Bleak House

Page 41

"The universe," he observed, "makes rather an indifferent parent, I am afraid."

"Oh! I don't know!" cried Mr. Skimpole buoyantly.

"I think I do know," said Mr. Jarndyce.

"Well!" cried Mr. Skimpole. "You know the world (which in your sense is the universe), and I know nothing of it, so you shall have your way. But if I had mine," glancing at the cousins, "there should be no brambles of sordid realities in such a path as that. It should be strewn with roses; it should lie through bowers, where there was no spring, autumn, nor winter, but perpetual summer. Age or change should never wither it. The base word money should never be breathed near it!"

Mr. Jarndyce patted him on the head with a smile, as if he had been really a child, and passing a step or two on, and stopping a moment, glanced at the young cousins. His look was thoughtful, but had a benignant expression in it which I often (how often!) saw again, which has long been engraven on my heart. The room in which they were, communicating with that in which he stood, was only lighted by the fire. Ada sat at the piano; Richard stood beside her, bending down. Upon the wall, their shadows blended together, surrounded by strange forms, not without a ghostly motion caught from the unsteady fire, though reflecting from motionless objects. Ada touched the notes so softly and sang so low that the wind, sighing away to the distant hills, was as audible as the music. The mystery of the future and the little clue afforded to it by the voice of the present seemed expressed in the whole picture.

But it is not to recall this fancy, well as I remember it, that I recall the scene. First, I was not quite unconscious of the contrast in respect of meaning and intention between the silent look directed that way and the flow of words that had preceded it. Secondly, though Mr. Jarndyce's glance as he withdrew it rested for but a moment on me, I felt as if in that moment he confided to me-- and knew that he confided to me and that I received the confidence --his hope that Ada and Richard might one day enter on a dearer relationship.

Mr. Skimpole could play on the piano and the violoncello, and he was a composer--had composed half an opera once, but got tired of it--and played what he composed with taste. After tea we had quite a little concert, in which Richard--who was enthralled by Ada's singing and told me that she seemed to know all the songs that ever were written--and Mr. Jarndyce, and I were the audience. After a little while I missed first Mr. Skimpole and afterwards Richard, and while I was thinking how could Richard stay away so long and lose so much, the maid who had given me the keys looked in at the door, saying, "If you please, miss, could you spare a minute?"

When I was shut out with her in the hall, she said, holding up her hands, "Oh, if you please, miss, Mr. Carstone says would you come upstairs to Mr. Skimpole's room. He has been took, miss!"

"Took?" said I.

"Took, miss. Sudden," said the maid.

I was apprehensive that his illness might be of a dangerous kind, but of course I begged her to be quiet and not disturb any one and collected myself, as I followed her quickly upstairs, sufficiently to consider what were the best remedies to be applied if it should prove to be a fit. She threw open a door and I went into a chamber, where, to my unspeakable surprise, instead of finding Mr. Skimpole stretched upon the bed or prostrate on the floor, I found him standing before the fire smiling at Richard, while Richard, with a face of great embarrassment, looked at a person on the sofa, in a white great-coat, with smooth hair upon his head and not much of it, which he was wiping smoother and making less of with a pocket-handkerchief.

"Miss Summerson," said Richard hurriedly, "I am glad you are come. You will be able to advise us. Our friend Mr. Skimpole--don't be alarmed!--is arrested for debt."

"And really, my dear Miss Summerson," said Mr. Skimpole with his agreeable candour, "I never was in a situation in which that excellent sense and quiet habit of method and usefulness, which anybody must observe in you who has the happiness of being a quarter of an hour in your society, was more needed."

The person on the sofa, who appeared to have a cold in his head, gave such a very loud snort that he startled me.

Charles Dickens
Classic Literature Library
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