'My favourite book, dear madam. How often, how very often in his early life--before he can remember'--(this clause was strictly true) 'have I deduced little easy moral lessons from its pages, for my dear son Ned! You know Ned?'
Mrs Varden had that honour, and a fine affable young gentleman he was.
'You're a mother, Mrs Varden,' said Mr Chester, taking a pinch of snuff, 'and you know what I, as a father, feel, when he is praised. He gives me some uneasiness--much uneasiness--he's of a roving nature, ma'am--from flower to flower--from sweet to sweet--but his is the butterfly time of life, and we must not be hard upon such trifling.'
He glanced at Dolly. She was attending evidently to what he said. Just what he desired!
'The only thing I object to in this little trait of Ned's, is,' said Mr Chester, '--and the mention of his name reminds me, by the way, that I am about to beg the favour of a minute's talk with you alone--the only thing I object to in it, is, that it DOES partake of insincerity. Now, however I may attempt to disguise the fact from myself in my affection for Ned, still I always revert to this-- that if we are not sincere, we are nothing. Nothing upon earth. Let us be sincere, my dear madam--'
'--and Protestant,' murmured Mrs Varden.
'--and Protestant above all things. Let us be sincere and Protestant, strictly moral, strictly just (though always with a leaning towards mercy), strictly honest, and strictly true, and we gain--it is a slight point, certainly, but still it is something tangible; we throw up a groundwork and foundation, so to speak, of goodness, on which we may afterwards erect some worthy superstructure.'
Now, to be sure, Mrs Varden thought, here is a perfect character. Here is a meek, righteous, thoroughgoing Christian, who, having mastered all these qualities, so difficult of attainment; who, having dropped a pinch of salt on the tails of all the cardinal virtues, and caught them every one; makes light of their possession, and pants for more morality. For the good woman never doubted (as many good men and women never do), that this slighting kind of profession, this setting so little store by great matters, this seeming to say, 'I am not proud, I am what you hear, but I consider myself no better than other people; let us change the subject, pray'--was perfectly genuine and true. He so contrived it, and said it in that way that it appeared to have been forced from him, and its effect was marvellous.
Aware of the impression he had made--few men were quicker than he at such discoveries--Mr Chester followed up the blow by propounding certain virtuous maxims, somewhat vague and general in their nature, doubtless, and occasionally partaking of the character of truisms, worn a little out at elbow, but delivered in so charming a voice and with such uncommon serenity and peace of mind, that they answered as well as the best. Nor is this to be wondered at; for as hollow vessels produce a far more musical sound in falling than those which are substantial, so it will oftentimes be found that sentiments which have nothing in them make the loudest ringing in the world, and are the most relished.
Mr Chester, with the volume gently extended in one hand, and with the other planted lightly on his breast, talked to them in the most delicious manner possible; and quite enchanted all his hearers, notwithstanding their conflicting interests and thoughts. Even Dolly, who, between his keen regards and her eyeing over by Mr Tappertit, was put quite out of countenance, could not help owning within herself that he was the sweetest-spoken gentleman she had ever seen. Even Miss Miggs, who was divided between admiration of Mr Chester and a mortal jealousy of her young mistress, had sufficient leisure to be propitiated. Even Mr Tappertit, though occupied as we have seen in gazing at his heart's delight, could not wholly divert his thoughts from the voice of the other charmer. Mrs Varden, to her own private thinking, had never been so improved in all her life; and when Mr Chester, rising and craving permission to speak with her apart, took her by the hand and led her at arm's length upstairs to the best sitting-room, she almost deemed him something more than human.