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The Easter holidays were drawing near an end, and the family at Markham Chase had fallen into a state of existence somewhat different from its usual dignified completeness of life. When I say that the head of the house was Sir William Markham, once Under-Secretary for the Colonies, once President of the Board of Trade, and still, though in opposition, a distinguished member of his party and an important public personage, it is scarcely necessary to add that his house was one of the chief houses in the county, and that “the best people” were to be found there, especially at those times when fashionable gatherings take place in the country. At Easter the party was of the best kind, sprinkled with great personages, a party such as we should all have liked to be asked to meet. But these fine people had melted away; they had gone on to other great houses, they had got on the wing for town, where, indeed, the Markhams themselves were going early, like most Parliamentary people. Sir William too was away. He was visiting the head of his party in one of the midland counties, helping to settle the programme of enlightened and patriotic opposition for the rest of the session, some untoward events having deranged the system previously decided upon. To say that Sir William’s absence was a relief would be untrue; for though he was somewhat punctilious and overwhelming in his orderliness he was greatly admired by his family, and loved—as much as was respectful and proper. But when he went away, and when all the fine people went away, the house without any demonstration slid smoothly, as it were down an easy slope of transition, into a kind of nursery life, delightful to those who were left behind. The family consisted, to begin at the wrong end, of two schoolboys, and two little girls who were in the hands of a governess. But mademoiselle was away too. There was nobody left at home but mamma and Alice—imagine the rapture of the children thus permitted to be paramount! There was a general dinner for everybody at two o’clock; and in the afternoon, as often as not, Lady Markham herself would be persuaded to go out to their picnic teas in the woods, and all kinds of juvenile dissipations. The nursery meals were superseded altogether. Old Nurse might groan, but she dared not say a word, for was not mamma the ringleader in everything? There was no authority but hers in the house, and all the servants looked on benignant. In the evening when it was impossible to stay out any longer, they would dance, Alice “pretending” to be the dancing mistress, which was far better fun than real dancing. There was no need to run away, or to keep quiet for fear of disturbing papa. In short, a mild Carnival was going on in the house, only dashed by the terrible thought that in a week the holidays would be over. In a week the boys would go back to school, the girls to their governess. The budding woods would become to the one and the other only a recollection, or a sight coldly seen during the course of an orderly walk. Then the boys would have the best of it. They would go away among all their friends, with the delights of boating and cricket, whereas the little girls would relapse into blue sashes and a correct appearance at dessert, followed, alas, in no small time, by complete loneliness when mamma went to London, and everybody was away.