"Mr. Tulkinghorn," says Sir Leicester, "is always welcome here and always discreet wheresoever he is. A very valuable person, and deservedly respected."
The debilitated cousin supposes he is "'normously rich fler."
"He has a stake in the country," says Sir Leicester, "I have no doubt. He is, of course, handsomely paid, and he associates almost on a footing of equality with the highest society."
Everybody starts. For a gun is fired close by.
"Good gracious, what's that?" cries Volumnia with her little withered scream.
"A rat," says my Lady. "And they have shot him."
Enter Mr. Tulkinghorn, followed by Mercuries with lamps and candles.
"No, no," says Sir Leicester, "I think not. My Lady, do you object to the twilight?"
On the contrary, my Lady prefers it.
Oh! Nothing is so delicious to Volumnia as to sit and talk in the dark.
"Then take them away," says Sir Leicester. "Tulkinghorn, I beg your pardon. How do you do?"
Mr. Tulkinghorn with his usual leisurely ease advances, renders his passing homage to my Lady, shakes Sir Leicester's hand, and subsides into the chair proper to him when he has anything to communicate, on the opposite side of the Baronet's little newspaper-table. Sir Leicester is apprehensive that my Lady, not being very well, will take cold at that open window. My Lady is obliged to him, but would rather sit there for the air. Sir Leicester rises, adjusts her scarf about her, and returns to his seat. Mr. Tulkinghorn in the meanwhile takes a pinch of snuff.
"Now," says Sir Leicester. "How has that contest gone?"
"Oh, hollow from the beginning. Not a chance. They have brought in both their people. You are beaten out of all reason. Three to one."
It is a part of Mr. Tulkinghorn's policy and mastery to have no political opinions; indeed, NO opinions. Therefore he says "you" are beaten, and not "we."
Sir Leicester is majestically wroth. Volumnia never heard of such a thing. 'The debilitated cousin holds that it's sort of thing that's sure tapn slongs votes — giv'n — Mob.
"It's the place, you know," Mr. Tulkinghorn goes on to say in the fast-increasing darkness when there is silence again, "where they wanted to put up Mrs. Rouncewell's son."
"A proposal which, as you correctly informed me at the time, he had the becoming taste and perception," observes Sir Leicester, "to decline. I cannot say that I by any means approve of the sentiments expressed by Mr. Rouncewell when he was here for some half-hour in this room, but there was a sense of propriety in his decision which I am glad to acknowledge."
"Ha!" says Mr. Tulkinghorn. "It did not prevent him from being very active in this election, though."
Sir Leicester is distinctly heard to gasp before speaking. "Did I understand you? Did you say that Mr. Rouncewell had been very active in this election?"
"Against — "
"Oh, dear yes, against you. He is a very good speaker. Plain and emphatic. He made a damaging effect, and has great influence. In the business part of the proceedings he carried all before him."
It is evident to the whole company, though nobody can see him, that Sir Leicester is staring majestically.
"And he was much assisted," says Mr. Tulkinghorn as a wind-up, "by his son."
"By his son, sir?" repeats Sir Leicester with awful politeness.
"By his son."
"The son who wished to marry the young woman in my Lady's service?"
"That son. He has but one."
"Then upon my honour," says Sir Leicester after a terrific pause during which he has been heard to snort and felt to stare, "then upon my honour, upon my life, upon my reputation and principles, the floodgates of society are burst open, and the waters have — a — obliterated the landmarks of the framework of the cohesion by which things are held together!"
General burst of cousinly indignation. Volumnia thinks it is really high time, you know, for somebody in power to step in and do something strong. Debilitated cousin thinks — country's going — Dayvle — steeple-chase pace.
"I beg," says Sir Leicester in a breathless condition, "that we may not comment further on this circumstance. Comment is superfluous. My Lady, let me suggest in reference to that young woman — "
"I have no intention," observes my Lady from her window in a low but decided tone, "of parting with her."
"That was not my meaning," returns Sir Leicester. "I am glad to hear you say so. I would suggest that as you think her worthy of your patronage, you should exert your influence to keep her from these dangerous hands. You might show her what violence would be done in such association to her duties and principles, and you might preserve her for a better fate. You might point out to her that she probably would, in good time, find a husband at Chesney Wold by whom she would not be — " Sir Leicester adds, after a moment's consideration, "dragged from the altars of her forefathers."
These remarks he offers with his unvarying politeness and deference when he addresses himself to his wife. She merely moves her head in reply. The moon is rising, and where she sits there is a little stream of cold pale light, in which her head is seen.
"It is worthy of remark," says Mr. Tulkinghorn, "however, that these people are, in their way, very proud."
"Proud?" Sir Leicester doubts his hearing.
"I should not be surprised if they all voluntarily abandoned the girl — yes, lover and all — instead of her abandoning them, supposing she remained at Chesney Wold under such circumstances."
"Well!" says Sir Leicester tremulously. "Well! You should know, Mr. Tulkinghorn. You have been among them."
"Really, Sir Leicester," returns the lawyer, "I state the fact. Why, I could tell you a story — with Lady Dedlock's permission."
Her head concedes it, and Volumnia is enchanted. A story! Oh, he is going to tell something at last! A ghost in it, Volumnia hopes?
"No. Real flesh and blood." Mr. Tulkinghorn stops for an instant and repeats with some little emphasis grafted upon his usual monotony, "Real flesh and blood, Miss Dedlock. Sir Leicester, these particulars have only lately become known to me. They are very brief. They exemplify what I have said. I suppress names for the present. Lady Dedlock will not think me ill-bred, I hope?"
By the light of the fire, which is low, he can be seen looking towards the moonlight. By the light of the moon Lady Dedlock can be seen, perfectly still.
"A townsman of this Mrs. Rouncewell, a man in exactly parallel circumstances as I am told, had the good fortune to have a daughter who attracted the notice of a great lady. I speak of really a great lady, not merely great to him, but married to a gentleman of your condition, Sir Leicester."