{tocify}

Our Mutual Friend

Chapter

Book

first_page
play_arrow
last_page
00:00
00:00
volume_down_alt volume_up


Chapter 11. 
IN THE DARK

There was no sleep for Bradley Headstone on that night when Eugene Wrayburn turned so easily in his bed; there was no sleep for little Miss Peecher. Bradley consumed the lonely hours, and consumed himself in haunting the spot where his careless rival lay a dreaming; little Miss Peecher wore them away in listening for the return home of the master of her heart, and in sorrowfully presaging that much was amiss with him. Yet more was amiss with him than Miss Peecher’s simply arranged little work-box of thoughts, fitted with no gloomy and dark recesses, could hold. For, the state of the man was murderous.

The state of the man was murderous, and he knew it. More; he irritated it, with a kind of perverse pleasure akin to that which a sick man sometimes has in irritating a wound upon his body. Tied up all day with his disciplined show upon him, subdued to the performance of his routine of educational tricks, encircled by a gabbling crowd, he broke loose at night like an ill-tamed wild animal. Under his daily restraint, it was his compensation, not his trouble, to give a glance towards his state at night, and to the freedom of its being indulged. If great criminals told the truth—which, being great criminals, they do not—they would very rarely tell of their struggles against the crime. Their struggles are towards it. They buffet with opposing waves, to gain the bloody shore, not to recede from it. This man perfectly comprehended that he hated his rival with his strongest and worst forces, and that if he tracked him to Lizzie Hexam, his so doing would never serve himself with her, or serve her. All his pains were taken, to the end that he might incense himself with the sight of the detested figure in her company and favour, in her place of concealment. And he knew as well what act of his would follow if he did, as he knew that his mother had borne him. Granted, that he may not have held it necessary to make express mention to himself of the one familiar truth any more than of the other.

He knew equally well that he fed his wrath and hatred, and that he accumulated provocation and self-justification, by being made the nightly sport of the reckless and insolent Eugene. Knowing all this,—and still always going on with infinite endurance, pains, and perseverance, could his dark soul doubt whither he went?

Baffled, exasperated, and weary, he lingered opposite the Temple gate when it closed on Wrayburn and Lightwood, debating with himself should he go home for that time or should he watch longer. Possessed in his jealousy by the fixed idea that Wrayburn was in the secret, if it were not altogether of his contriving, Bradley was as confident of getting the better of him at last by sullenly sticking to him, as he would have been—and often had been—of mastering any piece of study in the way of his vocation, by the like slow persistent process. A man of rapid passions and sluggish intelligence, it had served him often and should serve him again.

The suspicion crossed him as he rested in a doorway with his eyes upon the Temple gate, that perhaps she was even concealed in that set of Chambers. It would furnish another reason for Wrayburn’s purposeless walks, and it might be. He thought of it and thought of it, until he resolved to steal up the stairs, if the gatekeeper would let him through, and listen. So, the haggard head suspended in the air flitted across the road, like the spectre of one of the many heads erst hoisted upon neighbouring Temple Bar, and stopped before the watchman.

The watchman looked at it, and asked: ‘Who for?’

‘Mr Wrayburn.’

‘It’s very late.’

‘He came back with Mr Lightwood, I know, near upon two hours ago. But if he has gone to bed, I’ll put a paper in his letter-box. I am expected.’

The watchman said no more, but opened the gate, though rather doubtfully. Seeing, however, that the visitor went straight and fast in the right direction, he seemed satisfied.

The haggard head floated up the dark staircase, and softly descended nearer to the floor outside the outer door of the chambers. The doors of the rooms within, appeared to be standing open. There were rays of candlelight from one of them, and there was the sound of a footstep going about. There were two voices. The words they uttered were not distinguishable, but they were both the voices of men. In a few moments the voices were silent, and there was no sound of footstep, and the inner light went out. If Lightwood could have seen the face which kept him awake, staring and listening in the darkness outside the door as he spoke of it, he might have been less disposed to sleep, through the remainder of the night.

‘Not there,’ said Bradley; ‘but she might have been.’ The head arose to its former height from the ground, floated down the stair-case again, and passed on to the gate. A man was standing there, in parley with the watchman.

‘Oh!’ said the watchman. ‘Here he is!’

Perceiving himself to be the antecedent, Bradley looked from the watchman to the man.

‘This man is leaving a letter for Mr Lightwood,’ the watchman explained, showing it in his hand; ‘and I was mentioning that a person had just gone up to Mr Lightwood’s chambers. It might be the same business perhaps?’

‘No,’ said Bradley, glancing at the man, who was a stranger to him.

‘No,’ the man assented in a surly way; ‘my letter—it’s wrote by my daughter, but it’s mine—is about my business, and my business ain’t nobody else’s business.’

As Bradley passed out at the gate with an undecided foot, he heard it shut behind him, and heard the footstep of the man coming after him.

‘’Scuse me,’ said the man, who appeared to have been drinking and rather stumbled at him than touched him, to attract his attention: ‘but might you be acquainted with the T’other Governor?’

‘With whom?’ asked Bradley.

‘With,’ returned the man, pointing backward over his right shoulder with his right thumb, ‘the T’other Governor?’

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

‘Why look here,’ hooking his proposition on his left-hand fingers with the forefinger of his right. ‘There’s two Governors, ain’t there? One and one, two—Lawyer Lightwood, my first finger, he’s one, ain’t he? Well; might you be acquainted with my middle finger, the T’other?’

‘I know quite as much of him,’ said Bradley, with a frown and a distant look before him, ‘as I want to know.’

‘Hooroar!’ cried the man. ‘Hooroar T’other t’other Governor. Hooroar T’otherest Governor! I am of your way of thinkin’.’

‘Don’t make such a noise at this dead hour of the night. What are you talking about?’

‘Look here, T’otherest Governor,’ replied the man, becoming hoarsely confidential. ‘The T’other Governor he’s always joked his jokes agin me, owing, as I believe, to my being a honest man as gets my living by the sweat of my brow. Which he ain’t, and he don’t.’

‘What is that to me?’

‘T’otherest Governor,’ returned the man in a tone of injured innocence, ‘if you don’t care to hear no more, don’t hear no more. You begun it. You said, and likeways showed pretty plain, as you warn’t by no means friendly to him. But I don’t seek to force my company nor yet my opinions on no man. I am a honest man, that’s what I am. Put me in the dock anywhere—I don’t care where—and I says, “My Lord, I am a honest man.” Put me in the witness-box anywhere—I don’t care where—and I says the same to his lordship, and I kisses the book. I don’t kiss my coat-cuff; I kisses the book.’

It was not so much in deference to these strong testimonials to character, as in his restless casting about for any way or help towards the discovery on which he was concentrated, that Bradley Headstone replied: ‘You needn’t take offence. I didn’t mean to stop you. You were too—loud in the open street; that was all.’

‘’Totherest Governor,’ replied Mr Riderhood, mollified and mysterious, ‘I know wot it is to be loud, and I know wot it is to be soft. Nat’rally I do. It would be a wonder if I did not, being by the Chris’en name of Roger, which took it arter my own father, which took it from his own father, though which of our fam’ly fust took it nat’ral I will not in any ways mislead you by undertakin’ to say. And wishing that your elth may be better than your looks, which your inside must be bad indeed if it’s on the footing of your out.’

