The young man looked as if he had said more than he intended

There is nothing that happens more frequently in human experience than
that, after long doubting what to do, and hesitation over a new step,
the whole matter is suddenly taken out of our hands, and the question
solved for us in a moment, and in the most summary way. Lady William had
found many reasons for resisting the advice, whether given in love or
enmity, of her friends. Her husband’s family had not been hostile to
her, but it had been bitterly indifferent, taking no notice, making no
inquiry into her condition or that of her child, and she had but small
inducement to endeavour to draw closer that very loose and artificial
tie which united her to the great people. It seemed to herself a sort of
accidental tie, meaning so little to any body except to herself–and to
herself whose whole life it had shaped, it was no pleasure to recur to
the few years of marriage in which she had been taken so entirely out of
her sphere without attaining anything else that was of pleasure or
advantage to her. Sometimes she had been tempted to ask herself whether
that was more than a terrible dream, a sort of fever through which she
had passed, and at the end of which she had found herself back again in
her native place, among the quiet scenes of her childhood, but with a
different name, a changed personality, and Mab–the greatest sign of all
that things were not as they had been. The Rector and his wife, however,
did not take into consideration the great indifference of the family to
Lady William and her child. They knew but little about the details. Mrs.
Plowden for one could scarcely have got into her head that to be Lady
William, to have lived in France, as well as in the great world, and to
have grown familiar with many things that appeared very grand and
delightful to a country lady who had never moved out of her parish, was
perhaps to be rather humiliated than elevated both in one’s own opinion
and in that of the world. Such an idea could have found no place in her
intelligence. And she had not the slightest doubt that Lord and Lady
Portcullis, if it were properly represented to them, would do their duty
by their niece if not by their sister-in-law. She thought it was Emily’s
pride which alone stood in the way. And though her husband knew the
world better, yet he, too, was of opinion that it was chiefly Emily’s
pride. Mrs. Swinford’s thoughts on the subject were of a very different
complexion, even before she had thrown that horrible uncertainty into
Lady William’s mind, that feeling that even her position, so modest as
it was, might be assailed and turned into shame. If she had held back
hitherto it was not from pride nor from fear of inquiry, but from a
doubt whether it would be of the least advantage to her child to make
any overtures or petition. Petition, that was the right word–and a
petition which was more or less likely to be rejected, as she felt sure.

She was seated in her little drawing-room full of these doubts and
questions one morning very soon after the FitzStephens’ ball. It seemed
impossible now that things could go on as they were. The mere fact of
all that had been said on the subject shook the foundations of life. And
Mab’s age made a change in everything. So long as she was a child, the
obscurity of her position was of no consequence. All that was needed for
her was her mother’s care, and to be with her mother wherever she might
happen to be; but with every day the position changed. Lord William
Pakenham’s child was one thing, and Emily Plowden’s another. Was it her
duty to let Mab grow up in the humbler region, perhaps fix her own fate
in that, and settle for ever as a poor man’s wife in the village, while
another world might be open to her? Had she any right to bind her child
to her own limited fortunes, to keep her all her life a mere pensioner
on the bounty of those who ought to recognise and care for her in a very
different way? But if she made any attempt to alter the position, might
she not make it worse instead of better? Might she not subject herself
only, and Mab, who was of more consequence, to a repulse which would be
much worse than neglect, to perhaps a question even of the humble rights
which had been already recognised, the right of the widow and child to a
subsistence, however doled out? The thought of having to fight for those
rights, to open up the secrets of her life, and prove that she had a
right to her name, was an idea intolerable to Lady William. She said to
herself with a sick heart that she would rather die–she would rather
die! Oh, that would be an easy way out of it; but that she should die
and leave Mab behind her to fight it out, to prove her own lawful
birth, her mother’s honour, that was impossible. If she were to die she
must climb out of her grave, she felt, to prevent that, to take the
brunt upon herself, to save from such a horrible struggle the child, the
little girl who did not know what dishonour was–Mab, of all creatures
in the world, to have any stain upon her of any kind! Then Lady William
tried to brace herself up to think that she must no longer hesitate,
that for Mab’s happiness she must venture everything, and prove at last,
beyond any question, that whatever her fate might be there could never
be in it any doubt or possibility of shame.

