"This is Mr. Harold Skimpole," said my guardian, evidently surprised.
"Oh!" exclaimed Sir Leicester, "I am happy to meet Mr. Skimpole and to have the opportunity of tendering my personal regrets. I hope, sir, that when you again find yourself in my part of the county, you will be under no similar sense of restraint."
"You are very obliging, Sir Leicester Dedlock. So encouraged, I shall certainly give myself the pleasure and advantage of another visit to your beautiful house. The owners of such places as Chesney Wold," said Mr. Skimpole with his usual happy and easy air, "are public benefactors. They are good enough to maintain a number of delightful objects for the admiration and pleasure of us poor men; and not to reap all the admiration and pleasure that they yield is to be ungrateful to our benefactors."
Sir Leicester seemed to approve of this sentiment highly. "An artist, sir?"
"No," returned Mr. Skimpole. "A perfectly idle man. A mere amateur."
Sir Leicester seemed to approve of this even more. He hoped he might have the good fortune to be at Chesney Wold when Mr. Skimpole next came down into Lincolnshire. Mr. Skimpole professed himself much flattered and honoured.
"Mr. Skimpole mentioned," pursued Sir Leicester, addressing himself again to my guardian, "mentioned to the housekeeper, who, as he may have observed, is an old and attached retainer of the family — "
("That is, when I walked through the house the other day, on the occasion of my going down to visit Miss Summerson and Miss Clare," Mr. Skimpole airily explained to us.)
" — That the friend with whom he had formerly been staying there was Mr. Jarndyce." Sir Leicester bowed to the bearer of that name. "And hence I became aware of the circumstance for which I have professed my regret. That this should have occurred to any gentleman, Mr. Jarndyce, but especially a gentleman formerly known to Lady Dedlock, and indeed claiming some distant connexion with her, and for whom (as I learn from my Lady herself) she entertains a high respect, does, I assure you, give — me — pain."
"Pray say no more about it, Sir Leicester," returned my guardian. "I am very sensible, as I am sure we all are, of your consideration. Indeed the mistake was mine, and I ought to apologize for it."
I had not once looked up. I had not seen the visitor and had not even appeared to myself to hear the conversation. It surprises me to find that I can recall it, for it seemed to make no impression on me as it passed. I heard them speaking, but my mind was so confused and my instinctive avoidance of this gentleman made his presence so distressing to me that I thought I understood nothing, through the rushing in my head and the beating of my heart.
"I mentioned the subject to Lady Dedlock," said Sir Leicester, rising, "and my Lady informed me that she had had the pleasure of exchanging a few words with Mr. Jarndyce and his wards on the occasion of an accidental meeting during their sojourn in the vicinity. Permit me, Mr. Jarndyce, to repeat to yourself, and to these ladies, the assurance I have already tendered to Mr. Skimpole. Circumstances undoubtedly prevent my saying that it would afford me any gratification to hear that Mr. Boythorn had favoured my house with his presence, but those circumstances are confined to that gentleman himself and do not extend beyond him."
"You know my old opinion of him," said Mr. Skimpole, lightly appealing to us. "An amiable bull who is determined to make every colour scarlet!"
Sir Leicester Dedlock coughed as if he could not possibly hear another word in reference to such an individual and took his leave with great ceremony and politeness. I got to my own room with all possible speed and remained there until I had recovered my self- command. It had been very much disturbed, but I was thankful to find when I went downstairs again that they only rallied me for having been shy and mute before the great Lincolnshire baronet.
By that time I had made up my mind that the period was come when I must tell my guardian what I knew. The possibility of my being brought into contact with my mother, of my being taken to her house, even of Mr. Skimpole's, however distantly associated with me, receiving kindnesses and obligations from her husband, was so painful that I felt I could no longer guide myself without his assistance.
When we had retired for the night, and Ada and I had had our usual talk in our pretty room, I went out at my door again and sought my guardian among his books. I knew he always read at that hour, and as I drew near I saw the light shining out into the passage from his reading-lamp.
"May I come in, guardian?"
"Surely, little woman. What's the matter?"
"Nothing is the matter. I thought I would like to take this quiet time of saying a word to you about myself."
He put a chair for me, shut his book, and put it by, and turned his kind attentive face towards me. I could not help observing that it wore that curious expression I had observed in it once before — on that night when he had said that he was in no trouble which I could readily understand.
"What concerns you, my dear Esther," said he, "concerns us all. You cannot be more ready to speak than I am to hear."
"I know that, guardian. But I have such need of your advice and support. Oh! You don't know how much need I have to-night."
He looked unprepared for my being so earnest, and even a little alarmed.
"Or how anxious I have been to speak to you," said I, "ever since the visitor was here to-day."
"The visitor, my dear! Sir Leicester Dedlock?"
He folded his arms and sat looking at me with an air of the profoundest astonishment, awaiting what I should say next. I did not know how to prepare him.
"Why, Esther," said he, breaking into a smile, "our visitor and you are the two last persons on earth I should have thought of connecting together!"
"Oh, yes, guardian, I know it. And I too, but a little while ago."
The smile passed from his face, and he became graver than before. He crossed to the door to see that it was shut (but I had seen to that) and resumed his seat before me.
"Guardian," said I, "do you remensher, when we were overtaken by the thunder-storm, Lady Dedlock's speaking to you of her sister?"
"Of course. Of course I do."
"And reminding you that she and her sister had differed, had gone their several ways?"
"Why did they separate, guardian?"