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Lady WilliamByMargaret Oliphant
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The village of Watcham is not a village in the ordinary sense of the word, and yet it is a very pretty place, with a charming picturesque aspect, and of which people say, ‘What a pretty village!’ when they come upon its little landing-place on the riverside, or drive through its old-fashioned green, where some of the surrounding houses look as if they had come out of the seventeenth century, and some as if they had come out of the picture-books of Mr. Randolph Caldecott. It is a village of genteel little houses where a great many people live who have pretensions, but are poor: and some who have no pretensions and yet are poor all the same, and find the little, fresh, airy villa houses, with their small rooms and little gardens, a wonderful relief from London, even from the suburbs which are almost as rural as Watcham. Watcham, however, has various advantages over Hampstead or Wimbledon. It is close by the river, where a little quiet boating may be had without any fear of plunging into the mob of excursionists from London on one side, who make some portions of that river hideous, or the more elegant mob of society on the other, who do not add to its charm. But I need not linger on the attractions of this little place, with which the reader will, no doubt, if he (or she) has patience enough, become well acquainted in time.
The church in Watcham is a pretty church of very old foundation, low in stature and small in size, its porch covered with climbing roses, its modest little spire rising out of a mantle of ivy. Inside I have always felt that there was a faint breath of generations past, perhaps not so desirable as the traces of them left on the walls—which mingled with the breath of the congregation, and the whiff of incense, which was now and then added to the composite atmosphere. For the Rector was ‘High,’ and, though he never laid himself open to troublesome proceedings, was watched with great attention by a little band of parishioners very anxious to be aggrieved, who kept an eye upon all he did, in the hope of some day catching him at an unguarded moment, in the act of lighting a candle or donning a vestment which exceeded the rubric. But Mr. Plowden was quite aware of this watch, and delighted in keeping his critics up to the highest mark of vigilance without ever giving them the occasion they desired. The Rectory was an old red-brick house showing rather high and narrow above its garden wall, and the Plowden family consisted, besides the Rector, of his wife, a son, and two daughters, to whose credit the floral decorations, for which the church was famous, were laid, undeservedly, by the strangers and visitors who frequented the place—though this was always indignantly contradicted by the inhabitants, to whom it was well known that Miss Grey was the real artist who made the church so beautiful, and seemed to invent flowers when none were to be had by other persons, for the adornment of the little sanctuary. There were a few houses dotted about in their gardens in the neighbourhood of the church which contained the aristocracy of the place. These were generally very small, but, on the other hand, they were very refined, and contained old china and dainty pieces of old furniture such as might have made a dozen connoisseurs happy. They, however, were inhabited chiefly by ladies, though there was an old soldier and an old clergyman among them who stood out very strongly on the feminine background. The old clergyman, indeed, was no better than an old lady himself, and so considered in the place, which sent him on errands, and set but little store by his opinion; but the General! The General was very different. He had seen a great deal of service; and on occasions when he went at strictly-regulated intervals to a levée or other great function, with all his medals upon his ancient bosom, he was a sight to see. It was believed generally in the village that he had won several victories with his own right hand, and the sword which hung in his room was believed to have been bathed in blood on many terrible occasions; but, as was to be expected, the old soldier bore no terrible aspect, but was very amiable and gentle to his neighbours. The Archdeacon, of whom nobody stood in any awe, was on occasion ten times more severe.
It will be perceived that society in Watcham was not without dignitaries. But the person who was of highest rank in the place, whom all the ladies had to acknowledge as unmistakably their superior, who had the undoubted right to walk out of a room and into a room before them all, was a lady who lived in one of thesmallest of those little houses which were as Belgravia to the population of the village. Such a little house! It had a pretty little garden all round it, with a privet hedge and green gate, which in their insignificance, yet complete enclosure and privacy, were a sort of symbol of their owner and her position. For it could not be denied that she was Lady William, sister-in-law to a marquis, connected (by marriage) with half the aristocracy; and yet not only was she very poor, but she was of herself, so to speak, nobody, which was the exasperating particular in the tale. Nobody at all, the Rector’s sister, once a governess, whose elevation by her marriage—and such a marriage!—over the heads of the best people in Watcham was an affront which they never got over, though these ladies were too well bred to make any quarrel, or to be anything but observant of the necessities of the situation. I do not pretend for a moment that it was ever suggested to Lady William in any way that her precedence annoyed her neighbours, and that to have to walk humbly behind that governess-woman, as Mrs. FitzStephen, the General’s wife, had hastily called her on her return to Watcham, was an accident of fate which made them furious. She was a woman full of perception, however, and she was quite aware of the fact, and derived from it a certain amusement. Above all was Lady William amused by it in respect to her sister-in-law, Mrs. Plowden, who, as a married woman, and the Rector’s wife, not to speak of her own connections, had been vastly superior to Emily Plowden in her earlier days when that young woman was a governess and of no consequence at all. The first time Lady William dined at the General’s, and was taken out by him before all the rest, the sight of Mrs. Plowden’s face was almost too much for her gravity. Her elevation had cost her dear, and had brought her little, except that empty honour; but she was a woman with a fine sense of the ludicrous, and that moment compensated her for many troubles. She was the first lady in Watcham, where she had received many snubs once upon a time, and this was at once a balm and an amusement to her of the most agreeable kind.