She was seated thinking of all this, her needlework going mechanically
through her hands, her head bent, and every faculty occupied with this
debate within herself, when she heard the little click of the gate which
announced a visitor, and then the rap of Patty’s knuckles upon the door.
‘If you please, my lydy, it is Mr. Swinford and a strange gentleman. Am
I to say as your lydyship’s at home?’

‘Did I ever tell you to say I was not at home, Patty?’

‘I don’t know, my lydy. You wouldn’t speak to me not for two days,
‘cause I let Mr. Leo come in.’

‘You are a little nuisance,’ said Lady William, which was enough to make
Patty’s heart dance as she rushed along the narrow passage to
answer–what was not yet, however, a knock at the door.

For the two gentlemen had met Mab in the garden. Mab was very busy in
the garden in the end of April. She had a hundred things to do. She had
a large apron with pockets heavy with all kinds of necessities covering
her dress, and a very homely hat upon her head–one of those broad
articles plaited of brown rushes, which are called reed hats, and may be
bought for sixpence anywhere. It was not unbecoming, though it was
entirely without decoration. Mab’s hair was slightly untidy from much
stooping over the flowerbeds, and her cheeks were flushed by the same
cause. She had fortunately large gardening gloves on, which kept her
hands from the soil and pricks which were too familiar to them. Mab met
the two young men as they came in. She was hurrying past with a box full
of roots in one arm. But she was not in the least embarrassed by the
encounter. She put the trowel which she carried in the other hand, among
the roots, and stopped to speak. ‘I am very busy,’ she said. ‘It is
beautiful this morning, isn’t it? but we shall have rain before night.
So it is just the very opportunity to put in my carnations. They are a
little late, but I was waiting for some good kinds.’

Of course, while she spoke to Leo her eyes had wandered to the other man
with him, who was of quite a different kind–younger than Leo, still in
the twenties, Mab thought, and not handsome; but surely she had seen him
somewhere before. He was fair, like herself, with blunt features, and
eyes that were blue, but not bright. In every way his appearance was
quite different to that of Leo Swinford–no foreign air about
him–clothes that looked much less thought of and cared for, more
carelessly worn, but somehow giving, Mab could not tell how, a more
perfect effect. She gave him a friendly glance, though she did not know
him. But, indeed, she did not feel at all as if she did not know him.
She was confident that the face was quite familiar to her, and that she
must have seen him before.

‘I have brought a friend to introduce to you, Miss Mab: and I expect you
to be friends at once, although you have never seen each other before.’

‘Have I never seen him before?’ said Mab. ‘Perhaps you are mistaken, Mr.
Leo. I am sure I know his face, though I don’t know his name.’

And then the young men both laughed. ‘I will tell you where you have
seen his face–in your own glass when you dress in the morning–I am
sure you never look at it afterwards. This is Lord Will Pakenham, Miss
Mab, and to be sure you ought to have known each other all your lives.’

‘Lord Will—-’ Mab grew very red from the tip of her chin to the
untidy locks on her forehead. ‘Does that mean Lord William–my father’s
name?’

‘And I am your cousin Will,’ said the young man.

Mab paused a few moments longer before she held out to him her big
gardening glove. ‘I do not remember my father,’ she said, ‘so you cannot
remind me of him. Did we ever–perhaps when we were little children–see
each other before?’

‘Every time,’ said Leo, ‘did I not tell you, that you have looked in the
glass.’

I do not know what was the effect at that moment upon Lord Will, but the
impression on Mab’s mind was one full of pleasure. These other people,
with their clean-cut features, Leo himself, her cousin Emmy, who had the
impertinence to be like Mab’s own mother, who belonged to her–were a
sort of reproach to the girl. But here was somebody who had a blunt
nose, and eyes which were rather dull in colour, like her own, and who
looked friendly, homely, as if he did not mind–who also smiled upon her
in a very natural way, as if he too felt that he had known her all his
life. ‘Stop,’ said Mab, suddenly drawing off her glove with her white,
strong, small teeth. ‘This time my hand is cleaner than my glove.’ She
caught the glove in her other hand as it fell. If she had been a year
older, of course she would not have done it: and her frock was short and
her manner entirely at ease. Though she had been at a dance, and might
be supposed to have come out, she was still Lady William’s little girl.