Startled by the implication that his face revealed too much of his mind, Bradley made an effort to clear his brow. It might be worth knowing what this strange man’s business was with Lightwood, or Wrayburn, or both, at such an unseasonable hour. He set himself to find out, for the man might prove to be a messenger between those two.

‘You call at the Temple late,’ he remarked, with a lumbering show of ease.

‘Wish I may die,’ cried Mr Riderhood, with a hoarse laugh, ‘if I warn’t a goin’ to say the self-same words to you, T’otherest Governor!’

‘It chanced so with me,’ said Bradley, looking disconcertedly about him.

‘And it chanced so with me,’ said Riderhood. ‘But I don’t mind telling you how. Why should I mind telling you? I’m a Deputy Lock-keeper up the river, and I was off duty yes’day, and I shall be on to-morrow.’

‘Yes?’

‘Yes, and I come to London to look arter my private affairs. My private affairs is to get appinted to the Lock as reg’lar keeper at fust hand, and to have the law of a busted B’low-Bridge steamer which drownded of me. I ain’t a goin’ to be drownded and not paid for it!’

Bradley looked at him, as though he were claiming to be a Ghost.

‘The steamer,’ said Mr Riderhood, obstinately, ‘run me down and drownded of me. Interference on the part of other parties brought me round; but I never asked ‘em to bring me round, nor yet the steamer never asked ‘em to it. I mean to be paid for the life as the steamer took.’

‘Was that your business at Mr Lightwood’s chambers in the middle of the night?’ asked Bradley, eyeing him with distrust.

‘That and to get a writing to be fust-hand Lock Keeper. A recommendation in writing being looked for, who else ought to give it to me? As I says in the letter in my daughter’s hand, with my mark put to it to make it good in law, Who but you, Lawyer Lightwood, ought to hand over this here stifficate, and who but you ought to go in for damages on my account agin the Steamer? For (as I says under my mark) I have had trouble enough along of you and your friend. If you, Lawyer Lightwood, had backed me good and true, and if the T’other Governor had took me down correct (I says under my mark), I should have been worth money at the present time, instead of having a barge-load of bad names chucked at me, and being forced to eat my words, which is a unsatisfying sort of food wotever a man’s appetite! And when you mention the middle of the night, T’otherest Governor,’ growled Mr Riderhood, winding up his monotonous summary of his wrongs, ‘throw your eye on this here bundle under my arm, and bear in mind that I’m a walking back to my Lock, and that the Temple laid upon my line of road.’

Bradley Headstone’s face had changed during this latter recital, and he had observed the speaker with a more sustained attention.

‘Do you know,’ said he, after a pause, during which they walked on side by side, ‘that I believe I could tell you your name, if I tried?’

‘Prove your opinion,’ was the answer, accompanied with a stop and a stare. ‘Try.’

‘Your name is Riderhood.’

‘I’m blest if it ain’t,’ returned that gentleman. ‘But I don’t know your’n.’

‘That’s quite another thing,’ said Bradley. ‘I never supposed you did.’

As Bradley walked on meditating, the Rogue walked on at his side muttering. The purport of the muttering was: ‘that Rogue Riderhood, by George! seemed to be made public property on, now, and that every man seemed to think himself free to handle his name as if it was a Street Pump.’ The purport of the meditating was: ‘Here is an instrument. Can I use it?’

They had walked along the Strand, and into Pall Mall, and had turned up-hill towards Hyde Park Corner; Bradley Headstone waiting on the pace and lead of Riderhood, and leaving him to indicate the course. So slow were the schoolmaster’s thoughts, and so indistinct his purposes when they were but tributary to the one absorbing purpose or rather when, like dark trees under a stormy sky, they only lined the long vista at the end of which he saw those two figures of Wrayburn and Lizzie on which his eyes were fixed—that at least a good half-mile was traversed before he spoke again. Even then, it was only to ask:

‘Where is your Lock?’

‘Twenty mile and odd—call it five-and-twenty mile and odd, if you like—up stream,’ was the sullen reply.

‘How is it called?’

‘Plashwater Weir Mill Lock.’

‘Suppose I was to offer you five shillings; what then?’

‘Why, then, I’d take it,’ said Mr Riderhood.

The schoolmaster put his hand in his pocket, and produced two half-crowns, and placed them in Mr Riderhood’s palm: who stopped at a convenient doorstep to ring them both, before acknowledging their receipt.

‘There’s one thing about you, T’otherest Governor,’ said Riderhood, faring on again, ‘as looks well and goes fur. You’re a ready money man. Now;’ when he had carefully pocketed the coins on that side of himself which was furthest from his new friend; ‘what’s this for?’

‘For you.’

‘Why, o’ course I know that,’ said Riderhood, as arguing something that was self-evident. ‘O’ course I know very well as no man in his right senses would suppose as anythink would make me give it up agin when I’d once got it. But what do you want for it?’

‘I don’t know that I want anything for it. Or if I do want anything for it, I don’t know what it is.’ Bradley gave this answer in a stolid, vacant, and self-communing manner, which Mr Riderhood found very extraordinary.

‘You have no goodwill towards this Wrayburn,’ said Bradley, coming to the name in a reluctant and forced way, as if he were dragged to it.

‘No.’

‘Neither have I.’

Riderhood nodded, and asked: ‘Is it for that?’

‘It’s as much for that as anything else. It’s something to be agreed with, on a subject that occupies so much of one’s thoughts.’

‘It don’t agree with you,’ returned Mr Riderhood, bluntly. ‘No! It don’t, T’otherest Governor, and it’s no use a lookin’ as if you wanted to make out that it did. I tell you it rankles in you. It rankles in you, rusts in you, and pisons you.’

‘Say that it does so,’ returned Bradley with quivering lips; ‘is there no cause for it?’

‘Cause enough, I’ll bet a pound!’ cried Mr Riderhood.

‘Haven’t you yourself declared that the fellow has heaped provocations, insults, and affronts on you, or something to that effect? He has done the same by me. He is made of venomous insults and affronts, from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot. Are you so hopeful or so stupid, as not to know that he and the other will treat your application with contempt, and light their cigars with it?’

‘I shouldn’t wonder if they did, by George!’ said Riderhood, turning angry.

‘If they did! They will. Let me ask you a question. I know something more than your name about you; I knew something about Gaffer Hexam. When did you last set eyes upon his daughter?’

‘When did I last set eyes upon his daughter, T’otherest Governor?’ repeated Mr Riderhood, growing intentionally slower of comprehension as the other quickened in his speech.

‘Yes. Not to speak to her. To see her—anywhere?’

The Rogue had got the clue he wanted, though he held it with a clumsy hand. Looking perplexedly at the passionate face, as if he were trying to work out a sum in his mind, he slowly answered:

‘I ain’t set eyes upon her—never once—not since the day of Gaffer’s death.’

‘You know her well, by sight?’

‘I should think I did! No one better.’

‘And you know him as well?’

‘Who’s him?’ asked Riderhood, taking off his hat and rubbing his forehead, as he directed a dull look at his questioner.

‘Curse the name! Is it so agreeable to you that you want to hear it again?’