But Lady William was very poor. They were none of them rich in that little society, but Lady William had less than any, less even than Miss Grey. The small annuity given her by her husband’s family, given very grudgingly, and sometimes in arrears, was all she had to depend upon. She had, as people said severely, as if it had been her fault, nothing of her own. The Plowdens were not rich, and all that Emily Plowden had had been bestowed upon a prodigal brother, who had disappeared in the wilds of Australia, and never had been heard of more. What she had thus lost would not have added fifty pounds a year to her income; but fifty pounds a year when you have only two hundred is a great addition, and she was very much reproached for having made this sacrifice ‘to that good-for-nothing boy,’ the neighbours said. I am afraid she thought it very foolish herself when she came to be what she was, middle-aged, with Mab growing up, and so little, so very little, nothing at all, so to speak, to keep her little household upon. Sometimes she would calculate to herself how much better off she would have been if she had still possessed the interest of her thousand pounds which poor Ned had carried with him, and which probably only enabled him to ruin himself more quickly. Sometimes she would amuse herself by speculating how much it would have brought in. Thirty-five pounds perhaps, or possibly forty-five if she had been very lucky: and how many comforts that might have got during the year; or she might have taken a little off it—two hundred pounds or so—for Mab’s education. And Mab had really got no education, poor child. However, these were nothing but speculations, and had no bitterness in them. She did not grudge her money to poor Ned. Poor Ned! How often is there one in a family who is never spoken of but with that prefix, and how often he is the one who is the best beloved!
Lady William was quite worthy in externals of her elevation, being of what is called an aristocratic appearance, though it is an appearance which is to be found impartially in all classes, and I have often seen a young woman in a shop who was much more like a duchess than the owners of that title sometimes are. Perhaps it would be better to say that Lady William was conventionally correct in every way, with a rather tall and slight figure, an oval face, a deportment which strangers thought distinguished, and fine hands and feet, which are always considered to betoken gentle blood. But Mab, alas! Who ought to have possessed more of these attractions, had none of them. She was rather short, and at seventeen she was certainly too stout. Stumpy was what Mrs. Plowden at the Rectory said, and there can be no doubt that there was truth in that unlovely phrase. Her nose turned up, her face was round and her features blunt, her hair no colour in particular. As for waist the poor girl had none, and her feet were good useful beetle-crushers, which she encased by preference in square-toed shoes without heels. In short, it was impossible even for Mab herself to entertain any illusions as to her personal appearance. She was a plain and homely girl. ‘Ah!’ said the people who disliked the Plowdens, and those who did not know anything about it, except that her mother had been a governess; ‘the common blood bursting out.’ But, as a matter of fact, it was the noble family to which her father belonged whom Mab resembled. She was as like the present Marquis as it was possible for a girl to be like an elderly man. None of his daughters (heaven be praised, they said) were half so like him as the niece whom he barely acknowledged. Mab was the very quintessence of that distinguished man. She had very light hair of a faint greenish tinge, eyes equally light, but bluish. To see her beside her graceful mother was wonderful. And she did not show her blood like the Princess in the fairy tale by feeling the pea that was underneath two mattresses. Mab might have lain upon peas, and she would never have been any the wiser. Her perceptions were not delicate. She was not sensitive. In short she was the most perfectly robust and contented little soul there was in Watcham, and met all her little privations with a broad smile.
You could not imagine a more minute drawing-room than that in which this mother and daughter spent the greater part of their life. There was nothing poetical or romantic about the house. The door was exactly in the middle, with a window on each side, which indicated the two sitting-rooms, and three windows which represented as many bedrooms above. The reader will perceive that it was the rudimentary house designed by infantile art in its first command of a slate or other pencil with which to express its ideas. The narrow passage into which the outer door opened, and from which you entered the sitting-rooms, was scarcely capable of containing two persons at once. By dint of having the smallest specimens possible of those pieces of furniture, Lady William had contrived to have a sofa and a piano in the drawing-room. There were also some low chairs and two or three of those little tables which are so useful in this tea-drinking age, but which are chiefly remarkable as handy things to throw down. You could scarcely throw down Lady William’s tables, however, for there was not room enough for them to fall. The ladies were sitting together in this little room with a large basket on the floor between them, in which it was their habit to put their work if it was not suitable to be beheld by visitors. They were both engaged at this particular moment in the making of a dress, of a kind which is generally described by novelists as ‘some kind of light woollen material.’ Shopkeepers say simply ‘material,’ leaving the light woollen to the imagination. I think, as I love to be particular, that it was biège. There was a fashion-book, or perhaps a copy of the Lady’s Pictorial—but I think the scene occurred before the commencement of that excellent periodical—lying among the folds of the stuff, half hidden by them. And this was Mab’s spring dress, which her mother was making, aided by the less skilled yet patient efforts of Mab herself. ‘Do you think you like that sleeve?’ Lady William was saying, looking at it in her hand, with her head a little on one side, as an artist looks at his picture; ‘these puffs are apt to look a little fantastic, especially when they are home-made——’
‘You mean when they are on a fat little girl like me, mother.’
‘Well, Mab, you are a little—stout,’ Lady William said. She did not take it so lightly as Mab did, but half resented, half lamented, this unfortunate development.
‘Don’t say stout, please,’ said Mab. ‘Stout sounds such a determined thing. Call me fat, mother: it’s nicer—it might be accidental: or I might, as Mrs. FitzStephen says, fine down.’
Lady William shook her head with a suppressed sigh. She knew Mab would not fine down. ‘Never mind about words,’ she said, ‘but tell me——’
Here she was interrupted by a rattle of small shots, as of pebbles, on the door. She knew very well what it was. It was the knuckles of Patty, the little girl who was groom of the chambers, and head footman, and kitchenmaid, and general aid to the woman-of-all-work at the cottage. She opened the door when she had delivered this volley, and thrust in a curly head at about the height of the keyhole. ‘Please, my lydy,’ she said, breathless, ‘it’s Missis and the young lydies from the Rectory. I thought as you’d like to know——’
‘Are they coming here, Patty?’
