The History of a Self-Tormentor
I have the misfortune of not being a fool. From a very early age I have detected what those about me thought they hid from me. If I could have been habitually imposed upon, instead of habitually discerning the truth, I might have lived as smoothly as most fools do.
My childhood was passed with a grandmother; that is to say, with a lady who represented that relative to me, and who took that title on herself. She had no claim to it, but I--being to that extent a little fool--had no suspicion of her. She had some children of her own family in her house, and some children of other people. All girls; ten in number, including me. We all lived together and were educated together.
I must have been about twelve years old when I began to see how determinedly those girls patronised me. I was told I was an orphan. There was no other orphan among us; and I perceived (here was the first disadvantage of not being a fool) that they conciliated me in an insolent pity, and in a sense of superiority.
I did not set this down as a discovery, rashly. I tried them often. I could hardly make them quarrel with me. When I succeeded with any of them, they were sure to come after an hour or two, and begin a reconciliation. I tried them over and over again, and I never knew them wait for me to begin. They were always forgiving me, in their vanity and condescension. Little images of grown people!
One of them was my chosen friend. I loved that stupid mite in a passionate way that she could no more deserve than I can remember without feeling ashamed of, though I was but a child. She had what they called an amiable temper, an affectionate temper. She could distribute, and did distribute pretty looks and smiles to every one among them. I believe there was not a soul in the place, except myself, who knew that she did it purposely to wound and gall me!
Nevertheless, I so loved that unworthy girl that my life was made stormy by my fondness for her. I was constantly lectured and disgraced for what was called 'trying her;' in other words charging her with her little perfidy and throwing her into tears by showing her that I read her heart. However, I loved her faithfully; and one time I went home with her for the holidays.
She was worse at home than she had been at school. She had a crowd of cousins and acquaintances, and we had dances at her house, and went out to dances at other houses, and, both at home and out, she tormented my love beyond endurance. Her plan was, to make them all fond of her--and so drive me wild with jealousy. To be familiar and endearing with them all--and so make me mad with envying them.
When we were left alone in our bedroom at night, I would reproach her with my perfect knowledge of her baseness; and then she would cry and cry and say I was cruel, and then I would hold her in my arms till morning: loving her as much as ever, and often feeling as if, rather than suffer so, I could so hold her in my arms and plunge to the bottom of a river--where I would still hold her after we were both dead.
It came to an end, and I was relieved. In the family there was an aunt who was not fond of me. I doubt if any of the family liked me much; but I never wanted them to like me, being altogether bound up in the one girl. The aunt was a young woman, and she had a serious way with her eyes of watching me. She was an audacious woman, and openly looked compassionately at me. After one of the nights that I have spoken of, I came down into a greenhouse before breakfast.
Charlotte (the name of my false young friend) had gone down before me, and I heard this aunt speaking to her about me as I entered.
I stopped where I was, among the leaves, and listened.
The aunt said, 'Charlotte, Miss Wade is wearing you to death, and this must not continue.' I repeat the very words I heard.
Now, what did she answer? Did she say, 'It is I who am wearing her to death, I who am keeping her on a rack and am the executioner, yet she tells me every night that she loves me devotedly, though she knows what I make her undergo?' No; my first memorable experience was true to what I knew her to be, and to all my experience. She began sobbing and weeping (to secure the aunt's sympathy to herself), and said, 'Dear aunt, she has an unhappy temper; other girls at school, besides I, try hard to make it better; we all try hard.'
Upon that the aunt fondled her, as if she had said something noble instead of despicable and false, and kept up the infamous pretence by replying, 'But there are reasonable limits, my dear love, to everything, and I see that this poor miserable girl causes you more constant and useless distress than even so good an effort justifies.'
The poor miserable girl came out of her concealment, as you may be prepared to hear, and said, 'Send me home.' I never said another word to either of them, or to any of them, but 'Send me home, or I will walk home alone, night and day!' When I got home, I told my supposed grandmother that, unless I was sent away to finish my education somewhere else before that girl came back, or before any one of them came back, I would burn my sight away by throwing myself into the fire, rather than I would endure to look at their plotting faces.
I went among young women next, and I found them no better. Fair words and fair pretences; but I penetrated below those assertions of themselves and depreciations of me, and they were no better.
Before I left them, I learned that I had no grandmother and no recognised relation. I carried the light of that information both into my past and into my future. It showed me many new occasions on which people triumphed over me, when they made a pretence of treating me with consideration, or doing me a service.
A man of business had a small property in trust for me. I was to be a governess; I became a governess; and went into the family of a poor nobleman, where there were two daughters--little children, but the parents wished them to grow up, if possible, under one instructress. The mother was young and pretty. From the first, she made a show of behaving to me with great delicacy. I kept my resentment to myself; but I knew very well that it was her way of petting the knowledge that she was my Mistress, and might have behaved differently to her servant if it had been her fancy.
I say I did not resent it, nor did I; but I showed her, by not gratifying her, that I understood her. When she pressed me to take wine, I took water. If there happened to be anything choice at table, she always sent it to me: but I always declined it, and ate of the rejected dishes. These disappointments of her patronage were a sharp retort, and made me feel independent.
I liked the children. They were timid, but on the whole disposed to attach themselves to me. There was a nurse, however, in the house, a rosy-faced woman always making an obtrusive pretence of being gay and good-humoured, who had nursed them both, and who had secured their affections before I saw them. I could almost have settled down to my fate but for this woman. Her artful devices for keeping herself before the children in constant competition with me, might have blinded many in my place; but I saw through them from the first. On the pretext of arranging my rooms and waiting on me and taking care of my wardrobe (all of which she did busily), she was never absent. The most crafty of her many subtleties was her feint of seeking to make the children fonder of me. She would lead them to me and coax them to me. 'Come to good Miss Wade, come to dear Miss Wade, come to pretty Miss Wade. She loves you very much. Miss Wade is a clever lady, who has read heaps of books, and can tell you far better and more interesting stories than I know.
Come and hear Miss Wade!' How could I engage their attentions, when my heart was burning against these ignorant designs? How could I wonder, when I saw their innocent faces shrinking away, and their arms twining round her neck, instead of mine? Then she would look up at me, shaking their curls from her face, and say, 'They'll come round soon, Miss Wade; they're very simple and loving, ma'am; don't be at all cast down about it, ma'am'--exulting over me!
There was another thing the woman did. At times, when she saw that she had safely plunged me into a black despondent brooding by these means, she would call the attention of the children to it, and would show them the difference between herself and me. 'Hush!
Poor Miss Wade is not well. Don't make a noise, my dears, her head aches. Come and comfort her. Come and ask her if she is better; come and ask her to lie down. I hope you have nothing on your mind, ma'am. Don't take on, ma'am, and be sorry!'
It became intolerable. Her ladyship, my Mistress, coming in one day when I was alone, and at the height of feeling that I could support it no longer, I told her I must go. I could not bear the presence of that woman Dawes.
'Miss Wade! Poor Dawes is devoted to you; would do anything for you!'
I knew beforehand she would say so; I was quite prepared for it; I only answered, it was not for me to contradict my Mistress; I must go.
'I hope, Miss Wade,' she returned, instantly assuming the tone of superiority she had always so thinly concealed, 'that nothing I have ever said or done since we have been together, has justified your use of that disagreeable word, "Mistress." It must have been wholly inadvertent on my part. Pray tell me what it is.'
I replied that I had no complaint to make, either of my Mistress or to my Mistress; but I must go.
She hesitated a moment, and then sat down beside me, and laid her hand on mine. As if that honour would obliterate any remembrance!
'Miss Wade, I fear you are unhappy, through causes over which I have no influence.'
I smiled, thinking of the experience the word awakened, and said, 'I have an unhappy temper, I suppose.' 'I did not say that.'
'It is an easy way of accounting for anything,' said I.
'It may be; but I did not say so. What I wish to approach is something very different. My husband and I have exchanged some remarks upon the subject, when we have observed with pain that you have not been easy with us.'
'Easy? Oh! You are such great people, my lady,' said I.
'I am unfortunate in using a word which may convey a meaning--and evidently does--quite opposite to my intention.' (She had not expected my reply, and it shamed her.) 'I only mean, not happy with us. It is a difficult topic to enter on; but, from one young woman to another, perhaps--in short, we have been apprehensive that you may allow some family circumstances of which no one can be more innocent than yourself, to prey upon your spirits. If so, let us entreat you not to make them a cause of grief. My husband himself, as is well known, formerly had a very dear sister who was not in law his sister, but who was universally beloved and respected .
I saw directly that they had taken me in for the sake of the dead woman, whoever she was, and to have that boast of me and advantage of me; I saw, in the nurse's knowledge of it, an encouragement to goad me as she had done; and I saw, in the children's shrinking away, a vague impression, that I was not like other people. I left that house that night.
After one or two short and very similar experiences, which are not to the present purpose, I entered another family where I had but one pupil: a girl of fifteen, who was the only daughter. The parents here were elderly people: people of station, and rich. A nephew whom they had brought up was a frequent visitor at the house, among many other visitors; and he began to pay me attention.
I was resolute in repulsing him; for I had determined when I went there, that no one should pity me or condescend to me. But he wrote me a letter. It led to our being engaged to be married.
He was a year younger than I, and young-looking even when that allowance was made. He was on absence from India, where he had a post that was soon to grow into a very good one. In six months we were to be married, and were to go to India. I was to stay in the house, and was to be married from the house. Nobody objected to any part of the plan.
I cannot avoid saying he admired me; but, if I could, I would.
Vanity has nothing to do with the declaration, for his admiration worried me. He took no pains to hide it; and caused me to feel among the rich people as if he had bought me for my looks, and made a show of his purchase to justify himself. They appraised me in their own minds, I saw, and were curious to ascertain what my full value was. I resolved that they should not know. I was immovable and silent before them; and would have suffered any one of them to kill me sooner than I would have laid myself out to bespeak their approval.
He told me I did not do myself justice. I told him I did, and it was because I did and meant to do so to the last, that I would not stoop to propitiate any of them. He was concerned and even shocked, when I added that I wished he would not parade his attachment before them; but he said he would sacrifice even the honest impulses of his affection to my peace.
Under that pretence he began to retort upon me. By the hour together, he would keep at a distance from me, talking to any one rather than to me. I have sat alone and unnoticed, half an evening, while he conversed with his young cousin, my pupil. I have seen all the while, in people's eyes, that they thought the two looked nearer on an equality than he and I. I have sat, divining their thoughts, until I have felt that his young appearance made me ridiculous, and have raged against myself for ever loving him.
For I did love him once. Undeserving as he was, and little as he thought of all these agonies that it cost me--agonies which should have made him wholly and gratefully mine to his life's end--I loved him. I bore with his cousin's praising him to my face, and with her pretending to think that it pleased me, but full well knowing that it rankled in my breast; for his sake. While I have sat in his presence recalling all my slights and wrongs, and deliberating whether I should not fly from the house at once and never see him again--I have loved him.