‘Come in to mother; she will be glad to see you,’ she added immediately.
‘I can’t go into the drawing-room, can I, with all this? and I must get
these put in before I do anything. Mr. Leo, please go in to mother; you
know the way.’

Next minute Leo was presenting Lord Will to Lady William. It was a very
curious scene. She rose up in the midst of her thoughts, wondering,
questioning with herself what she was to do, and heard in a moment her
husband’s name pronounced in her ears. The effect was so great that as
she rose hastily from her chair the blood forsook her face altogether.
She held by the table before her, letting her work fall out of her hand.

‘Dear lady,’ said Leo, ‘we have startled you. I ought to have known.’

‘Whom did you say?’

‘I am William Pakenham,’ said the young man. ‘I beg you ten thousand
pardons. Swinford has brought me to make acquaintance with–my
relations.’

She sank back into her chair, and for a moment covered her eyes with her
hand. ‘You must forgive me,’ she said, ‘I am very foolish; but the sound
of your name so suddenly in the midst of all I was thinking—-’ She
paused a little, and then looked up at him. A smile came upon her face.
She felt like one who has looked up and, expecting to see some painful
apparition, sees instead a smiling face. ‘You are like my Mab,’ she
said, tears coming with a rush to her eyes.

‘So Swinford tells me; but I am not like my uncle.’

Lady William did not say anything, but something in her eyes, something
in the momentary tremor of her lips, seemed to say, ‘Thank God.’

It was an exceedingly awkward, stupid, uncalled-for remark upon the part
of Will Pakenham, who knew that his uncle had been a scamp, but did not
know whether or not his wife might have cherished his memory all the
same. There are some wives who deify a blackguard after he is gone. But
the visitor was young, and this possibility did not occur to him.

‘You have been living here,’ he said, ‘a long time.’

It may be supposed that Lady William was very much shaken out of her
usual self-command before she would allow the stranger to take the
conversation thus into his own hands, and to begin an interrogatory
examination. It was not so much the suddenness of his introduction that
had this effect upon her, as the bewilderment of thoughts in which she
was involved when these intricacies were thus cut as by a knife, by the
appearance of such an astonishing and unexpected figure upon the scene.
She began now, however, to recover herself, and to realise that these
questions were not at all of the manner in which she chose to permit
herself to be addressed. Accordingly, though she smiled in reply, she
gave no other answer, but turned to Leo, who stood by watching her, and
by no means at his ease.

‘You were telling us the other day of the ladies of the family,’ she
said, with a half-reproachful smile; ‘but you did not tell us of Lord
Will—-’

How quick she was, seizing the diminutive which made the name less
dreadful to her–though she had never heard it before!

‘We are old friends,’ said Leo; but I did not think–in short, it is
years since we saw each other. He has come on purpose to make your
acquaintance, and his cousin’s.’

‘He is very good,’ Lady William said, with a little bow towards him. ‘I
have been here for many years open to a visit. And you, are you adopting
any profession or service? or are you merely a gentleman at large?’

She smiled upon the young man with her usual gracious reserve; and he
began clearly to perceive that questions to her were practicable no
more. He answered, ‘Oh, Coldstreams,’ a little awkwardly, feeling
somehow that this lady in the little cottage, whose daughter did her own
gardening, and who had a little charity girl for a servant, had put him
back in his own place.

‘That is a great deal better than doing nothing,’ said Lady William;
‘but it is not very hard work. I thought you were all adopting
professions, to work hard, you young men about town. Has your father
come to town yet?’

‘My father?’ said Lord Will vaguely. ‘Oh, he’s—- somewhere fishing. My
mother comes up after Easter. The governor’s not very fond of town.’

‘And your uncle John?—-’

‘Oh—-’ said the young man, colouring a little, ‘we thought you would
be sure to see it in the papers–everybody is supposed to see everything
in the papers: he died about a fortnight ago.’

‘Died!’

‘Well, he was rather an old fellow, don’t you know,’ said Will in an
apologetic tone, ‘and lived hard. I don’t think it was ever expected
he’d have dragged on so long.’

‘In France,’ said Lady William, ‘there is such a thing as a _faire
part_. They don’t exist in England, I suppose?’

‘They are hideous things in France,’ said Leo, with a shiver, ‘when you
get a letter black to your elbow with a long string of names which you
don’t know, till you come to one little one at the end—-’

‘They are better, however, than no information at all.’

