“I . . . would strive as I grew up to be industrious, contented, and kind-hearted, and to do some good to someone, and win some love to myself if I could.”
Bleak House, I.iii
the warmth of your love
is like the warmth of the sun
and this will be our year
took a long time to come
don't let go of my hand
now darkness has gone
and this will be our year
took a long time to come
“This Will Be Our Year,” The Zombies
Happiness, like God, comes to us like a thief in the night.
My dear guardian, for so I still call him though I have a new guardian now, said so to me a day or two ago when we had all returned to the older Bleak House. It was then, as you may imagine, like anything but its name; the late April sunshine poured through the windows and the children tore through the house and the grounds. But if it is a lovely house in the spring, when filled to bursting with guests and lit by the soft light of the season, I confess myself uncertain of my guardian when we are absent. His melancholy, and my darling Ada’s, must cloud the air like coal dust despite the happy cries of her boy.
Though in truth he looked happy enough, when he said it.
“This troubles you, little woman?” My guardian spoke tenderly, without any of the Growlery-look I had formerly been accustomed to seeing in his face. Without me to care for my loved ones and smooth his way, I fear sometimes that the Growlery moods must take him up more and more, even if Jarndyce and Jarndyce has scarred over. Old wounds trouble many a valiant man, and Allan and I sometimes wonder how much of a prick to his good, high conscience our little Richard must be.
“Only that my happiness cannot be everyone’s happiness,” said I. I took his hand in mine, and though I did not raise it to my lips – my guardian would never accept such wild homage, now – I think he knew everything I felt and longed to say, and that only my slow tongue prevented my lifting my heart into my mouth. But I am sure sometimes that my joy positively leaks out of me. (Allan says, sometimes, he sees it too – and looks for traces of it on our friends’ clothes. As if our house were a field of buttercups. He is a dear man for treating my silliness gently.) “It seems too unfair that we cannot make those we love share our happiness in equal parts. I cannot always help it, guardian, you know. It comes to me now and then that we have defeated one injustice only to succumb to another – perhaps far greater.”
“My dear girl, do you think I would seize my own happiness if I thought it would snuff even one particle of this radiance?” He squeezed my hand, his clear eyes kind and honest as ever. “You know, little woman, that sweet things are all the sweeter for following on sorrows? Your husband, our family – surely you would not redeem them for an easier history.” My guardian is the best man in the world, excepting not even the one to whom I owe my present joys, and as we none of us can ever reward him for his kindness I must at least take him at his word.
“You will forgive me, though, if I cannot always set down my tragedies,” I said gently, for Ada and our boy (for, as you see, I cannot help but think of him so) were just then coming toward us.
“No, no,” said my guardian, “for how else can we know they share in our happiness, but that we know they are always with us?”
I remember a summer at Lyme with Allan, just the two of us. Our girls were with Ada and my guardian at the first Bleak House, while our excellent copy stood empty for some weeks. Now that we are safely with each other, ships and seaports are no cruelty to me, and so I could rejoice easily in the gentle sunshine and the gentle love of my husband. He is always showing me his love, so that at times I am quite overcome – and can still hardly believe my good fortune! We were lucky in the weather too, days quite unlike our climate’s natural tendency, with delicious warmth that brought only joy – never disease or discomfort. It was almost a second gift, I mean a gift on top of the gift of the holiday itself, and one that tempted me to luxury, for surely the clean, fresh heat of the seaside summer was an indulgence – it was, at the very least, a treasure beyond almost any other. My life is a life filled to brimming with blessings, those weeks like glad music I shall always count among them.
There we were alone among strangers, though certainly very kind strangers, and I could almost swear that we started over again with that tremulous, aching love for each other that had characterized our early acquaintance. It was in a strange way a second attempt at the strained, painful, and chilled meeting we shared upon Allan’s return from the East, which now seems so long ago – that meeting when we could speak no words of happiness we mended here. We could speak now, and did, though I have still not the art to say all I feel when I feel strongly. My kind, darling, dearest husband understands this – he understands me! Almost without words. And now, rising around our revived first love we found the stained glass walls of our living, everyday love.
