Bleak House, by Charles Dickens (1852-1853) - Chapter 44 -
The Letter and the Answer
The Letter and the Answer
My guardian called me into his room next morning, and
then I told him what had been left untold on the previous night. There was
nothing to be done, he said, but to keep the secret and to avoid another such
encounter as that of yesterday. He understood my feeling and entirely shared it.
He charged himself even with restraining Mr. Skimpole from improving his
opportunity. One person whom he need not name to me, it was not now possible for
him to advise or help. He wished it were, but no such thing could be. If her
mistrust of the lawyer whom she had mentioned were well- founded, which he
scarcely doubted, he dreaded discovery. He knew something of him, both by sight
and by reputation, and it was certain that he was a dangerous man. Whatever
happened, he repeatedly impressed upon me with anxious affection and kindness, I
was as innocent of as himself and as unable to influence.
Nor do I understand," said he, "that any
doubts tend towards you, my dear. Much suspicion may exist without that
"With the lawyer," I returned. "But two
other persons have come into my mind since I have been anxious. Then I told him
all about Mr. Guppy, who I feared might have had his vague surmises when I
little understood his meaning, but in whose silence after our last interview I
expressed perfect confidence.
"Well," said my guardian. "Then we may
dismiss him for the present. Who is the other?"
I called to his recollection the French maid and the
eager offer of herself she had made to me.
"Ha!" he returned thoughtfully. "That is
a more alarming person than the clerk. But after all, my dear, it was but
seeking for a new service. She had seen you and Ada a little while before, and
it was natural that you should come into her head. She merely proposed herself
for your maid, you know. She did nothing more."
"Her manner was strange," said I.
"Yes, and her manner was strange when she took her
shoes off and showed that cool relish for a walk that might have ended in her
death-bed," said my guardian. "It would be useless self-distress and
torment to reckon up such chances and possibilities. There are very few harmless
circumstances that would not seem full of perilous meaning, so considered. Be
hopeful, little woman. You can be nothing better than yourself; be that, through
this knowledge, as you were before you had it. It is the best you can do for
everybody's sake. I, sharing the secret with you--"
"And lightening it, guardian, so much," said
"--will be attentive to what passes in that family,
so far as I can observe it from my distance. And if the time should come when I
can stretch out a hand to render the least service to one whom it is better not
to name even here, I will not fail to do it for her dear daughter's sake."
I thanked him with my whole heart. What could I ever do
but thank him! I was going out at the door when he asked me to stay a moment.
Quickly turning round, I saw that same expression on his face again; and all at
once, I don't know how, it flashed upon me as a new and far-off possibility that
I understood it.
"My dear Esther," said my guardian, "I
have long had something in my thoughts that I have wished to say to you."
"I have had some difficulty in approaching it, and
I still have. I should wish it to be so deliberately said, and so deliberately
considered. Would you object to my writing it?"
"Dear guardian, how could I object to your writing
anything for ME to read?"
"Then see, my love," said he with his cheery
smile, "am I at this moment quite as plain and easy--do I seem as open, as
honest and old-fashioned--as I am at any time?"
I answered in all earnestness, "Quite." With
the strictest truth, for his momentary hesitation was gone (it had not lasted a
minute), and his fine, sensible, cordial, sterling manner was restored.
"Do I look as if I suppressed anything, meant
anything but what I said, had any reservation at all, no matter what?" said
he with his bright clear eyes on mine.
I answered, most assuredly he did not.
"Can you fully trust me, and thoroughly rely on
what I profess, Esther?"
"Most thoroughly," said I with my whole heart.
"My dear girl," returned my guardian,
"give me your hand."
He took it in his, holding me lightly with his arm, and
looking down into my face with the same genuine freshness and faithfulness of
manner--the old protecting manner which had made that house my home in a
moment--said, "You have wrought changes in me, little woman, since the
winter day in the stage-coach. First and last you have done me a world of good
since that time."
"Ah, guardian, what have you done for me since that
"But," said he, "that is not to be
"It never can be forgotten."
"Yes, Esther," said he with a gentle
seriousness, "it is to be forgotten now, to be forgotten for a while. You
are only to remember now that nothing can change me as you know me. Can you feel
quite assured of that, my dear?"
"I can, and I do," I said.