‘Oh, I hope you will not think there was any incivility meant. I myself
heard my mother say that you must be informed. There was a search
through all the address books, but we could not find at first where you
lived. And then I volunteered—-’

‘To come here, of all places in the world–next door to my cottage! How
extraordinarily acute your _flair_ must be, my dear Lord Will!’

‘It’s not that,’ said the young man, very red. ‘I knew that Swinford
knew you. He wrote to one of the girls, saying what a stun–I mean that
you were in his neighbourhood, and about your daughter, and all that—-

‘Perhaps it was the first intimation you had of our existence,’ she
said.

‘Oh, no–no; don’t think so. Besides, you are in the peerage; there can
be no mistake about that.’

‘That is an honour I didn’t think of. And so your uncle John is dead? He
was a very strange man–not like any of the family—-’

‘Not at all like the rest of us. None of the others had ever two
sixpences to rub against each other. He has died leaving a great
fortune.’

‘A great fortune!’ said Lady William, startled.

The young man looked as if he had said more than he intended. ‘A–a good
deal of money,’ he said. ‘I don’t mean a great fortune as people think
of fortunes nowadays. A good bit of money.’ He paused a little as if
unwilling to go further, then quickly throwing the words from him like a
stone, ‘And no will,’ he said.

‘So,’ said Mrs. Swinford, ‘you have seen your dear aunt.’

Lord Will had arrived in the afternoon, and she had scarcely seen him
until dinner. After that meal–in the moment always anxiously awaited
when there is any subject to talk of, when the servants had left the
room–she entered into conversation. It was not by her invitation that
he had come to the Hall–neither, of course, were any of the
circumstances of her arranging. Sometimes, strangely enough, when there
is an evil deed to be done, Providence will seem to arrange all the
circumstances for it with special care–to give the intending sinner a
clearer light for the resistance of temptation, or to commit him to his
evil choice and inevitable doom. Thus Mrs. Swinford’s whole soul was set
upon the ruin of Lady William–if she could fathom it–and the chain of
possibilities seemed woven for that end.

‘Yes,’ said Lord Will, though a little embarrassed by this description,
‘I have seen Lady William: and being a dear aunt whom I never saw
before, and whom I did not expect to be proud of, she is the greatest
piece of luck I ever came upon. You know her, I suppose?’

‘Know her!’ said Mrs. Swinford, with that little continuous laugh which
was like the tingling of an electric bell. ‘Indeed, I know her–to my
cost.’

‘Ah! there’s mischief in her, then?’

‘There are always old sores in a friendship of twenty years. Isn’t that
true, mother? But whatever they are, they must be of very old date, and
there can be no reason for bringing them forward now.’

Thus Leo, who was evidently very uneasy, and had showed symptoms of
rising from the table though his mother had as yet given no sign.

‘Leo,’ said Mrs. Swinford, ‘has fallen under the fascination which a
woman of that age often exercises–too old to be dangerous, but old
enough to know how to make herself very agreeable.’

‘Oh, she’s very agreeable,’ said Lord Will; ‘as for fascination, one
doesn’t associate it somehow with the name of an aunt, don’t you know.’

‘That is true, but you see she is not everybody’s aunt. To some people
she is—-’

‘I should say to everybody a charming woman. Do you take your coffee
downstairs to-night, mother?’

‘I know what you mean, Leo: but coffee or no coffee, you must understand
that I have a great deal to say to Lord Will. It may be now, or it may
be later–but I have a great deal to say—-’

‘I need not tell you I am entirely at your disposition, Mrs. Swinford.’

‘You know,’ said Leo, almost angrily, ‘it is bad for your health to stay
up late: and Will wants a glass of wine, or perhaps to knock about the
balls a little—-’

‘I hope I don’t look like a fellow to knock about balls–when I have so
much better within reach—-’

‘It’s always well,’ said Mrs. Swinford, ‘to know how to turn a
compliment. Will you now give me your arm upstairs like a Frenchman, or
wait like a Britisher till you have had your glass of wine?’

‘Perish the glass of wine!’ said Lord Will with a laugh, ‘though I hear
ladies say nowadays that they like the British fashion best.’