“Esther,” Allan said on a walk along the Cobb, “in the East they have lanterns like kites. They make them by stretching rice paper around bamboo, and lighting a candle within the lantern, so that lit from within, they float up into the sky.”
“Like stars,” said I, smiling. “You have spoken of them to me.”
“Have I, then?” His tone was clever, but his smile was soft, and he lifted his free hand to mine on his arm, toying with the fingers as we walked. “I suppose I need say nothing more.”
“No, no,” I laughed, “you know it is a joy to me to hear your stories of – of far-away places, for I know you came back to me. I have you here as . . . proof of so many things. Tell me about the lanterns.”
“I had very little else to say,” he admitted, “except that every lantern I saw, I thought, Miss Summerson is my candle. Now, of course, I may say, Esther is my candle.”
The brisk breeze from the sea brought salt to my cheeks, and I saw it left its mark on Allan’s face as well – and what could we say then?
As I have said elsewhere, our first extra funds went to recreating my guardian’s Growlery, which his too modest temper had caused him to forgo in his generous recreation of the home that had given us all such happiness. I will confess, though indeed it brings a blush to my cheek and a tear of shame to my eye, that it was not I who first noticed the absence of this room, nor even I who suggested it – no, indeed, it was my husband who noticed that significant absence and called it to my attention.
We were at that time very much concerned with unity, familial (unorthodox as our family was! Can you wonder at it? Though you might think that our ties had been sufficiently tested and proved, in some ways we were all so new and tender with each other that to each other we might have been new orchids in Scandinavia, rather than the windfall the rest of the world thought us.) and marital; Ada had recently returned to my guardian’s home with her boy, and Allan and I were for the first time quite alone. We felt it more keenly, perhaps, for witnessing the Yorkshire autumn outside our house. It makes one long for a drawing in close, for establishing togetherness. I sometimes almost thought that every gust of wind to pierce the windows or knock the house almost moved Allan and I closer together, tangling our fingers for fear one or the other of us would prove unable to resist the powerful forces outside our house.
“Esther,” he said to me in the autumn, never having been a greedy or jealous man, “do you not think it is time we went about filling the only gap in our beautiful home?”
I must blush again to say that I quite misinterpreted this question when first he posed it, though you may be sure at least that my shock was very great. My dear Allan looked across at me with his dark, innocent eyes quite uncertain as to why my face would flame so at the breakfast table. “Indeed, my dear, I am not quite sure how to respond to such a question,” I said, very embarrassed and not very smoothly. I had just about got through mentioning that surely his medical training would better equip him to handle such a matter, when he started to laugh. His face was now a comparable color to my own.
“I was speaking of quite another matter, dearest.” There was a pause while we both recovered our composure. “Have you not noticed the absence of which I speak? Our home is a perfect copy of the original in all but one respect – surely you can guess to what I refer.”
I am still not sure how this absence failed to strike me – perhaps marriage had made me complacent, perhaps my worries for Ada and our boy had overtaken other concerns, I only know that Allan had seen the empty space in our house before I had, and had even planned how to fill it again.
“The dear man!” I thought, almost, that I might weep. “Only he would give us this gift and never think to put himself in it, though without him and his boundless love what would we want with any Bleak House, new or old?”
“Surely the new one has its advantages,” Allan said; with a wry, loving smile that sparked a laugh in me like a spark beneath dry apple boughs.
“Oh, yes,” I said, “this house has graces and joys the old Bleak House never could have contained – but you know that as well as I, and it is not becoming of you to seek out expressions of favor in such a way. What would your mother – or your patients! – say to witness such behavior?” So, you see, my husband has taught me many things beyond household economy, though I am sure I will never learn impudence after the becoming fashion practiced today by young ladies, and my husband. My instincts are quite otherwise, and I think I would no longer be the Dame Durden who has succeeded in earning her portion of love and happiness if I ventured to take up fashionable manners and attitudes of that sort.
