It is a dull street under the best conditions, where the two long rows of houses stare at each other with that severity that half-a- dozen of its greatest mansions seem to have been slowly stared into stone rather than originally built in that material. It is a street of such dismal grandeur, so determined not to condescend to liveliness, that the doors and windows hold a gloomy state of their own in black paint and dust, and the echoing mews behind have a dry and massive appearance, as if they were reserved to stable the stone chargers of noble statues. Complicated garnish of iron-work entwines itself over the flights of steps in this awful street, and from these petrified bowers, extinguishers for obsolete flambeaux gasp at the upstart gas. Here and there a weak little iron hoop, through which bold boys aspire to throw their friends' caps (its only present use), retains its place among the rusty foliage, sacred to the memory of departed oil. Nay, even oil itself, yet lingering at long intervals in a little absurd glass pot, with a knob in the bottom like an oyster, blinks and sulks at newer lights every night, like its high and dry master in the House of Lords.
Therefore there is not much that Lady Dedlock, seated in her chair, could wish to see through the window in which Mr. Tulkinghorn stands. And yet — and yet — she sends a look in that direction as if it were her heart's desire to have that figure moved out of the way.
Sir Leicester begs his Lady's pardon. She was about to say?
"Only that Mr. Rouncewell is here (he has called by my appointment) and that we had better make an end of the question of that girl. I am tired to death of the matter."
"What can I do — to — assist?" demands Sir Leicester in some considerable doubt.
"Let us see him here and have done with it. Will you tell them to send him up?"
"Mr. Tulkinghorn, be so good as to ring. Thank you. Request," says Sir Leicester to Mercury, not immediately remembering the business term, "request the iron gentleman to walk this way."
Mercury departs in search of the iron gentleman, finds, and produces him. Sir Leicester receives that ferruginous person graciously.
"I hope you are well, Mr. Rouncewell. Be seated. (My solicitor, Mr. Tulkinghorn.) My Lady was desirous, Mr. Rouncewell," Sir Leicester skilfully transfers him with a solemn wave of his hand, "was desirous to speak with you. Hem!"
"I shall be very happy," returns the iron gentleman, "to give my best attention to anything Lady Dedlock does me the honour to say."
As he turns towards her, he finds that the impression she makes upon him is less agreeable than on the former occasion. A distant supercilious air makes a cold atmosphere about her, and there is nothing in her bearing, as there was before, to encourage openness.
"Pray, sir," says Lady Dedlock listlessly, "may I be allowed to inquire whether anything has passed between you and your son respecting your son's fancy?"
It is almost too troublesome to her languid eyes to bestow a look upon him as she asks this question.
"If my memory serves me, Lady Dedlock, I said, when I had the pleasure of seeing you before, that I should seriously advise my son to conquer that — fancy." The ironmaster repeats her expression with a little emphasis.
"And did you?"
"Oh! Of course I did."
Sir Leicester gives a nod, approving and confirmatory. Very proper. The iron gentleman, having said that he would do it, was bound to do it. No difference in this respect between the base metals and the precious. Highly proper.
"And pray has he done so?"
"Really, Lady Dedlock, I cannot make you a definite reply. I fear not. Probably not yet. In our condition of life, we sometimes couple an intention with our — our fancies which renders them not altogether easy to throw off. I think it is rather our way to be in earnest."
Sir Leicester has a misgiving that there may be a hidden Wat Tylerish meaning in this expression, and fumes a little. Mr. Rouncewell is perfectly good-humoured and polite, but within such limits, evidently adapts his tone to his reception.
"Because," proceeds my Lady, "I have been thinking of the subject, which is tiresome to me."
"I am very sorry, I am sure."
"And also of what Sir Leicester said upon it, in which I quite concur" — Sir Leicester flattered — "and if you cannot give us the assurance that this fancy is at an end, I have come to the conclusion that the girl had better leave me."
"I can give no such assurance, Lady Dedlock. Nothing of the kind."
"Then she had better go."
"Excuse me, my Lady," Sir Leicester considerately interposes, "but perhaps this may be doing an injury to the young woman which she has not merited. Here is a young woman," says Sir Leicester, magnificently laying out the matter with his right hand like a service of plate, "whose good fortune it is to have attracted the notice and favour of an eminent lady and to live, under the protection of that eminent lady, surrounded by the various advantages which such a position confers, and which are unquestionably very great — I believe unquestionably very great, sir — for a young woman in that station of life. The question then arises, should that young woman be deprived of these many advantages and that good fortune simply because she has" — Sir Leicester, with an apologetic but dignified inclination of his head towards the ironmaster, winds up his sentence — "has attracted the notice of Mr Rouncewell's son? Now, has she deserved this punishment? Is this just towards her? Is this our previous understanding?"
"I beg your pardon," interposes Mr. Rouncewell's son's father. "Sir Leicester, will you allow me? I think I may shorten the subject. Pray dismiss that from your consideration. If you remember anything so unimportant — which is not to be expected — you would recollect that my first thought in the affair was directly opposed to her remaining here."
Dismiss the Dedlock patronage from consideration? Oh! Sir Leicester is bound to believe a pair of ears that have been handed down to him through such a family, or he really might have mistrusted their report of the iron gentleman's observations.
"It is not necessary," observes my Lady in her coldest manner before he can do anything but breathe amazedly, "to enter into these matters on either side. The girl is a very good girl; I have nothing whatever to say against her, but she is so far insensible to her many advantages and her good fortune that she is in love — or supposes she is, poor little fool — and unable to appreciate them."