I always wondered on these occasions whether he ever thought of Mrs. Skimpole and the children, and in what point of view they presented themselves to his cosmopolitan mind. So far as I could understand, they rarely presented themselves at all.
The week had gone round to the Saturday following that beating of my heart in the church; and every day had been so bright and blue that to ramble in the woods, and to see the light striking down among the transparent leaves and sparkling in the beautiful interlacings of the shadows of the trees, while the birds poured out their songs and the air was drowsy with the hum of insects, had been most delightful. We had one favourite spot, deep in moss and last year's leaves, where there were some felled trees from which the bark was all stripped off. Seated among these, we looked through a green vista supported by thousands of natural columns, the whitened stems of trees, upon a distant prospect made so radiant by its contrast with the shade in which we sat and made so precious by the arched perspective through which we saw it that it was like a glimpse of the better land. Upon the Saturday we sat here, Mr. Jarndyce, Ada, and I, until we heard thunder muttering in the distance and felt the large raindrops rattle through the leaves.
The weather had been all the week extremely sultry, but the storm broke so suddenly — upon us, at least, in that sheltered spot — that before we reached the outskirts of the wood the thunder and lightning were frequent and the rain came plunging through the leaves as if every drop were a great leaden bead. As it was not a time for standing among trees, we ran out of the wood, and up and down the moss-grown steps which crossed the plantation-fence like two broad-staved ladders placed back to back, and made for a keeper's lodge which was close at hand. We had often noticed the dark beauty of this lodge standing in a deep twilight of trees, and how the ivy clustered over it, and how there was a steep hollow near, where we had once seen the keeper's dog dive down into the fern as if it were water.
The lodge was so dark within, now the sky was overcast, that we only clearly saw the man who came to the door when we took shelter there and put two chairs for Ada and me. The lattice-windows were all thrown open, and we sat just within the doorway watching the storm. It was grand to see how the wind awoke, and bent the trees, and drove the rain before it like a cloud of smoke; and to hear the solemn thunder and to see the lightning; and while thinking with awe of the tremendous powers by which our little lives are encompassed, to consider how beneficent they are and how upon the smallest flower and leaf there was already a freshness poured from all this seeming rage which seemed to make creation new again.
"Is it not dangerous to sit in so exposed a place?"
"Oh, no, Esther dear!" said Ada quietly.
Ada said it to me, but I had not spoken.
The beating of my heart came back again. I had never heard the voice, as I had never seen the face, but it affected me in the same strange way. Again, in a moment, there arose before my mind innumerable pictures of myself.
Lady Dedlock had taken shelter in the lodge before our arrival there and had come out of the gloom within. She stood behind my chair with her hand upon it. I saw her with her hand close to my shoulder when I turned my head.
"I have frightened you?" she said.
No. It was not fright. Why should I be frightened!
"I believe," said Lady Dedlock to my guardian, "I have the pleasure of speaking to Mr. Jarndyce."
"Your remembrance does me more honour than I had supposed it would, Lady Dedlock," he returned.
"I recognized you in church on Sunday. I am sorry that any local disputes of Sir Leicester's — they are not of his seeking, however, I believe — should render it a matter of some absurd difficulty to show you any attention here."
"I am aware of the circumstances," returned my guardian with a smile, "and am sufficiently obliged."
She had given him her hand in an indifferent way that seemed habitual to her and spoke in a correspondingly indifferent manner, though in a very pleasant voice. She was as graceful as she was beautiful, perfectly self-possessed, and had the air, I thought, of being able to attract and interest any one if she had thought it worth her while. The keeper had brought her a chair on which she sat in the middle of the porch between us.
"Is the young gentleman disposed of whom you wrote to Sir Leicester about and whose wishes Sir Leicester was sorry not to have it in his power to advance in any way?" she said over her shoulder to my guardian.
"I hope so," said he.
She seemed to respect him and even to wish to conciliate him. There was something very winning in her haughty manner, and it became more familiar — I was going to say more easy, but that could hardly be — as she spoke to him over her shoulder.
"I presume this is your other ward, Miss Clare?"
He presented Ada, in form.
"You will lose the disinterested part of your Don Quixote character," said Lady Dedlock to Mr. Jarndyce over her shoulder again, "if you only redress the wrongs of beauty like this. But present me," and she turned full upon me, "to this young lady too!"
"Miss Summerson really is my ward," said Mr. Jarndyce. "I am responsible to no Lord Chancellor in her case."
"Has Miss Summerson lost both her parents?" said my Lady.
"She is very fortunate in her guardian."
Lady Dedlock looked at me, and I looked at her and said I was indeed. All at once she turned from me with a hasty air, almost expressive of displeasure or dislike, and spoke to him over her shoulder again.
"Ages have passed since we were in the habit of meeting, Mr. Jarndyce."
"A long time. At least I thought it was a long time, until I saw you last Sunday," he returned.
"What! Even you are a courtier, or think it necessary to become one to me!" she said with some disdain. "I have achieved that reputation, I suppose."
"You have achieved so much, Lady Dedlock," said my guardian, "that you pay some little penalty, I dare say. But none to me."
"So much!" she repeated, slightly laughing. "Yes!"
With her air of superiority, and power, and fascination, and I know not what, she seemed to regard Ada and me as little more than children. So, as she slightly laughed and afterwards sat looking at the rain, she was as self-possessed and as free to occupy herself with her own thoughts as if she had been alone.
"I think you knew my sister when we were abroad together better than you know me?" she said, looking at him again.
"Yes, we happened to meet oftener," he returned.
"We went our several ways," said Lady Dedlock, "and had little in common even before we agreed to differ. It is to be regretted, I suppose, but it could not be helped."