Little dorrit, p.46

Little Dorrit, page 46

 

Little Dorrit
 



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  CHAPTER 8. The Dowager Mrs Gowan is reminded that 'It Never Does'

  While the waters of Venice and the ruins of Rome were sunning themselvesfor the pleasure of the Dorrit family, and were daily being sketchedout of all earthly proportion, lineament, and likeness, by travellingpencils innumerable, the firm of Doyce and Clennam hammered away inBleeding Heart Yard, and the vigorous clink of iron upon iron was heardthere through the working hours.

  The younger partner had, by this time, brought the business into soundtrim; and the elder, left free to follow his own ingenious devices, haddone much to enhance the character of the factory. As an ingenious man,he had necessarily to encounter every discouragement that the rulingpowers for a length of time had been able by any means to put in the wayof this class of culprits; but that was only reasonable self-defence inthe powers, since How to do it must obviously be regarded as the naturaland mortal enemy of How not to do it. In this was to be found the basisof the wise system, by tooth and nail upheld by the CircumlocutionOffice, of warning every ingenious British subject to be ingeniousat his peril: of harassing him, obstructing him, inviting robbers (bymaking his remedy uncertain, and expensive) to plunder him, and at thebest of confiscating his property after a short term of enjoyment, asthough invention were on a par with felony. The system had uniformlyfound great favour with the Barnacles, and that was only reasonable,too; for one who worthily invents must be in earnest, and the Barnaclesabhorred and dreaded nothing half so much. That again was veryreasonable; since in a country suffering under the affliction of a greatamount of earnestness, there might, in an exceeding short space of time,be not a single Barnacle left sticking to a post.

  Daniel Doyce faced his condition with its pains and penalties attachedto it, and soberly worked on for the work's sake. Clennam cheering himwith a hearty co-operation, was a moral support to him, besides doinggood service in his business relation. The concern prospered, and thepartners were fast friends.

  But Daniel could not forget the old design of so many years. It was notin reason to be expected that he should; if he could have lightlyforgotten it, he could never have conceived it, or had the patience andperseverance to work it out. So Clennam thought, when he sometimesobserved him of an evening looking over the models and drawings, andconsoling himself by muttering with a sigh as he put them away again,that the thing was as true as it ever was.

  To show no sympathy with so much endeavour, and so much disappointment,would have been to fail in what Clennam regarded as among the impliedobligations of his partnership. A revival of the passing interest inthe subject which had been by chance awakened at the door of theCircumlocution Office, originated in this feeling. He asked his partnerto explain the invention to him; 'having a lenient consideration,' hestipulated, 'for my being no workman, Doyce.'

  'No workman?' said Doyce. 'You would have been a thorough workman if youhad given yourself to it. You have as good a head for understanding suchthings as I have met with.'

  'A totally uneducated one, I am sorry to add,' said Clennam.

  'I don't know that,' returned Doyce, 'and I wouldn't have you saythat. No man of sense who has been generally improved, and has improvedhimself, can be called quite uneducated as to anything. I don'tparticularly favour mysteries. I would as soon, on a fair and clearexplanation, be judged by one class of man as another, provided he hadthe qualification I have named.'

  'At all events,' said Clennam--'this sounds as if we were exchangingcompliments, but we know we are not--I shall have the advantage of asplain an explanation as can be given.'

  'Well!' said Daniel, in his steady even way,'I'll try to make it so.'

  He had the power, often to be found in union with such a character, ofexplaining what he himself perceived, and meant, with the direct forceand distinctness with which it struck his own mind. His manner ofdemonstration was so orderly and neat and simple, that it was not easyto mistake him. There was something almost ludicrous in the completeirreconcilability of a vague conventional notion that he must be avisionary man, with the precise, sagacious travelling of his eye andthumb over the plans, their patient stoppages at particular points,their careful returns to other points whence little channels ofexplanation had to be traced up, and his steady manner of makingeverything good and everything sound at each important stage, beforetaking his hearer on a line's-breadth further. His dismissal of himselffrom his description, was hardly less remarkable. He never said, Idiscovered this adaptation or invented that combination; but showed thewhole thing as if the Divine artificer had made it, and he had happenedto find it; so modest he was about it, such a pleasant touch of respectwas mingled with his quiet admiration of it, and so calmly convinced hewas that it was established on irrefragable laws.