"That's much," he answered. "That's
everything. But I must not take that at a word. I will not write this something
in my thoughts until you have quite resolved within yourself that nothing can
change me as you know me. If you doubt that in the least degree, I will never
write it. If you are sure of that, on good consideration, send Charley to me
this night week--'for the letter.' But if you are not quite certain, never send.
Mind, I trust to your truth, in this thing as in everything. If you are not
quite certain on that one point, never send!"
"Guardian," said I, "I am already
certain, I can no more be changed in that conviction than you can be changed
towards me. I shall send Charley for the letter."
He shook my hand and said no more. Nor was any more said
in reference to this conversation, either by him or me, through the whole week.
When the appointed night came, I said to Charley as soon as I was alone,
"Go and knock at Mr. Jarndyce's door, Charley, and say you have come from
me--'for the letter.'" Charley went up the stairs, and down the stairs, and
along the passages--the zig- zag way about the old-fashioned house seemed very
long in my listening ears that night--and so came back, along the passages, and
down the stairs, and up the stairs, and brought the letter. "Lay it on the
table, Charley," said I. So Charley laid it on the table and went to bed,
and I sat looking at it without taking it up, thinking of many things.
I began with my overshadowed childhood, and passed
through those timid days to the heavy time when my aunt lay dead, with her
resolute face so cold and set, and when I was more solitary with Mrs. Rachael
than if I had had no one in the world to speak to or to look at. I passed to the
altered days when I was so blest as to find friends in all around me, and to be
beloved. I came to the time when I first saw my dear girl and was received into
that sisterly affection which was the grace and beauty of my life. I recalled
the first bright gleam of welcome which had shone out of those very windows upon
our expectant faces on that cold bright night, and which had never paled. I
lived my happy life there over again, I went through my illness and recovery, I
thought of myself so altered and of those around me so unchanged; and all this
happiness shone like a light from one central figure, represented before me by
the letter on the table.
I opened it and read it. It was so impressive in its
love for me, and in the unselfish caution it gave me, and the consideration it
showed for me in every word, that my eyes were too often blinded to read much at
a time. But I read it through three times before I laid it down. I had thought
beforehand that I knew its purport, and I did. It asked me, would I be the
mistress of Bleak House.
It was not a love letter, though it expressed so much
love, but was written just as he would at any time have spoken to me. I saw his
face, and heard his voice, and felt the influence of his kind protecting manner
in every line. It addressed me as if our places were reversed, as if all the
good deeds had been mine and all the feelings they had awakened his. It dwelt on
my being young, and he past the prime of life; on his having attained a ripe
age, while I was a child; on his writing to me with a silvered head, and knowing
all this so well as to set it in full before me for mature deliberation. It told
me that I would gain nothing by such a marriage and lose nothing by rejecting
it, for no new relation could enhance the tenderness in which he held me, and
whatever my decision was, he was certain it would be right. But he had
considered this step anew since our late confidence and had decided on taking
it, if it only served to show me through one poor instance that the whole world
would readily unite to falsify the stern prediction of my childhood. I was the
last to know what happiness I could bestow upon him, but of that he said no
more, for I was always to remember that I owed him nothing and that he was my
debtor, and for very much. He had often thought of our future, and foreseeing
that the time must come, and fearing that it might come soon, when Ada (now very
nearly of age) would leave us, and when our present mode of life must be broken
up, had become accustomed to reflect on this proposal. Thus he made it. If I
felt that I could ever give him the best right he could have to be my protector,
and if I felt that I could happily and justly become the dear companion of his
remaining life, superior to all lighter chances and changes than death, even
then he could not have me bind myself irrevocably while this letter was yet so
new to me, but even then I must have ample time for reconsideration. In that
case, or in the opposite case, let him be unchanged in his old relation, in his
old manner, in the old name by which I called him. And as to his bright Dame
Durden and little housekeeper, she would ever be the same, he knew.
This was the substance of the letter, written throughout
with a justice and a dignity as if he were indeed my responsible guardian
impartially representing the proposal of a friend against whom in his integrity
he stated the full case.
But he did not hint to me that when I had been better
looking he had had this same proceeding in his thoughts and had refrained from
it. That when my old face was gone from me, and I had no attractions, he could
love me just as well as in my fairer days. That the discovery of my birth gave
him no shock. That his generosity rose above my disfigurement and my inheritance
of shame. That the more I stood in need of such fidelity, the more firmly I
might trust in him to the last.