His aunt (my Mistress you will please to remember) deliberately, wilfully, added to my trials and vexations. It was her delight to expatiate on the style in which we were to live in India, and on the establishment we should keep, and the company we should entertain when he got his advancement. My pride rose against this barefaced way of pointing out the contrast my married life was to present to my then dependent and inferior position. I suppressed my indignation; but I showed her that her intention was not lost upon me, and I repaid her annoyance by affecting humility. What she described would surely be a great deal too much honour for me, I would tell her. I was afraid I might not be able to support so great a change. Think of a mere governess, her daughter's governess, coming to that high distinction! It made her uneasy, and made them all uneasy, when I answered in this way. They knew that I fully understood her.
It was at the time when my troubles were at their highest, and when I was most incensed against my lover for his ingratitude in caring as little as he did for the innumerable distresses and mortifications I underwent on his account, that your dear friend, Mr Gowan, appeared at the house. He had been intimate there for a long time, but had been abroad. He understood the state of things at a glance, and he understood me.
He was the first person I had ever seen in my life who had understood me. He was not in the house three times before I knew that he accompanied every movement of my mind. In his coldly easy way with all of them, and with me, and with the whole subject, I saw it clearly. In his light protestations of admiration of my future husband, in his enthusiasm regarding our engagement and our prospects, in his hopeful congratulations on our future wealth and his despondent references to his own poverty--all equally hollow, and jesting, and full of mockery--I saw it clearly. He made me feel more and more resentful, and more and more contemptible, by always presenting to me everything that surrounded me with some new hateful light upon it, while he pretended to exhibit it in its best aspect for my admiration and his own. He was like the dressed-up Death in the Dutch series; whatever figure he took upon his arm, whether it was youth or age, beauty or ugliness, whether he danced with it, sang with it, played with it, or prayed with it, he made it ghastly.
You will understand, then, that when your dear friend complimented me, he really condoled with me; that when he soothed me under my vexations, he laid bare every smarting wound I had; that when he declared my 'faithful swain' to be 'the most loving young fellow in the world, with the tenderest heart that ever beat,' he touched my old misgiving that I was made ridiculous. These were not great services, you may say. They were acceptable to me, because they echoed my own mind, and confirmed my own knowledge. I soon began to like the society of your dear friend better than any other.
When I perceived (which I did, almost as soon) that jealousy was growing out of this, I liked this society still better. Had I not been subject to jealousy, and were the endurances to be all mine?
No. Let him know what it was! I was delighted that he should know it; I was delighted that he should feel keenly, and I hoped he did.
More than that. He was tame in comparison with Mr Gowan, who knew how to address me on equal terms, and how to anatomise the wretched people around us.
This went on, until the aunt, my Mistress, took it upon herself to speak to me. It was scarcely worth alluding to; she knew I meant nothing; but she suggested from herself, knowing it was only necessary to suggest, that it might be better if I were a little less companionable with Mr Gowan.
I asked her how she could answer for what I meant? She could always answer, she replied, for my meaning nothing wrong. I thanked her, but said I would prefer to answer for myself and to myself. Her other servants would probably be grateful for good characters, but I wanted none.
Other conversation followed, and induced me to ask her how she knew that it was only necessary for her to make a suggestion to me, to have it obeyed? Did she presume on my birth, or on my hire? I was not bought, body and soul. She seemed to think that her distinguished nephew had gone into a slave-market and purchased a wife.
It would probably have come, sooner or later, to the end to which it did come, but she brought it to its issue at once. She told me, with assumed commiseration, that I had an unhappy temper. On this repetition of the old wicked injury, I withheld no longer, but exposed to her all I had known of her and seen in her, and all I had undergone within myself since I had occupied the despicable position of being engaged to her nephew. I told her that Mr Gowan was the only relief I had had in my degradation; that I had borne it too long, and that I shook it off too late; but that I would see none of them more. And I never did. Your dear friend followed me to my retreat, and was very droll on the severance of the connection; though he was sorry, too, for the excellent people (in their way the best he had ever met), and deplored the necessity of breaking mere house-flies on the wheel.
He protested before long, and far more truly than I then supposed, that he was not worth acceptance by a woman of such endowments, and such power of character; but--well, well!--
Your dear friend amused me and amused himself as long as it suited his inclinations; and then reminded me that we were both people of the world, that we both understood mankind, that we both knew there was no such thing as romance, that we were both prepared for going different ways to seek our fortunes like people of sense, and that we both foresaw that whenever we encountered one another again we should meet as the best friends on earth. So he said, and I did not contradict him.
It was not very long before I found that he was courting his present wife, and that she had been taken away to be out of his reach. I hated her then, quite as much as I hate her now; and naturally, therefore, could desire nothing better than that she should marry him. But I was restlessly curious to look at her--so curious that I felt it to be one of the few sources of entertainment left to me. I travelled a little: travelled until I found myself in her society, and in yours. Your dear friend, I think, was not known to you then, and had not given you any of those signal marks of his friendship which he has bestowed upon you.
In that company I found a girl, in various circumstances of whose position there was a singular likeness to my own, and in whose character I was interested and pleased to see much of the rising against swollen patronage and selfishness, calling themselves kindness, protection, benevolence, and other fine names, which I have described as inherent in my nature. I often heard it said, too, that she had 'an unhappy temper.' Well understanding what was meant by the convenient phrase, and wanting a companion with a knowledge of what I knew, I thought I would try to release the girl from her bondage and sense of injustice. I have no occasion to relate that I succeeded.
We have been together ever since, sharing my small means.
Who passes by this Road so late?
Arthur Clennam had made his unavailing expedition to Calais in the midst of a great pressure of business. A certain barbaric Power with valuable possessions on the map of the world, had occasion for the services of one or two engineers, quick in invention and determined in execution: practical men, who could make the men and means their ingenuity perceived to be wanted out of the best materials they could find at hand; and who were as bold and fertile in the adaptation of such materials to their purpose, as in the conception of their purpose itself. This Power, being a barbaric one, had no idea of stowing away a great national object in a Circumlocution Office, as strong wine is hidden from the light in a cellar until its fire and youth are gone, and the labourers who worked in the vineyard and pressed the grapes are dust. With characteristic ignorance, it acted on the most decided and energetic notions of How to do it; and never showed the least respect for, or gave any quarter to, the great political science, How not to do it. Indeed it had a barbarous way of striking the latter art and mystery dead, in the person of any enlightened subject who practised it.
Accordingly, the men who were wanted were sought out and found; which was in itself a most uncivilised and irregular way of proceeding. Being found, they were treated with great confidence and honour (which again showed dense political ignorance), and were invited to come at once and do what they had to do. In short, they were regarded as men who meant to do it, engaging with other men who meant it to be done.
Daniel Doyce was one of the chosen. There was no foreseeing at that time whether he would be absent months or years. The preparations for his departure, and the conscientious arrangement for him of all the details and results of their joint business, had necessitated labour within a short compass of time, which had occupied Clennam day and night. He had slipped across the water in his first leisure, and had slipped as quickly back again for his farewell interview with Doyce.
Him Arthur now showed, with pains and care, the state of their gains and losses, responsibilities and prospects. Daniel went through it all in his patient manner, and admired it all exceedingly. He audited the accounts, as if they were a far more ingenious piece of mechanism than he had ever constructed, and afterwards stood looking at them, weighing his hat over his head by the brims, as if he were absorbed in the contemplation of some wonderful engine.
'It's all beautiful, Clennam, in its regularity and order. Nothing can be plainer. Nothing can be better.'
'I am glad you approve, Doyce. Now, as to the management of your capital while you are away, and as to the conversion of so much of it as the business may need from time to time--' His partner stopped him.
'As to that, and as to everything else of that kind, all rests with you. You will continue in all such matters to act for both of us, as you have done hitherto, and to lighten my mind of a load it is much relieved from.'
'Though, as I often tell you,' returned Clennam, 'you unreasonably depreciate your business qualities.'
'Perhaps so,' said Doyce, smiling. 'And perhaps not. Anyhow, I have a calling that I have studied more than such matters, and that I am better fitted for. I have perfect confidence in my partner, and I am satisfied that he will do what is best. If I have a prejudice connected with money and money figures,' continued Doyce, laying that plastic workman's thumb of his on the lapel of his partner's coat, 'it is against speculating. I don't think I have any other. I dare say I entertain that prejudice, only because I have never given my mind fully to the subject.'
'But you shouldn't call it a prejudice,' said Clennam. 'My dear Doyce, it is the soundest sense.'
'I am glad you think so,' returned Doyce, with his grey eye looking kind and bright.
'It so happens,' said Clennam, 'that just now, not half an hour before you came down, I was saying the same thing to Pancks, who looked in here. We both agreed that to travel out of safe investments is one of the most dangerous, as it is one of the most common, of those follies which often deserve the name of vices.'
'Pancks?' said Doyce, tilting up his hat at the back, and nodding with an air of confidence. 'Aye, aye, aye! That's a cautious fellow.'
'He is a very cautious fellow indeed,' returned Arthur. 'Quite a specimen of caution.'
They both appeared to derive a larger amount of satisfaction from the cautious character of Mr Pancks, than was quite intelligible, judged by the surface of their conversation.
'And now,' said Daniel, looking at his watch, 'as time and tide wait for no man, my trusty partner, and as I am ready for starting, bag and baggage, at the gate below, let me say a last word. I want you to grant a request of mine.'
'Any request you can make--Except,' Clennam was quick with his exception, for his partner's face was quick in suggesting it, 'except that I will abandon your invention.'
'That's the request, and you know it is,' said Doyce.
'I say, No, then. I say positively, No. Now that I have begun, I will have some definite reason, some responsible statement, something in the nature of a real answer, from those people.'
'You will not,' returned Doyce, shaking his head. 'Take my word for it, you never will.'
'At least, I'll try,' said Clennam. 'It will do me no harm to try.'
'I am not certain of that,' rejoined Doyce, laying his hand persuasively on his shoulder. 'It has done me harm, my friend. It has aged me, tired me, vexed me, disappointed me. It does no man any good to have his patience worn out, and to think himself ill- used. I fancy, even already, that unavailing attendance on delays and evasions has made you something less elastic than you used to be.'
'Private anxieties may have done that for the moment,' said Clennam, 'but not official harrying. Not yet. I am not hurt yet.'
'Then you won't grant my request?'
'Decidedly, No,' said Clennam. 'I should be ashamed if I submitted to be so soon driven out of the field, where a much older and a much more sensitively interested man contended with fortitude so long.'
As there was no moving him, Daniel Doyce returned the grasp of his hand, and, casting a farewell look round the counting-house, went down-stairs with him. Doyce was to go to Southampton to join the small staff of his fellow-travellers; and a coach was at the gate, well furnished and packed, and ready to take him there. The workmen were at the gate to see him off, and were mightily proud of him. 'Good luck to you, Mr Doyce!' said one of the number.
'Wherever you go, they'll find as they've got a man among 'em) a man as knows his tools and as his tools knows, a man as is willing and a man as is able, and if that's not a man, where is a man!' This oration from a gruff volunteer in the back-ground, not previously suspected of any powers in that way, was received with three loud cheers; and the speaker became a distinguished character for ever afterwards. In the midst of the three loud cheers, Daniel gave them all a hearty 'Good Bye, Men!' and the coach disappeared from sight, as if the concussion of the air had blown it out of Bleeding Heart Yard.