‘Oh! him!’ said Riderhood, who had craftily worked the schoolmaster into this corner, that he might again take note of his face under its evil possession. ‘I’d know him among a thousand.’

‘Did you—’ Bradley tried to ask it quietly; but, do what he might with his voice, he could not subdue his face;—‘did you ever see them together?’

(The Rogue had got the clue in both hands now.)

‘I see ‘em together, T’otherest Governor, on the very day when Gaffer was towed ashore.’

Bradley could have hidden a reserved piece of information from the sharp eyes of a whole inquisitive class, but he could not veil from the eyes of the ignorant Riderhood the withheld question next in his breast. ‘You shall put it plain if you want it answered,’ thought the Rogue, doggedly; ‘I ain’t a-going a wolunteering.’

‘Well! was he insolent to her too?’ asked Bradley after a struggle. ‘Or did he make a show of being kind to her?’

‘He made a show of being most uncommon kind to her,’ said Riderhood. ‘By George! now I—’

His flying off at a tangent was indisputably natural. Bradley looked at him for the reason.

‘Now I think of it,’ said Mr Riderhood, evasively, for he was substituting those words for ‘Now I see you so jealous,’ which was the phrase really in his mind; ‘P’r’aps he went and took me down wrong, a purpose, on account o’ being sweet upon her!’

The baseness of confirming him in this suspicion or pretence of one (for he could not have really entertained it), was a line’s breadth beyond the mark the schoolmaster had reached. The baseness of communing and intriguing with the fellow who would have set that stain upon her, and upon her brother too, was attained. The line’s breadth further, lay beyond. He made no reply, but walked on with a lowering face.

What he might gain by this acquaintance, he could not work out in his slow and cumbrous thoughts. The man had an injury against the object of his hatred, and that was something; though it was less than he supposed, for there dwelt in the man no such deadly rage and resentment as burned in his own breast. The man knew her, and might by a fortunate chance see her, or hear of her; that was something, as enlisting one pair of eyes and ears the more. The man was a bad man, and willing enough to be in his pay. That was something, for his own state and purpose were as bad as bad could be, and he seemed to derive a vague support from the possession of a congenial instrument, though it might never be used.

Suddenly he stood still, and asked Riderhood point-blank if he knew where she was? Clearly, he did not know. He asked Riderhood if he would be willing, in case any intelligence of her, or of Wrayburn as seeking her or associating with her, should fall in his way, to communicate it if it were paid for? He would be very willing indeed. He was ‘agin ‘em both,’ he said with an oath, and for why? ‘Cause they had both stood betwixt him and his getting his living by the sweat of his brow.

‘It will not be long then,’ said Bradley Headstone, after some more discourse to this effect, ‘before we see one another again. Here is the country road, and here is the day. Both have come upon me by surprise.’

‘But, T’otherest Governor,’ urged Mr Riderhood, ‘I don’t know where to find you.’

‘It is of no consequence. I know where to find you, and I’ll come to your Lock.’

‘But, T’otherest Governor,’ urged Mr Riderhood again, ‘no luck never come yet of a dry acquaintance. Let’s wet it, in a mouth-fill of rum and milk, T’otherest Governor.’

Bradley assenting, went with him into an early public-house, haunted by unsavoury smells of musty hay and stale straw, where returning carts, farmers’ men, gaunt dogs, fowls of a beery breed, and certain human nightbirds fluttering home to roost, were solacing themselves after their several manners; and where not one of the nightbirds hovering about the sloppy bar failed to discern at a glance in the passion-wasted nightbird with respectable feathers, the worst nightbird of all.

An inspiration of affection for a half-drunken carter going his way led to Mr Riderhood’s being elevated on a high heap of baskets on a waggon, and pursuing his journey recumbent on his back with his head on his bundle. Bradley then turned to retrace his steps, and by-and-by struck off through little-traversed ways, and by-and-by reached school and home. Up came the sun to find him washed and brushed, methodically dressed in decent black coat and waistcoat, decent formal black tie, and pepper-and-salt pantaloons, with his decent silver watch in its pocket, and its decent hair-guard round his neck: a scholastic huntsman clad for the field, with his fresh pack yelping and barking around him.

Yet more really bewitched than the miserable creatures of the much-lamented times, who accused themselves of impossibilities under a contagion of horror and the strongly suggestive influences of Torture, he had been ridden hard by Evil Spirits in the night that was newly gone. He had been spurred and whipped and heavily sweated. If a record of the sport had usurped the places of the peaceful texts from Scripture on the wall, the most advanced of the scholars might have taken fright and run away from the master.






Chapter 12. 
MEANING MISCHIEF

Up came the sun, streaming all over London, and in its glorious impartiality even condescending to make prismatic sparkles in the whiskers of Mr Alfred Lammle as he sat at breakfast. In need of some brightening from without, was Mr Alfred Lammle, for he had the air of being dull enough within, and looked grievously discontented.

Mrs Alfred Lammle faced her lord. The happy pair of swindlers, with the comfortable tie between them that each had swindled the other, sat moodily observant of the tablecloth. Things looked so gloomy in the breakfast-room, albeit on the sunny side of Sackville Street, that any of the family tradespeople glancing through the blinds might have taken the hint to send in his account and press for it. But this, indeed, most of the family tradespeople had already done, without the hint.

‘It seems to me,’ said Mrs Lammle, ‘that you have had no money at all, ever since we have been married.’

‘What seems to you,’ said Mr Lammle, ‘to have been the case, may possibly have been the case. It doesn’t matter.’

Was it the speciality of Mr and Mrs Lammle, or does it ever obtain with other loving couples? In these matrimonial dialogues they never addressed each other, but always some invisible presence that appeared to take a station about midway between them. Perhaps the skeleton in the cupboard comes out to be talked to, on such domestic occasions?

‘I have never seen any money in the house,’ said Mrs Lammle to the skeleton, ‘except my own annuity. That I swear.’

‘You needn’t take the trouble of swearing,’ said Mr Lammle to the skeleton; ‘once more, it doesn’t matter. You never turned your annuity to so good an account.’

‘Good an account! In what way?’ asked Mrs Lammle.

‘In the way of getting credit, and living well,’ said Mr Lammle. Perhaps the skeleton laughed scornfully on being intrusted with this question and this answer; certainly Mrs Lammle did, and Mr Lammle did.

‘And what is to happen next?’ asked Mrs Lammle of the skeleton.

‘Smash is to happen next,’ said Mr Lammle to the same authority.

After this, Mrs Lammle looked disdainfully at the skeleton—but without carrying the look on to Mr Lammle—and drooped her eyes. After that, Mr Lammle did exactly the same thing, and drooped his eyes. A servant then entering with toast, the skeleton retired into the closet, and shut itself up.

‘Sophronia,’ said Mr Lammle, when the servant had withdrawn. And then, very much louder: ‘Sophronia!’

‘Well?’

‘Attend to me, if you please.’ He eyed her sternly until she did attend, and then went on. ‘I want to take counsel with you. Come, come; no more trifling. You know our league and covenant. We are to work together for our joint interest, and you are as knowing a hand as I am. We shouldn’t be together, if you were not. What’s to be done? We are hemmed into a corner. What shall we do?’

‘Have you no scheme on foot that will bring in anything?’