But I knew it, I knew it well now. It came upon me as
the close of the benignant history I had been pursuing, and I felt that I had
but one thing to do. To devote my life to his happiness was to thank him poorly,
and what had I wished for the other night but some new means of thanking him?
Still I cried very much, not only in the fullness of my
heart after reading the letter, not only in the strangeness of the prospect--
for it was strange though I had expected the contents--but as if something for
which there was no name or distinct idea were indefinitely lost to me. I was
very happy, very thankful, very hopeful; but I cried very much.
By and by I went to my old glass. My eyes were red and
swollen, and I said, "Oh, Esther, Esther, can that be you!" I am
afraid the face in the glass was going to cry again at this reproach, but I held
up my finger at it, and it stopped.
"That is more like the composed look you comforted
me with, my dear, when you showed me such a change!" said I, beginning to
let down my hair. "When you are mistress of Bleak House, you are to be as
cheerful as a bird. In fact, you are always to be cheerful; so let us begin for
once and for all."
I went on with my hair now, quite comfortably. I sobbed
a little still, but that was because I had been crying, not because I was crying
"And so Esther, my dear, you are happy for life.
Happy with your best friends, happy in your old home, happy in the power of
doing a great deal of good, and happy in the undeserved love of the best of
I thought, all at once, if my guardian had married some
one else, how should I have felt, and what should I have done! That would have
been a change indeed. It presented my life in such a new and blank form that I
rang my housekeeping keys and gave them a kiss before I laid them down in their
Then I went on to think, as I dressed my hair before the
glass, how often had I considered within myself that the deep traces of my
illness and the circumstances of my birth were only new reasons why I should be
busy, busy, busy--useful, amiable, serviceable, in all honest, unpretending
ways. This was a good time, to be sure, to sit down morbidly and cry! As to its
seeming at all strange to me at first (if that were any excuse for crying, which
it was not) that I was one day to be the mistress of Bleak House, why should it
seem strange? Other people had thought of such things, if I had not. "Don't
you remember, my plain dear," I asked myself, looking at the glass,
"what Mrs. Woodcourt said before those scars were there about your
Perhaps the name brought them to my remembrance. The
dried remains of the flowers. It would be better not to keep them now. They had
only been preserved in memory of something wholly past and gone, but it would be
better not to keep them now.
They were in a book, and it happened to be in the next
room--our sitting-room, dividing Ada's chamber from mine. I took a candle and
went softly in to fetch it from its shelf. After I had it in my hand, I saw my
beautiful darling, through the open door, lying asleep, and I stole in to kiss
It was weak in me, I know, and I could have no reason
for crying; but I dropped a tear upon her dear face, and another, and another.
Weaker than that, I took the withered flowers out and put them for a moment to
her lips. I thought about her love for Richard, though, indeed, the flowers had
nothing to do with that. Then I took them into my own room and burned them at
the candle, and they were dust in an instant.
On entering the breakfast-room next morning, I found my
guardian just as usual, quite as frank, as open, and free. There being not the
least constraint in his manner, there was none (or I think there was none) in
mine. I was with him several times in the course of the morning, in and out,
when there was no one there, and I thought it not unlikely that he might speak
to me about the letter, but he did not say a word.
So, on the next morning, and the next, and for at least
a week, over which time Mr. Skimpole prolonged his stay. I expected, every day,
that my guardian might speak to me about the letter, but he never did.
I thought then, growing uneasy, that I ought to write an
answer. I tried over and over again in my own room at night, but I could not
write an answer that at all began like a good answer, so I thought each night I
would wait one more day. And I waited seven more days, and he never said a word.
At last, Mr. Skimpole having departed, we three were one
afternoon going out for a ride; and I, being dressed before Ada and going down,
came upon my guardian, with his back towards me, standing at the drawing-room
window looking out.
He turned on my coming in and said, smiling, "Aye,
it's you, little woman, is it?" and looked out again.
I had made up my mind to speak to him now. In short, I
had come down on purpose. "Guardian," I said, rather hesitating and
trembling, "when would you like to have the answer to the letter Charley
"When it's ready, my dear," he replied.
"I think it is ready," said I.
"Is Charley to bring it?" he asked pleasantly.
"No. I have brought it myself, guardian," I
I put my two arms round his neck and kissed him, and he
said was this the mistress of Bleak House, and I said yes; and it made no
difference presently, and we all went out together, and I said nothing to my
precious pet about it.