‘These are strong-minded ladies, who are, I believe, the fashion,
too–whom the men don’t care for, and who, consequently, pretend not to
care for the men.’

‘Well, that’s very flattering to us, at least,’ said Lord Will. He was
perhaps a little too much in the movement of his time to accept it as
the gospel it has always been supposed to be, and was even a little
disposed to laugh in his sleeve at the antiquated charmer who held by
that old doctrine. Mrs. Swinford’s air of the ancient seductrice and
devourer of men was not a new thing to this experienced youth.

‘It comes to much the same thing,’ said Leo, ‘for the Frenchmen adjourn
for their cigarette after they have reconducted the ladies. Come,
mother, let him be English for to-night. I have something to say to him,
too.’

‘My son,’ said Mrs. Swinford, with the blandest smile, ‘Lord Will shall
choose between us. I am not going to exercise any pressure, or pull
against you.’

The natural result, of course, was that in a minute or two more Mrs.
Swinford was established in the great drawing-room in her favourite
chair, just within reach of the influence of the blazing, cheerful fire,
amid the banks of flowers and pleasant twinkling of the lights, with
Lord Will before her, at her feet.

‘We need not detain you, Leo,’ she said, with a nod and a smile; ‘I know
your liking for this hour by yourself.’

‘I have no choice of one hour more than another by myself,’ said Leo,
‘and I, too, prefer the company of my guest to my own.’

‘Go, dear boy,’ she said, kissing the tips of her fingers. ‘I prefer
that you should not remain: I have a great deal to say, and it is grave.
You can say your say afterwards. At present, I don’t want to be
contradicted. It puts me out.’

Leo looked at her with an earnest remonstrance in his eyes, but she
continued to nod and smile at him, waving him away with that action of
her arm which had once been so graceful and playful. Leo had been
brought up to think all his mother’s movements graceful, and herself the
most distinguished of women. But there was a painful sense of unwilling
ridicule in his mind as he looked back at her waving him away, placed in
the most careful pose in the great chair, and with the young man, much
perplexed between curiosity and embarrassment, and a sense of ridicule,
too, in the low chair at her feet. He withdrew into the shade beyond the
pillars, but he did not go away. His mother could still see him moving
in the partial dark, standing staring at a half-seen picture, or taking
up and throwing down again book after book.

‘We are not to be left quite alone,’ she said, shrugging her shoulders;
‘Leo acts sheep-dog. It is a new rôle for him. But whether it is in my
interest or yours, Lord Will, I cannot tell.’

‘There can be only one of us who is in any danger,’ said the young man.

‘I might say that was enigmatical still: but I will receive it as I am
sure it is meant, and I congratulate you upon a very pretty turn of
speech. Few young Englishmen deserve that. My Leo I used to think–but
he is getting heavy in England, as most young men do.’

To this Lord Will, who was much intent upon the revelations to be made
to him, was prepared with no reply; and serious as this old woman’s
meaning was, and fatal in intent, she was nevertheless half disappointed
that he did not continue a little the badinage with which she would
have been pleased to preface what she had to say. She had an eye to
serious interest even in desiring to prolong this moment. For no man
likes to see his old mother imitating the coquette, and it might have
resulted in sending Leo away.

‘I think I heard you say–and you must pardon me for interfering with
your family affairs–that there was a question of money involved in your
coming here to see after these unknown relations?’

‘Yes,’ said Lord Will, straightening himself up with relief; ‘there is
money. My uncle John died the other day, rich, and without a will. There
were only two other brothers, my father and my Uncle William. In that
case, Uncle William’s heirs would come in for half the estate.’ He
stopped with a little embarrassment. ‘And my father was of opinion–my
mother thought—- It seemed a little hard perhaps that people we know
nothing of–and then, for his rank, and with all he has to keep up, my
father is a poor man.’

‘So you came to see—-?’

Whatever her own motives might be, Mrs. Swinford had no thought of
letting off a culprit of another kind. The young man grew red under her
searching eye. ‘You thought it a pity,’ she went on, ‘that the money you
could spend so much better should be wasted upon a couple of
insignificant women–who perhaps had never heard, never knew that they
had any claim to it, so would have been none the worse?’