Mr Lammle plunged into his whiskers for reflection, and came out hopeless: ‘No; as adventurers we are obliged to play rash games for chances of high winnings, and there has been a run of luck against us.’

She was resuming, ‘Have you nothing—’ when he stopped her.

‘We, Sophronia. We, we, we.’

‘Have we nothing to sell?’

‘Deuce a bit. I have given a Jew a bill of sale on this furniture, and he could take it to-morrow, to-day, now. He would have taken it before now, I believe, but for Fledgeby.’

‘What has Fledgeby to do with him?’

‘Knew him. Cautioned me against him before I got into his claws. Couldn’t persuade him then, in behalf of somebody else.’

‘Do you mean that Fledgeby has at all softened him towards you?’

‘Us, Sophronia. Us, us, us.’

‘Towards us?’

‘I mean that the Jew has not yet done what he might have done, and that Fledgeby takes the credit of having got him to hold his hand.’

‘Do you believe Fledgeby?’

‘Sophronia, I never believe anybody. I never have, my dear, since I believed you. But it looks like it.’

Having given her this back-handed reminder of her mutinous observations to the skeleton, Mr Lammle rose from table—perhaps, the better to conceal a smile, and a white dint or two about his nose—and took a turn on the carpet and came to the hearthrug.

‘If we could have packed the brute off with Georgiana;—but however; that’s spilled milk.’

As Lammle, standing gathering up the skirts of his dressing-gown with his back to the fire, said this, looking down at his wife, she turned pale and looked down at the ground. With a sense of disloyalty upon her, and perhaps with a sense of personal danger—for she was afraid of him—even afraid of his hand and afraid of his foot, though he had never done her violence—she hastened to put herself right in his eyes.

‘If we could borrow money, Alfred—’

‘Beg money, borrow money, or steal money. It would be all one to us, Sophronia,’ her husband struck in.

‘—Then, we could weather this?’

‘No doubt. To offer another original and undeniable remark, Sophronia, two and two make four.’

But, seeing that she was turning something in her mind, he gathered up the skirts of his dressing-gown again, and, tucking them under one arm, and collecting his ample whiskers in his other hand, kept his eye upon her, silently.

‘It is natural, Alfred,’ she said, looking up with some timidity into his face, ‘to think in such an emergency of the richest people we know, and the simplest.’

‘Just so, Sophronia.’

‘The Boffins.’

‘Just so, Sophronia.’

‘Is there nothing to be done with them?’

‘What is there to be done with them, Sophronia?’

She cast about in her thoughts again, and he kept his eye upon her as before.

‘Of course I have repeatedly thought of the Boffins, Sophronia,’ he resumed, after a fruitless silence; ‘but I have seen my way to nothing. They are well guarded. That infernal Secretary stands between them and—people of merit.’

‘If he could be got rid of?’ said she, brightening a little, after more casting about.

‘Take time, Sophronia,’ observed her watchful husband, in a patronizing manner.

‘If working him out of the way could be presented in the light of a service to Mr Boffin?’

‘Take time, Sophronia.’

‘We have remarked lately, Alfred, that the old man is turning very suspicious and distrustful.’

‘Miserly too, my dear; which is far the most unpromising for us. Nevertheless, take time, Sophronia, take time.’

She took time and then said:

‘Suppose we should address ourselves to that tendency in him of which we have made ourselves quite sure. Suppose my conscience—’

‘And we know what a conscience it is, my soul. Yes?’

‘Suppose my conscience should not allow me to keep to myself any longer what that upstart girl told me of the Secretary’s having made a declaration to her. Suppose my conscience should oblige me to repeat it to Mr Boffin.’

‘I rather like that,’ said Lammle.

‘Suppose I so repeated it to Mr Boffin, as to insinuate that my sensitive delicacy and honour—’

‘Very good words, Sophronia.’

‘—As to insinuate that our sensitive delicacy and honour,’ she resumed, with a bitter stress upon the phrase, ‘would not allow us to be silent parties to so mercenary and designing a speculation on the Secretary’s part, and so gross a breach of faith towards his confiding employer. Suppose I had imparted my virtuous uneasiness to my excellent husband, and he had said, in his integrity, “Sophronia, you must immediately disclose this to Mr Boffin.”’

‘Once more, Sophronia,’ observed Lammle, changing the leg on which he stood, ‘I rather like that.’

‘You remark that he is well guarded,’ she pursued. ‘I think so too. But if this should lead to his discharging his Secretary, there would be a weak place made.’

‘Go on expounding, Sophronia. I begin to like this very much.’

‘Having, in our unimpeachable rectitude, done him the service of opening his eyes to the treachery of the person he trusted, we shall have established a claim upon him and a confidence with him. Whether it can be made much of, or little of, we must wait—because we can’t help it—to see. Probably we shall make the most of it that is to be made.’

‘Probably,’ said Lammle.

‘Do you think it impossible,’ she asked, in the same cold plotting way, ‘that you might replace the Secretary?’

‘Not impossible, Sophronia. It might be brought about. At any rate it might be skilfully led up to.’

She nodded her understanding of the hint, as she looked at the fire. ‘Mr Lammle,’ she said, musingly: not without a slight ironical touch: ‘Mr Lammle would be so delighted to do anything in his power. Mr Lammle, himself a man of business as well as a capitalist. Mr Lammle, accustomed to be intrusted with the most delicate affairs. Mr Lammle, who has managed my own little fortune so admirably, but who, to be sure, began to make his reputation with the advantage of being a man of property, above temptation, and beyond suspicion.’

Mr Lammle smiled, and even patted her on the head. In his sinister relish of the scheme, as he stood above her, making it the subject of his cogitations, he seemed to have twice as much nose on his face as he had ever had in his life.

He stood pondering, and she sat looking at the dusty fire without moving, for some time. But, the moment he began to speak again she looked up with a wince and attended to him, as if that double-dealing of hers had been in her mind, and the fear were revived in her of his hand or his foot.

‘It appears to me, Sophronia, that you have omitted one branch of the subject. Perhaps not, for women understand women. We might oust the girl herself?’

Mrs Lammle shook her head. ‘She has an immensely strong hold upon them both, Alfred. Not to be compared with that of a paid secretary.’

‘But the dear child,’ said Lammle, with a crooked smile, ‘ought to have been open with her benefactor and benefactress. The darling love ought to have reposed unbounded confidence in her benefactor and benefactress.’

Sophronia shook her head again.

‘Well! Women understand women,’ said her husband, rather disappointed. ‘I don’t press it. It might be the making of our fortune to make a clean sweep of them both. With me to manage the property, and my wife to manage the people—Whew!’

Again shaking her head, she returned: ‘They will never quarrel with the girl. They will never punish the girl. We must accept the girl, rely upon it.’

‘Well!’ cried Lammle, shrugging his shoulders, ‘so be it: only always remember that we don’t want her.’

‘Now, the sole remaining question is,’ said Mrs Lammle, ‘when shall I begin?’

‘You cannot begin too soon, Sophronia. As I have told you, the condition of our affairs is desperate, and may be blown upon at any moment.’

‘I must secure Mr Boffin alone, Alfred. If his wife was present, she would throw oil upon the waters. I know I should fail to move him to an angry outburst, if his wife was there. And as to the girl herself—as I am going to betray her confidence, she is equally out of the question.’

