It was difficult, after this, to explain what I meant; but I persisted so far as to say that we all hoped he would check and not confirm Richard in the sanguine views he entertained just then.
"Most willingly," he retorted, "if I could. But, my dear Miss Summerson, I have no art, no disguise. If he takes me by the hand and leads me through Westminster Hall in an airy procession after fortune, I must go. If he says, 'Skimpole, join the dance!' I must join it. Common sense wouldn't, I know, but I have NO common sense."
It was very unfortunate for Richard, I said.
"Do you think so!" returned Mr. Skimpole. "Don't say that, don't say that. Let us suppose him keeping company with Common Sense — an excellent man — a good deal wrinkled — dreadfully practical — change for a ten-pound note in every pocket — ruled account-book in his hand — say, upon the whole, resembling a tax-gatherer. Our dear Richard, sanguine, ardent, overleaping obstacles, bursting with poetry like a young bud, says to this highly respectable companion, 'I see a golden prospect before me; it's very bright, it's very beautiful, it's very joyous; here I go, bounding over the landscape to come at it!' The respectable companion instantly knocks him down with the ruled account-book; tells him in a literal, prosaic way that he sees no such thing; shows him it's nothing but fees, fraud, horsehair wigs, and black gowns. Now you know that's a painful change — sensible in the last degree, I have no doubt, but disagreeable. I can't do it. I haven't got the ruled account- book, I have none of the tax-gathering elements in my composition, I am not at all respectable, and I don't want to be. Odd perhaps, but so it is!"
It was idle to say more, so I proposed that we should join Ada and Richard, who were a little in advance, and I gave up Mr. Skimpole in despair. He had been over the Hall in the course of the morning and whimsically described the family pictures as we walked. There were such portentous shepherdesses among the Ladies Dedlock dead and gone, he told us, that peaceful crooks became weapons of assault in their hands. They tended their flocks severely in buckram and powder and put their sticking-plaster patches on to terrify commoners as the chiefs of some other tribes put on their war-paint. There was a Sir Somebody Dedlock, with a battle, a sprung-mine, volumes of smoke, flashes of lightning, a town on fire, and a stormed fort, all in full action between his horse's two hind legs, showing, he supposed, how little a Dedlock made of such trifles. The whole race he represented as having evidently been, in life, what he called "stuffed people" — a large collection, glassy eyed, set up in the most approved manner on their various twigs and perches, very correct, perfectly free from animation, and always in glass cases.
I was not so easy now during any reference to the name but that I felt it a relief when Richard, with an exclamation of surprise, hurried away to meet a stranger whom he first descried coming slowly towards us.
"Dear me!" said Mr. Skimpole. "Vholes!"
We asked if that were a friend of Richard's.
"Friend and legal adviser," said Mr. Skimpole. "Now, my dear Miss Summerson, if you want common sense, responsibility, and respectability, all united — if you want an exemplary man — Vholes is THE man."
We had not known, we said, that Richard was assisted by any gentleman of that name.
"When he emerged from legal infancy," returned Mr. Skimpole, "he parted from our conversational friend Kenge and took up, I believe, with Vholes. Indeed, I know he did, because I introduced him to Vholes."
"Had you known him long?" asked Ada.
"Vholes? My dear Miss Clare, I had had that kind of acquaintance with him which I have had with several gentlemen of his profession. He had done something or other in a very agreeable, civil manner — taken proceedings, I think, is the expression — which ended in the proceeding of his taking ME. Somebody was so good as to step in and pay the money — something and fourpence was the amount; I forget the pounds and shillings, but I know it ended with fourpence, because it struck me at the time as being so odd that I could owe anybody fourpence — and after that I brought them together. Vholes asked me for the introduction, and I gave it. Now I come to think of it," he looked inquiringly at us with his frankest smile as he made the discovery, "Vholes bribed me, perhaps? He gave me something and called it commission. Was it a five-pound note? Do you know, I think it MUST have been a five-pound note!"
His further consideration of the point was prevented by Richard's coming back to us in an excited state and hastily representing Mr. Vholes — a sallow man with pinched lips that looked as if they were cold, a red eruption here and there upon his face, tall and thin, about fifty years of age, high-shouldered, and stooping. Dressed in black, black-gloved, and buttoned to the chin, there was nothing so remarkable in him as a lifeless manner and a slow, fixed way he had of looking at Richard.
"I hope I don't disturb you, ladies," said Mr. Vholes, and now I observed that he was further remarkable for an inward manner of speaking. "I arranged with Mr. Carstone that he should always know when his cause was in the Chancellor's paper, and being informed by one of my clerks last night after post time that it stood, rather unexpectedly, in the paper for to-morrow, I put myself into the coach early this morning and came down to confer with him."
"Yes," said Richard, flushed, and looking triumphantly at Ada and me, "we don't do these things in the old slow way now. We spin along now! Mr. Vholes, we must hire something to get over to the post town in, and catch the mail to-night, and go up by it!"
"Anything you please, sir," returned Mr. Vholes. "I am quite at your service."
"Let me see," said Richard, looking at his watch. "If I run down to the Dedlock, and get my portmanteau fastened up, and order a gig, or a chaise, or whatever's to be got, we shall have an hour then before starting. I'll come back to tea. Cousin Ada, will you and Esther take care of Mr. Vholes when I am gone?"
He was away directly, in his heat and hurry, and was soon lost in the dusk of evening. We who were left walked on towards the house.
"Is Mr. Carstone's presence necessary to-morrow, Sir?" said I. "Can it do any good?"
"No, miss," Mr. Vholes replied. "I am not aware that it can."
Both Ada and I expressed our regret that he should go, then, only to be disappointed.
"Mr. Carstone has laid down the principle of watching his own interests," said Mr. Vholes, "and when a client lays down his own principle, and it is not immoral, it devolves upon me to carry it out. I wish in business to be exact and open. I am a widower with three daughters — Emma, Jane, and Caroline — and my desire is so to discharge the duties of life as to leave them a good name. This appears to be a pleasant spot, miss."
The remark being made to me in consequence of my being next him as we walked, I assented and enumerated its chief attractions.