‘Leastways, I think so, my lydy,’ Patty said.
‘Thank you, Patty; as soon as you’ve let them in, bring tea.’
There was no thought of closing the door to these privileged visitors. But the dress was carefully and swiftly disposed of in the big basket, which was thrust under the sofa. ‘They’ve nothing to do with your new frock,’ said Lady William, in an apologetic parenthesis. Mab, who required no apology, who had seen this little feat of legerdemain accomplished more often than she could count, required no explanation; but she did not take up any other work. Lady William, on the other hand, had a piece of knitting provided for such occasions, and was working at it as if it were the chief occupation of her life when the Rectory ladies were ushered in. Mrs. Plowden had reversed the order which ruled in Lady William’s house, for it was she who was short and stout, while her daughters were of the Plowden type, long and thin, like, and yet not like, their aunt, who was slim and tall, words that mean the same thing with a difference. The three figures came in like an army, filling the small room.
‘Well, Emily, busy, as usual?’ Mrs. Plowden said, a little breathless from her walk. ‘And Mab idle, as usual?’ she added, after she had taken breath.
‘Just as we always are, aunt,’ said Mab with a laugh, conscious of the half-finished dress.
‘You might come, now and then, to the Sewing Society, Mabel,’ said Emmy, her cousin. ‘It’s quite amusing, and it would show you how nice a quiet hour’s sewing can be.’
‘But Mab does not like parish things—and neither do I,’ said the other, the heterodox daughter, under her breath.
‘I wonder,’ said Mrs. Plowden, ‘that you don’t set her in some way of employing herself systematically, Emily. Doing things by fits and starts loses half of the advantage. What should I ever have done with Emmy and Florry if I had not gone on in the most systematic way?’
‘And look what examples we are,’ said Florry, as usual under her breath.
‘Haven’t we made up our minds to agree to differ on these points?’ said Lady William. ‘I am sure you had something more amusing to tell me than the way you brought up your girls and how I have spoiled Mab.’
‘I don’t know if you will think it amusing. There was something else I had to tell you. Have you heard that Mrs. Swinford and her son have come back to the Hall?’
‘The Swinfords!’ said Lady William, with a start of excitement. ‘Have they come back? I thought they were never coming back any more.’
‘I don’t know what reason you had for such an idea. I never heard of it, and as James is the clergyman, and knows most about his parishioners—but, at all events, they have come back: and I want to know what your ideas are about calling. People stood a little aloof, I have always been told; but it’s a long time ago, and naturally the people here will take great notice of what you and I do, Emily. It will all depend upon what we do how Mrs. Swinford is received. Do you think you shall call?’
‘Call!’ cried Lady William. A little colour had come upon her face, a little agitation into her usual calm. The exclamation seemed like a kind of reply, but whether it meant ‘Call! Of course I shall call!’ or ‘Call! How could you expect me to do such a thing?’ her sister-in-law could not tell; neither did she follow up that monosyllable with any further elucidation. She said, after a momentary pause, ‘How long it is ago, and how many things have happened since then!’
‘That is very true—but it’s always like that when people have been away for more than twenty years. Half the people that were living then are dead, of course: and other things—why, none of the children were born.’
‘Nor dreamt of,’ said Lady William. It gave her a great deal to think about; but after a while Mrs. Plowden grew tired of waiting for some definite response to her question, and took up the theme on her own account.
‘As I am a new person here since her time it would be silly of me to keep up old prejudices. I know nothing about any old story. I am quite justified in saying so, for, of course, I was not even here. We had only a curacy, and your father was still alive: James did not get the living till a year after: and then, of course, I was a very young woman, thinking of none of these things. Your mother had a prejudice—but why should I take up her prejudices? And they are rich, and the son is an agreeable young man, people say; and probably they will entertain a good deal. It would be sinning against a merciful Providence if one refused to take advantage of what is brought to your very door. Everybody says that they will entertain, and probably a great deal.’
‘And Leo will want a wife,’ said Lady William.
‘Good gracious, Emily! Don’t talk in that way before my girls! I keep all such ideas out of their minds. But what I meant to say was, if you think of going don’t you think we might go together? It would have a very good effect, and be an example for the parish. I suppose they have got quite French being so long away, and I have been so long out of the way of speaking it that—— But you are quite a linguist, Emily.’
‘You don’t suppose Mrs. Swinford will have forgotten her native tongue?’ Lady William said, with a laugh.
‘Well, if you think not—oh! I suppose not; but one gets so rusty in a language one never uses. Look at me! I spoke both French and German like a native when I left school; but, for want of practice, you could put me out completely by a single question. So I think, as you have always kept it up, I should feel more comfortable. And as they can’t all go, suppose we take the eldest. You and I and Emmy—three are quite enough to make a call. Don’t you see?’
‘I see,’ Lady William said; but it was not for a long time that Mrs. Plowden could get her to say more.