Mr Baptist, as a grateful little fellow in a position of trust, was among the workmen, and had done as much towards the cheering as a mere foreigner could. In truth, no men on earth can cheer like Englishmen, who do so rally one another's blood and spirit when they cheer in earnest, that the stir is like the rush of their whole history, with all its standards waving at once, from Saxon Alfred's downwards. Mr Baptist had been in a manner whirled away before the onset, and was taking his breath in quite a scared condition when Clennam beckoned him to follow up-stairs, and return the books and papers to their places.
In the lull consequent on the departure--in that first vacuity which ensues on every separation, foreshadowing the great separation that is always overhanging all mankind--Arthur stood at his desk, looking dreamily out at a gleam of sun. But his liberated attention soon reverted to the theme that was foremost in his thoughts, and began, for the hundredth time, to dwell upon every circumstance that had impressed itself upon his mind on the mysterious night when he had seen the man at his mother's. Again the man jostled him in the crooked street, again he followed the man and lost him, again he came upon the man in the court-yard looking at the house, again he followed the man and stood beside him on the door-steps.
'Who passes by this road so late?
Compagnon de la Majolaine;
Who passes by this road so late?
It was not the first time, by many, that he had recalled the song of the child's game, of which the fellow had hummed @ verse while they stood side by side; but he was so unconscious of having repeated it audibly, that he started to hear the next verse.
'Of all the king's knights 'tis the flower,
Compagnon de la Majolaine;
Of all the king's knights 'tis the flower,
Cavalletto had deferentially suggested the words and tune, supposing him to have stopped short for want of more.
'Ah! You know the song, Cavalletto?'
'By Bacchus, yes, sir! They all know it in France. I have heard it many times, sung by the little children. The last time when it I have heard,' said Mr Baptist, formerly Cavalletto, who usually went back to his native construction of sentences when his memory went near home, 'is from a sweet little voice. A little voice, very pretty, very innocent. Altro!'
'The last time I heard it,' returned Arthur, 'was in a voice quite the reverse of pretty, and quite the reverse of innocent.' He said it more to himself than to his companion, and added to himself, repeating the man's next words. 'Death of my life, sir, it's my character to be impatient!'
'EH!' cried Cavalletto, astounded, and with all his colour gone in a moment.
'What is the matter?'
'Sir! You know where I have heard that song the last time?'
With his rapid native action, his hands made the outline of a high hook nose, pushed his eyes near together, dishevelled his hair, puffed out his upper lip to represent a thick moustache, and threw the heavy end of an ideal cloak over his shoulder. While doing this, with a swiftness incredible to one who has not watched an Italian peasant, he indicated a very remarkable and sinister smile.
The whole change passed over him like a flash of light, and he stood in the same instant, pale and astonished, before his patron.
'In the name of Fate and wonder,' said Clennam, 'what do you mean?
Do you know a man of the name of Blandois?'
'No!' said Mr Baptist, shaking his head.
'You have just now described a man who was by when you heard that song; have you not?'
'Yes!' said Mr Baptist, nodding fifty times.
'And was he not called Blandois?'
'No!' said Mr Baptist. 'Altro, Altro, Altro, Altro!' He could not reject the name sufficiently, with his head and his right forefinger going at once.
'Stay!' cried Clennam, spreading out the handbill on his desk.
'Was this the man? You can understand what I read aloud?'
'But look at it, too. Come here and look over me, while I read.'
Mr Baptist approached, followed every word with his quick eyes, saw and heard it all out with the greatest impatience, then clapped his two hands flat upon the bill as if he had fiercely caught some noxious creature, and cried, looking eagerly at Clennam, 'It is the man! Behold him!'
'This is of far greater moment to me' said Clennam, in great agitation, 'than you can imagine. Tell me where you knew the man.'
Mr Baptist, releasing the paper very slowly and with much discomfiture, and drawing himself back two or three paces, and making as though he dusted his hands, returned, very much against his will:
'What was he?'
'A prisoner, and--Altro! I believe yes!--an,' Mr Baptist crept closer again to whisper it, 'Assassin!'
Clennam fell back as if the word had struck him a blow: so terrible did it make his mother's communication with the man appear.
Cavalletto dropped on one knee, and implored him, with a redundancy of gesticulation, to hear what had brought himself into such foul company.
He told with perfect truth how it had come of a little contraband trading, and how he had in time been released from prison, and how he had gone away from those antecedents. How, at the house of entertainment called the Break of Day at Chalons on the Saone, he had been awakened in his bed at night by the same assassin, then assuming the name of Lagnier, though his name had formerly been Rigaud; how the assassin had proposed that they should join their fortunes together; how he held the assassin in such dread and aversion that he had fled from him at daylight, and how he had ever since been haunted by the fear of seeing the assassin again and being claimed by him as an acquaintance. When he had related this, with an emphasis and poise on the word, 'assassin,' peculiarly belonging to his own language, and which did not serve to render it less terrible to Clennam, he suddenly sprang to his feet, pounced upon the bill again, and with a vehemence that would have been absolute madness in any man of Northern origin, cried 'Behold the same assassin! Here he is!'
In his passionate raptures, he at first forgot the fact that he had lately seen the assassin in London. On his remembering it, it suggested hope to Clennam that the recognition might be of later date than the night of the visit at his mother's; but Cavalletto was too exact and clear about time and place, to leave any opening for doubt that it had preceded that occasion.
'Listen,' said Arthur, very seriously. 'This man, as we have read here, has wholly disappeared.'
'Of it I am well content!' said Cavalletto, raising his eyes piously. 'A thousand thanks to Heaven! Accursed assassin!'
'Not so,' returned Clennam; 'for until something more is heard of him, I can never know an hour's peace.'
'Enough, Benefactor; that is quite another thing. A million of excuses!'
'Now, Cavalletto,' said Clennam, gently turning him by the arm, so that they looked into each other's eyes. 'I am certain that for the little I have been able to do for you, you are the most sincerely grateful of men.'
'I swear it!' cried the other.
'I know it. If you could find this man, or discover what has become of him, or gain any later intelligence whatever of him, you would render me a service above any other service I could receive in the world, and would make me (with far greater reason) as grateful to you as you are to me.' 'I know not where to look,' cried the little man, kissing Arthur's hand in a transport. 'I know not where to begin. I know not where to go. But, courage! Enough! It matters not! I go, in this instant of time!'
'Not a word to any one but me, Cavalletto.'
'Al-tro!' cried Cavalletto. And was gone with great speed.
Mistress Affery makes a Conditional Promise,
respecting her Dreams
Left alone, with the expressive looks and gestures of Mr Baptist, otherwise Giovanni Baptista Cavalletto, vividly before him, Clennam entered on a weary day. It was in vain that he tried to control his attention by directing it to any business occupation or train of thought; it rode at anchor by the haunting topic, and would hold to no other idea. As though a criminal should be chained in a stationary boat on a deep clear river, condemned, whatever countless leagues of water flowed past him, always to see the body of the fellow-creature he had drowned lying at the bottom, immovable, and unchangeable, except as the eddies made it broad or long, now expanding, now contracting its terrible lineaments; so Arthur, below the shifting current of transparent thoughts and fancies which were gone and succeeded by others as soon as come, saw, steady and dark, and not to be stirred from its place, the one subject that he endeavoured with all his might to rid himself of, and that he could not fly from. The assurance he now had, that Blandois, whatever his right name, was one of the worst of characters, greatly augmented the burden of his anxieties. Though the disappearance should be accounted for to-morrow, the fact that his mother had been in communication with such a man, would remain unalterable. That the communication had been of a secret kind, and that she had been submissive to him and afraid of him, he hoped might be known to no one beyond himself; yet, knowing it, how could he separate it from his old vague fears, and how believe that there was nothing evil in such relations? Her resolution not to enter on the question with him, and his knowledge of her indomitable character, enhanced his sense of helplessness. It was like the oppression of a dream to believe that shame and exposure were impending over her and his father's memory, and to be shut out, as by a brazen wall, from the possibility of coming to their aid. The purpose he had brought home to his native country, and had ever since kept in view, was, with her greatest determination, defeated by his mother herself, at the time of all others when he feared that it pressed most. His advice, energy, activity, money, credit, all his resources whatsoever, were all made useless. If she had been possessed of the old fabled influence, and had turned those who looked upon her into stone, she could not have rendered him more completely powerless (so it seemed to him in his distress of mind) than she did, when she turned her unyielding face to his in her gloomy room.
But the light of that day's discovery, shining on these considerations, roused him to take a more decided course of action.
Confident in the rectitude of his purpose, and impelled by a sense of overhanging danger closing in around, he resolved, if his mother would still admit of no approach, to make a desperate appeal to Affery. If she could be brought to become communicative, and to do what lay in her to break the spell of secrecy that enshrouded the house, he might shake off the paralysis of which every hour that passed over his head made him more acutely sensible. This was the result of his day's anxiety, and this was the decision he put in practice when the day closed in.
His first disappointment, on arriving at the house, was to find the door open, and Mr Flintwinch smoking a pipe on the steps. If circumstances had been commonly favourable, Mistress Affery would have opened the door to his knock. Circumstances being uncommonly unfavourable, the door stood open, and Mr Flintwinch was smoking his pipe on the steps.
'Good evening,' said Arthur.
'Good evening,' said Mr Flintwinch.
The smoke came crookedly out of Mr Flintwinch's mouth, as if it circulated through the whole of his wry figure and came back by his wry throat, before coming forth to mingle with the smoke from the crooked chimneys and the mists from the crooked river.
'Have you any news?' said Arthur.
'We have no news,' said Jeremiah.
'I mean of the foreign man,' Arthur explained.
_'I_ mean of the foreign man,' said Jeremiah.
He looked so grim, as he stood askew, with the knot of his cravat under his ear, that the thought passed into Clennam's mind, and not for the first time by many, could Flintwinch for a purpose of his own have got rid of Blandois? Could it have been his secret, and his safety, that were at issue? He was small and bent, and perhaps not actively strong; yet he was as tough as an old yew-tree, and as crusty as an old jackdaw. Such a man, coming behind a much younger and more vigorous man, and having the will to put an end to him and no relenting, might do it pretty surely in that solitary place at a late hour.
While, in the morbid condition of his thoughts, these thoughts drifted over the main one that was always in Clennam's mind, Mr Flintwinch, regarding the opposite house over the gateway with his neck twisted and one eye shut up, stood smoking with a vicious expression upon him; more as if he were trying to bite off the stem of his pipe, than as if he were enjoying it. Yet he was enjoying it in his own way.
'You'll be able to take my likeness, the next time you call, Arthur, I should think,' said Mr Flintwinch, drily, as he stooped to knock the ashes out.
Rather conscious and confused, Arthur asked his pardon, if he had stared at him unpolitely. 'But my mind runs so much upon this matter,' he said, 'that I lose myself.'
'Hah! Yet I don't see,' returned Mr Flintwinch, quite at his leisure, 'why it should trouble YOU, Arthur.'
'No,' said Mr Flintwinch, very shortly and decidedly: much as if he were of the canine race, and snapped at Arthur's hand.
'Is it nothing to see those placards about? Is it nothing to me to see my mother's name and residence hawked up and down in such an association?'
'I don't see,' returned Mr Flintwinch, scraping his horny cheek, 'that it need signify much to you. But I'll tell you what I do see, Arthur,' glancing up at the windows; 'I see the light of fire and candle in your mother's room!'