‘It wouldn’t do to write for an appointment?’ said Lammle.

‘No, certainly not. They would wonder among themselves why I wrote, and I want to have him wholly unprepared.’

‘Call, and ask to see him alone?’ suggested Lammle.

‘I would rather not do that either. Leave it to me. Spare me the little carriage for to-day, and for to-morrow (if I don’t succeed to-day), and I’ll lie in wait for him.’

It was barely settled when a manly form was seen to pass the windows and heard to knock and ring. ‘Here’s Fledgeby,’ said Lammle. ‘He admires you, and has a high opinion of you. I’ll be out. Coax him to use his influence with the Jew. His name is Riah, of the House of Pubsey and Co.’ Adding these words under his breath, lest he should be audible in the erect ears of Mr Fledgeby, through two keyholes and the hall, Lammle, making signals of discretion to his servant, went softly up stairs.

‘Mr Fledgeby,’ said Mrs Lammle, giving him a very gracious reception, ‘so glad to see you! My poor dear Alfred, who is greatly worried just now about his affairs, went out rather early. Dear Mr Fledgeby, do sit down.’

Dear Mr Fledgeby did sit down, and satisfied himself (or, judging from the expression of his countenance, dissatisfied himself) that nothing new had occurred in the way of whisker-sprout since he came round the corner from the Albany.

‘Dear Mr Fledgeby, it was needless to mention to you that my poor dear Alfred is much worried about his affairs at present, for he has told me what a comfort you are to him in his temporary difficulties, and what a great service you have rendered him.’

‘Oh!’ said Mr Fledgeby.

‘Yes,’ said Mrs Lammle.

‘I didn’t know,’ remarked Mr Fledgeby, trying a new part of his chair, ‘but that Lammle might be reserved about his affairs.’

‘Not to me,’ said Mrs Lammle, with deep feeling.

‘Oh, indeed?’ said Fledgeby.

‘Not to me, dear Mr Fledgeby. I am his wife.’

‘Yes. I—I always understood so,’ said Mr Fledgeby.

‘And as the wife of Alfred, may I, dear Mr Fledgeby, wholly without his authority or knowledge, as I am sure your discernment will perceive, entreat you to continue that great service, and once more use your well-earned influence with Mr Riah for a little more indulgence? The name I have heard Alfred mention, tossing in his dreams, is Riah; is it not?’

‘The name of the Creditor is Riah,’ said Mr Fledgeby, with a rather uncompromising accent on his noun-substantive. ‘Saint Mary Axe. Pubsey and Co.’

‘Oh yes!’ exclaimed Mrs Lammle, clasping her hands with a certain gushing wildness. ‘Pubsey and Co.!’

‘The pleading of the feminine—’ Mr Fledgeby began, and there stuck so long for a word to get on with, that Mrs Lammle offered him sweetly, ‘Heart?’

‘No,’ said Mr Fledgeby, ‘Gender—is ever what a man is bound to listen to, and I wish it rested with myself. But this Riah is a nasty one, Mrs Lammle; he really is.’

‘Not if you speak to him, dear Mr Fledgeby.’

‘Upon my soul and body he is!’ said Fledgeby.

‘Try. Try once more, dearest Mr Fledgeby. What is there you cannot do, if you will!’

‘Thank you,’ said Fledgeby, ‘you’re very complimentary to say so. I don’t mind trying him again, at your request. But of course I can’t answer for the consequences. Riah is a tough subject, and when he says he’ll do a thing, he’ll do it.’

‘Exactly so,’ cried Mrs Lammle, ‘and when he says to you he’ll wait, he’ll wait.’

(‘She is a devilish clever woman,’ thought Fledgeby. ‘I didn’t see that opening, but she spies it out and cuts into it as soon as it’s made.’)

‘In point of fact, dear Mr Fledgeby,’ Mrs Lammle went on in a very interesting manner, ‘not to affect concealment of Alfred’s hopes, to you who are so much his friend, there is a distant break in his horizon.’

This figure of speech seemed rather mysterious to Fascination Fledgeby, who said, ‘There’s a what in his—eh?’

‘Alfred, dear Mr Fledgeby, discussed with me this very morning before he went out, some prospects he has, which might entirely change the aspect of his present troubles.’

‘Really?’ said Fledgeby.

‘O yes!’ Here Mrs Lammle brought her handkerchief into play. ‘And you know, dear Mr Fledgeby—you who study the human heart, and study the world—what an affliction it would be to lose position and to lose credit, when ability to tide over a very short time might save all appearances.’

‘Oh!’ said Fledgeby. ‘Then you think, Mrs Lammle, that if Lammle got time, he wouldn’t burst up?—To use an expression,’ Mr Fledgeby apologetically explained, ‘which is adopted in the Money Market.’

‘Indeed yes. Truly, truly, yes!’

‘That makes all the difference,’ said Fledgeby. ‘I’ll make a point of seeing Riah at once.’

‘Blessings on you, dearest Mr Fledgeby!’

‘Not at all,’ said Fledgeby. She gave him her hand. ‘The hand,’ said Mr Fledgeby, ‘of a lovely and superior-minded female is ever the repayment of a—’

‘Noble action!’ said Mrs Lammle, extremely anxious to get rid of him.

‘It wasn’t what I was going to say,’ returned Fledgeby, who never would, under any circumstances, accept a suggested expression, ‘but you’re very complimentary. May I imprint a—a one—upon it? Good morning!’

‘I may depend upon your promptitude, dearest Mr Fledgeby?’

Said Fledgeby, looking back at the door and respectfully kissing his hand, ‘You may depend upon it.’

In fact, Mr Fledgeby sped on his errand of mercy through the streets, at so brisk a rate that his feet might have been winged by all the good spirits that wait on Generosity. They might have taken up their station in his breast, too, for he was blithe and merry. There was quite a fresh trill in his voice, when, arriving at the counting-house in St Mary Axe, and finding it for the moment empty, he trolled forth at the foot of the staircase: ‘Now, Judah, what are you up to there?’

The old man appeared, with his accustomed deference.

‘Halloa!’ said Fledgeby, falling back, with a wink. ‘You mean mischief, Jerusalem!’

The old man raised his eyes inquiringly.

‘Yes you do,’ said Fledgeby. ‘Oh, you sinner! Oh, you dodger! What! You’re going to act upon that bill of sale at Lammle’s, are you? Nothing will turn you, won’t it? You won’t be put off for another single minute, won’t you?’

Ordered to immediate action by the master’s tone and look, the old man took up his hat from the little counter where it lay.

‘You have been told that he might pull through it, if you didn’t go in to win, Wide-Awake; have you?’ said Fledgeby. ‘And it’s not your game that he should pull through it; ain’t it? You having got security, and there being enough to pay you? Oh, you Jew!’

The old man stood irresolute and uncertain for a moment, as if there might be further instructions for him in reserve.

‘Do I go, sir?’ he at length asked in a low voice.

‘Asks me if he is going!’ exclaimed Fledgeby. ‘Asks me, as if he didn’t know his own purpose! Asks me, as if he hadn’t got his hat on ready! Asks me, as if his sharp old eye—why, it cuts like a knife—wasn’t looking at his walking-stick by the door!’