‘The Swinfords come back,’ Lady William said to herself, as she sat on the little sofa in the twilight by the light of the little fire. She had been very silent after the Plowdens withdrew, saying little except on the subject of the frock, which was resumed as soon as these ladies were gone. And when Mab went out, as she had a way of doing when the light began to fail, Lady William put the work away, and sat down in the corner of the sofa, which was the cosiest spot in the little room, almost out of reach of the draught. This is an extremely difficult thing to attain in small rooms where the doors and windows are at right angles, and you never can get far enough off from one of them to avoid the stream of cold air which pours in under the door, or from the window, or somewhere else in the sweet uncertainty of cottage architecture. But that end of the sofa was nearly out of the way from them all: and there she sat when she did not go out, at that wistful hour when it is neither night nor day. Lady William was not old enough to like that wistful hour. She was young enough to prefer taking a run with Mab, being, though she was Mab’s mother, quite as elastic and strong, and as fond of fresh air and exercise as she: and she was philosopher enough to take care not to think more than was absolutely necessary; for I do not disguise that there were episodes in her past life which were not pleasant to go back upon, and that the future, when she gazed into it closely, was too precarious and alarming to inspect. But to-day Lady William’s mind had been stirred, and so many things had come up which forced themselves to be remembered that she had no resource but to allow herself to think. The Swinfords! They were the great people of the place. Their house was close to Watcham, its gates opening upon the road a little beyond the village—and they had in her early days exercised a great influence upon Emily Plowden’s life. A flood of recollections poured back upon her, a succession of scenes one after another—scenes in the house, in the park, and in the conservatory, all about the place. She remembered even the looks of certain eyes, glances that had been cast at herself, or even at others, swift changes of aspect, vicissitudes of sun and shade which were more rapid than the shadows upon the hills. What a thing it is to recollect over twenty years and more the way one look succeeded another on a face, perhaps gone into dulness and decay, or perhaps only changed out of knowledge, but equally separated from us and the scenes in which we remembered it! Lady William sat and recollected, and saw again the very light of the days that were past, how it came through a long window and fell upon—sometimes her own face, which was as changed as any of the others, sometimes other faces fixed in eager regard upon hers. How strange to think that she was the girl that stood then on the threshold of life, so full of many emotions, so easily touched one way or another, smiles and tears chasing each other over her face. And to think it was all over, and everything connected with that time was as a dream! She had met her husband there; a great many things had befallen her there; and now here was Jane Plowden coming to ask her to call—to call, of all things in the world, on Mrs. Swinford, as if she were an ordinary neighbour, as if there was nothing between them that could not be told over the tea-table among the afternoon visitors! And she had consented to do it, which was more strange still—half for the wonder of it, half because now they had come back, she was curious to see how things looked across the abyss which separated now from then. Oh, as she thought of it there rose a hundred things she wanted to know! Her busy fancy figured how the patroness of her youth would look; what she would say; the questions she would ask. ‘So you have settled in Watcham again—in Watcham, after all? And you have a little girl? And you never see or hear of—— Oh, but that is impossible—you must hear of them constantly, for it is in the papers.’ All these things she heard Mrs. Swinford say with the little foreign accent which was one of that lady’s peculiarities. Then Lady William paused with a foreboding and asked herself whether she could not avoid the meeting—whether she could have a bad headache, or go off on a visit, or simply sit still and refuse to move. Alas! Going off on a visit is not so easy—you want money for that, and there was nowhere she could go except for a day or two. Neither would a bad headache last beyond a day: and as for sitting still, that would be equally ineffectual, for if she did not go to Mrs. Swinford, Mrs. Swinford would probably come to her. She considered that but one of two things could be done—either to go away altogether from Watcham while the Swinfords remained there, which was, of course, impossible—or to call with Jane as was proposed to her. She laughed at this softly, with a little secret fright, yet sense of the ludicrous—to call with Jane! Walking in over the ashes of volcanoes (so to speak), over the dragons’ teeth that had been sown in their time and produced such harvests, with that incarnation of the commonplace by her side. No doubt the ashes would be covered with Persian carpets, and Jane would think of nothing but the future parties to be given there, and whether perhaps young Mr. Swinford—— Lady William could not be supposed to be particularly happy during this review of the things that had been and the things that would have to be, but she laughed to herself again. That eternal question could never be left out, she said to herself.
‘What are you laughing at, mother?’ said Mab, as she came in, bringing with her a rush of cold, and that smell of the fresh air which changes the whole atmosphere of a little room in a moment. Her whole person was breathing it out. Her hat, which she took off when she came in, was full of it, sending the mingled fragrance and chill into every corner of the tiny little fire-lit room. Lady William shivered a little.
‘You have brought in the draught with you, Mab, like a gale at sea.’
‘I am sorry,’ said the girl, turning back to shut the door. And she came to the fire and knelt down before it, and repeated, with the pertinacity of youth, ‘What were you laughing at, mother?’
‘Nothing very much—chiefly at Aunt Jane and this new thing she has got in her head!’
‘Oh, Aunt Jane,’ said Mab carelessly, as if that was a subject already exhausted. Then, however, she added, still pertinacious, ‘but what is the new thing she has got into her head?’
Lady William thought of a certain baby in a book who wanted to see ‘the wheels go wound,’ and laughed a little once more.
‘How do you know that I can tell you?’ she said.
‘Don’t you tell me everything, mammy?’ said Mab, rubbing her head against her mother’s arm like an affectionate puppy: and Lady William stroked her child’s hair, which glistened with a drop or two of cold dew upon it from the dripping branches outside.
‘You have pretty hair, Mab,’ she said softly, with praise, which was a caress.
‘Have I? Oh, I don’t think there’s anything pretty about me,’ said the girl. ‘What a little fool I was not to take after you, mother! It is you who are the pretty one: and Emmy has the impudence to be a little like you—Emmy, and not me! But never mind. What has Aunt Jane got in her head?’
‘The pertinacious child! She has this in her head, that she wants to drag me to-morrow to go with her and call at the Hall.’
‘Oh, is that all?’ said Mab. She felt that her lively curiosity, which was a pleasant sensation, had been wasted. But then she added, ‘Is there anything that makes it of importance that she should call at the Hall?’
How the child swept over the ashes of the volcanoes, raising a little pungent dust, which got into her mother’s throat: but she laughed a little, for Aunt Jane was always fair game.