  Not only that evening, but for several succeeding evenings, Clennam wasquite charmed by this investigation. The more he pursued it, and theoftener he glanced at the grey head bending over it, and the shrewd eyekindling with pleasure in it and love of it--instrument for probing hisheart though it had been made for twelve long years--the less he couldreconcile it to his younger energy to let it go without one effort more.At length he said:

  'Doyce, it came to this at last--that the business was to be sunk withHeaven knows how many more wrecks, or begun all over again?'

  'Yes,' returned Doyce, 'that's what the noblemen and gentlemen made ofit after a dozen years.'

  'And pretty fellows too!' said Clennam, bitterly.

  'The usual thing!' observed Doyce. 'I must not make a martyr of myself,when I am one of so large a company.'

  'Relinquish it, or begin it all over again?' mused Clennam.

  'That was exactly the long and the short of it,' said Doyce.

  'Then, my friend,' cried Clennam, starting up and taking hiswork-roughened hand, 'it shall be begun all over again!'

  Doyce looked alarmed, and replied in a hurry--for him, 'No, no. Betterput it by. Far better put it by. It will be heard of, one day. I canput it by. You forget, my good Clennam; I _have_ put it by. It's all at anend.'

  'Yes, Doyce,' returned Clennam, 'at an end as far as your efforts andrebuffs are concerned, I admit, but not as far as mine are. I am youngerthan you: I have only once set foot in that precious office, and I amfresh game for them. Come! I'll try them. You shall do exactly as youhave been doing since we have been together. I will add (as I easilycan) to what I have been doing, the attempt to get public justice doneto you; and, unless I have some success to report, you shall hear nomore of it.'

  Daniel Doyce was still reluctant to consent, and again and again urgedthat they had better put it by. But it was natural that he shouldgradually allow himself to be over-persuaded by Clennam, and shouldyield. Yield he did. So Arthur resumed the long and hopeless labour ofstriving to make way with the Circumlocution Office.

  The waiting-rooms of that Department soon began to be familiar with hispresence, and he was generally ushered into them by its janitors muchas a pickpocket might be shown into a police-office; the principaldifference being that the object of the latter class of public businessis to keep the pickpocket, while the Circumlocution object was toget rid of Clennam. However, he was resolved to stick to the GreatDepartment; and so the work of form-filling, corresponding, minuting,memorandum-making, signing, counter-signing, counter-counter-signing,referring backwards and forwards, and referring sideways, crosswise, andzig-zag, recommenced.

  Here arises a feature of the Circumlocution Office, not previouslymentioned in the present record. When that admirable Department gotinto trouble, and was, by some infuriated members of Parliament whomthe smaller Barnacles almost suspected of labouring under diabolicpossession, attacked on the merits of no individual case, but as anInstitution wholly abominable and Bedlamite; then the noble or righthonourable Barnacle who represented it in the House, would smite thatmember and cleave him asunder, with a statement of the quantity ofbusiness (for the prevention of business) done by the CircumlocutionOffice. Then would that noble or right honourable Barnacle hold in hishand a paper
containing a few figures, to which, with the permissionof the House, he would entreat its attention. Then would the inferiorBarnacles exclaim, obeying orders,'Hear, Hear, Hear!' and 'Read!' Thenwould the noble or right honourable Barnacle perceive, sir, from thislittle document, which he thought might carry conviction even to theperversest mind (Derisive laughter and cheering from the Barnacle fry),that within the short compass of the last financial half-year, thismuch-maligned Department (Cheers) had written and received fifteenthousand letters (Loud cheers), had written twenty-four thousand minutes(Louder cheers), and thirty-two thousand five hundred and seventeenmemoranda (Vehement cheering). Nay, an ingenious gentleman connectedwith the Department, and himself a valuable public servant, had donehim the favour to make a curious calculation of the amount of stationeryconsumed in it during the same period. It formed a part of this sameshort document; and he derived from it the remarkable fact that thesheets of foolscap paper it had devoted to the public service would pavethe footways on both sides of Oxford Street from end to end, and leavenearly a quarter of a mile to spare for the park (Immense cheering andlaughter); while of tape--red tape--it had used enough to stretch, ingraceful festoons, from Hyde Park Corner to the General Post Office.Then, amidst a burst of official exultation, would the noble or righthonourable Barnacle sit down, leaving the mutilated fragments of theMember on the field. No one, after that exemplary demolition of him,would have the hardihood to hint that the more the Circumlocution Officedid, the less was done, and that the greatest blessing it could conferon an unhappy public would be to do nothing.