'And what has that to do with it?'
'Why, sir, I read by it,' said Mr Flintwinch, screwing himself at him, 'that if it's advisable (as the proverb says it is) to let sleeping dogs lie, it's just as advisable, perhaps, to let missing dogs lie. Let 'em be. They generally turn up soon enough.'
Mr Flintwinch turned short round when he had made this remark, and went into the dark hall. Clennam stood there, following him with his eyes, as he dipped for a light in the phosphorus-box in the little room at the side, got one after three or four dips, and lighted the dim lamp against the wall. All the while, Clennam was pursuing the probabilities--rather as if they were being shown to him by an invisible hand than as if he himself were conjuring them up--of Mr Flintwinch's ways and means of doing that darker deed, and removing its traces by any of the black avenues of shadow that lay around them.
'Now, sir,' said the testy Jeremiah; 'will it be agreeable to walk up-stairs?'
'My mother is alone, I suppose?'
'Not alone,' said Mr Flintwinch. 'Mr Casby and his daughter are with her. They came in while I was smoking, and I stayed behind to have my smoke out.'
This was the second disappointment. Arthur made no remark upon it, and repaired to his mother's room, where Mr Casby and Flora had been taking tea, anchovy paste, and hot buttered toast. The relics of those delicacies were not yet removed, either from the table or from the scorched countenance of Affery, who, with the kitchen toasting-fork still in her hand, looked like a sort of allegorical personage; except that she had a considerable advantage over the general run of such personages in point of significant emblematical purpose.
Flora had spread her bonnet and shawl upon the bed, with a care indicative of an intention to stay some time. Mr Casby, too, was beaming near the hob, with his benevolent knobs shining as if the warm butter of the toast were exuding through the patriarchal skull, and with his face as ruddy as if the colouring matter of the anchovy paste were mantling in the patriarchal visage. Seeing this, as he exchanged the usual salutations, Clennam decided to speak to his mother without postponement.
It had long been customary, as she never changed her room, for those who had anything to say to her apart, to wheel her to her desk; where she sat, usually with the back of her chair turned towards the rest of the room, and the person who talked with her seated in a corner, on a stool which was always set in that place for that purpose. Except that it was long since the mother and son had spoken together without the intervention of a third person, it was an ordinary matter of course within the experience of visitors for Mrs Clennam to be asked, with a word of apology for the interruption, if she could be spoken with on a matter of business, and, on her replying in the affirmative, to be wheeled into the position described.
Therefore, when Arthur now made such an apology, and such a request, and moved her to her desk and seated himself on the stool, Mrs Finching merely began to talk louder and faster, as a delicate hint that she could overhear nothing, and Mr Casby stroked his long white locks with sleepy calmness.
'Mother, I have heard something to-day which I feel persuaded you don't know, and which I think you should know, of the antecedents of that man I saw here.'
'I know nothing of the antecedents of the man you saw here, Arthur.'
She spoke aloud. He had lowered his own voice; but she rejected that advance towards confidence as she rejected every other, and spoke in her usual key and in her usual stern voice.
'I have received it on no circuitous information; it has come to me direct.' She asked him, exactly as before, if he were there to tell her what it was?
'I thought it right that you should know it.'
'And what is it?'
'He has been a prisoner in a French gaol.'
She answered with composure, 'I should think that very likely.'
' But in a gaol for criminals, mother. On an accusation of murder.'
She started at the word, and her looks expressed her natural horror. Yet she still spoke aloud, when she demanded:--
'Who told you so?'
'A man who was his fellow-prisoner.'
'That man's antecedents, I suppose, were not known to you, before he told you?'
'Though the man himself was?'
'My case and Flintwinch's, in respect of this other man! I dare say the resemblance is not so exact, though, as that your informant became known to you through a letter from a correspondent with whom he had deposited money? How does that part of the parallel stand?'
Arthur had no choice but to say that his informant had not become known to him through the agency of any such credentials, or indeed of any credentials at all. Mrs Clennam's attentive frown expanded by degrees into a severe look of triumph, and she retorted with emphasis, 'Take care how you judge others, then. I say to you, Arthur, for your good, take care how you judge!' Her emphasis had been derived from her eyes quite as much as from the stress she laid upon her words. She continued to look at him; and if, when he entered the house, he had had any latent hope of prevailing in the least with her, she now looked it out of his heart.
'Mother, shall I do nothing to assist you?'
'Will you entrust me with no confidence, no charge, no explanation?
Will you take no counsel with me? Will you not let me come near you?'
'How can you ask me? You separated yourself from my affairs. It was not my act; it was yours. How can you consistently ask me such a question? You know that you left me to Flintwinch, and that he occupies your place.'
Glancing at Jeremiah, Clennam saw in his very gaiters that his attention was closely directed to them, though he stood leaning against the wall scraping his jaw, and pretended to listen to Flora as she held forth in a most distracting manner on a chaos of subjects, in which mackerel, and Mr F.'s Aunt in a swing, had become entangled with cockchafers and the wine trade.
'A prisoner, in a French gaol, on an accusation of murder,' repeated Mrs Clennam, steadily going over what her son had said.
'That is all you know of him from the fellow-prisoner?'
'In substance, all.'
'And was the fellow-prisoner his accomplice and a murderer, too?
But, of course, he gives a better account of himself than of his friend; it is needless to ask. This will supply the rest of them here with something new to talk about. Casby, Arthur tells me--'
'Stay, mother! Stay, stay!' He interrupted her hastily, for it had not entered his imagination that she would openly proclaim what he had told her.
'What now?' she said with displeasure. 'What more?'
'I beg you to excuse me, Mr Casby--and you, too, Mrs Finching--for one other moment with my mother--'
He had laid his hand upon her chair, or she would otherwise have wheeled it round with the touch of her foot upon the ground. They were still face to face. She looked at him, as he ran over the possibilities of some result he had not intended, and could not foresee, being influenced by Cavalletto's disclosure becoming a matter of notoriety, and hurriedly arrived at the conclusion that it had best not be talked about; though perhaps he was guided by no more distinct reason than that he had taken it for granted that his mother would reserve it to herself and her partner.
'What now?' she said again, impatiently. 'What is it?'
'I did not mean, mother, that you should repeat what I have communicated. I think you had better not repeat it.'
'Do you make that a condition with me?'
'Observe, then! It is you who make this a secret,' said she, holding up her hand, 'and not I. It is you, Arthur, who bring here doubts and suspicions and entreaties for explanations, and it is you, Arthur, who bring secrets here. What is it to me, do you think, where the man has been, or what he has been? What can it be to me? The whole world may know it, if they care to know it; it is nothing to me. Now, let me go.'
He yielded to her imperious but elated look, and turned her chair back to the place from which he had wheeled it. In doing so he saw elation in the face of Mr Flintwinch, which most assuredly was not inspired by Flora. this turning of his intelligence and of his whole attempt and design against himself, did even more than his mother's fixedness and firmness to convince him that his efforts with her were idle. Nothing remained but the appeal to his old friend Affery.
But even to get the very doubtful and preliminary stage of making the appeal, seemed one of the least promising of human undertakings. She was so completely under the thrall of the two clever ones, was so systematically kept in sight by one or other of them, and was so afraid to go about the house besides, that every opportunity of speaking to her alone appeared to be forestalled.
Over and above that, Mistress Affery, by some means (it was not very difficult to guess, through the sharp arguments of her liege lord), had acquired such a lively conviction of the hazard of saying anything under any circumstances, that she had remained all this time in a corner guarding herself from approach with that symbolical instrument of hers; so that, when a word or two had been addressed to her by Flora, or even by the bottle-green patriarch himself, she had warded off conversation with the toasting-fork like a dumb woman.
After several abortive attempts to get Affery to look at him while she cleared the table and washed the tea-service, Arthur thought of an expedient which Flora might originate. To whom he therefore whispered, 'Could you say you would like to go through the house?'
Now, poor Flora, being always in fluctuating expectation of the time when Clennam would renew his boyhood and be madly in love with her again, received the whisper with the utmost delight; not only as rendered precious by its mysterious character, but as preparing the way for a tender interview in which he would declare the state of his affections. She immediately began to work out the hint.
'Ah dear me the poor old room,' said Flora, glancing round, 'looks just as ever Mrs Clennam I am touched to see except for being smokier which was to be expected with time and which we must all expect and reconcile ourselves to being whether we like it or not as I am sure I have had to do myself if not exactly smokier dreadfully stouter which is the same or worse, to think of the days when papa used to bring me here the least of girls a perfect mass of chilblains to be stuck upon a chair with my feet on the rails and stare at Arthur--pray excuse me--Mr Clennam--the least of boys in the frightfullest of frills and jackets ere yet Mr F. appeared a misty shadow on the horizon paying attentions like the well-known spectre of some place in Germany beginning with a B is a moral lesson inculcating that all the paths in life are similar to the paths down in the North of England where they get the coals and make the iron and things gravelled with ashes!'
Having paid the tribute of a sigh to the instability of human existence, Flora hurried on with her purpose.
'Not that at any time,' she proceeded, 'its worst enemy could have said it was a cheerful house for that it was never made to be but always highly impressive, fond memory recalls an occasion in youth ere yet the judgment was mature when Arthur--confirmed habit--Mr Clennam--took me down into an unused kitchen eminent for mouldiness and proposed to secrete me there for life and feed me on what he could hide from his meals when he was not at home for the holidays and on dry bread in disgrace which at that halcyon period too frequently occurred, would it be inconvenient or asking too much to beg to be permitted to revive those scenes and walk through the house?'
Mrs Clennam, who responded with a constrained grace to Mrs Finching's good nature in being there at all, though her visit (before Arthur's unexpected arrival) was undoubtedly an act of pure good nature and no self-gratification, intimated that all the house was open to her. Flora rose and looked to Arthur for his escort.
'Certainly,' said he, aloud; 'and Affery will light us, I dare say.'
Affery was excusing herself with 'Don't ask nothing of me, Arthur!' when Mr Flintwinch stopped her with 'Why not? Affery, what's the matter with you, woman? Why not, jade!' Thus expostulated with, she came unwillingly out of her corner, resigned the toasting-fork into one of her husband's hands, and took the candlestick he offered from the other.
'Go before, you fool!' said Jeremiah. 'Are you going up, or down, Mrs Finching?'
Flora answered, 'Down.'
'Then go before, and down, you Affery,' said Jeremiah. 'And do it properly, or I'll come rolling down the banisters, and tumbling over you!'
Affery headed the exploring party; Jeremiah closed it. He had no intention of leaving them. Clennam looking back, and seeing him following three stairs behind, in the coolest and most methodical manner exclaimed in a low voice, 'Is there no getting rid of him!' Flora reassured his mind by replying promptly, 'Why though not exactly proper Arthur and a thing I couldn't think of before a younger man or a stranger still I don't mind him if you so particularly wish it and provided you'll have the goodness not to take me too tight.'
Wanting the heart to explain that this was not at all what he meant, Arthur extended his supporting arm round Flora's figure.
'Oh my goodness me,' said she. 'You are very obedient indeed really and it's extremely honourable and gentlemanly in you I am sure but still at the same time if you would like to be a little tighter than that I shouldn't consider it intruding.'