‘Do you remember the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice,’ she said, ‘and the commotion there was when Mr. Bingley first came?’
These ladies were great readers of novels, which held perhaps the first place among the amusements of their lives: and they were happy enough to possess an old edition of Miss Austen, which kept them, as much perhaps from their good luck as from good taste, familiar with all she has added to our knowledge of life, and fully prepared with an example for most emergencies that could occur in their little world.
‘Yes,’ said Mab, a little wondering. And then she said, ‘Oh, I see. Aunt Jane is like Mrs. Bennet, and Emmy—But Emmy is not half so nice as Jane. And Mr. Bingley is—Oh, I see, I see——’
‘Don’t see too much,’ said Lady William, ‘for it is all in embryo; but I should not wonder if your aunt were at present in her imagination arranging Emmy’s trousseau, and thinking over what hymns should be sung at the wedding. “The voice that breathed o’er Eden” is a little common. It was sung for Susan Green only last week, who said, “No, my lady; we ain’t got nothing to do with gardens nor apples, nor folks going about without no clo’es.”’
It is very probable that this story was told by the artful mother with the intention of throwing dust in the child’s eyes and leading her away from a subject on which explanations were difficult; but, if so, she reckoned without her Mab. The girl owned the fact of the anecdote with a little laugh just proportioned to the occasion.
‘Is Mr. Swinford quite—young?’ said Mab doubtfully. ‘And then there is his mother, who lives with him——’
‘Well, yes, I suppose that is the right way of putting the case,’ said Lady William. ‘He lived with his mother when I knew them—and as for his age, I remember him a little boy.’
‘Oh,’ said Mab, with partial satisfaction, ‘but you were young yourself then. I think I saw somebody in the village just now who may have been—this gentleman. He was in a big coat, all fur, and shiny shoes—fancy shiny shoes for going through the mud at Watcham! And he was as old, I should think, as—as old as—Uncle James’s last curate, the one who was locum tenens, and who did not stay—Oh, over thirty at the least. Now Mr. Bingley cannot have been more than twenty-five. I am sure he was not more than twenty-five—and I don’t call that very young.’
‘Leo Swinford must be over thirty, as you say. He was about nine or ten when I was eighteen—a great difference then, but perhaps, as you say, not so great a difference now. Who is that, Mab, at the gate?’ It showed how Lady William had been roused and disturbed by this afternoon’s intelligence that she should be thus moved by the idea of any one at the gate.
‘If you please, my lady,’ said Patty, the little maid, putting in her curly head once more; ‘it’s a gentleman as I never see before. Nayther the Rector, nor the Curate, nor the General, nor nobody as I know; and he has got fur round his neck like a female,’ said Patty, with a cough which covered a laugh. ‘It’s just like the thing as they call a victorine. I never see it on nobody but a female before.’
‘Let him come in, Patty,’ said Lady William. She gave a swift glance at the candles on the mantelpiece, and then she decided not to light them. ‘Mab, get up and take a seat like a rational creature. You will soon have your curiosity satisfied, it appears.’
She said to herself that she did not care for Leo Swinford, not a bit! It was his mother, not he, who had affected her former life. He had been a boy, and now he would be a man, just like the others. It showed that they meant to be civil that she should send him so soon. This was the only point of view in which Lady William regarded the visit; but that was the point of view which affected her mind most. She cared no more for Leo Swinford in himself than for any curate in the diocese—which was almost the only other specimen of young man which she was likely to see. She drew back into her corner, which was so near the fire that it was deep in shade, the reflection going quickly through her mind that her first question would be, How does she look? Is she much altered? Does she look old? That was what his mother would want to know. But she should be baulked in that desire at least. The firelight flickered about, making a pleasant ruddy half-light in the little room. It danced about Mab, coming and going, giving a note of colour to her light hair, and showing the round youthful curve of her cheeks without any insistence upon the overfulness of her chubby, childish figure. It was very favourable to the child, this ruddy, picturesque, uncertain light. These thoughts flashed through Lady William’s mind in the moment that elapsed before Patty threw open the door again, and with a loud voice announcing, ‘The gentleman, my lydy,’ shut it again smartly upon herself and the sudden chilly draught from outside. And then the scene changed, and the principal figure became, not Lady William and her thoughts any longer, but a solid shadow in the midst of the firelight, a man, unaccustomed intruder here, bringing with him a faint odour of cigars, and that sort of contradictory atmosphere which comes into a feminine household with the very breath of an unknown being of this unhabitual kind. It was an embarrassing position for a stranger; at least, it would have been an embarrassing position for most men. But Leo Swinford was not one of those who allow themselves to be affected by circumstances. He made a bow vaguely directed towards the corner, drawing his heels together after the manner of France, and then spoke in the easiest tone, though his words expressed the embarrassment which he did not at all feel.
‘I am under a double disadvantage,’ he said, ‘and how am I to come out of it? I came prepared to say that I feared you would not remember me, and now you cannot even see me. Never mind. I am Leo Swinford, and you cannot have forgotten altogether that name.’
‘No,’ said Lady William. She held out to him from the shade a hand which looked very white in the ruddy light. ‘I heard this afternoon that you had come home,’ she said, ‘and your name was on our lips.’
‘What a good thing for me,’ he said, ‘save that it does not at all test your recollection, which I had pleased myself with thoughts of trying. But it is all the same. Do not send for lights, and as you cannot see me, next time we meet I can put my question with equal force.’
‘I see you very well,’ said Lady William, ‘and I should not have known you. How could I? You were a child, and now you are a man. And I was a girl, and now I am an old woman. Your mother will see innumerable changes. How is she? It was kind of her to send you to see me so soon.’
