When we came to the usual place of meeting — it was close by, and Mr. Woodcourt had often accompanied me before — my guardian was not there. We waited half an hour, walking up and down, but there were no signs of him. We agreed that he was either prevented from coming or that he had come and gone away, and Mr. Woodcourt proposed to walk home with me.
It was the first walk we had ever taken together, except that very short one to the usual place of meeting. We spoke of Richard and Ada the whole way. I did not thank him in words for what he had done — my appreciation of it had risen above all words then — but I hoped he might not be without some understanding of what I felt so strongly.
Arriving at home and going upstairs, we found that my guardian was out and that Mrs. Woodcourt was out too. We were in the very same room into which I had brought my blushing girl when her youthful lover, now her so altered husband, was the choice of her young heart, the very same room from which my guardian and I had watched them going away through the sunlight in the fresh bloom of their hope and promise.
We were standing by the opened window looking down into the street when Mr. Woodcourt spoke to me. I learned in a moment that he loved me. I learned in a moment that my scarred face was all unchanged to him. I learned in a moment that what I had thought was pity and compassion was devoted, generous, faithful love. Oh, too late to know it now, too late, too late. That was the first ungrateful thought I had. Too late.
"When I returned," he told me, "when I came back, no richer than when I went away, and found you newly risen from a sick bed, yet so inspired by sweet consideration for others and so free from a selfish thought — "
"Oh, Mr. Woodcourt, forbear, forbear!" I entreated him. "I do not deserve your high praise. I had many selfish thoughts at that time, many!"
"Heaven knows, beloved of my life," said he, "that my praise is not a lover's praise, but the truth. You do not know what all around you see in Esther Summerson, how many hearts she touches and awakens, what sacred admiration and what love she wins."
"Oh, Mr. Woodcourt," cried I, "it is a great thing to win love, it is a great thing to win love! I am proud of it, and honoured by it; and the hearing of it causes me to shed these tears of mingled joy and sorrow — joy that I have won it, sorrow that I have not deserved it better; but I am not free to think of yours."
I said it with a stronger heart, for when he praised me thus and when I heard his voice thrill with his belief that what he said was true, I aspired to be more worthy of it. It was not too late for that. Although I closed this unforeseen page in my life to-night, I could be worthier of it all through my life. And it was a comfort to me, and an impulse to me, and I felt a dignity rise up within me that was derived from him when I thought so.
He broke the silence.
"I should poorly show the trust that I have in the dear one who will evermore be as dear to me as now" — and the deep earnestness with which he said it at once strengthened me and made me weep — "if, after her assurance that she is not free to think of my love, I urged it. Dear Esther, let me only tell you that the fond idea of you which I took abroad was exalted to the heavens when I came home. I have always hoped, in the first hour when I seemed to stand in any ray of good fortune, to tell you this. I have always feared that I should tell it you in vain. My hopes and fears are both fulfilled to-night. I distress you. I have said enough."
Something seemed to pass into my place that was like the angel he thought me, and I felt so sorrowful for the loss he had sustained! I wished to help him in his trouble, as I had wished to do when he showed that first commiseration for me.
"Dear Mr. Woodcourt," said I, "before we part to-night, something is left for me to say. I never could say it as I wish — I never shall — but — "
I had to think again of being more deserving of his love and his affliction before I could go on.
" — I am deeply sensible of your generosity, and I shall treasure its remembrance to my dying hour. I know full well how changed I am, I know you are not unacquainted with my history, and I know what a noble love that is which is so faithful. What you have said to me could have affected me so much from no other lips, for there are none that could give it such a value to me. It shall not be lost. It shall make me better."
He covered his eyes with his hand and turned away his head. How could I ever be worthy of those tears?
"If, in the unchanged intercourse we shall have together — in tending Richard and Ada, and I hope in many happier scenes of life — you ever find anything in me which you can honestly think is better than it used to be, believe that it will have sprung up from to-night and that I shall owe it to you. And never believe, dear dear Mr. Woodcourt, never believe that I forget this night or that while my heart beats it can be insensible to the pride and joy of having been beloved by you."
He took my hand and kissed it. He was like himself again, and I felt still more encouraged.
"I am induced by what you said just now," said I, "to hope that you have succeeded in your endeavour."
"I have," he answered. "With such help from Mr. Jarndyce as you who know him so well can imagine him to have rendered me, I have succeeded."
"Heaven bless him for it," said I, giving him my hand; "and heaven bless you in all you do!"
"I shall do it better for the wish," he answered; "it will make me enter on these new duties as on another sacred trust from you."
"Ah! Richard!" I exclaimed involuntarily, "What will he do when you are gone!"
"I am not required to go yet; I would not desert him, dear Miss Summerson, even if I were."
One other thing I felt it needful to touch upon before he left me. I knew that I should not be worthier of the love I could not take if I reserved it.
"Mr. Woodcourt," said I, "you will be glad to know from my lips before I say good night that in the future, which is clear and bright before me, I am most happy, most fortunate, have nothing to regret or desire."
It was indeed a glad hearing to him, he replied.
"From my childhood I have been," said I, "the object of the untiring goodness of the best of human beings, to whom I am so bound by every tie of attachment, gratitude, and love, that nothing I could do in the compass of a life could express the feelings of a single day."
"I share those feelings," he returned. "You speak of Mr. Jarndyce."