  With sufficient occupation on his hands, now that he had this additionaltask--such a task had many and many a serviceable man died of before hisday--Arthur Clennam led a life of slight variety. Regular visits to hismother's dull sick room, and visits scarcely less regular to Mr Meaglesat Twickenham, were its only changes during many months.

  He sadly and sorely missed Little Dorrit. He had been prepared to missher very much, but not so much. He knew to the full extent only throughexperience, what a large place in his life was left blank when herfamiliar little figure went out of it. He felt, too, that he mustrelinquish the hope of its return, understanding the family charactersufficiently well to be assured that he and she were divided by a broadground of separation. The old interest he had had in her, and her oldtrusting reliance on him, were tinged with melancholy in his mind: sosoon had change stolen over them, and so soon had they glided into thepast with other secret tendernesses.

  When he received her letter he was greatly moved, but did not the lesssensibly feel that she was far divided from him by more than distance.It helped him to a clearer and keener perception of the place assignedhim by the family. He saw that he was cherished in her gratefulremembrance secretly, and that they resented him with the jail and therest of its belongings.

  Through all these meditations which every day of his life crowded abouther, he thought of her otherwise in the old way. She was his innocentfriend, his delicate child, his dear Little Dorrit. This very changeof circumstances fitted curiously in with the habit, begun on the nightwhen the roses floated away, of considering himself as a much older manthan his years really made him. He regarded her from a point of viewwhich in its remoteness, tender as it was, he little thought would havebeen unspeakable agony to her. He speculated about her future destiny,and about the husband she might have, with an affection for her whichwould have drained her heart of its dearest drop of hope, and broken it.

  Everything about him tended to confirm him in the custom of looking onhimself as an elderly man, from whom such aspirations as he had combatedin the case of Minnie Gowan (though that was not so long ago either,reckoning by months and seasons), were finally departed. His relationswith her father and mother were like those on which a widower son-in-lawmight have stood. If the twin sister who was dead had lived to pass awayin the bloom of womanhood, and he had been her husband, the nature ofhis intercourse with Mr and Mrs Meagles would probably have been justwhat it was. This imperceptibly helped to render habitual the impressionwithin him, that he had done with, and dismissed that part of life.

  He invariably heard of Minnie from them, as telling them in her lettershow happy she was, and how she loved her husband; but inseparable fromthat subject, he invariably saw the old cloud on Mr Meagles's face. MrMeagles had never been quite so radiant since the marriage as before.He had never quite recovered the separation from Pet. He was the samegood-humoured, open creature; but as if his face, from being much turnedtowards the pictures of his two children which could show him only onelook, unconsciously adopted a characteristic from them, it always hadnow, through all its changes of expression, a look of loss in it.

  One wintry Saturday when Clennam was at the cottage, the Dowager MrsGowan drove up, in the Hampton Court equipage which pretended to be theexclusive equipage of so many individual proprietors. She descended, inher shady ambuscade of green fan, to favour Mr and Mrs Meagles with acall.

  'And how do you both do, Papa and Mama Meagles?' said she, encouragingher humble connections. 'And when did you last hear from or about mypoor fellow?'

  My poor fellow was her son; and this mode of speaking of him politelykept alive, without any offence in the world, the pretence that he hadfallen a victim to the Meagles' wiles.