In this preposterous attitude, unspeakably at variance with his anxious mind, Clennam descended to the basement of the house; finding that wherever it became darker than elsewhere, Flora became heavier, and that when the house was lightest she was too.
Returning from the dismal kitchen regions, which were as dreary as they could be, Mistress Affery passed with the light into his father's old room, and then into the old dining-room; always passing on before like a phantom that was not to be overtaken, and neither turning nor answering when he whispered, 'Affery! I want to speak to you!'
In the dining-room, a sentimental desire came over Flora to look into the dragon closet which had so often swallowed Arthur in the days of his boyhood--not improbably because, as a very dark closet, it was a likely place to be heavy in. Arthur, fast subsiding into despair, had opened it, when a knock was heard at the outer door.
Mistress Affery, with a suppressed cry, threw her apron over her head.
'What? You want another dose!' said Mr Flintwinch. 'You shall have it, my woman, you shall have a good one! Oh! You shall have a sneezer, you shall have a teaser!'
'In the meantime is anybody going to the door?' said Arthur.
'In the meantime, I am going to the door, sir,' returned the old man so savagely, as to render it clear that in a choice of difficulties he felt he must go, though he would have preferred not to go. 'Stay here the while, all! Affery, my woman, move an inch, or speak a word in your foolishness, and I'll treble your dose!'
The moment he was gone, Arthur released Mrs Finching: with some difficulty, by reason of that lady misunderstanding his intentions, and making arrangements with a view to tightening instead of slackening.
'Affery, speak to me now!'
'Don't touch me, Arthur!' she cried, shrinking from him. 'Don't come near me. He'll see you. Jeremiah will. Don't.'
'He can't see me,' returned Arthur, suiting the action to the word, 'if I blow the candle out.'
'He'll hear you,' cried Affery.
'He can't hear me,' returned Arthur, suiting the action to the words again, 'if I draw you into this black closet, and speak here.
Why do you hide your face?'
'Because I am afraid of seeing something.'
'You can't be afraid of seeing anything in this darkness, Affery.'
'Yes I am. Much more than if it was light.'
'Why are you afraid?'
'Because the house is full of mysteries and secrets; because it's full of whisperings and counsellings; because it's full of noises.
There never was such a house for noises. I shall die of 'em, if Jeremiah don't strangle me first. As I expect he will.'
'I have never heard any noises here, worth speaking of.'
'Ah! But you would, though, if you lived in the house, and was obliged to go about it as I am,' said Affery; 'and you'd feel that they was so well worth speaking of, that you'd feel you was nigh bursting through not being allowed to speak of 'em. Here's Jeremiah! You'll get me killed.'
'My good Affery, I solemnly declare to you that I can see the light of the open door on the pavement of the hall, and so could you if you would uncover your face and look.'
'I durstn't do it,' said Affery, 'I durstn't never, Arthur. I'm always blind-folded when Jeremiah an't a looking, and sometimes even when he is.'
'He cannot shut the door without my seeing him,' said Arthur. 'You are as safe with me as if he was fifty miles away.'
('I wish he was!' cried Affery.)
'Affery, I want to know what is amiss here; I want some light thrown on the secrets of this house.' 'I tell you, Arthur,' she interrupted, 'noises is the secrets, rustlings and stealings about, tremblings, treads overhead and treads underneath.'
'But those are not all the secrets.'
'I don't know,' said Affery. 'Don't ask me no more. Your old sweetheart an't far off, and she's a blabber.'
His old sweetheart, being in fact so near at hand that she was then reclining against him in a flutter, a very substantial angle of forty-five degrees, here interposed to assure Mistress Affery with greater earnestness than directness of asseveration, that what she heard should go no further, but should be kept inviolate, 'if on no other account on Arthur's--sensible of intruding in being too familiar Doyce and Clennam's.'
'I make an imploring appeal to you, Affery, to you, one of the few agreeable early remembrances I have, for my mother's sake, for your husband's sake, for my own, for all our sakes. I am sure you can tell me something connected with the coming here of this man, if you will.'
'Why, then I'll tell you, Arthur,' returned Affery--'Jeremiah's coming!'
'No, indeed he is not. The door is open, and he is standing outside, talking.'
'I'll tell you then,' said Affery, after listening, 'that the first time he ever come he heard the noises his own self. "What's that?" he said to me. "I don't know what it is," I says to him, catching hold of him, "but I have heard it over and over again." While I says it, he stands a looking at me, all of a shake, he do.'
'Has he been here often?'
'Only that night, and the last night.'
'What did you see of him on the last night, after I was gone?'
'Them two clever ones had him all alone to themselves. Jeremiah come a dancing at me sideways, after I had let you out (he always comes a dancing at me sideways when he's going to hurt me), and he said to me, "Now, Affery," he said, "I am a coming behind you, my woman, and a going to run you up." So he took and squeezed the back of my neck in his hand, till it made me open MY mouth, and then he pushed me before him to bed, squeezing all the way. That's what he calls running me up, he do. Oh, he's a wicked one!'
'And did you hear or see no more, Affery?'
'Don't I tell you I was sent to bed, Arthur! Here he is!'
'I assure you he is still at the door. Those whisperings and counsellings, Affery, that you have spoken of. What are they?'
'How should I know? Don't ask me nothing about 'em, Arthur. Get away!'
'But my dear Affery; unless I can gain some insight into these hidden things, in spite of your husband and in spite of my mother, ruin will come of it.'
'Don't ask me nothing,' repeated Affery. 'I have been in a dream for ever so long. Go away, go away!'
'You said that before,' returned Arthur. 'You used the same expression that night, at the door, when I asked you what was going on here. What do you mean by being in a dream?'
'I an't a going to tell you. Get away! I shouldn't tell you, if you was by yourself; much less with your old sweetheart here.'
It was equally vain for Arthur to entreat, and for Flora to protest. Affery, who had been trembling and struggling the whole time, turned a deaf ear to all adjuration, and was bent on forcing herself out of the closet.
'I'd sooner scream to Jeremiah than say another word! I'll call out to him, Arthur, if you don't give over speaking to me. Now here's the very last word I'll say afore I call to him--If ever you begin to get the better of them two clever ones your own self (you ought to it, as I told you when you first come home, for you haven't been a living here long years, to be made afeared of your life as I have), then do you get the better of 'em afore my face; and then do you say to me, Affery tell your dreams! Maybe, then I'll tell 'em!'
The shutting of the door stopped Arthur from replying. They glided into the places where Jeremiah had left them; and Clennam, stepping forward as that old gentleman returned, informed him that he had accidentally extinguished the candle. Mr Flintwinch looked on as he re-lighted it at the lamp in the hall, and preserved a profound taciturnity respecting the person who had been holding him in conversation. Perhaps his irascibility demanded compensation for some tediousness that the visitor had expended on him; however that was, he took such umbrage at seeing his wife with her apron over her head, that he charged at her, and taking her veiled nose between his thumb and finger, appeared to throw the whole screw- power of his person into the wring he gave it.
Flora, now permanently heavy, did not release Arthur from the survey of the house, until it had extended even to his old garret bedchamber. His thoughts were otherwise occupied than with the tour of inspection; yet he took particular notice at the time, as he afterwards had occasion to remember, of the airlessness and closeness of the house; that they left the track of their footsteps in the dust on the upper floors; and that there was a resistance to the opening of one room door, which occasioned Affery to cry out that somebody was hiding inside, and to continue to believe so, though somebody was sought and not discovered. When they at last returned to his mother's room, they found her shading her face with her muffled hand, and talking in a low voice to the Patriarch as he stood before the fire, whose blue eyes, polished head, and silken locks, turning towards them as they came in, imparted an inestimable value and inexhaustible love of his species to his remark:
'So you have been seeing the premises, seeing the premises-- premises--seeing the premises!'
it was not in itself a jewel of benevolence or wisdom, yet he made it an exemplar of both that one would have liked to have a copy of.
The Evening of a Long Day
That illustrious man and great national ornament, Mr Merdle, continued his shining course. It began to be widely understood that one who had done society the admirable service of making so much money out of it, could not be suffered to remain a commoner.
A baronetcy was spoken of with confidence; a peerage was frequently mentioned. Rumour had it that Mr Merdle had set his golden face against a baronetcy; that he had plainly intimated to Lord Decimus that a baronetcy was not enough for him; that he had said, 'No--a Peerage, or plain Merdle.' This was reported to have plunged Lord Decimus as nigh to his noble chin in a slough of doubts as so lofty a person could be sunk. For the Barnacles, as a group of themselves in creation, had an idea that such distinctions belonged to them; and that when a soldier, sailor, or lawyer became ennobled, they let him in, as it were, by an act of condescension, at the family door, and immediately shut it again. Not only (said Rumour) had the troubled Decimus his own hereditary part in this impression, but he also knew of several Barnacle claims already on the file, which came into collision with that of the master spirit.
Right or wrong, Rumour was very busy; and Lord Decimus, while he was, or was supposed to be, in stately excogitation of the difficulty, lent her some countenance by taking, on several public occasions, one of those elephantine trots of his through a jungle of overgrown sentences, waving Mr Merdle about on his trunk as Gigantic Enterprise, The Wealth of England, Elasticity, Credit, Capital, Prosperity, and all manner of blessings.
So quietly did the mowing of the old scythe go on, that fully three months had passed unnoticed since the two English brothers had been laid in one tomb in the strangers' cemetery at Rome. Mr and Mrs Sparkler were established in their own house: a little manSion, rather of the Tite Barnacle class, quite a triumph of inconvenience, with a perpetual smell in it of the day before yesterday's soup and coach-horses, but extremely dear, as being exactly in the centre of the habitable globe. In this enviable abode (and envied it really was by many people), Mrs Sparkler had intended to proceed at once to the demolition of the Bosom, when active hostilities had been suspended by the arrival of the Courier with his tidings of death. Mrs Sparkler, who was not unfeeling, had received them with a violent burst of grief, which had lasted twelve hours; after which, she had arisen to see about her mourning, and to take every precaution that could ensure its being as becoming as Mrs Merdle's. A gloom was then cast over more than one distinguished family (according to the politest sources of intelligence), and the Courier went back again.
Mr and Mrs Sparkler had been dining alone, with their gloom cast over them, and Mrs Sparkler reclined on a drawing-room sofa. It was a hot summer Sunday evening. The residence in the centre of the habitable globe, at all times stuffed and close as if it had an incurable cold in its head, was that evening particularly stifling.
The bells of the churches had done their worst in the way of clanging among the unmelodious echoes of the streets, and the lighted windows of the churches had ceased to be yellow in the grey dusk, and had died out opaque black. Mrs Sparkler, lying on her sofa, looking through an open window at the opposite side of a narrow street over boxes of mignonette and flowers, was tired of the view. Mrs Sparkler, looking at another window where her husband stood in the balcony, was tired of that view. Mrs Sparkler, looking at herself in her mourning, was even tired of that view: though, naturally, not so tired of that as of the other two.
'It's like lying in a well,' said Mrs Sparkler, changing her position fretfully. 'Dear me, Edmund, if you have anything to say, why don't you say it?'
Mr Sparkler might have replied with ingenuousness, 'My life, I have nothing to say.' But, as the repartee did not occur to him, he contented himself with coming in from the balcony and standing at the side of his wife's couch.
