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For, when they had walked on with her to the little house in the clean village by the paper-mill, where Lizzie had a lodging with an elderly couple employed in the establishment, and when Mrs Milvey and Bella had been up to see her room and had come down, the mill bell rang. This called Lizzie away for the time, and left the Secretary and Bella standing rather awkwardly in the small street; Mrs Milvey being engaged in pursuing the village children, and her investigations whether they were in danger of becoming children of Israel; and the Reverend Frank being engaged--to say the truth--in evading that branch of his spiritual functions, and getting out of sight surreptitiously.
Bella at length said:
'Hadn't we better talk about the commission we have undertaken, Mr Rokesmith?'
'By all means,' said the Secretary.
'I suppose,' faltered Bella, 'that we ARE both commissioned, or we shouldn't both be here?'
'I suppose so,' was the Secretary's answer.
'When I proposed to come with Mr and Mrs Milvey,' said Bella, 'Mrs Boffin urged me to do so, in order that I might give her my small report--it's not worth anything, Mr Rokesmith, except for it's being a woman's--which indeed with you may be a fresh reason for it's being worth nothing--of Lizzie Hexam.'
'Mr Boffin,' said the Secretary, 'directed me to come for the same purpose.'
As they spoke they were leaving the little street and emerging on the wooded landscape by the river.
'You think well of her, Mr Rokesmith?' pursued Bella, conscious of making all the advances.
'I think highly of her.'
'I am so glad of that! Something quite refined in her beauty, is there not?'
'Her appearance is very striking.'
'There is a shade of sadness upon her that is quite touching. At least I--I am not setting up my own poor opinion, you know, Mr Rokesmith,' said Bella, excusing and explaining herself in a pretty shy way; 'I am consulting you.'
'I noticed that sadness. I hope it may not,' said the Secretary in a lower voice, 'be the result of the false accusation which has been retracted.'
When they had passed on a little further without speaking, Bella, after stealing a glance or two at the Secretary, suddenly said:
'Oh, Mr Rokesmith, don't be hard with me, don't be stern with me; be magnanimous! I want to talk with you on equal terms.'
The Secretary as suddenly brightened, and returned: 'Upon my honour I had no thought but for you. I forced myself to be constrained, lest you might misinterpret my being more natural. There. It's gone.'
'Thank you,' said Bella, holding out her little hand. 'Forgive me.'
'No!' cried the Secretary, eagerly. 'Forgive ME!' For there were tears in her eyes, and they were prettier in his sight (though they smote him on the heart rather reproachfully too) than any other glitter in the world.
When they had walked a little further:
'You were going to speak to me,' said the Secretary, with the shadow so long on him quite thrown off and cast away, 'about Lizzie Hexam. So was I going to speak to you, if I could have begun.'
'Now that you CAN begin, sir,' returned Bella, with a look as if she italicized the word by putting one of her dimples under it, 'what were you going to say?'
'You remember, of course, that in her short letter to Mrs Boffin-- short, but containing everything to the purpose--she stipulated that either her name, or else her place of residence, must be kept strictly a secret among us.'
Bella nodded Yes.
'It is my duty to find out why she made that stipulation. I have it in charge from Mr Boffin to discover, and I am very desirous for myself to discover, whether that retracted accusation still leaves any stain upon her. I mean whether it places her at any disadvantage towards any one, even towards herself.'
'Yes,' said Bella, nodding thoughtfully; 'I understand. That seems wise, and considerate.'
'You may not have noticed, Miss Wilfer, that she has the same kind of interest in you, that you have in her. Just as you are attracted by her beaut--by her appearance and manner, she is attracted by yours.'
'I certainly have NOT noticed it,' returned Bella, again italicizing with the dimple, 'and I should have given her credit for--'
The Secretary with a smile held up his hand, so plainly interposing 'not for better taste', that Bella's colour deepened over the little piece of coquetry she was checked in.
'And so,' resumed the Secretary, 'if you would speak with her alone before we go away from here, I feel quite sure that a natural and easy confidence would arise between you. Of course you would not be asked to betray it; and of course you would not, if you were. But if you do not object to put this question to her--to ascertain for us her own feeling in this one matter--you can do so at a far greater advantage than I or any else could. Mr Boffin is anxious on the subject. And I am,' added the Secretary after a moment, 'for a special reason, very anxious.'
'I shall be happy, Mr Rokesmith,' returned Bella, 'to be of the least use; for I feel, after the serious scene of to-day, that I am useless enough in this world.'
'Don't say that,' urged the Secretary.
'Oh, but I mean that,' said Bella, raising her eyebrows.
'No one is useless in this world,' retorted the Secretary, 'who lightens the burden of it for any one else.'
'But I assure you I DON'T, Mr Rokesmith,' said Bella. half-crying.
'Not for your father?'
'Dear, loving, self-forgetting, easily-satisfied Pa! Oh, yes! He thinks so.'
'It is enough if he only thinks so,' said the Secretary. 'Excuse the interruption: I don't like to hear you depreciate yourself.'
'But YOU once depreciated ME, sir,' thought Bella, pouting, 'and I hope you may be satisfied with the consequences you brought upon your head!' However, she said nothing to that purpose; she even said something to a different purpose.
'Mr Rokesmith, it seems so long since we spoke together naturally, that I am embarrassed in approaching another subject. Mr Boffin. You know I am very grateful to him; don't you? You know I feel a true respect for him, and am bound to him by the strong ties of his own generosity; now don't you?'
'Unquestionably. And also that you are his favourite companion.'
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