'Yes. It is laborious, is it not?'
'The labour is so pleasant,' she returned, 'that it is scarcely grateful in me to call it by that name.'
'Nothing good is difficult to you,' said I.
Her colour came and went once more; and once more, as she bent her head, I saw the same sad smile.
'You will wait and see papa,' said Agnes, cheerfully, 'and pass the day with us? Perhaps you will sleep in your own room? We always call it yours.'
I could not do that, having promised to ride back to my aunt's at night; but I would pass the day there, joyfully.
'I must be a prisoner for a little while,' said Agnes, 'but here are the old books, Trotwood, and the old music.'
'Even the old flowers are here,' said I, looking round; 'or the old kinds.'
'I have found a pleasure,' returned Agnes, smiling, 'while you have been absent, in keeping everything as it used to be when we were children. For we were very happy then, I think.'
'Heaven knows we were!' said I.
'And every little thing that has reminded me of my brother,' said Agnes, with her cordial eyes turned cheerfully upon me, 'has been a welcome companion. Even this,' showing me the basket-trifle, full of keys, still hanging at her side, 'seems to jingle a kind of old tune!'
She smiled again, and went out at the door by which she had come.
It was for me to guard this sisterly affection with religious care. It was all that I had left myself, and it was a treasure. If I once shook the foundations of the sacred confidence and usage, in virtue of which it was given to me, it was lost, and could never be recovered. I set this steadily before myself. The better I loved her, the more it behoved me never to forget it.
I walked through the streets; and, once more seeing my old adversary the butcher — now a constable, with his staff hanging up in the shop — went down to look at the place where I had fought him; and there meditated on Miss Shepherd and the eldest Miss Larkins, and all the idle loves and likings, and dislikings, of that time. Nothing seemed to have survived that time but Agnes; and she, ever a star above me, was brighter and higher.
When I returned, Mr. Wickfield had come home, from a garden he had, a couple of miles or so out of town, where he now employed himself almost every day. I found him as my aunt had described him. We sat down to dinner, with some half-dozen little girls; and he seemed but the shadow of his handsome picture on the wall.
The tranquillity and peace belonging, of old, to that quiet ground in my memory, pervaded it again. When dinner was done, Mr. Wickfield taking no wine, and I desiring none, we went up-stairs; where Agnes and her little charges sang and played, and worked. After tea the children left us; and we three sat together, talking of the bygone days.
'My part in them,' said Mr. Wickfield, shaking his white head, 'has much matter for regret — for deep regret, and deep contrition, Trotwood, you well know. But I would not cancel it, if it were in my power.'
I could readily believe that, looking at the face beside him.
'I should cancel with it,' he pursued, 'such patience and devotion, such fidelity, such a child's love, as I must not forget, no! even to forget myself.'
'I understand you, sir,' I softly said. 'I hold it — I have always held it — in veneration.'
'But no one knows, not even you,' he returned, 'how much she has done, how much she has undergone, how hard she has striven. Dear Agnes!'
She had put her hand entreatingly on his arm, to stop him; and was very, very pale.
'Well, well!' he said with a sigh, dismissing, as I then saw, some trial she had borne, or was yet to bear, in connexion with what my aunt had told me. 'Well! I have never told you, Trotwood, of her mother. Has anyone?'
'It's not much — though it was much to suffer. She married me in opposition to her father's wish, and he renounced her. She prayed him to forgive her, before my Agnes came into this world. He was a very hard man, and her mother had long been dead. He repulsed her. He broke her heart.'
Agnes leaned upon his shoulder, and stole her arm about his neck.
'She had an affectionate and gentle heart,' he said; 'and it was broken. I knew its tender nature very well. No one could, if I did not. She loved me dearly, but was never happy. She was always labouring, in secret, under this distress; and being delicate and downcast at the time of his last repulse — for it was not the first, by many — pined away and died. She left me Agnes, two weeks old; and the grey hair that you recollect me with, when you first came.' He kissed Agnes on her cheek.