‘Ah!’ said the visitor, ‘I said I was at a double disadvantage, but it seems there are more. She did not send me to see you, dear lady. I came on my proper feet, and by my proper will.Mamma is not changed, but she no longer sends little Leo on her errands. He has certain instincts of his own.’
‘Well, then, it was a kind instinct that brought you here,’ said Lady William.
‘I am not so sure of that—an instinct very kind to myself: I foresee little pleasure in the society of home, you will not be offended if I say so. But there was one quarter in which I knew I could indemnify myself, so long as you permit it, madame.’
He spoke very much like a Frenchman throughout, Mab thought, who sat breathlessly looking on, rather hostile but exceedingly curious, thinking it was as good as a play; but the ‘madame’ was altogether French, not that harsh ‘madam’ of the English, which comes at you like a stone, and which may mean more animosity than respect.
‘We have not, indeed, much variety here,’ said Lady William; ‘you will soon exhaust our little resources. But then we are not very far from town, and I advise you to keep the house full. After Paris, Watcham! It is perhaps rather too much of a difference, unless you have a very strong head.’
‘My head is indifferent strong. I can stand a good deal in the way of change, from ten degrees below zero to twenty over it. Ah! I forgot you go by that other impossible standard of Fahrenheit here. You have not presented me to the young lady whom I see by glimpses, as if we were all in a fairy tale.’
‘My daughter, Mab; and, as you have already divined Mab, the gentleman whom we were talking of, and who remains in my mind ten years old, in a velvet suit, with lace, and, I believe, curls——’
He waved his hand. ‘Spare me the curls, they were the supplice of my early days. Picture to yourself, Miss Mab—Mab! How curious to put Miss before that name! One might as well say Miss Titania.’
‘One does sometimes in this day of fantastic names. There are Miss Enids and Miss Imogenes.’
‘I was saying, picture to yourself a very plain little boy, with very common hair, exactly like every other little boy’s, only worse—in long curls upon his wretched shoulders! They made my life a burden to me. Mamma is a most interesting woman—not at all like other people—I am exceptionally happy in having had such a companion for my life—but so long as I was a child there were drawbacks. By degrees things right themselves,’ he added after a brief dramatic pause. ‘I have no longer curls, nor am I sent to call, and we have solved the problem of having two independent rulers in one house.’
There was another pause, which Lady William did not herself wish to break. Perhaps his voice, the atmosphere about him, produced recollections that were too strong for her: or perhaps Leo Swinford by himself did not interest Lady William. It was Mab who blurted forth suddenly, with a juvenile instinct of relieving the tension of the silence, a piece of information.
‘I saw you just now in the village, Mr. Swinford. I wondered if it was you. We don’t see many strangers in the village—at least at this time of the year. I said to myself: unless it is some one from the Hall, I don’t know who it can be.’
‘Some one from the Hall is very vague, Miss Mab—Queen Mab, if I may say so. I hope you had heard of me, myself, an individual, before that vague conjecture arose.’
‘No, I can’t say I had,’ said Mab bluntly. ‘Mother said something to-day to Aunt Jane about Leo wanting a wife; but then, you see, I didn’t know who Leo was.’
‘If that is the only attitude in which I am to be presented to my new world! But I don’t want a wife,’ he added plaintively, addressing himself to the dark corner in which Lady William was seated. ‘However, I am Leo,’ he added, turning to the girl again with such a bow as Mab had never seen before.
Many messages passed between the Rectory and the Cottage the next morning on the subject of the visit to the Hall. How shall we go? Would it be best to get the fly, as there is a prospect of rain? Would it do to go in the pony-carriage, as the clouds were making a lift? Finally, when the sun came out, would it be best to walk? Emmy and Florry Plowden were running to and fro all the morning with notes and messages. Emmy (who was going) was anxious and serious on this great subject. It would be such a pity to get wet. ‘It is true it is nearly the end of the winter, and our dresses are not in their first freshness; but it is so disagreeable to go into a new house feeling mouldy and damp. First impressions are of so much consequence. Don’t you think so, aunt? and Mrs. Swinford is Parisian, and accustomed to everything in the last fashion.’
‘You might as well go draggled as not,’ said Florence, ‘if that is what you are thinking of: for she will see there is not much of the last fashion about you.’
‘Aunt always looks as if she were the leader of the fashion wherever she goes,’ said Emily proudly. She it was who was conscious of being the only one who was like her aunt.
‘Thank you for such a pretty compliment,’ said Lady William; ‘but Florry is right, I am sorry to say. We shall all be so much below her standard at our best, that a little more or less doesn’t matter. Still, without reference to Mrs. Swinford or her impressions, it is unpleasant to get wet.’
‘Then you vote for the fly,’ said Emmy with satisfaction, ‘that is what I always thought you would do. One does not get blown about, one comes out fresh, without having one’s hair all wild and marks of mud upon one’s shoes. Thanks, Aunt Emily, you always decide for what is best.’
In an hour, however, they returned, Florry, who was not going, leading the way. ‘Mamma thinks as it’s so much brighter our own pony-chaise will do. It’s much nicer being in the air than boxed up in a fly. And she thinks it would make so much fuss, setting all the village talking, if the fly was ordered, and it was known everywhere that she was going to the Hall.’
‘I thought she wished it to be known.’
‘Oh, of course,’ said Emmy, who was the aggrieved party, ‘mamma wishes everything to be known. She says a clergyman’s family should always live in a glass house and all that sort of thing. And to have the pony-chaise out, and everybody seeing where we are going, will be just the same thing.’