“You have quite shamed me, Esther,” my husband said in a way that made me think him less than perfectly sincere, “but if we may return to the original topic, and a timely one, if I may say so – for is it not a Growlery sort of day today? I have made some plans – some calculations – toward the construction, or perhaps rather the reconstruction, of Mr. Jarndyce’s Growlery, and I think we will soon be secure enough to allow him to weather his infrequent storms as well here as he might in his own home.”
Oh, my clever husband! He had almost the whole plan composed himself, and although it was many months even before we could safely begin my guardian’s new Growlery, the plans bore fruit.
“Esther, dearest,” Ada said warmly, “I do think this is the happiest I’ve ever had the fortune to see you.”
“Oh, surely not!” I exclaimed, thinking my darling a little cruel to suggest such a thing. “I have been happier, I must have been happier, at other times. Surely, Ada, you know there were times when I ought to have been happier.”
“It is true, you were incandescent, and catching, as your husband says, – but I mean something quite different, now, my love.” We were just then quite alone with each other, the male members of our Christmas party having withdrawn to more robust refreshment than that offered by the cups of tea occupying our hands. In Ada’s hands, the porcelain cup looked full of meaning, a chalice or grail, though I knew it was my love for her that made me think so – my own cup was simply a cup of tea. Its warmth was a comfort against the winter, but not one to compare with Ada’s presence.
I was not afraid to tell her so: “It is because you are here, Ada, that you see this happiness. Indeed, I cannot imagine a really complete happiness without you, you know – or . . . or, I am sure I cannot. Who is dearer to me than you?”
My kind friend did not scorn to smile at me, and clasp her hand in mine. “Oh, I could never doubt that your brilliance is fed a bit by my own little . . . matchbook of pleasure!” (How can she speak so! I am sure it is quite the other way around, even despite the sorrows she holds in her heart – but perhaps, after all, she cannot yet see her own light.) “There is some new element in you, Esther – a sense of comfort and contentment which I am sure you never had before. And how could you? None of us would slight our Dame Durden of old – or doubt the happiness we saw in you then. How could I? You are my dearest friend, and I remember well the love we shared then. Oh! You were almost a second guardian to us, and more to me besides. But now, there is something quite new, as if your joy is your own, where before it had been borrowed from other people. And, you know, there ought to be at least . . . one person, my sweet, and perhaps two, dearer to you than I.”
“I have enough love, surely, to love everyone who requires my love,” I said firmly though not very elegantly, “in quite different ways – when required.”
“But what I meant, earlier,” Ada told me,” was that living here – in your house, with your husband, where soon you will have your own family, and where the two of you carve a name and a society for yourselves quite free of the notoriety of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, or the hallowed name of Morgan ap Kerig, and even on your wedding day (for I am sure that was the day to which you earlier referred) such a thing would not have been possible – Well, I look at you and I see that this has allowed room for a flowering.” Suddenly she laughed, a merry laugh that brought out an answering laugh from my mouth, though I had not yet learned the joke. “Oh, Esther – you are our Christmas lily!” Ada said, and she kissed me on both cheeks, almost upsetting her cup.
I have never felt much like a lily, but my dear girl is so gracious that her compliments can never be called flattery, and so persistent that I have never had much luck in turning them aside.
“Well, Ada,” I said to her, “you may well be right. I do not know much, except that I am indeed happy here, and perhaps in a manner quite new to you, and to me. But if you will come sit beside me, we can pretend some of the old girlish happiness, which this house has never seen from us, though I remember well when it filled the old to overflowing.”
And she did, and we sat together, as we used to and as we will again, until the rest of our family joined us.