'Good gracious, Edmund!' said Mrs Sparkler more fretfully still, you are absolutely putting mignonette up your nose! Pray don't!'
Mr Sparkler, in absence of mind--perhaps in a more literal absence of mind than is usually understood by the phrase--had smelt so hard at a sprig in his hand as to be on the verge of the offence in question. He smiled, said, 'I ask your pardon, my dear,' and threw it out of window.
'You make my head ache by remaining in that position, Edmund,' said Mrs Sparkler, raising her eyes to him after another minute; 'you look so aggravatingly large by this light. Do sit down.'
'Certainly, my dear,' said Mr Sparkler, and took a chair on the same spot.
'If I didn't know that the longest day was past,' said Fanny, yawning in a dreary manner, 'I should have felt certain this was the longest day. I never did experience such a day.'
'Is that your fan, my love?' asked Mr Sparkler, picking up one and presenting it.
'Edmund,' returned his wife, more wearily yet, 'don't ask weak questions, I entreat you not. Whose can it be but mine?'
'Yes, I thought it was yours,' said Mr Sparkler.
'Then you shouldn't ask,' retorted Fanny. After a little while she turned on her sofa and exclaimed, 'Dear me, dear me, there never was such a long day as this!' After another little while, she got up slowly, walked about, and came back again.
'My dear,' said Mr Sparkler, flashing with an original conception, 'I think you must have got the fidgets.'
'Oh, Fidgets!' repeated Mrs Sparkler. 'Don't.'
'My adorable girl,' urged Mr Sparkler, 'try your aromatic vinegar.
I have often seen my mother try it, and it seemingly refreshed her.
And she is, as I believe you are aware, a remarkably fine woman, with no non--'
'Good Gracious!' exclaimed Fanny, starting up again. 'It's beyond all patience! This is the most wearisome day that ever did dawn upon the world, I am certain.'
Mr Sparkler looked meekly after her as she lounged about the room, and he appeared to be a little frightened. When she had tossed a few trifles about, and had looked down into the darkening street out of all the three windows, she returned to her sofa, and threw herself among its pillows.
'Now Edmund, come here! Come a little nearer, because I want to be able to touch you with my fan, that I may impress you very much with what I am going to say. That will do. Quite close enough.
Oh, you do look so big!'
Mr Sparkler apologised for the circumstance, pleaded that he couldn't help it, and said that 'our fellows,' without more particularly indicating whose fellows, used to call him by the name of Quinbus Flestrin, Junior, or the Young Man Mountain.
'You ought to have told me so before,' Fanny complained.
'My dear,' returned Mr Sparkler, rather gratified, 'I didn't know It would interest you, or I would have made a point of telling you.' 'There! For goodness sake, don't talk,' said Fanny; 'I want to talk, myself. Edmund, we must not be alone any more. I must take such precautions as will prevent my being ever again reduced to the state of dreadful depression in which I am this evening.'
'My dear,' answered Mr Sparkler; 'being as you are well known to be, a remarkably fine woman with no--'
'Oh, good GRACIOUS!' cried Fanny.
Mr Sparkler was so discomposed by the energy of this exclamation, accompanied with a flouncing up from the sofa and a flouncing down again, that a minute or two elapsed before he felt himself equal to saying in explanation:
'I mean, my dear, that everybody knows you are calculated to shine in society.'
'Calculated to shine in society,' retorted Fanny with great irritability; 'yes, indeed! And then what happens? I no sooner recover, in a visiting point of view, the shock of poor dear papa's death, and my poor uncle's--though I do not disguise from myself that the last was a happy release, for, if you are not presentable you had much better die--'
'You are not referring to me, my love, I hope?' Mr Sparkler humbly interrupted.
'Edmund, Edmund, you would wear out a Saint. Am I not expressly speaking of my poor uncle?'
'You looked with so much expression at myself, my dear girl,' said Mr Sparkler, 'that I felt a little uncomfortable. Thank you, my love.'
'Now you have put me out,' observed Fanny with a resigned toss of her fan, 'and I had better go to bed.'
'Don't do that, my love,' urged Mr Sparkler. 'Take time.'
Fanny took a good deal of time: lying back with her eyes shut, and her eyebrows raised with a hopeless expression as if she had utterly given up all terrestrial affairs. At length, without the slightest notice, she opened her eyes again, and recommenced in a short, sharp manner:
'What happens then, I ask! What happens? Why, I find myself at the very period when I might shine most in society, and should most like for very momentous reasons to shine in society--I find myself in a situation which to a certain extent disqualifies me for going into society. it's too bad, really!'
'My dear,' said Mr Sparkler. 'I don't think it need keep you at home.' 'Edmund, you ridiculous creature,' returned Fanny, with great indignation; 'do you suppose that a woman in the bloom of youth and not wholly devoid of personal attractions, can put herself, at such a time, in competition as to figure with a woman in every other way her inferior? If you do suppose such a thing, your folly is boundless.'
Mr Sparkler submitted that he had thought 'it might be got over.' 'Got over!' repeated Fanny, with immeasurable scorn.
'For a time,' Mr Sparkler submitted.
Honouring the last feeble suggestion with no notice, Mrs Sparkler declared with bitterness that it really was too bad, and that positively it was enough to make one wish one was dead!
'However,' she said, when she had in some measure recovered from her sense of personal ill-usage; 'provoking as it is, and cruel as it seems, I suppose it must be submitted to.'
'Especially as it was to be expected,' said Mr Sparkler.
'Edmund,' returned his wife, 'if you have nothing more becoming to do than to attempt to insult the woman who has honoured you with her hand, when she finds herself in adversity, I think YOU had better go to bed!'
Mr Sparkler was much afflicted by the charge, and offered a most tender and earnest apology. His apology was accepted; but Mrs Sparkler requested him to go round to the other side of the sofa and sit in the window-curtain, to tone himself down.
'Now, Edmund,' she said, stretching out her fan, and touching him with it at arm's length, 'what I was going to say to you when you began as usual to prose and worry, is, that I shall guard against our being alone any more, and that when circumstances prevent my going out to my own satisfaction, I must arrange to have some people or other always here; for I really cannot, and will not, have another such day as this has been.'
Mr Sparkler's sentiments as to the plan were, in brief, that it had no nonsense about it. He added, 'And besides, you know it's likely that you'll soon have your sister--'
'Dearest Amy, yes!' cried Mrs Sparkler with a sigh of affection.
'Darling little thing! Not, however, that Amy would do here alone.'
Mr Sparkler was going to say 'No?' interrogatively, but he saw his danger and said it assentingly, 'No, Oh dear no; she wouldn't do here alone.'
'No, Edmund. For not only are the virtues of the precious child of that still character that they require a contrast--require life and movement around them to bring them out in their right colours and make one love them of all things; but she will require to be roused, on more accounts than one.'
'That's it,' said Mr Sparkler. 'Roused.'
'Pray don't, Edmund! Your habit of interrupting without having the least thing in the world to say, distracts one. You must be broken of it. Speaking of Amy;--my poor little pet was devotedly attached to poor papa, and no doubt will have lamented his loss exceedingly, and grieved very much. I have done so myself. I have felt it dreadfully. But Amy will no doubt have felt it even more, from having been on the spot the whole time, and having been with poor dear papa at the last; which I unhappily was not.'
Here Fanny stopped to weep, and to say, 'Dear, dear, beloved papa!
How truly gentlemanly he was! What a contrast to poor uncle!'
'From the effects of that trying time,' she pursued, 'my good little Mouse will have to be roused. Also, from the effects of this long attendance upon Edward in his illness; an attendance which is not yet over, which may even go on for some time longer, and which in the meanwhile unsettles us all by keeping poor dear papa's affairs from being wound up. Fortunately, however, the papers with his agents here being all sealed up and locked up, as he left them when he providentially came to England, the affairs are in that state of order that they can wait until my brother Edward recovers his health in Sicily, sufficiently to come over, and administer, or execute, or whatever it may be that will have to be done.'
'He couldn't have a better nurse to bring him round,' Mr Sparkler made bold to opine.
'For a wonder, I can agree with you,' returned his wife, languidly turning her eyelids a little in his direction (she held forth, in general, as if to the drawing-room furniture), 'and can adopt your words. He couldn't have a better nurse to bring him round. There are times when my dear child is a little wearing to an active mind; but, as a nurse, she is Perfection. Best of Amys!'
Mr Sparkler, growing rash on his late success, observed that Edward had had, biggodd, a long bout of it, my dear girl.
'If Bout, Edmund,' returned Mrs Sparkler, 'is the slang term for indisposition, he has. If it is not, I am unable to give an opinion on the barbarous language you address to Edward's sister.
That he contracted Malaria Fever somewhere, either by travelling day and night to Rome, where, after all, he arrived too late to see poor dear papa before his death--or under some other unwholesome circumstances--is indubitable, if that is what you mean. Likewise that his extremely careless life has made him a very bad subject for it indeed.'
Mr Sparkler considered it a parallel case to that of some of our fellows in the West Indies with Yellow Jack. Mrs Sparkler closed her eyes again, and refused to have any consciousness of our fellows of the West Indies, or of Yellow Jack.
'So, Amy,' she pursued, when she reopened her eyelids, 'will require to be roused from the effects of many tedious and anxious weeks. And lastly, she will require to be roused from a low tendency which I know very well to be at the bottom of her heart.
Don't ask me what it is, Edmund, because I must decline to tell you.'
'I am not going to, my dear,' said Mr Sparkler.
'I shall thus have much improvement to effect in my sweet child,' Mrs Sparkler continued, 'and cannot have her near me too soon.
Amiable and dear little Twoshoes! As to the settlement of poor papa's affairs, my interest in that is not very selfish. Papa behaved very generously to me when I was married, and I have little or nothing to expect. Provided he had made no will that can come into force, leaving a legacy to Mrs General, I am contented. Dear papa, dear papa.'
She wept again, but Mrs General was the best of restoratives. The name soon stimulated her to dry her eyes and say:
'It is a highly encouraging circumstance in Edward's illness, I am thankful to think, and gives one the greatest confidence in his sense not being impaired, or his proper spirit weakened--down to the time of poor dear papa's death at all events--that he paid off Mrs General instantly, and sent her out of the house. I applaud him for it. I could forgive him a great deal for doing, with such promptitude, so exactly what I would have done myself!'
Mrs Sparkler was in the full glow of her gratification, when a double knock was heard at the door. A very odd knock. Low, as if to avoid making a noise and attracting attention. Long, as if the person knocking were preoccupied in mind, and forgot to leave off.
'Halloa!' said Mr Sparkler. 'Who's this?'
'Not Amy and Edward without notice and without a carriage!' said Mrs Sparkler. 'Look out.'
The room was dark, but the street was lighter, because of its lamps. Mr Sparkler's head peeping over the balcony looked so very bulky and heavy that it seemed on the point of overbalancing him and flattening the unknown below.
'It's one fellow,' said Mr Sparkler. 'I can't see who--stop though!' On this second thought he went out into the balcony again and had another look. He came back as the door was opened, and announced that he believed he had identified 'his governor's tile.' He was not mistaken, for his governor, with his tile in his hand, was introduced immediately afterwards.