‘At all events it’s your own private carriage, and not a nasty hired fly,’ said Florence. ‘“Mrs. Plowden’s carriage at the door,” and you needn’t explain it’s a shandrydan.’
And the unfeeling girl laughed, as was her way: for it was not she who was going to have her fringe disarranged, and the locks at the back blown about by driving in the pony-carriage in the whistling March breeze.
‘Tell your mother I think the pony-chaise will do quite well if she likes it; everybody knows what sort of a carriage a country clergyman can afford to keep.’
‘But you are not a country clergyman, Aunt Emily.’
‘Heaven forbid!’ that lady said.
Next time it was Emily alone who ran ‘across,’ as they called it. ‘Mamma thinks on the whole we might walk. The roads have dried up beautifully, and it’s not far. And walking is always correct in the country, isn’t it, aunt?’
‘It is always correct anywhere, Emmy, when you have no other way to go.’
‘Ah, but we have two other ways to go! There is the fly, which I should prefer, as it protects one most, and there’s our own pony-chaise. It cannot be supposed to be for the want of means of driving, Aunt Emily, if we pleased.’
‘Of course not,’ said Lady William with great gravity. ‘And there is a gipsy van somewhere about. I have always thought I should like to drive about the country in a gipsy van.’
Emmy gave her aunt a look of reproach: but by this time her sister had arrived with Mrs. Plowden’s ultimatum. ‘If the sun comes out mamma will call for you at the door, if you will please to be ready by three; but if it is overcast she will come in the fly. So that is all settled, I hope.’
Mab had maintained a great calm during all these searchings of heart. She was not going, and had she been going it would have been a matter of the greatest indifference to her, consciously a plain, and what is still more dreadful to the imagination, a fat girl, whether her hair was blown about or not, and what first impression Mrs. Swinford or even Leo Swinford might form of her. As for Leo Swinford, indeed, in face of the fact that he had called at the Cottage the night before, she felt for him something of that familiarity which breeds contempt: and how it could matter to anybody what he thought was to Mab’s youthful soul a wonder not to be expressed.
‘What are you so anxious about, after all?’ she said. ‘If your hair is untidy, what of that? Everybody in Watcham knows exactly how your hair looks, Emmy, whether it is just newly done and tidy, or whether it is hanging about your ears.’
‘I hope it never hangs about my ears,’ said Emmy primly, yet with indignation. If there was one thing upon which she prided herself, it was the tidiness in which she stood superior over all her peers.
‘Oh, I’ve seen it, after an afternoon at tennis, just as wild as other people’s,’ said Mab, ‘and everybody in the village has seen it too.’
‘But then,’ said the other sister, ‘these are not people in the village; they’re new people, and there’s a great deal in a first impression—at least, so Emmy thinks.’
‘A first impression—upon whom?’ said Mab, with all the severity of her age. Seventeen, being as yet scarcely in it, is a severe critic of the ages over twenty which are in possession of the field.
There was a pause, which Florence broke by one of her disconcerting laughs.
‘Mab, you are too much of a baby. Don’t you know the Swinfords are going to entertain? Perhaps you don’t know what that means. They are going to give all sorts of parties, and we’ll not be asked if—we don’t please.’
‘Whom?’ said Mab again.
And then there came another laugh from Florence, and an offended ‘What can you mean, Mab? Mrs. Swinford, to be sure. It is only she who could invite girls to make the house pleasant, and,’ said Emily, with a little dignity, ‘it is as much for you as for me.’
‘Oh! I thought it might be Leo Swinford,’ said the audacious Mab, ‘who wants a wife, mother says. But he says himself no, he doesn’t want anything of the kind.’
‘Mab!’ said Lady William, in a warning tone from behind.
‘He didn’t say it in any secret,’ said Mab, ‘not the least. He didn’t tell you “But this is between ourselves,” or “You won’t mention it,” or anything of the kind, as people say when they confide in you. He said it right out.’
‘Who said it right out?’ cried Emily. It was their turn to question now, and they looked at each other after they had looked, in consternation, at Mab—asking each other, with their eyes, awe-stricken, what could this little minx mean, and how did she know?
‘As for Leo Swinford, I don’t think anything at all of him,’ said Mab. ‘He was got up in a fur coat yesterday, when it was not cold at all, only blustering; and he had shiny shoes on and red socks showing, as if he were got up for the evening—to walk about the Watcham roads.’
‘Do you mean to say,’ said Emily severely, crushing these pretensions in the bud, ‘that you have seen Mr. Swinford, Mab? And how did you know it was Mr. Swinford—it might have been some excursionist or other down here by a cheap train.’
‘A Marshall and Snelgrove young man,’ said Florence. ‘Absurd! red socks and evening shoes and a fur coat.’
‘And we have always understood Mr. Swinford was a gentleman,’ Emily said. ‘But it is not at all wonderful at Mab’s age to take up such a foolish idea. For a new person in the village always looks as if there was an adventure behind him, doesn’t he, aunt?—and Mab is such a child still.’
‘However,’ said Lady William, ‘I don’t know how it came about, but it was Leo Swinford, my dear. I knew him very well when he was a child, and he sought me out because, I suppose, he didn’t know any one else here.’
There was another pause of consternation and disappointment: for to think that Mab had seen this new personage before any of them, and that he had seen Mab, was very disconcerting and disagreeable to these young ladies. But then they reflected that Mab did not count—a little fat, roundabout thing, looking even younger than her age, and that if it was ordained that they should be forestalled by any one, better Mab than another. The horrid little thing! But then it was a good sign for future intimacy that he knew Aunt Emily, and had come in this way at once to her house.