‘Do I go, sir?’

‘Do you go?’ sneered Fledgeby. ‘Yes, you do go. Toddle, Judah!’






Chapter 13. 
GIVE A DOG A BAD NAME, AND HANG HIM

Fascination Fledgeby, left alone in the counting-house, strolled about with his hat on one side, whistling, and investigating the drawers, and prying here and there for any small evidences of his being cheated, but could find none. ‘Not his merit that he don’t cheat me,’ was Mr Fledgeby’s commentary delivered with a wink, ‘but my precaution.’ He then with a lazy grandeur asserted his rights as lord of Pubsey and Co. by poking his cane at the stools and boxes, and spitting in the fireplace, and so loitered royally to the window and looked out into the narrow street, with his small eyes just peering over the top of Pubsey and Co.‘s blind. As a blind in more senses than one, it reminded him that he was alone in the counting-house with the front door open. He was moving away to shut it, lest he should be injudiciously identified with the establishment, when he was stopped by some one coming to the door.

This some one was the dolls’ dressmaker, with a little basket on her arm, and her crutch stick in her hand. Her keen eyes had espied Mr Fledgeby before Mr Fledgeby had espied her, and he was paralysed in his purpose of shutting her out, not so much by her approaching the door, as by her favouring him with a shower of nods, the instant he saw her. This advantage she improved by hobbling up the steps with such despatch that before Mr Fledgeby could take measures for her finding nobody at home, she was face to face with him in the counting-house.

‘Hope I see you well, sir,’ said Miss Wren. ‘Mr Riah in?’

Fledgeby had dropped into a chair, in the attitude of one waiting wearily. ‘I suppose he will be back soon,’ he replied; ‘he has cut out and left me expecting him back, in an odd way. Haven’t I seen you before?’

‘Once before—if you had your eyesight,’ replied Miss Wren; the conditional clause in an under-tone.

‘When you were carrying on some games up at the top of the house. I remember. How’s your friend?’

‘I have more friends than one, sir, I hope,’ replied Miss Wren. ‘Which friend?’

‘Never mind,’ said Mr Fledgeby, shutting up one eye, ‘any of your friends, all your friends. Are they pretty tolerable?’

Somewhat confounded, Miss Wren parried the pleasantry, and sat down in a corner behind the door, with her basket in her lap. By-and-by, she said, breaking a long and patient silence:

‘I beg your pardon, sir, but I am used to find Mr Riah at this time, and so I generally come at this time. I only want to buy my poor little two shillings’ worth of waste. Perhaps you’ll kindly let me have it, and I’ll trot off to my work.’

‘I let you have it?’ said Fledgeby, turning his head towards her; for he had been sitting blinking at the light, and feeling his cheek. ‘Why, you don’t really suppose that I have anything to do with the place, or the business; do you?’

‘Suppose?’ exclaimed Miss Wren. ‘He said, that day, you were the master!’

‘The old cock in black said? Riah said? Why, he’d say anything.’

‘Well; but you said so too,’ returned Miss Wren. ‘Or at least you took on like the master, and didn’t contradict him.’

‘One of his dodges,’ said Mr Fledgeby, with a cool and contemptuous shrug. ‘He’s made of dodges. He said to me, “Come up to the top of the house, sir, and I’ll show you a handsome girl. But I shall call you the master.” So I went up to the top of the house and he showed me the handsome girl (very well worth looking at she was), and I was called the master. I don’t know why. I dare say he don’t. He loves a dodge for its own sake; being,’ added Mr Fledgeby, after casting about for an expressive phrase, ‘the dodgerest of all the dodgers.’

‘Oh my head!’ cried the dolls’ dressmaker, holding it with both her hands, as if it were cracking. ‘You can’t mean what you say.’

‘I can, my little woman, retorted Fledgeby, ‘and I do, I assure you.’

This repudiation was not only an act of deliberate policy on Fledgeby’s part, in case of his being surprised by any other caller, but was also a retort upon Miss Wren for her over-sharpness, and a pleasant instance of his humour as regarded the old Jew. ‘He has got a bad name as an old Jew, and he is paid for the use of it, and I’ll have my money’s worth out of him.’ This was Fledgeby’s habitual reflection in the way of business, and it was sharpened just now by the old man’s presuming to have a secret from him: though of the secret itself, as annoying somebody else whom he disliked, he by no means disapproved.

Miss Wren with a fallen countenance sat behind the door looking thoughtfully at the ground, and the long and patient silence had again set in for some time, when the expression of Mr Fledgeby’s face betokened that through the upper portion of the door, which was of glass, he saw some one faltering on the brink of the counting-house. Presently there was a rustle and a tap, and then some more rustling and another tap. Fledgeby taking no notice, the door was at length softly opened, and the dried face of a mild little elderly gentleman looked in.

‘Mr Riah?’ said this visitor, very politely.

‘I am waiting for him, sir,’ returned Mr Fledgeby. ‘He went out and left me here. I expect him back every minute. Perhaps you had better take a chair.’

The gentleman took a chair, and put his hand to his forehead, as if he were in a melancholy frame of mind. Mr Fledgeby eyed him aside, and seemed to relish his attitude.

‘A fine day, sir,’ remarked Fledgeby.

The little dried gentleman was so occupied with his own depressed reflections that he did not notice the remark until the sound of Mr Fledgeby’s voice had died out of the counting-house. Then he started, and said: ‘I beg your pardon, sir. I fear you spoke to me?’

‘I said,’ remarked Fledgeby, a little louder than before, ‘it was a fine day.’

‘I beg your pardon. I beg your pardon. Yes.’

Again the little dried gentleman put his hand to his forehead, and again Mr Fledgeby seemed to enjoy his doing it. When the gentleman changed his attitude with a sigh, Fledgeby spake with a grin.

‘Mr Twemlow, I think?’

The dried gentleman seemed much surprised.

‘Had the pleasure of dining with you at Lammle’s,’ said Fledgeby. ‘Even have the honour of being a connexion of yours. An unexpected sort of place this to meet in; but one never knows, when one gets into the City, what people one may knock up against. I hope you have your health, and are enjoying yourself.’

There might have been a touch of impertinence in the last words; on the other hand, it might have been but the native grace of Mr Fledgeby’s manner. Mr Fledgeby sat on a stool with a foot on the rail of another stool, and his hat on. Mr Twemlow had uncovered on looking in at the door, and remained so. Now the conscientious Twemlow, knowing what he had done to thwart the gracious Fledgeby, was particularly disconcerted by this encounter. He was as ill at ease as a gentleman well could be. He felt himself bound to conduct himself stiffly towards Fledgeby, and he made him a distant bow. Fledgeby made his small eyes smaller in taking special note of his manner. The dolls’ dressmaker sat in her corner behind the door, with her eyes on the ground and her hands folded on her basket, holding her crutch-stick between them, and appearing to take no heed of anything.

‘He’s a long time,’ muttered Mr Fledgeby, looking at his watch. ‘What time may you make it, Mr Twemlow?’

Mr Twemlow made it ten minutes past twelve, sir.

‘As near as a toucher,’ assented Fledgeby. ‘I hope, Mr Twemlow, your business here may be of a more agreeable character than mine.’

