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Such the guests in the long drawing-room at Chesney Wold this dismal night when the step on the Ghost's Walk (inaudible here, however) might be the step of a deceased cousin shut out in the cold. It is near bed-time. Bedroom fires blaze brightly all over the house, raising ghosts of grim furniture on wall and ceiling. Bedroom candlesticks bristle on the distant table by the door, and cousins yawn on ottomans. Cousins at the piano, cousins at the soda-water tray, cousins rising from the card-table, cousins gathered round the fire. Standing on one side of his own peculiar fire (for there are two), Sir Leicester. On the opposite side of the broad hearth, my Lady at her table. Volumnia, as one of the more privileged cousins, in a luxurious chair between them. Sir Leicester glancing, with magnificent displeasure, at the rouge and the pearl necklace.
"I occasionally meet on my staircase here," drawls Volumnia, whose thoughts perhaps are already hopping up it to bed, after a long evening of very desultory talk, "one of the prettiest girls, I think, that I ever saw in my life."
"A protégée of my Lady's," observes Sir Leicester.
"I thought so. I felt sure that some uncommon eye must have picked that girl out. She really is a marvel. A dolly sort of beauty perhaps," says Miss Volumnia, reserving her own sort, "but in its way, perfect; such bloom I never saw!"
Sir Leicester, with his magnificent glance of displeasure at the rouge, appears to say so too.
"Indeed," remarks my Lady languidly, "if there is any uncommon eye in the case, it is Mrs. Rouncewell's, and not mine. Rosa is her discovery."
"Your maid, I suppose?"
"No. My anything; pet--secretary--messenger--I don't know what."
"You like to have her about you, as you would like to have a flower, or a bird, or a picture, or a poodle--no, not a poodle, though--or anything else that was equally pretty?" says Volumnia, sympathizing. "Yes, how charming now! And how well that delightful old soul Mrs. Rouncewell is looking. She must be an immense age, and yet she is as active and handsome! She is the dearest friend I have, positively!"
Sir Leicester feels it to be right and fitting that the housekeeper of Chesney Wold should be a remarkable person. Apart from that, he has a real regard for Mrs. Rouncewell and likes to hear her praised. So he says, "You are right, Volumnia," which Volumnia is extremely glad to hear.
"She has no daughter of her own, has she?"
"Mrs. Rouncewell? No, Volumnia. She has a son. Indeed, she had two."
My Lady, whose chronic malady of boredom has been sadly aggravated by Volumnia this evening, glances wearily towards the candlesticks and heaves a noiseless sigh.
"And it is a remarkable example of the confusion into which the present age has fallen; of the obliteration of landmarks, the opening of floodgates, and the uprooting of distinctions," says Sir Leicester with stately gloom, "that I have been informed by Mr. Tulkinghorn that Mrs. Rouncewell's son has been invited to go into Parliament."
Miss Volumnia utters a little sharp scream.
"Yes, indeed," repeats Sir Leicester. "Into Parliament."
"I never heard of such a thing! Good gracious, what is the man?" exclaims Volumnia.
"He is called, I believe--an--ironmaster." Sir Leicester says it slowly and with gravity and doubt, as not being sure but that he is called a lead-mistress or that the right word may be some other word expressive of some other relationship to some other metal.
Volumnia utters another little scream.
"He has declined the proposal, if my information from Mr. Tulkinghorn be correct, as I have no doubt it is. Mr. Tulkinghorn being always correct and exact; still that does not," says Sir Leicester, "that does not lessen the anomaly, which is fraught with strange considerations--startling considerations, as it appears to me."
Miss Volumnia rising with a look candlestick-wards, Sir Leicester politely performs the grand tour of the drawing-room, brings one, and lights it at my Lady's shaded lamp.
"I must beg you, my Lady," he says while doing so, "to remain a few moments, for this individual of whom I speak arrived this evening shortly before dinner and requested in a very becoming note"--Sir Leicester, with his habitual regard to truth, dwells upon it--"I am bound to say, in a very becoming and well-expressed note, the favour of a short interview with yourself and MYself on the subject of this young girl. As it appeared that he wished to depart to- night, I replied that we would see him before retiring."
Miss Volumnia with a third little scream takes flight, wishing her hosts--O Lud!--well rid of the--what is it?--ironmaster!
The other cousins soon disperse, to the last cousin there. Sir Leicester rings the bell, "Make my compliments to Mr. Rouncewell, in the housekeeper's apartments, and say I can receive him now."
My Lady, who has beard all this with slight attention outwardly, looks towards Mr. Rouncewell as he comes in. He is a little over fifty perhaps, of a good figure, like his mother, and has a clear voice, a broad forehead from which his dark hair has retired, and a shrewd though open face. He is a responsible-looking gentleman dressed in black, portly enough, but strong and active. Has a perfectly natural and easy air and is not in the least embarrassed by the great presence into which he comes.
"Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock, as I have already apologized for intruding on you, I cannot do better than be very brief. I thank you, Sir Leicester."
The head of the Dedlocks has motioned towards a sofa between himself and my Lady. Mr. Rouncewell quietly takes his seat there.
"In these busy times, when so many great undertakings are in progress, people like myself have so many workmen in so many places that we are always on the flight."
Sir Leicester is content enough that the ironmaster should feel that there is no hurry there; there, in that ancient house, rooted in that quiet park, where the ivy and the moss have had time to mature, and the gnarled and warted elms and the umbrageous oaks stand deep in the fern and leaves of a hundred years; and where the sun-dial on the terrace has dumbly recorded for centuries that time which was as much the property of every Dedlock--while he lasted-- as the house and lands. Sir Leicester sits down in an easy-chair, opposing his repose and that of Chesney Wold to the restless flights of ironmasters.
"Lady Dedlock has been so kind," proceeds Mr. Rouncewell with a respectful glance and a bow that way, "as to place near her a young beauty of the name of Rosa. Now, my son has fallen in love with Rosa and has asked my consent to his proposing marriage to her and to their becoming engaged if she will take him--which I suppose she will. I have never seen Rosa until to-day, but I have some confidence in my son's good sense--even in love. I find her what he represents her, to the best of my judgment; and my mother speaks of her with great commendation."
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Bleak House -- by Charles Dickens