swinford, as
you are a stranger, you shall sit here.’

Here was a large easy-chair, the largest piece of furniture in the room,
which stood almost in the centre, with a small table beside it. And
there was a big old-fashioned sofa against the wall, occupying the
whole side from door to window. It was the wonder of all the Watcham
people how that sofa had been got into the room which it blocked up. But
Miss Grey’s response always was that she could not part with her
furniture; and that the old Chesterfield, which was what she called the
sofa, was a cherished relic of her dear home. But the most remarkable
thing about this little room was the manner in which it was lined and
garlanded with china. Miss Grey was poor, but the china was not poor. It
was of every kind that could be described, and it was everywhere, on
little shelves and brackets against the wall, on the mantelpiece, on
every table. There was scarcely anything in the room except the
Chesterfield which did not support a row of dishes, or vases, or plates.
Lady William and Mab, being closely acquainted with the place, managed
to seat themselves without damaging any of these treasures: but to an
unaccustomed visitor the entrance was one full of perils. It went to
Miss Grey’s heart that Mr. Swinford made his entrance as gingerly as if
all these riches had been his own.

‘Never mind,’ she said, as something rattled down from a corner, ‘it’s
only a very common delft dish; or is it the majolica? Only the yellow
majolica, it doesn’t matter at all; and besides, it isn’t broken, or
chipped, or anything. Oh, that’s an accident that happens every day: but
my ten mothers didn’t even knock down that plate, and some of them were
big bouncing women.’

‘You are a collector, Miss Grey?’

‘Oh, I am not good enough for that; they are all old things, and I am
fond of them; most of them, Mr. Swinford, came from my dear home; the
things that were in one’s home are never like anything else; and a few I
have picked up, but very few, not enough to make any difference. The
majolica, I daresay you think nothing of it, you that know what is
really good. And neither do I, but not from that reason, because I only
bought it myself at a sale. It is not from my dear home.’

‘And may I ask,’ said Leo, with polite attention, ‘what it means, your
ten mothers? You must understand that I am very ignorant of many
things.’

‘Oh, that is easily explained,’ said little Miss Grey; ‘ten members of
my mothers’ meeting, that’s what they are; they meet in the schoolroom
once a week, and now and then I have them here to tea.’

‘Mothers,’ said Leo, ‘of children? I understand.’ He was perfectly
serious in his polite attention. ‘And they meet every week, and consult,
perhaps upon education?’

‘Oh no,’ said Miss Grey, ‘poor things, they are not much up to that.
They cut out things for their children, little petticoats, and so forth,
and work at them; and one of us reads aloud; and they pay only a little
for the material, just enough to feel that they have bought it; and the
schoolroom is nice and warm and bright, and it’s a little society for
them.’

Leo’s face was very grave; there was not even a ghost of a smile upon
it. ‘I should never have thought of that,’ he said, ‘but it is good,
very good. But why not give them the material to make things for their
children? I understand the women love it, and it does them good to work
at it. But I will buy the stuff for you, all you want, with pleasure.
Would not that be the simplest way?’

‘I think so too, often,’ said Mab, whose whole soul was in the question,
and who understood nothing at all of the amusement with which her mother
was looking on.

‘Not at all,’ said Miss Grey, ‘for then it would look like charity; now
they buy everything, it is very cheap, but it is no charity, it is their
very own.’

‘But charity is no bad thing; charity is to give what one has to those
who have not.’

‘I think so, too, often,’ said Mab again. She added, nodding her head,
‘It is in the Bible just like that.’

‘But we must not pauperise them,’ said Miss Grey; ‘we must help them to
keep their self-respect.’

‘There is nothing about self-respect in the Bible,’ said Mab quickly.

‘Oh, Mab, you are only a child. I am not against giving; sometimes it is
the only way; and it’s a great pleasure. But it isn’t good for the
people; we must think first what is good for them. We must not
demoralise them; we mustn’t—-’ The little woman hurried her argument
till her cheeks grew like two little dark roses, with excitement and
perplexity.

‘It is this,’ said Leo; ‘everything has been neglected by me for many
years. First I was a child and did not understand, and then I was a
young man, taken up by follies. I have come back. I wish now to do my
duty to my people. I will put into your hands money, as much as you
want, a hundred or a thousand pounds, as much as is wanted, to make
happy whom you can, if they can be brought to be happy; and to make
clean, and plentiful, and good. Hush! dear lady, don’t laugh at me. I
would like to pull down those frightful houses, and put all the poor
people in pleasant, bright rooms, where they could breathe.’

‘What frightful houses?’

‘He means Riverside, Miss Grey.’

‘He means Riverside! But they are not bad houses; the people are not
unhappy there. Oh, I could show you some! But at Riverside they are only
ugly. The people are not badly off; they get on well enough. One helps
them a little sometimes, but they rarely come on the rates, or even
apply to the Rector. Why, Mr. Swinford, you mustn’t only look at the
outside of things.’

‘I know,’ said Leo, repeating himself (but this was part of his excited
state), ‘that I am housed like a prince, and they–not so well as the
horses in the stables.’

Little Miss Grey kept her eyes on him as he spoke, as if he were a
madman, with a mixture of extreme curiosity and anxiety, to know if
there was method in his madness. ‘Well!’ she cried, ‘that is not your
fault. You are not–what do you call it, Emily? for I am not
clever–anything feudal to them. You are not their chief, like a Scotch
clan. What makes them poor (and they’re not so very poor) is their own
fault. They’re as independent as you are. If they drink and waste their
wages they’re badly off; if they don’t they’re comfortable enough; if
they’re dirty, it’s because they don’t mind. Bless me, Mr. Swinford, it
isn’t your fault. If you pulled down the houses, they would make an
outcry that would be heard from here to London. Besides, I don’t think
they belong to you!’ said Miss Grey triumphantly. ‘They were all built
by White, the baker. I know they don’t belong to you!’

Leo Swinford sat and gazed at her with a rising perception that there
was something ludicrous in the attitude he had assumed, which, at the
same time, was so entirely sincere and true.

‘And as for the stables being better–some stables are
ridiculous–sinful luxury, as if the poor dumb brutes were not just as
happy in the old way. Why, my little house,’ said Miss Grey, looking
round, ‘is not all marble and varnish, like your stables. And you think,
perhaps, it is a poor little place for me to live in, while you live in
your palace like a prince, as you say?’

He did not make any reply. This little woman took away his breath. But
he did cast a look round him at the minuteness of the place; a kind of
wistful look, as if he could not deny the feeling she imputed to him,
and would have liked nothing so much as to build her a palace, too.

‘Well!’ said Miss Grey, ‘and I would not give it for Windsor Castle. I
like it ten thousand times better than your palace; and the poor folk in
Riverside are just like me.’

‘Dear lady,’ said Leo, in his perplexity, ‘it is not the same thing; but
you take away my breath.’

Here Lady William came to his aid, yet did not fail to point a moral.
‘You see,’ she said, ‘you must not follow a hasty impulse even to do
good. There are two reasons against making a desert of Riverside; first,
because the people there don’t find it dreadful, as you do; and next, my
dear Leo, because you’re not their feudal lord, as Miss Grey says, and
the houses don’t belong to you.’

He shrugged his shoulders, as a man discomfited has a right to do. But
Miss Grey burst in before he had time to say a word: ‘If that is what
you want, Mr. Swinford, I can show you a place!’