‘I am sure,’ said Emmy, ‘he might have come to the Rectory. Papa would have been very glad to see him, and the clergyman is generally the first person—unless when there is a squire. And of course he is the squire himself. But then Aunt Emily is the highest in rank, everybody knows.’
‘My rank had not much to do with it. All that Leo knows of me was as Emily Plowden, the Rector’s daughter, just as you are now, Emmy,’ said Lady William, with a little laugh. She was going out of the room as she spoke, and turned her head to give them one glance from the door. If it occurred to Lady William that the second Emily Plowden was not precisely like the first, she did not give vent to that opinion. But it was a little ludicrous from her point of view to be told, as she was told so often, that Emily was ‘her very image’—‘just what I remember you at her age.’ It was with, perhaps, a little glance of satire in her eyes that she flung this parting word at her niece. But the Emily Plowden of the present generation understood no jest. She blushed a little with conscious pleasure and pride, and threw up her head. Now, Lady William had a throat like a swan, but Emily’s could be described no otherwise than as a long neck, at the top of which her head jerked forward with a motion not unlike the darting movement of a hen.
‘So you have really seen him, Mab? Think of having a man, a real man, a young man in Watcham! Were you much excited? Had you presence of mind enough to note any particulars as to eyes and hair and height, and so forth—as well as the red socks and the shiny shoes?’
‘Oh, he’s fair, I think,’ said Mab indifferently, ‘a sort of no-coloured hair like mine, and the rest to correspond. He was very talky and jokey with mother, just as if she had been a young lady. But he said little to me.’
‘It was not to be expected,’ said Emily, ‘that a gentleman and a man of the world like Mr. Swinford would find much to say to you; and I wonder that he should have remembered Aunt Emily. I have never heard that men like that cared much for old ladies: but no doubt it was because he knew nobody else, and just to pass the time.’
‘Mother is not an old lady,’ said Mab; ‘if I were a man I should like her better than all of you girls put together. You are, on the whole, rather silly things. You don’t talk out of your own heads, but watch other people’s eyes to see what will please them. I don’t call that talking! You never would have found out what would please that man if you had looked into his eyes for a year. Now mother never minds—she says what comes into her head: and if any one contradicts her she just goes on saying the other thing.’
This somewhat vague description seemed to make a certain impression upon the young ladies, who probably were able to fill up the outlines for themselves. Emily gave a little sigh.
‘Conversation’s quite a gift,’ she said, ‘and it’s always difficult with a new person till you know their tastes. I suppose Mr. Swinford knows about pictures and that sort of thing, and unless you’ve somebody to tell you when you go to the exhibitions it’s so hard to know which are really the good ones. Then books—Mudie never sends us any of the best. He puts all the common novels into the country parcels. At the Hall they will get everything that comes out.’
‘He said nothing about books or pictures either,’ said Mab—‘Yes, by the bye, he’s going to lend mother some—but they’re French ones——’
‘French ones!’ said the cousins; and then there was a pause of consternation. ‘Papa once said if he had his will no French novel should ever come into the parish.’
‘Ah!’ said Mab, ‘but then I suppose Mr. Swinford didn’t write and ask uncle what he should bring.’
Emily remained gazing out of the window with a troubled air.
‘We shall never know what to say if that is the sort of thing; and as for going to their parties, if they are all made up of—— Mamma, too, who never read a French book in her life. We had a little practice in the schoolroom, when we had Fräulein, don’t you remember, Flo—— Who was it we read? It was all long speeches, and one could never make out what they were about.’
‘And they sounded exactly like German when Fräulein read them. I never could tell which was which. But I know where the books are, and perhaps if you learned one of the speeches and said it to Mr. Swinford, he might like it, don’t you know.’
‘I was not, of course, thinking of Mr. Swinford, but of Mrs. Swinford,’ said Emily, frowning.
‘And you think you will get a chance of talking to her with mamma and Aunt Emily there?’
‘Well,’ said Emily, ‘at least I can show her that I know my place, and how an English girl behaves.’
‘I wish you would not wrangle,’ said Mab; ‘it was rather fun listening to mother and him: they said no speeches out of books—I believe after all what they said was chiefly chaff. Mother is a wonderful hand at chaff. She looks so quiet all the time, and goes on till you are nearly jumping. But he liked it, and laughed, and gave her as good. There was one thing he said,’ added Mab demurely, ‘which wasn’t chaff, and which you might like to hear. He said at once he didn’t want——’
‘What! I’m sure I don’t care what he wants or doesn’t want—a gardener perhaps? and papa has just heard of one he wanted to recommend.’
‘A wife!’ cried Mab, her blue eyes quickening a little with mischief. ‘Mother asked if he did, and he said he didn’t. Perhaps she had some one she wanted to recommend.’
‘Perhaps,’ said Florence, coming to her sister’s aid; ‘that is the way in France, the parents arrange it all. I shouldn’t mind at all—that. I give my consent. It would be nice to be the bride’s relations and always about the house. If you’ll promise to ask nice people and always us to meet them—and be kind about sending the carriage for us, and that sort of thing, for papa hates a bill for flys—I shall give my consent.’
‘Me!’ cried Mab, indignant, ‘I would not marry Leo Swinford, not if—— I’d rather marry the silliest of the curates. I’d rather——’ She stopped short breathless, unable to find a stronger alternative.
‘Then what a good thing for you,’ said Florry, ‘that he doesn’t want a wife!’
‘If you think it is nice,’ said Emily, ‘for young girls to talk about gentlemen, and whether they want wives or not, as if wives were sold at the shop at so much a pound—I am not of that kind of mind: and Aunt Emily would not like it any more than mamma. Good-bye, you two. I have got to go home and get ready, whatever you may have to do.’
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