‘Thank you, sir,’ said Mr Twemlow.

Fledgeby again made his small eyes smaller, as he glanced with great complacency at Twemlow, who was timorously tapping the table with a folded letter.

‘What I know of Mr Riah,’ said Fledgeby, with a very disparaging utterance of his name, ‘leads me to believe that this is about the shop for disagreeable business. I have always found him the bitingest and tightest screw in London.’

Mr Twemlow acknowledged the remark with a little distant bow. It evidently made him nervous.

‘So much so,’ pursued Fledgeby, ‘that if it wasn’t to be true to a friend, nobody should catch me waiting here a single minute. But if you have friends in adversity, stand by them. That’s what I say and act up to.’

The equitable Twemlow felt that this sentiment, irrespective of the utterer, demanded his cordial assent. ‘You are very right, sir,’ he rejoined with spirit. ‘You indicate the generous and manly course.’

‘Glad to have your approbation,’ returned Fledgeby. ‘It’s a coincidence, Mr Twemlow;’ here he descended from his perch, and sauntered towards him; ‘that the friends I am standing by to-day are the friends at whose house I met you! The Lammles. She’s a very taking and agreeable woman?’

Conscience smote the gentle Twemlow pale. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘She is.’

‘And when she appealed to me this morning, to come and try what I could do to pacify their creditor, this Mr Riah—that I certainly have gained some little influence with in transacting business for another friend, but nothing like so much as she supposes—and when a woman like that spoke to me as her dearest Mr Fledgeby, and shed tears—why what could I do, you know?’

Twemlow gasped ‘Nothing but come.’

‘Nothing but come. And so I came. But why,’ said Fledgeby, putting his hands in his pockets and counterfeiting deep meditation, ‘why Riah should have started up, when I told him that the Lammles entreated him to hold over a Bill of Sale he has on all their effects; and why he should have cut out, saying he would be back directly; and why he should have left me here alone so long; I cannot understand.’

The chivalrous Twemlow, Knight of the Simple Heart, was not in a condition to offer any suggestion. He was too penitent, too remorseful. For the first time in his life he had done an underhanded action, and he had done wrong. He had secretly interposed against this confiding young man, for no better real reason than because the young man’s ways were not his ways.

But, the confiding young man proceeded to heap coals of fire on his sensitive head.

‘I beg your pardon, Mr Twemlow; you see I am acquainted with the nature of the affairs that are transacted here. Is there anything I can do for you here? You have always been brought up as a gentleman, and never as a man of business;’ another touch of possible impertinence in this place; ‘and perhaps you are but a poor man of business. What else is to be expected!’

‘I am even a poorer man of business than I am a man, sir,’ returned Twemlow, ‘and I could hardly express my deficiency in a stronger way. I really do not so much as clearly understand my position in the matter on which I am brought here. But there are reasons which make me very delicate of accepting your assistance. I am greatly, greatly, disinclined to profit by it. I don’t deserve it.’

Good childish creature! Condemned to a passage through the world by such narrow little dimly-lighted ways, and picking up so few specks or spots on the road!

‘Perhaps,’ said Fledgeby, ‘you may be a little proud of entering on the topic,—having been brought up as a gentleman.’

‘It’s not that, sir,’ returned Twemlow, ‘it’s not that. I hope I distinguish between true pride and false pride.’

‘I have no pride at all, myself,’ said Fledgeby, ‘and perhaps I don’t cut things so fine as to know one from t’other. But I know this is a place where even a man of business needs his wits about him; and if mine can be of any use to you here, you’re welcome to them.’

‘You are very good,’ said Twemlow, faltering. ‘But I am most unwilling—’

‘I don’t, you know,’ proceeded Fledgeby with an ill-favoured glance, ‘entertain the vanity of supposing that my wits could be of any use to you in society, but they might be here. You cultivate society and society cultivates you, but Mr Riah’s not society. In society, Mr Riah is kept dark; eh, Mr Twemlow?’

Twemlow, much disturbed, and with his hand fluttering about his forehead, replied: ‘Quite true.’

The confiding young man besought him to state his case. The innocent Twemlow, expecting Fledgeby to be astounded by what he should unfold, and not for an instant conceiving the possibility of its happening every day, but treating of it as a terrible phenomenon occurring in the course of ages, related how that he had had a deceased friend, a married civil officer with a family, who had wanted money for change of place or change of post, and how he, Twemlow, had ‘given him his name,’ with the usual, but in the eyes of Twemlow almost incredible result that he had been left to repay what he had never had. How, in the course of years, he had reduced the principal by trifling sums, ‘having,’ said Twemlow, ‘always to observe great economy, being in the enjoyment of a fixed income limited in extent, and that depending on the munificence of a certain nobleman,’ and had always pinched the full interest out of himself with punctual pinches. How he had come, in course of time, to look upon this one only debt of his life as a regular quarterly drawback, and no worse, when ‘his name’ had some way fallen into the possession of Mr Riah, who had sent him notice to redeem it by paying up in full, in one plump sum, or take tremendous consequences. This, with hazy remembrances of how he had been carried to some office to ‘confess judgment’ (as he recollected the phrase), and how he had been carried to another office where his life was assured for somebody not wholly unconnected with the sherry trade whom he remembered by the remarkable circumstance that he had a Straduarius violin to dispose of, and also a Madonna, formed the sum and substance of Mr Twemlow’s narrative. Through which stalked the shadow of the awful Snigsworth, eyed afar off by money-lenders as Security in the Mist, and menacing Twemlow with his baronial truncheon.

To all, Mr Fledgeby listened with the modest gravity becoming a confiding young man who knew it all beforehand, and, when it was finished, seriously shook his head. ‘I don’t like, Mr Twemlow,’ said Fledgeby, ‘I don’t like Riah’s calling in the principal. If he’s determined to call it in, it must come.’

‘But supposing, sir,’ said Twemlow, downcast, ‘that it can’t come?’

‘Then,’ retorted Fledgeby, ‘you must go, you know.’

‘Where?’ asked Twemlow, faintly.

‘To prison,’ returned Fledgeby. Whereat Mr Twemlow leaned his innocent head upon his hand, and moaned a little moan of distress and disgrace.

‘However,’ said Fledgeby, appearing to pluck up his spirits, ‘we’ll hope it’s not so bad as that comes to. If you’ll allow me, I’ll mention to Mr Riah when he comes in, who you are, and I’ll tell him you’re my friend, and I’ll say my say for you, instead of your saying it for yourself; I may be able to do it in a more business-like way. You won’t consider it a liberty?’

‘I thank you again and again, sir,’ said Twemlow. ‘I am strong, strongly, disinclined to avail myself of your generosity, though my helplessness yields. For I cannot but feel that I—to put it in the mildest form of speech—that I have done nothing to deserve it.’

‘Where can he be?’ muttered Fledgeby, referring to his watch again. ‘What can he have gone out for? Did you ever see him, Mr Twemlow?’

‘Never.’

‘He is a thorough Jew to look at, but he is a more thorough Jew to deal with. He’s worst when he’s quiet. If he’s quiet, I shall take it as a very bad sign. Keep your eye upon him when he comes in, and, if he’s quiet, don’t be hopeful. Here he is!—He looks quiet.’

