Addressing her composed face, whose intelligence, however, is too quick and active to be concealed by any studied impassiveness, however habitual, to the strong Saxon face of the visitor, a picture of resolution and perseverance, my Lady listens with attention, occasionally slightly bending her head.
"I am the son of your housekeeper, Lady Dedlock, and passed my childhood about this house. My mother has lived here half a century and will die here I have no doubt. She is one of those examples — perhaps as good a one as there is — of love, and attachment, and fidelity in such a nation, which England may well be proud of, but of which no order can appropriate the whole pride or the whole merit, because such an instance bespeaks high worth on two sides — on the great side assuredly, on the small one no less assuredly."
Sir Leicester snorts a little to hear the law laid down in this way, but in his honour and his love of truth, he freely, though silently, admits the justice of the ironmaster's proposition.
"Pardon me for saying what is so obvious, but I wouldn't have it hastily supposed," with the least turn of his eyes towards Sir Leicester, "that I am ashamed of my mother's position here, or wanting in all just respect for Chesney Wold and the family. I certainly may have desired — I certainly have desired, Lady Dedlock — that my mother should retire after so many years and end her days with me. But as I have found that to sever this strong bond would be to break her heart, I have long abandoned that idea."
Sir Leicester very magnificent again at the notion of Mrs. Rouncewell being spirited off from her natural home to end her days with an ironmaster.
"I have been," proceeds the visitor in a modest, clear way, "an apprentice and a workman. I have lived on workman's wages, years and years, and beyond a certain point have had to educate myself. My wife was a foreman's daughter, and plainly brought up. We have three daughters besides this son of whom I have spoken, and being fortunately able to give them greater advantages than we have had ourselves, we have educated them well, very well. It has been one of our great cares and pleasures to make them worthy of any station."
A little boastfulness in his fatherly tone here, as if he added in his heart, "even of the Chesney Wold station." Not a little more magnificence, therefore, on the part of Sir Leicester.
"All this is so frequent, Lady Dedlock, where I live, and among the class to which I belong, that what would be generally called unequal marriages are not of such rare occurrence with us as elsewhere. A son will sometimes make it known to his father that he has fallen in love, say, with a young woman in the factory. The father, who once worked in a factory himself, will be a little disappointed at first very possibly. It may be that he had other views for his son. However, the chances are that having ascertained the young woman to be of unblemished character, he will say to his son, 'I must be quite sure you are in earnest here. This is a serious matter for both of you. Therefore I shall have this girl educated for two years,' or it may be, 'I shall place this girl at the same school with your sisters for such a time, during which you will give me your word and honour to see her only so often. If at the expiration of that time, when she has so far profited by her advantages as that you may be upon a fair equality, you are both in the same mind, I will do my part to make you happy.' I know of several cases such as I describe, my Lady, and I think they indicate to me my own course now."
Sir Leicester's magnificence explodes. Calmly, but terribly.
"Mr. Rouncewell," says Sir Leicester with his right hand in the breast of his blue coat, the attitude of state in which he is painted in the gallery, "do you draw a parallel between Chesney Wold and a — " Here he resists a disposition to choke, "a factory?"
"I need not reply, Sir Leicester, that the two places are very different; but for the purposes of this case, I think a parallel may be justly drawn between them."
Sir Leicester directs his majestic glance down one side of the long drawing-room and up the other before he can believe that he is awake.
"Are you aware, sir, that this young woman whom my Lady — my Lady — has placed near her person was brought up at the village school outside the gates?"
"Sir Leicester, I am quite aware of it. A very good school it is, and handsomely supported by this family."
"Then, Mr. Rouncewell," returns Sir Leicester, "the application of what you have said is, to me, incomprehensible."
"Will it be more comprehensible, Sir Leicester, if I say," the ironmaster is reddening a little, "that I do not regard the village school as teaching everything desirable to be known by my son's wife?"
From the village school of Chesney Wold, intact as it is this minute, to the whole framework of society; from the whole framework of society, to the aforesaid framework receiving tremendous cracks in consequence of people (iron-masters, lead-mistresses, and what not) not minding their catechism, and getting out of the station unto which they are called — necessarily and for ever, according to Sir Leicester's rapid logic, the first station in which they happen to find themselves; and from that, to their educating other people out of THEIR stations, and so obliterating the landmarks, and opening the floodgates, and all the rest of it; this is the swift progress of the Dedlock mind.
"My Lady, I beg your pardon. Permit me, for one moment!" She has given a faint indication of intending to speak. "Mr. Rouncewell, our views of duty, and our views of station, and our views of education, and our views of — in short, ALL our views — are so diametrically opposed, that to prolong this discussion must be repellent to your feelings and repellent to my own. This young woman is honoured with my Lady's notice and favour. If she wishes to withdraw herself from that notice and favour or if she chooses to place herself under the influence of any one who may in his peculiar opinions — you will allow me to say, in his peculiar opinions, though I readily admit that he is not accountable for them to me — who may, in his peculiar opinions, withdraw her from that notice and favour, she is at any time at liberty to do so. We are obliged to you for the plainness with which you have spoken. It will have no effect of itself, one way or other, on the young woman's position here. Beyond this, we can make no terms; and here we beg — if you will be so good — to leave the subject."
The visitor pauses a moment to give my Lady an opportunity, but she says nothing. He then rises and replies, "Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock, allow me to thank you for your attention and only to observe that I shall very seriously recommend my son to conquer his present inclinations. Good night!"
"Mr. Rouncewell," says Sir Leicester with all the nature of a gentleman shining in him, "it is late, and the roads are dark. I hope your time is not so precious but that you will allow my Lady and myself to offer you the hospitality of Chesney Wold, for to- night at least."
"I hope so," adds my Lady.
"I am much obliged to you, but I have to travel all night in order to reach a distant part of the country punctually at an appointed time in the morning."