'Why, you have always been in earnest!' said Agnes, laughing again.
'Oh! that was as a child, or a schoolboy,' said I, laughing in my turn, not without being a little shame-faced. 'Times are altering now, and I suppose I shall be in a terrible state of earnestness one day or other. My wonder is, that you are not in earnest yourself, by this time, Agnes.'
Agnes laughed again, and shook her head.
'Oh, I know you are not!' said I, 'because if you had been you would have told me. Or at least' — for I saw a faint blush in her face, 'you would have let me find it out for myself. But there is no one that I know of, who deserves to love you, Agnes. Someone of a nobler character, and more worthy altogether than anyone I have ever seen here, must rise up, before I give my consent. In the time to come, I shall have a wary eye on all admirers; and shall exact a great deal from the successful one, I assure you.'
We had gone on, so far, in a mixture of confidential jest and earnest, that had long grown naturally out of our familiar relations, begun as mere children. But Agnes, now suddenly lifting up her eyes to mine, and speaking in a different manner, said:
'Trotwood, there is something that I want to ask you, and that I may not have another opportunity of asking for a long time, perhaps — something I would ask, I think, of no one else. Have you observed any gradual alteration in Papa?'
I had observed it, and had often wondered whether she had too. I must have shown as much, now, in my face; for her eyes were in a moment cast down, and I saw tears in them.
'Tell me what it is,' she said, in a low voice.
'I think — shall I be quite plain, Agnes, liking him so much?'
'Yes,' she said.
'I think he does himself no good by the habit that has increased upon him since I first came here. He is often very nervous — or I fancy so.'
'It is not fancy,' said Agnes, shaking her head.
'His hand trembles, his speech is not plain, and his eyes look wild. I have remarked that at those times, and when he is least like himself, he is most certain to be wanted on some business.'
'By Uriah,' said Agnes.
'Yes; and the sense of being unfit for it, or of not having understood it, or of having shown his condition in spite of himself, seems to make him so uneasy, that next day he is worse, and next day worse, and so he becomes jaded and haggard. Do not be alarmed by what I say, Agnes, but in this state I saw him, only the other evening, lay down his head upon his desk, and shed tears like a child.'
Her hand passed softly before my lips while I was yet speaking, and in a moment she had met her father at the door of the room, and was hanging on his shoulder. The expression of her face, as they both looked towards me, I felt to be very touching. There was such deep fondness for him, and gratitude to him for all his love and care, in her beautiful look; and there was such a fervent appeal to me to deal tenderly by him, even in my inmost thoughts, and to let no harsh construction find any place against him; she was, at once, so proud of him and devoted to him, yet so compassionate and sorry, and so reliant upon me to be so, too; that nothing she could have said would have expressed more to me, or moved me more.
We were to drink tea at the Doctor's. We went there at the usual hour; and round the study fireside found the Doctor, and his young wife, and her mother. The Doctor, who made as much of my going away as if I were going to China, received me as an honoured guest; and called for a log of wood to be thrown on the fire, that he might see the face of his old pupil reddening in the blaze.
'I shall not see many more new faces in Trotwood's stead, Wickfield,' said the Doctor, warming his hands; 'I am getting lazy, and want ease. I shall relinquish all my young people in another six months, and lead a quieter life.'
'You have said so, any time these ten years, Doctor,' Mr. Wickfield answered.
'But now I mean to do it,' returned the Doctor. 'My first master will succeed me — I am in earnest at last — so you'll soon have to arrange our contracts, and to bind us firmly to them, like a couple of knaves.'
'And to take care,' said Mr. Wickfield, 'that you're not imposed on, eh? As you certainly would be, in any contract you should make for yourself. Well! I am ready. There are worse tasks than that, in my calling.'
'I shall have nothing to think of then,' said the Doctor, with a smile, 'but my Dictionary; and this other contract-bargain — Annie.'