  'And the dear pretty one?' said Mrs Gowan. 'Have you later news of herthan I have?'

  Which also delicately implied that her son had been captured by merebeauty, and under its fascination had forgone all sorts of worldlyadvantages.

  'I am sure,' said Mrs Gowan, without straining her attention on theanswers she received, 'it's an unspeakable comfort to know they continuehappy. My poor fellow is of such a restless disposition, and has beenso used to roving about, and to being inconstant and popular among allmanner of people, that it's the greatest comfort in life. I supposethey're as poor as mice, Papa Meagles?'

  Mr Meagles, fidgety under the question, replied, 'I hope not, ma'am. Ihope they will manage their little income.'

  'Oh! my dearest Meagles!' returned the lady, tapping him on the arm withthe green fan and then adroitly interposing it between a yawn andthe company, 'how can you, as a man of the world and one of the mostbusiness-like of human beings--for you know you are business-like, and agreat deal too much for us who are not--'

  (Which went to the former purpose, by making Mr Meagles out to be anartful schemer.)

  '--How can you talk about their managing their little means? My poordear fellow! The idea of his managing hundreds! And the sweet prettycreature too. The notion of her managing! Papa Meagles! Don't!'

  'Well, ma'am,' said Mr Meagles, gravely, 'I am sorry to admit, then,that Henry certainly does anticipate his means.'

  'My dear good man--I use no ceremony with you, because we are a kind ofrelations;--positively, Mama Meagles,' exclaimed Mrs Gowan cheerfully,as if the absurd coincidence then flashed upon her for the first time,'a kind of relations! My dear good man, in this world none of us canhave _everything_ our own way.'

  This again went to the former point, and showed Mr Meagles with all goodbreeding that, so far, he had been brilliantly successful in his deepdesigns. Mrs Gowan thought the hit so good a one, that she dwelt uponit; repeating 'Not _everything_. No, no; in this world we must not expect_everything_, Papa Meagles.'

  'And may I ask, ma'am,' retorted Mr Meagles, a little heightened incolour, 'who does expect everything?'

  'Oh, nobody, nobody!' said Mrs Gowan. 'I was going to say--but you putme out. You interrupting Papa, what was I going to say?'

  Drooping her large green fan, she looked musingly at Mr Meagles whileshe thought about it; a performance not tending to the cooling of thatgentleman's rather heated spirits.

  'Ah! Yes, to be sure!' said Mrs Gowan. 'You must remember that my poorfellow has always been accustomed to expectations. They may have beenrealised, or they may not have been realised--'

  'Let us say, then, may not have been realised,' observed Mr Meagles.

  The Dowager for a mom
ent gave him an angry look; but tossed it off withher head and her fan, and pursued the tenor of her way in her formermanner.

  'It makes no difference. My poor fellow has been accustomed to thatsort of thing, and of course you knew it, and were prepared for theconsequences. I myself always clearly foresaw the consequences, and amnot surprised. And you must not be surprised. In fact, can't besurprised. Must have been prepared for it.'

  Mr Meagles looked at his wife and at Clennam; bit his lip; and coughed.

  'And now here's my poor fellow,' Mrs Gowan pursued, 'receiving noticethat he is to hold himself in expectation of a baby, and all theexpenses attendant on such an addition to his family! Poor Henry! Butit can't be helped now; it's too late to help it now. Only don't talk ofanticipating means, Papa Meagles, as a discovery; because that would betoo much.'

  'Too much, ma'am?' said Mr Meagles, as seeking an explanation.

  'There, there!' said Mrs Gowan, putting him in his inferior place withan expressive action of her hand. 'Too much for my poor fellow'smother to bear at this time of day. They are fast married, and can'tbe unmarried. There, there! I know that! You needn't tell me that, PapaMeagles. I know it very well. What was it I said just now? That it wasa great comfort they continued happy. It is to be hoped they will stillcontinue happy. It is to be hoped Pretty One will do everything shecan to make my poor fellow happy, and keep him contented. Papa and MamaMeagles, we had better say no more about it. We never did look at thissubject from the same side, and we never shall. There, there! Now I amgood.'