‘You take me up too sharply,’ answered Lord Will. ‘I don’t think I meant
anything like that. I meant that it was best to see something of
them–to know something. My father has given Lady William an allowance
all along. I don’t know that he was compelled to do it. He has not
abandoned his brother’s widow. We thought that perhaps—-’

‘I will not ask what you find so much difficulty in putting into words.
What would your father say to any one who gave him a chance of
proving–that Emily Plowden was not William Pakenham’s widow at all?’

She had lowered her voice, but yet spoke with such a keenness of meaning
that she was heard further than she intended. Leo came striding out of
the dark where he was, calling out in a voice of indignation, ‘Mother!’
She turned to him and waved her hand quickly, threateningly, without any
of the former consciousness of a gracious pose.

‘Go away!’ she cried, ‘go away, go away! What I am saying is not for
you. Go away, Leo Swinford, or you may hear something you will like
still less–go away, go away!’

‘Swinford,’ said Lord Will, standing up, ‘this you see is too serious to
be suppressed. Whether it’s fact or not, don’t you see I must hear out
what your mother has got to say?’

Leo did not make any reply. He retired again to the darker part of the
room, but instead of lounging about drew forward a chair almost
ostentatiously, and placed himself therein.

‘I see,’ said Mrs. Swinford, with a laugh, ‘the Devil’s Advocate–on the
part of his client. That will not make any difference. Would you like me
to tell you how these two came together? I can do so in every detail.’

‘The question for me is,’ said Lord Will, after a pause: for to tell the
truth, being a young man with a clear view of his own interests, but no
wickedness in him, nor desire to harm his neighbours–at least no more
than was essential to benefit himself–he was a little frightened by the
gleam of devilry in Mrs. Swinford’s eyes; and he was well enough
aware–as people in society are aware of everything of the kind–that
there was something about Mrs. Swinford herself which had kept her out
of England for so long. ‘The question for me is simply about the
marriage. If there is scandal there is no use in raking up old scandals;
besides, whatever happened before, if she is his wife and the girl his
child, nothing else matters to us. I am sure it would be all very
interesting–but you see—-’

‘I am not going to rake up old scandals,’ Mrs. Swinford said, ‘but as it
all happened within my knowledge—- She was here–a pretty little
country girl, nothing more. She has immensely improved–quite, quite a
different creature. A girl I had taken a fancy to. I am not sure that
she did not teach Leo a little. That was her standing, the daughter of
the parish clergyman.’

‘That I am sure she did not,’ said Leo from behind; ‘you forget that I
had a governess, mother.’

‘Oh, you are there still, old Truepenny! You seem practising for the
ghost in _Hamlet_, Leo. No, decidedly I cannot go on while he is there.
It shall be for another time. To-morrow you will come to me in my
boudoir before you go away.’

Lord Will looked round to his friend with an appealing air. Then going
up to him, ‘Swinford,’ he said, ‘like a good fellow, let me hear it all
now. I must know it.’

‘In order, if you can, to keep what is theirs from two helpless women?’

‘I want to keep nothing that is theirs from any one,’ said the young
man, with an angry flush.

‘And yet it appears this is what you came here for. But forewarned is
forearmed. Yes, you shall hear it all now; I will not interfere.’

‘Is he gone?’ said Mrs. Swinford, ‘really gone? Leo is the most
scrupulous and delicate of men. He hates your talk of the clubs, gossip
and scandal, as he calls it. If I had brought him up in England would it
have been so? Shut the door, and draw the curtain, Lord Will. I have the
temperature kept up as well as I can, but there are always cold winds
about.’ She shivered a little and drew round her a film of a white shawl
that had been hanging over her chair. ‘Now come back and put yourself
there. Now I may speak my mind.’

‘You must know,’ she went on after all had been done as she ordered,
‘that your uncle William was a great deal here in this house–a very
great deal–it was a kind of home to him. I cannot say that I myself
remarked that he had been attracted by Emily Plowden, but I have told
you that she had a certain bread-and-butter-prettiness. I do not say
_beauté de diable_, for it was neither _beauté_, nor had she enough in
her for the devil to have anything to do with it. Youth alone sometimes
attracts a man. _Enfin_, I never saw anything of it: but one evening,
nay, it was pretty late–he came to me’–she paused a little and drew a
long breath–‘to tell me–it was a confused story–something about
having committed himself. Mr. Swinford, Leo’s father, was a little like
Leo, but more English, more rigid. He burst in while this was being
explained to me, took up a false idea, got what you call the wrong end
of the stick—-’ She spoke not with her usual ease, but with strange
breaks of breathlessness. ‘Enough, he got it all wrong, completely wrong
from beginning to end, and stormed and made a scene. And when he
understood that it was Emily who was concerned–Emily had always been a
great favourite,’ with the electrical tinkle running through her words,
‘he insisted that a marriage should take place at once. She left our
house late that night, escorted by your uncle: and what happened I
cannot tell. I never met her again except in Paris, where she was called
Lady William, but saw no society, except the sort of men among whom your
poor uncle, by that time heartbroken and misunderstood—-’

