She was so singularly earnest that I drew back, almost afraid of her. Without appearing to notice it, in her ardour she still pressed herself upon me, speaking in a rapid subdued voice, though always with a certain grace and propriety.
"Mademoiselle, I come from the South country where we are quick and where we like and dislike very strong. My Lady was too high for me; I was too high for her. It is done — past — finished! Receive me as your domestic, and I will serve you well. I will do more for you than you figure to yourself now. Chut! Mademoiselle, I will — no matter, I will do my utmost possible in all things. If you accept my service, you will not repent it. Mademoiselle, you will not repent it, and I will serve you well. You don't know how well!"
There was a lowering energy in her face as she stood looking at me while I explained the impossibility of my engaging her (without thinking it necessary to say how very little I desired to do so), which seemed to bring visibly before me some woman from the streets of Paris in the reign of terror.
She heard me out without interruption and then said with her pretty accent and in her mildest voice, "Hey, mademoiselle, I have received my answer! I am sorry of it. But I must go elsewhere and seek what I have not found here. Will you graciously let me kiss your hand?"
She looked at me more intently as she took it, and seemed to take note, with her momentary touch, of every vein in it. "I fear I surprised you, mademoiselle, on the day of the storm?" she said with a parting curtsy.
I confessed that she had surprised us all.
"I took an oath, mademoiselle," she said, smiling, "and I wanted to stamp it on my mind so that I might keep it faithfully. And I will! Adieu, mademoiselle!"
So ended our conference, which I was very glad to bring to a close. I supposed she went away from the village, for I saw her no more; and nothing else occurred to disturb our tranquil summer pleasures until six weeks were out and we returned home as I began just now by saying.
At that time, and for a good many weeks after that time, Richard was constant in his visits. Besides coming every Saturday or Sunday and remaining with us until Monday morning, he sometimes rode out on horseback unexpectedly and passed the evening with us and rode back again early next day. He was as vivacious as ever and told us he was very industrious, but I was not easy in my mind about him. It appeared to me that his industry was all misdirected. I could not find that it led to anything but the formation of delusive hopes in connexion with the suit already the pernicious cause of so much sorrow and ruin. He had got at the core of that mystery now, he told us, and nothing could be plainer than that the will under which he and Ada were to take I don't know how many thousands of pounds must be finally established if there were any sense or justice in the Court of Chancery — but oh, what a great IF that sounded in my ears — and that this happy conclusion could not be much longer delayed. He proved this to himself by all the weary arguments on that side he had read, and every one of them sunk him deeper in the infatuation. He had even begun to haunt the court. He told us how he saw Miss Flite there daily, how they talked together, and how he did her little kindnesses, and how, while he laughed at her, he pitied her from his heart. But he never thought — never, my poor, dear, sanguine Richard, capable of so much happiness then, and with such better things before him — what a fatal link was riveting between his fresh youth and her faded age, between his free hopes and her caged birds, and her hungry garret, and her wandering mind.
Ada loved him too well to mistrust him much in anything he said or did, and my guardian, though he frequently complained of the east wind and read more than usual in the growlery, preserved a strict silence on the subject. So I thought one day when I went to London to meet Caddy Jellyby, at her solicitation, I would ask Richard to be in waiting for me at the coach-office, that we might have a little talk together. I found him there when I arrived, and we walked away arm in arm.
"Well, Richard," said I as soon as I could begin to be grave with him, "are you beginning to feel more settled now?"
"Oh, yes, my dear!" returned Richard. "I'm all right enough."
"But settled?" said I.
"How do you mean, settled?" returned Richard with his gay laugh.
"Settled in the law," said I.
"Oh, aye," replied Richard, "I'm all right enough."
"You said that before, my dear Richard."
"And you don't think it's an answer, eh? Well! Perhaps it's not. Settled? You mean, do I feel as if I were settling down?"
"Why, no, I can't say I am settling down," said Richard, strongly emphasizing "down," as if that expressed the difficulty, "because one can't settle down while this business remains in such an unsettled state. When I say this business, of course I mean the — forbidden subject."
"Do you think it will ever be in a settled state?" said I.
"Not the least doubt of it," answered Richard.
We walked a little way without speaking, and presently Richard addressed me in his frankest and most feeling manner, thus: "My dear Esther, I understand you, and I wish to heaven I were a more constant sort of fellow. I don't mean constant to Ada, for I love her dearly — better and better every day — but constant to myself. (Somehow, I mean something that I can't very well express, but you'll make it out.) If I were a more constant sort of fellow, I should have held on either to Badger or to Kenge and Carboy like grim death, and should have begun to be steady and systematic by this time, and shouldn't be in debt, and — "
"ARE you in debt, Richard?"
"Yes," said Richard, "I am a little so, my dear. Also, I have taken rather too much to billiards and that sort of thing. Now the murder's out; you despise me, Esther, don't you?"
"You know I don't," said I.
"You are kinder to me than I often am to myself," he returned. "My dear Esther, I am a very unfortunate dog not to be more settled, but how CAN I be more settled? If you lived in an unfinished house, you couldn't settle down in it; if you were condemned to leave everything you undertook unfinished, you would find it hard to apply yourself to anything; and yet that's my unhappy case. I was born into this unfinished contention with all its chances and changes, and it began to unsettle me before I quite knew the difference between a suit at law and a suit of clothes; and it has gone on unsettling me ever since; and here I am now, conscious sometimes that I am but a worthless fellow to love my confiding cousin Ada."
We were in a solitary place, and he put his hands before his eyes and sobbed as he said the words.
"Oh, Richard!" said I. "Do not be so moved. You have a noble nature, and Ada's love may make you worthier every day."
"I know, my dear," he replied, pressing my arm, "I know all that. You mustn't mind my being a little soft now, for I have had all this upon my mind for a long time, and have often meant to speak to you, and have sometimes wanted opportunity and sometimes courage. I know what the thought of Ada ought to do for me, but it doesn't do it. I am too unsettled even for that. I love her most devotedly, and yet I do her wrong, in doing myself wrong, every day and hour. But it can't last for ever. We shall come on for a final hearing and get judgment in our favour, and then you and Ada shall see what I can really be!"
It had given me a pang to hear him sob and see the tears start out between his fingers, but that was infinitely less affecting to me than the hopeful animation with which he said these words.