  Truly, having by this time said everything she could say in maintenanceof her wonderfully mythical position, and in admonition to Mr Meaglesthat he must not expect to bear his honours of alliance too cheaply, MrsGowan was disposed to forgo the rest. If Mr Meagles had submitted toa glance of entreaty from Mrs Meagles, and an expressive gesture fromClennam, he would have left her in the undisturbed enjoyment of thisstate of mind. But Pet was the darling and pride of his heart; and if hecould ever have championed her more devotedly, or loved her better, thanin the days when she was the sunlight of his house, it would have beennow, when, as its daily grace and delight, she was lost to it.

  'Mrs Gowan, ma'am,' said Mr Meagles, 'I have been a plain man all mylife. If I was to try--no matter whether on myself, on somebody else,or both--any genteel mystifications, I should probably not succeed inthem.'

  'Papa Meagles,' returned the Dowager, with an affable smile, but withthe bloom on her cheeks standing out a little more vividly than usual asthe neighbouring surface became paler,'probably not.'

  'Therefore, my good madam,' said Mr Meagles, at great pains torestrain himself, 'I hope I may, without offence, ask to have no suchmystification played off upon me.'

  'Mama Meagles,' observed Mrs Gowan, 'your good man is incomprehensible.'

  Her turning to that worthy lady was an artifice to bring her into thediscussion, quarrel with her, and vanquish her. Mr Meagles interposed toprevent that consummation.

  'Mother,' said he, 'you are inexpert, my dear, and it is not a fairmatch. Let me beg of you to remain quiet. Come, Mrs Gowan, come! Letus try to be sensible; let us try to be good-natured; let us try tobe fair. Don't you pity Henry, and I won't pity Pet. And don't beone-sided, my dear madam; it's not considerate, it's not kind. Don'tlet us say that we hope Pet will make Henry happy, or even that we hopeHenry will make Pet happy,' (Mr Meagles himself did not look happy as hespoke the words,) 'but let us hope they will make each other happy.'

  'Yes, sure, and there leave it, father,' said Mrs Meagles thekind-hearted and comfortable.

  'Why, mother, no,' returned Mr Meagles, 'not exactly there. I can'tquite leave it there; I must say just half-a-dozen words more. MrsGowan, I hope I am not over-sensitive. I believe I don't look it.'

  'Indeed you do not,' said Mrs Gowan, shaking her head and the greatgreen fan together, for emphasis.

  'Thank you, ma'am; that's well. Notwithstanding which, I feel alittle--I don't want to use a strong word--now shall I say hurt?'asked Mr Meagles at once with frankness and moderation, and with aconciliatory appeal in his tone.

  'Say what you like,' answered Mrs Gowan. 'It is perfectly indifferent tome.'

  'No, no, don't say that,' urged Mr Meagles, 'because that's notresponding amiably. I feel a little hurt when I hear references made toconsequences having been foreseen, and to its being too late now, and soforth.'

  '_Do_ you, Papa Meagles?' said Mrs Gowan. 'I am not surprised.'

  'Well, ma'am,' reasoned Mr Meagles, 'I was in hopes you would have beenat least surprised, because to hurt me wilfully on so tender a subjectis surely not generous.'

  'I am not responsible,' said Mrs Gowan, 'for your conscience, you know.'

  Poor Mr Meagles looked aghast with astonishment.

  'If I am unluckily obliged to carry a cap about with me, which is yoursand fits you,' pursued Mrs Gowan, 'don't blame me for its pattern, PapaMeagles, I beg!'

  'Why, good Lord, ma'am!' Mr Meagles broke out, 'that's as much as tostate--'

  'Now, Papa Meagles, Papa Meagles,' said Mrs Gowan, who became extremelydeliberate and prepossessing in manner whenever that gentleman became atall warm, 'perhaps to prevent confusion, I had better speak for myselfthan trouble your kindness to speak for me. It's as much as to state,you begin. If you please, I will finish the sentence. It is as much asto state--not that I wish to press it or even recall it, for it is of nouse now, and my only wish is to make the best of existingcircumstances--that from the first to the last I always objected to thismatch of yours, and at a very late period yielded a most unwillingconsent to it.'