'Candles!' said Mrs Sparkler, with a word of excuse for the darkness.
'It's light enough for me,' said Mr Merdle.
When the candles were brought in, Mr Merdle was discovered standing behind the door, picking his lips. 'I thought I'd give you a call,' he said. 'I am rather particularly occupied just now; and, as I happened to be out for a stroll, I thought I'd give you a call.'
As he was in dinner dress, Fanny asked him where he had been dining?
'Well,' said Mr Merdle, 'I haven't been dining anywhere, particularly.'
'Of course you have dined?' said Fanny.
'Why--no, I haven't exactly dined,' said Mr Merdle.
He had passed his hand over his yellow forehead and considered, as if he were not sure about it. Something to eat was proposed. 'No, thank you,' said Mr Merdle, 'I don't feel inclined for it. I was to have dined out along with Mrs Merdle. But as I didn't feel inclined for dinner, I let Mrs Merdle go by herself just as we were getting into the carriage, and thought I'd take a stroll instead.'
Would he have tea or coffee? 'No, thank you,' said Mr Merdle. 'I looked in at the Club, and got a bottle of wine.'
At this period of his visit, Mr Merdle took the chair.which Edmund Sparkler had offered him, and which he had hitherto been pushing slowly about before him, like a dull man with a pair of skates on for the first time, who could not make up his mind to start. He now put his hat upon another chair beside him, and, looking down into it as if it were some twenty feet deep, said again: 'You see I thought I'd give you a call.'
'Flattering to us,' said Fanny, 'for you are not a calling man.'
'No--no,' returned Mr Merdle, who was by this time taking himself into custody under both coat-sleeves. 'No, I am not a calling man.'
'You have too much to do for that,' said Fanny. 'Having so much to do, Mr Merdle, loss of appetite is a serious thing with you, and you must have it seen to. You must not be ill.' 'Oh! I am very well,' replied Mr Merdle, after deliberating about it. 'I am as well as I usually am. I am well enough. I am as well as I want to be.'
The master-mind of the age, true to its characteristic of being at all times a mind that had as little as possible to say for itself and great difficulty in saying it, became mute again. Mrs Sparkler began to wonder how long the master-mind meant to stay.
'I was speaking of poor papa when you came in, sir.'
'Aye! Quite a coincidence,' said Mr Merdle.
Fanny did not see that; but felt it incumbent on her to continue talking. 'I was saying,' she pursued, 'that my brother's illness has occasioned a delay in examining and arranging papa's property.'
'Yes,' said Mr Merdle; 'yes. There has been a delay.'
'Not that it is of consequence,' said Fanny.
'Not,' assented Mr Merdle, after having examined the cornice of all that part of the room which was within his range: 'not that it is of any consequence.'
'My only anxiety is,' said Fanny, 'that Mrs General should not get anything.'
'She won't get anything,' said Mr Merdle.
Fanny was delighted to hear him express the opinion. Mr Merdle, after taking another gaze into the depths of his hat as if he thought he saw something at the bottom, rubbed his hair and slowly appended to his last remark the confirmatory words, 'Oh dear no.
No. Not she. Not likely.'
As the topic seemed exhausted, and Mr Merdle too, Fanny inquired if he were going to take up Mrs Merdle and the carriage in his way home?
'No,' he answered; 'I shall go by the shortest way, and leave Mrs Merdle to--' here he looked all over the palms of both his hands as if he were telling his own fortune--'to take care of herself. I dare say she'll manage to do it.'
'Probably,' said Fanny.
There was then a long silence; during which, Mrs Sparkler, lying back on her sofa again, shut her eyes and raised her eyebrows in her former retirement from mundane affairs.
'But, however,' said Mr Merdle, 'I am equally detaining you and myself. I thought I'd give you a call, you know.'
'Charmed, I am sure,' said Fanny.
'So I am off,' added Mr Merdle, getting up. 'Could you lend me a penknife?'
It was an odd thing, Fanny smilingly observed, for her who could seldom prevail upon herself even to write a letter, to lend to a man of such vast business as Mr Merdle. 'Isn't it?' Mr Merdle acquiesced; 'but I want one; and I know you have got several little wedding keepsakes about, with scissors and tweezers and such things in them. You shall have it back to-morrow.'
'Edmund,' said Mrs Sparkler, 'open (now, very carefully, I beg and beseech, for you are so very awkward) the mother of pearl box on my little table there, and give Mr Merdle the mother of pearl penknife.'
'Thank you,' said Mr Merdle; 'but if you have got one with a darker handle, I think I should prefer one with a darker handle.'
'Thank you,' said Mr Merdle; 'yes. I think I should prefer tortoise-shell.'
Edmund accordingly received instructions to open the tortoise-shell box, and give Mr Merdle the tortoise-shell knife. On his doing so, his wife said to the master-spirit graciously:
'I will forgive you, if you ink it.'
'I'll undertake not to ink it,' said Mr Merdle.
The illustrious visitor then put out his coat-cuff, and for a moment entombed Mrs Sparkler's hand: wrist, bracelet, and all.
Where his own hand had shrunk to, was not made manifest, but it was as remote from Mrs Sparkler's sense of touch as if he had been a highly meritorious Chelsea Veteran or Greenwich Pensioner.
Thoroughly convinced, as he went out of the room, that it was the longest day that ever did come to an end at last, and that there never was a woman, not wholly devoid of personal attractions, so worn out by idiotic and lumpish people, Fanny passed into the balcony for a breath of air. Waters of vexation filled her eyes; and they had the effect of making the famous Mr Merdle, in going down the street, appear to leap, and waltz, and gyrate, as if he were possessed of several Devils.
The Chief Butler Resigns the Seals of Office
The dinner-party was at the great Physician's. Bar was there, and in full force. Ferdinand Barnacle was there, and in his most engaging state. Few ways of life were hidden from Physician, and he was oftener in its darkest places than even Bishop. There were brilliant ladies about London who perfectly doted on him, my dear, as the most charming creature and the most delightful person, who would have been shocked to find themselves so close to him if they could have known on what sights those thoughtful eyes of his had rested within an hour or two, and near to whose beds, and under what roofs, his composed figure had stood. But Physician was a composed man, who performed neither on his own trumpet, nor on the trumpets of other people. Many wonderful things did he see and hear, and much irreconcilable moral contradiction did he pass his life among; yet his equality of compassion was no more disturbed than the Divine Master's of all healing was. He went, like the rain, among the just and unjust, doing all the good he could, and neither proclaiming it in the synagogues nor at the corner of streets.
As no man of large experience of humanity, however quietly carried it may be, can fail to be invested with an interest peculiar to the possession of such knowledge, Physician was an attractive man.
Even the daintier gentlemen and ladies who had no idea of his secret, and who would have been startled out of more wits than they had, by the monstrous impropriety of his proposing to them 'Come and see what I see!' confessed his attraction. Where he was, something real was. And half a grain of reality, like the smallest portion of some other scarce natural productions, will flavour an enormous quantity of diluent.
It came to pass, therefore, that Physician's little dinners always
presented people in their least conventional lights. The guests said to themselves, whether they were conscious of it or no, 'Here is a man who really has an acquaintance with us as we are, who is admitted to some of us every day with our wigs and paint off, who hears the wanderings of our minds, and sees the undisguised expression of our faces, when both are past our control; we may as well make an approach to reality with him, for the man has got the better of us and is too strong for us.' Therefore, Physician's guests came out so surprisingly at his round table that they were almost natural.
Bar's knowledge of that agglomeration of jurymen which is called humanity was as sharp as a razor; yet a razor is not a generally convenient instrument, and Physician's plain bright scalpel, though far less keen, was adaptable to far wider purposes. Bar knew all about the gullibility and knavery of people; but Physician could have given him a better insight into their tendernesses and affections, in one week of his rounds, than Westminster Hall and all the circuits put together, in threescore years and ten. Bar always had a suspicion of this, and perhaps was glad to encourage it (for, if the world were really a great Law Court, one would think that the last day of Term could not too soon arrive); and so he liked and respected Physician quite as much as any other kind of man did.
Mr Merdle's default left a Banquo's chair at the table; but, if he had been there, he would have merely made the difference of Banquo in it, and consequently he was no loss. Bar, who picked up all sorts of odds and ends about Westminster Hall, much as a raven would have done if he had passed as much of his time there, had been picking up a great many straws lately and tossing them about, to try which way the Merdle wind blew. He now had a little talk on the subject with Mrs Merdle herself; sidling up to that lady, of course, with his double eye-glass and his jury droop.
'A certain bird,' said Bar; and he looked as if it could have been no other bird than a magpie; 'has been whispering among us lawyers lately, that there is to be an addition to the titled personages of this realm.'
'Really?' said Mrs Merdle.
'Yes,' said Bar. 'Has not the bird been whispering in very different ears from ours--in lovely ears?' He looked expressively at Mrs Merdle's nearest ear-ring.
'Do you mean mine?' asked Mrs Merdle.
'When I say lovely,' said Bar, 'I always mean you.'
'You never mean anything, I think,' returned Mrs Merdle (not displeased).
'Oh, cruelly unjust!' said Bar. 'But, the bird.'
'I am the last person in the world to hear news,' observed Mrs Merdle, carelessly arranging her stronghold. 'Who is it?'
'What an admirable witness you would make!' said Bar. 'No jury (unless we could empanel one of blind men) could resist you, if you were ever so bad a one; but you would be such a good one!'
'Why, you ridiculous man?' asked Mrs Merdle, laughing.
Bar waved his double eye-glass three or four times between himself and the Bosom, as a rallying answer, and inquired in his most insinuating accents:
'What am I to call the most elegant, accomplished and charming of women, a few weeks, or it may be a few days, hence?'
'Didn't your bird tell you what to call her?' answered Mrs Merdle.
'Do ask it to-morrow, and tell me the next time you see me what it says.'
This led to further passages of similar pleasantry between the two; but Bar, with all his sharpness, got nothing out of them.
Physician, on the other hand, taking Mrs Merdle down to her carriage and attending on her as she put on her cloak, inquired into the symptoms with his usual calm directness.
'May I ask,' he said, 'is this true about Merdle?'
'My dear doctor,' she returned, 'you ask me the very question that I was half disposed to ask you.' 'To ask me! Why me?'
'Upon my honour, I think Mr Merdle reposes greater confidence in you than in any one.'
'On the contrary, he tells me absolutely nothing, even professionally. You have heard the talk, of course?'
' Of course I have. But you know what Mr Merdle is; you know how taciturn and reserved he is. I assure you I have no idea what foundation for it there may be. I should like it to be true; why should I deny that to you? You would know better, if I did!'
'Just so,' said Physician.
'But whether it is all true, or partly true, or entirely false, I am wholly unable to say. It is a most provoking situation, a most absurd situation; but you know Mr Merdle, and are not surprised.'
Physician was not surprised, handed her into her carriage, and bade her Good Night. He stood for a moment at his own hall door, looking sedately at the elegant equipage as it rattled away. On his return up-stairs, the rest of the guests soon dispersed, and he was left alone. Being a great reader of all kinds of literature (and never at all apologetic for that weakness), he sat down comfortably to read.