‘But why heartbroken–if he had been in love with her?’

‘You are an innocent young man,’ said Mrs. Swinford, tapping him on the
shoulder with her fan. ‘Oh, a very innocent dear boy! You don’t think
what a man like that would feel with a creature like her–a country girl
tied to him, and no doubt leading him a life! She kept him–from saying
a word to me, watching over him like a cat over a mouse. He was burning
to tell me–something; I know not what. My husband also was much
prejudiced, and would not let us meet. So that I never heard his secret,
if there was a secret, as I suppose there must have been. I have never
seen her again till I saw her last month, shining as Lady William, and
believed in by all the country folk–taking precedence,’ Mrs. Swinford
cried with her little laugh, throwing up her fine hands, with all her
rings flashing, ‘upon next to nothing a year.’

‘But she was acknowledged by my uncle as his wife.’

‘She was called Lady William among the sort of _demi-monde_ they lived
in. But what happened between the time she left my house and the time I
saw her there—-’

‘Do you mean to say that my uncle eloped with this young lady, Mrs.
Swinford?’

My dear Lord Will, you are young, but you know the world. They left the
house together, late at night. I tell you, quite late, after midnight.
He, a man who was known to be–well, not the safest for women: and she a
country girl of nineteen–oh, very well able to take care of herself,
but as silly and ignorant as they usually are: and–I know no more.’

Mrs. Swinford threw up her hands again, with the dazzling rings. There
was a thrill and tremble in her whole frame with the excitement of the
story, which was so elaborately false yet so nearly true. The young man
had not seated himself a second time. He stood leaning upon the
mantelpiece, his head bent, looking down upon the blazing fire.

‘And you?’ he said, ‘you allowed a girl to go out of your house like
that–a girl, unprotected?’

‘What could I do?’ said Mrs. Swinford. ‘I was not her keeper, neither
was I in command of affairs. I tell you that my husband insisted—-’

‘For the marriage, you said, for a marriage–that was very different.’

‘Ah, you are _difficile_! And she, a hot-headed girl full of her own
attractions, do you think she would be restrained—-’

‘From leaving home with her lover in the dead of night?’

‘Her lover!’ cried Mrs. Swinford, with the tingling laugh; ‘her lover!’

‘Was he not her lover? For heaven’s sake say what you mean.’

There was a little pause again, through which her laugh ran on, as if
she could not stop it when once it had begun. Lord Will was the first to
speak. He said: ‘All this is very curious and dramatic and strange; but
the one question of my uncle’s marriage is, after all, the chief thing.
I don’t think my father ever entertained any doubt. It is in the
peerage—-’

‘That is no proof,’ said Mrs. Swinford sharply.

‘I know; but still–my father was sent for at his death. There was no
suspicion. I have heard that it was a _mésalliance_, but that is all I
have ever heard.’

‘Your father arrived when he was dying, had no communication with him,
nor had any of his true friends. She kept them away. Lord Will, perhaps
we have talked on this question long enough; it is no matter to me, it
is only you who are affected. If there is money involved it is of the
more consequence. You will require proof of the marriage before you do
anything further. That is all you have to do. Ask her to send in her
certificates, child’s birth, and all that. Women of that class are very
wary; they generally see after their papers. I have thought it over; I
thought it all over before I made up my mind to speak to you. I felt
that I could not allow what might be a great wrong to be done to the
family of one who was once a dear friend—-’

Mrs. Swinford put her handkerchief lightly to her eyes; it was scarcely
substantial enough to have imbibed one tear. And there were perhaps
other reasons why tears would have been out of place; but, had they
existed at all, they would have been not dew, but fire.