  'Mother!' cried Mr Meagles. 'Do you hear this! Arthur! Do you hearthis!'

  'The room being of a convenient size,' said Mrs Gowan, looking aboutas she fanned herself, 'and quite charmingly adapted in all respects toconversation, I should imagine I am audible in any part of it.'

  Some moments passed in silence, before Mr Meagles could hold himself inhis chair with sufficient security to prevent his breaking out of it atthe next word he spoke. At last he said: 'Ma'am, I am very unwilling torevive them, but I must remind you what my opinions and my course were,all along, on that unfortunate subject.'

  'O, my dear sir!' said Mrs Gowan, smiling and shaking her head withaccusatory intelligence, 'they were well understood by me, I assureyou.'

  'I never, ma'am,' said Mr Meagles, 'knew unhappiness before that time,I never knew anxiety before that time. It was a time of such distress tome that--' That Mr Meagles could really say no more about it, in short,but passed his handkerchief before his face.

  'I understood the whole affair,' said Mrs Gowan, composedly lookingover her fan. 'As you have appealed to Mr Clennam, I may appeal to MrClennam, too. He knows whether I did or not.'

  'I am very unwilling,' said Clennam, looked to by all parties, 'to takeany share in this discussion, more especially because I wish to preservethe best understanding and the clearest relations with Mr Henry Gowan.I have very strong reasons indeed, for entertaining that wish. Mrs Gowanattributed certain views of furthering the marriage to my friend here,in conversation with me before it took place; and I endeavoured toundeceive her. I represented that I knew him (as I did and do) to bestrenuously opposed to it, both in opinion and action.'

  'You see?' said Mrs Gowan, turning the palms of her hands towards MrMeagles, as if she were Justice herself, representing to him that he hadbetter confess, for he had not a leg to stand on. 'You see? Very good!Now Papa and Mama Meagles both!' here she rose; 'allow me to take theliberty of putting an end to this rather formidable controversy. I willnot say another word upon its merits. I will only say that it is anadditional proof of what one knows from all experience; that this kindof thing never answers--as my poor fellow himself would say, that itnever pays--in one word, that it never does.'

  Mr Meagles asked, What kind of thing?

  'It is in vain,' said Mrs Gowan, 'for people to attempt to get ontogether who have such extremely different antecedents; who are jumbledagainst each other
in this accidental, matrimonial sort of way; and whocannot look at the untoward circumstance which has shaken them togetherin the same light. It never does.'

  Mr Meagles was beginning, 'Permit me to say, ma'am--'

  'No, don't,' returned Mrs Gowan. 'Why should you! It is an ascertainedfact. It never does. I will therefore, if you please, go my way, leavingyou to yours. I shall at all times be happy to receive my poor fellow'spretty wife, and I shall always make a point of being on the mostaffectionate terms with her. But as to these terms, semi-family andsemi-stranger, semi-goring and semi-boring, they form a state of thingsquite amusing in its impracticability. I assure you it never does.'

  The Dowager here made a smiling obeisance, rather to the room than toany one in it, and therewith took a final farewell of Papa and MamaMeagles. Clennam stepped forward to hand her to the Pill-Box which wasat the service of all the Pills in Hampton Court Palace; and she gotinto that vehicle with distinguished serenity, and was driven away.

  Thenceforth the Dowager, with a light and careless humour, oftenrecounted to her particular acquaintance how, after a hard trial, shehad found it impossible to know those people who belonged to Henry'swife, and who had made that desperate set to catch him. Whether she hadcome to the conclusion beforehand, that to get rid of them would giveher favourite pretence a better air, might save her some occasionalinconvenience, and could risk no loss (the pretty creature being fastmarried, and her father devoted to her), was best known to herself.Though this history has its opinion on that point too, and decidedly inthe affirmative.

 
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