The clock upon his study table pointed to a few minutes short of twelve, when his attention was called to it by a ringing at the door bell. A man of plain habits, he had sent his servants to bed and must needs go down to open the door. He went down, and there found a man without hat or coat, whose shirt sleeves were rolled up tight to his shoulders. For a moment, he thought the man had been fighting: the rather, as he was much agitated and out of breath.
A second look, however, showed him that the man was particularly clean, and not otherwise discomposed as to his dress than as it answered this description.
'I come from the warm-baths, sir, round in the neighbouring street.'
'And what is the matter at the warm-baths?'
'Would you please to come directly, sir. We found that, lying on the table.'
He put into the physician's hand a scrap of paper. Physician looked at it, and read his own name and address written in pencil; nothing more. He looked closer at the writing, looked at the man, took his hat from its peg, put the key of his door in his pocket, and they hurried away together.
When they came to the warm-baths, all the other people belonging to that establishment were looking out for them at the door, and running up and down the passages. 'Request everybody else to keep back, if you please,' said the physician aloud to the master; 'and do you take me straight to the place, my friend,' to the messenger.
The messenger hurried before him, along a grove of little rooms, and turning into one at the end of the grove, looked round the door. Physician was close upon him, and looked round the door too.
There was a bath in that corner, from which the water had been hastily drained off. Lying in it, as in a grave or sarcophagus, with a hurried drapery of sheet and blanket thrown across it, was the body of a heavily-made man, with an obtuse head, and coarse, mean, common features. A sky-light had been opened to release the steam with which the room had been filled; but it hung, condensed into water-drops, heavily upon the walls, and heavily upon the face and figure in the bath. The room was still hot, and the marble of the bath still warm; but the face and figure were clammy to the touch. The white marble at the bottom of the bath was veined with a dreadful red. On the ledge at the side, were an empty laudanum- bottle and a tortoise-shell handled penknife--soiled, but not with ink.
'Separation of jugular vein--death rapid--been dead at least half an hour.' This echo of the physician's words ran through the passages and little rooms, and through the house while he was yet straightening himself from having bent down to reach to the bottom of the bath, and while he was yet dabbling his hands in water; redly veining it as the marble was veined, before it mingled into one tint.
He turned his eyes to the dress upon the sofa, and to the watch, money, and pocket-book on the table. A folded note half buckled up in the pocket-book, and half protruding from it, caught his observant glance. He looked at it, touched it, pulled it a little further out from among the leaves, said quietly, 'This is addressed to me,' and opened and read it.
There were no directions for him to give. The people of the house knew what to do; the proper authorities were soon brought; and they took an equable business-like possession of the deceased, and of what had been his property, with no greater disturbance of manner or countenance than usually attends the winding-up of a clock.
Physician was glad to walk out into the night air--was even glad, in spite of his great experience, to sit down upon a door-step for a little while: feeling sick and faint.
Bar was a near neighbour of his, and, when he came to the house, he saw a light in the room where he knew his friend often sat late getting up his work. As the light was never there when Bar was not, it gave him assurance that Bar was not yet in bed. In fact, this busy bee had a verdict to get to-morrow, against evidence, and was improving the shining hours in setting snares for the gentlemen of the jury.
Physician's knock astonished Bar; but, as he immediately suspected that somebody had come to tell him that somebody else was robbing him, or otherwise trying to get the better of him, he came down promptly and softly. He had been clearing his head with a lotion of cold water, as a good preparative to providing hot water for the heads of the jury, and had been reading with the neck of his shirt thrown wide open that he might the more freely choke the opposite witnesses. In consequence, he came down, looking rather wild.
Seeing Physician, the least expected of men, he looked wilder and said, 'What's the matter?'
'You asked me once what Merdle's complaint was.'
'Extraordinary answer! I know I did.'
'I told you I had not found out.'
'Yes. I know you did.'
'I have found it out.'
'My God!' said Bar, starting back, and clapping his hand upon the other's breast. 'And so have I! I see it in your face.'
They went into the nearest room, where Physician gave him the letter to read. He read it through half-a-dozen times. There was not much in it as to quantity; but it made a great demand on his close and continuous attention. He could not sufficiently give utterance to his regret that he had not himself found a clue to this. The smallest clue, he said, would have made him master of the case, and what a case it would have been to have got to the bottom of!
Physician had engaged to break the intelligence in Harley Street.
Bar could not at once return to his inveiglements of the most enlightened and remarkable jury he had ever seen in that box, with whom, he could tell his learned friend, no shallow sophistry would go down, and no unhappily abused professional tact and skill prevail (this was the way he meant to begin with them); so he said he would go too, and would loiter to and fro near the house while his friend was inside. They walked there, the better to recover self-possession in the air; and the wings of day were fluttering the night when Physician knocked at the door.
A footman of rainbow hues, in the public eye, was sitting up for his master--that is to say, was fast asleep in the kitchen over a couple of candles and a newspaper, demonstrating the great accumulation of mathematical odds against the probabilities of a house being set on fire by accident When this serving man was roused, Physician had still to await the rousing of the Chief Butler. At last that noble creature came into the dining-room in a flannel gown and list shoes; but with his cravat on, and a Chief Butler all over. It was morning now. Physician had opened the shutters of one window while waiting, that he might see the light. 'Mrs Merdle's maid must be called, and told to get Mrs Merdle up, and prepare her as gently as she can to see me. I have dreadful news to break to her.'
Thus Physician to the Chief Butler. The latter, who had a candle in his hand, called his man to take it away. Then he approached the window with dignity; looking on at Physician's news exactly as he had looked on at the dinners in that very room.
'Mr Merdle is dead.'
'I should wish,' said the Chief Butler, 'to give a month's notice.'
'Mr Merdle has destroyed himself.'
'Sir,' said the Chief Butler, 'that is very unpleasant to the feelings of one in my position, as calculated to awaken prejudice; and I should wish to leave immediately.'
'If you are not shocked, are you not surprised, man?' demanded the Physician, warmly.
The Chief Butler, erect and calm, replied in these memorable words.
'Sir, Mr Merdle never was the gentleman, and no ungentlemanly act on Mr Merdle's part would surprise me. Is there anybody else I can send to you, or any other directions I can give before I leave, respecting what you would wish to be done?'
When Physician, after discharging himself of his trust up-stairs, rejoined Bar in the street, he said no more of his interview with Mrs Merdle than that he had not yet told her all, but that what he had told her she had borne pretty well. Bar had devoted his leisure in the street to the construction of a most ingenious man- trap for catching the whole of his jury at a blow; having got that matter settled in his mind, it was lucid on the late catastrophe, and they walked home slowly, discussing it in every bearing.
Before parting at the Physician's door, they both looked up at the sunny morning sky, into which the smoke of a few early fires and the breath and voices of a few early stirrers were peacefully rising, and then looked round upon the immense city, and said, if all those hundreds and thousands of beggared people who were yet asleep could only know, as they two spoke, the ruin that impended over them, what a fearful cry against one miserable soul would go up to Heaven!
The report that the great man was dead, got about with astonishing rapidity. At first, he was dead of all the diseases that ever were known, and of several bran-new maladies invented with the speed of Light to meet the demand of the occasion. He had concealed a dropsy from infancy, he had inherited a large estate of water on the chest from his grandfather, he had had an operation performed upon him every morning of his life for eighteen years, he had been subject to the explosion of important veins in his body after the manner of fireworks, he had had something the matter with his lungs, he had had something the matter with his heart, he had had something the matter with his brain. Five hundred people who sat down to breakfast entirely uninformed on the whole subject, believed before they had done breakfast, that they privately and personally knew Physician to have said to Mr Merdle, 'You must expect to go out, some day, like the snuff of a candle;' and that they knew Mr Merdle to have said to Physician, 'A man can die but once.' By about eleven o'clock in the forenoon, something the matter with the brain, became the favourite theory against the field; and by twelve the something had been distinctly ascertained to be 'Pressure.'
Pressure was so entirely satisfactory to the public mind, and seemed to make everybody so comfortable, that it might have lasted all day but for Bar's having taken the real state of the case into Court at half-past nine. This led to its beginning to be currently whispered all over London by about one, that Mr Merdle had killed himself. Pressure, however, so far from being overthrown by the discovery, became a greater favourite than ever. There was a general moralising upon Pressure, in every street. All the people who had tried to make money and had not been able to do it, said, There you were! You no sooner began to devote yourself to the pursuit of wealth than you got Pressure. The idle people improved the occasion in a similar manner. See, said they, what you brought yourself to by work, work, work! You persisted in working, you overdid it. Pressure came on, and you were done for! This consideration was very potent in many quarters, but nowhere more so than among the young clerks and partners who had never been in the slightest danger of overdoing it. These, one and all, declared, quite piously, that they hoped they would never forget the warning as long as they lived, and that their conduct might be so regulated as to keep off Pressure, and preserve them, a comfort to their friends, for many years.
But, at about the time of High 'Change, Pressure began to wane, and appalling whispers to circulate, east, west, north, and south. At first they were faint, and went no further than a doubt whether Mr Merdle's wealth would be found to be as vast as had been supposed; whether there might not be a temporary difficulty in 'realising' it; whether there might not even be a temporary suspension (say a month or so), on the part of the wonderful Bank. As the whispers became louder, which they did from that time every minute, they became more threatening. He had sprung from nothing, by no natural growth or process that any one could account for; he had been, after all, a low, ignorant fellow; he had been a down-looking man, and no one had ever been able to catch his eye; he had been taken up by all sorts of people in quite an unaccountable manner; he had never had any money of his own, his ventures had been utterly reckless, and his expenditure had been most enormous. In steady progression, as the day declined, the talk rose in sound and purpose. He had left a letter at the Baths addressed to his physician, and his physician had got the letter, and the letter would be produced at the Inquest on the morrow, and it would fall like a thunderbolt upon the multitude he had deluded. Numbers of men in every profession and trade would be blighted by his insolvency; old people who had been in easy circumstances all their lives would have no place of repentance for their trust in him but the workhouse; legions of women and children would have their whole future desolated by the hand of this mighty scoundrel. Every partaker of his magnificent feasts would be seen to have been a sharer in the plunder of innumerable homes; every servile worshipper of riches who had helped to set him on his pedestal, would have done better to worship the Devil point-blank. So, the talk, lashed louder and higher by confirmation on confirmation, and by edition after edition of the evening papers, swelled into such a roar when night came, as might have brought one to believe that a solitary watcher on the gallery above the Dome of St Paul's would have perceived the night air to be laden with a heavy muttering of the name of Merdle, coupled with every form of execration.
For by that time it was known that the late Mr Merdle's complaint had been simply Forgery and Robbery. He, the uncouth object of such wide-spread adulation, the sitter at great men's feasts, the roc's egg of great ladies' assemblies, the subduer of exclusiveness, the leveller of pride, the patron of patrons, the bargain-driver with a Minister for Lordships of the Circumlocution Office, the recipient of more acknowledgment within some ten or fifteen years, at most, than had been bestowed in England upon all peaceful public benefactors, and upon all the leaders of all the Arts and Sciences, with all their works to testify for them, during two centuries at least--he, the shining wonder, the new constellation to be followed by the wise men bringing gifts, until it stopped over a certain carrion at the bottom of a bath and disappeared--was simply the greatest Forger and the greatest Thief that ever cheated the gallows.