Impassive, as behoves its high breeding, the Dedlock town house stares at the other houses in the street of dismal grandeur and gives no outward sign of anything going wrong within. Carriages rattle, doors are battered at, the world exchanges calls; ancient charmers with skeleton throats and peachy cheeks that have a rather ghastly bloom upon them seen by daylight, when indeed these fascinating creatures look like Death and the Lady fused together, dazzle the eyes of men. Forth from the frigid mews come easily swinging carriages guided by short-legged coachmen in flaxen wigs, deep sunk into downy hammercloths, and up behind mount luscious Mercuries bearing sticks of state and wearing cocked hats broadwise, a spectacle for the angels.
The Dedlock town house changes not externally, and hours pass before its exalted dullness is disturbed within. But Volumnia the fair, being subject to the prevalent complaint of boredom and finding that disorder attacking her spirits with some virulence, ventures at length to repair to the library for change of scene. Her gentle tapping at the door producing no response, she opens it and peeps in; seeing no one there, takes possession.
The sprightly Dedlock is reputed, in that grass-grown city of the ancients, Bath, to be stimulated by an urgent curiosity which impels her on all convenient and inconvenient occasions to sidle about with a golden glass at her eye, peering into objects of every description. Certain it is that she avails herself of the present opportunity of hovering over her kinsman's letters and papers like a bird, taking a short peck at this document and a blink with her head on one side at that document, and hopping about from table to table with her glass at her eye in an inquisitive and restless manner. In the course of these researches she stumbles over something, and turning her glass in that direction, sees her kinsman lying on the ground like a felled tree.
Volumnia's pet little scream acquires a considerable augmentation of reality from this surprise, and the house is quickly in commotion. Servants tear up and down stairs, bells are violently rung, doctors are sent for, and Lady Dedlock is sought in all directions, but not found. Nobody has seen or heard her since she last rang her bell. Her letter to Sir Leicester is discovered on her table, but it is doubtful yet whether he has not received another missive from another world requiring to be personally answered, and all the living languages, and all the dead, are as one to him.
They lay him down upon his bed, and chafe, and rub, and fan, and put ice to his head, and try every means of restoration. Howbeit, the day has ebbed away, and it is night in his room before his stertorous breathing lulls or his fixed eyes show any consciousness of the candle that is occasionally passed before them. But when this change begins, it goes on; and by and by he nods or moves his eyes or even his hand in token that he hears and comprehends.
He fell down, this morning, a handsome stately gentleman, somewhat infirm, but of a fine presence, and with a well-filled face. He lies upon his bed, an aged man with sunken cheeks, the decrepit shadow of himself. His voice was rich and mellow and he had so long been thoroughly persuaded of the weight and import to mankind of any word he said that his words really had come to sound as if there were something in them. But now he can only whisper, and what he whispers sounds like what it is — mere jumble and jargon.
His favourite and faithful housekeeper stands at his bedside. It is the first act he notices, and he clearly derives pleasure from it. After vainly trying to make himself understood in speech, he makes signs for a pencil. So inexpressively that they cannot at first understand him; it is his old housekeeper who makes out what he wants and brings in a slate.
After pausing for some time, he slowly scrawls upon it in a hand that is not his, "Chesney Wold?"
No, she tells him; he is in London. He was taken ill in the library this morning. Right thankful she is that she happened to come to London and is able to attend upon him.
"It is not an illness of any serious consequence, Sir Leicester. You will be much better to-morrow, Sir Leicester. All the gentlemen say so." This, with the tears coursing down her fair old face.
After making a survey of the room and looking with particular attention all round the bed where the doctors stand, he writes, "My Lady."
"My Lady went out, Sir Leicester, before you were taken ill, and don't know of your illness yet."
He points again, in great agitation, at the two words. They all try to quiet him, but he points again with increased agitation. On their looking at one another, not knowing what to say, he takes the slate once more and writes "My Lady. For God's sake, where?" And makes an imploring moan.
It is thought better that his old housekeeper should give him Lady Dedlock's letter, the contents of which no one knows or can surmise. She opens it for him and puts it out for his perusal. Having read it twice by a great effort, he turns it down so that it shall not be seen and lies moaning. He passes into a kind of relapse or into a swoon, and it is an hour before he opens his eyes, reclining on his faithful and attached old servant's arm. The doctors know that he is best with her, and when not actively engaged about him, stand aloof.
The slate comes into requisition again, but the word he wants to write he cannot remember. His anxiety, his eagerness, and affliction at this pass are pitiable to behold. It seems as if he must go mad in the necessity he feels for haste and the inability under which he labours of expressing to do what or to fetch whom. He has written the letter B, and there stopped. Of a sudden, in the height of his misery, he puts Mr. before it. The old housekeeper suggests Bucket. Thank heaven! That's his meaning.
Mr. Bucket is found to be downstairs, by appointment. Shall he come up?
There is no possibility of misconstruing Sir Leicester's burning wish to see him or the desire he signifies to have the room cleared of every one but the housekeeper. It is speedily done, and Mr. Bucket appears. Of all men upon earth, Sir Leicester seems fallen from his high estate to place his sole trust and reliance upon this man.
"Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet, I'm sorry to see you like this. I hope you'll cheer up. I'm sure you will, on account of the family credit."
Sir Leicester puts her letter in his hands and looks intently in his face while he reads it. A new intelligence comes into Mr. Bucket's eye as he reads on; with one hook of his finger, while that eye is still glancing over the words, he indicates, "Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet, I understand you."
Sir Leicester writes upon the slate. "Full forgiveness. Find — " Mr. Bucket stops his hand.
"Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet, I'll find her. But my search after her must be begun out of hand. Not a minute must be lost."
With the quickness of thought, he follows Sir Leicester Dedlock's look towards a little box upon a table.