With these words, which had the effect of causing the harmless Twemlow painful agitation, Mr Fledgeby withdrew to his former post, and the old man entered the counting-house.

‘Why, Mr Riah,’ said Fledgeby, ‘I thought you were lost!’

The old man, glancing at the stranger, stood stock-still. He perceived that his master was leading up to the orders he was to take, and he waited to understand them.

‘I really thought,’ repeated Fledgeby slowly, ‘that you were lost, Mr Riah. Why, now I look at you—but no, you can’t have done it; no, you can’t have done it!’

Hat in hand, the old man lifted his head, and looked distressfully at Fledgeby as seeking to know what new moral burden he was to bear.

‘You can’t have rushed out to get the start of everybody else, and put in that bill of sale at Lammle’s?’ said Fledgeby. ‘Say you haven’t, Mr Riah.’

‘Sir, I have,’ replied the old man in a low voice.

‘Oh my eye!’ cried Fledgeby. ‘Tut, tut, tut! Dear, dear, dear! Well! I knew you were a hard customer, Mr Riah, but I never thought you were as hard as that.’

‘Sir,’ said the old man, with great uneasiness, ‘I do as I am directed. I am not the principal here. I am but the agent of a superior, and I have no choice, no power.’

‘Don’t say so,’ retorted Fledgeby, secretly exultant as the old man stretched out his hands, with a shrinking action of defending himself against the sharp construction of the two observers. ‘Don’t play the tune of the trade, Mr Riah. You’ve a right to get in your debts, if you’re determined to do it, but don’t pretend what every one in your line regularly pretends. At least, don’t do it to me. Why should you, Mr Riah? You know I know all about you.’

The old man clasped the skirt of his long coat with his disengaged hand, and directed a wistful look at Fledgeby.

‘And don’t,’ said Fledgeby, ‘don’t, I entreat you as a favour, Mr Riah, be so devilish meek, for I know what’ll follow if you are. Look here, Mr Riah. This gentleman is Mr Twemlow.’

The Jew turned to him and bowed. That poor lamb bowed in return; polite, and terrified.

‘I have made such a failure,’ proceeded Fledgeby, ‘in trying to do anything with you for my friend Lammle, that I’ve hardly a hope of doing anything with you for my friend (and connexion indeed) Mr Twemlow. But I do think that if you would do a favour for anybody, you would for me, and I won’t fail for want of trying, and I’ve passed my promise to Mr Twemlow besides. Now, Mr Riah, here is Mr Twemlow. Always good for his interest, always coming up to time, always paying his little way. Now, why should you press Mr Twemlow? You can’t have any spite against Mr Twemlow! Why not be easy with Mr Twemlow?’

The old man looked into Fledgeby’s little eyes for any sign of leave to be easy with Mr Twemlow; but there was no sign in them.

‘Mr Twemlow is no connexion of yours, Mr Riah,’ said Fledgeby; ‘you can’t want to be even with him for having through life gone in for a gentleman and hung on to his Family. If Mr Twemlow has a contempt for business, what can it matter to you?’

‘But pardon me,’ interposed the gentle victim, ‘I have not. I should consider it presumption.’

‘There, Mr Riah!’ said Fledgeby, ‘isn’t that handsomely said? Come! Make terms with me for Mr Twemlow.’

The old man looked again for any sign of permission to spare the poor little gentleman. No. Mr Fledgeby meant him to be racked.

‘I am very sorry, Mr Twemlow,’ said Riah. ‘I have my instructions. I am invested with no authority for diverging from them. The money must be paid.’

‘In full and slap down, do you mean, Mr Riah?’ asked Fledgeby, to make things quite explicit.

‘In full, sir, and at once,’ was Riah’s answer.

Mr Fledgeby shook his head deploringly at Twemlow, and mutely expressed in reference to the venerable figure standing before him with eyes upon the ground: ‘What a Monster of an Israelite this is!’

‘Mr Riah,’ said Fledgeby.

The old man lifted up his eyes once more to the little eyes in Mr Fledgeby’s head, with some reviving hope that the sign might be coming yet.

‘Mr Riah, it’s of no use my holding back the fact. There’s a certain great party in the background in Mr Twemlow’s case, and you know it.’

‘I know it,’ the old man admitted.

‘Now, I’ll put it as a plain point of business, Mr Riah. Are you fully determined (as a plain point of business) either to have that said great party’s security, or that said great party’s money?’

‘Fully determined,’ answered Riah, as he read his master’s face, and learnt the book.

‘Not at all caring for, and indeed as it seems to me rather enjoying,’ said Fledgeby, with peculiar unction, ‘the precious kick-up and row that will come off between Mr Twemlow and the said great party?’

This required no answer, and received none. Poor Mr Twemlow, who had betrayed the keenest mental terrors since his noble kinsman loomed in the perspective, rose with a sigh to take his departure. ‘I thank you very much, sir,’ he said, offering Fledgeby his feverish hand. ‘You have done me an unmerited service. Thank you, thank you!’

‘Don’t mention it,’ answered Fledgeby. ‘It’s a failure so far, but I’ll stay behind, and take another touch at Mr Riah.’

‘Do not deceive yourself Mr Twemlow,’ said the Jew, then addressing him directly for the first time. ‘There is no hope for you. You must expect no leniency here. You must pay in full, and you cannot pay too promptly, or you will be put to heavy charges. Trust nothing to me, sir. Money, money, money.’ When he had said these words in an emphatic manner, he acknowledged Mr Twemlow’s still polite motion of his head, and that amiable little worthy took his departure in the lowest spirits.

Fascination Fledgeby was in such a merry vein when the counting-house was cleared of him, that he had nothing for it but to go to the window, and lean his arms on the frame of the blind, and have his silent laugh out, with his back to his subordinate. When he turned round again with a composed countenance, his subordinate still stood in the same place, and the dolls’ dressmaker sat behind the door with a look of horror.

‘Halloa!’ cried Mr Fledgeby, ‘you’re forgetting this young lady, Mr Riah, and she has been waiting long enough too. Sell her her waste, please, and give her good measure if you can make up your mind to do the liberal thing for once.’

He looked on for a time, as the Jew filled her little basket with such scraps as she was used to buy; but, his merry vein coming on again, he was obliged to turn round to the window once more, and lean his arms on the blind.

‘There, my Cinderella dear,’ said the old man in a whisper, and with a worn-out look, ‘the basket’s full now. Bless you! And get you gone!’

‘Don’t call me your Cinderella dear,’ returned Miss Wren. ‘O you cruel godmother!’

She shook that emphatic little forefinger of hers in his face at parting, as earnestly and reproachfully as she had ever shaken it at her grim old child at home.

‘You are not the godmother at all!’ said she. ‘You are the Wolf in the Forest, the wicked Wolf! And if ever my dear Lizzie is sold and betrayed, I shall know who sold and betrayed her!’






Chapter 14. 
MR WEGG PREPARES A GRINDSTONE FOR MR BOFFIN’S NOSE

Having assisted at a few more expositions of the lives of Misers, Mr Venus became almost indispensable to the evenings at the Bower. The circumstance of having another listener to the wonders unfolded by Wegg, or, as it were, another calculator to cast up the guineas found in teapots, chimneys, racks and mangers, and other such banks of deposit, seemed greatly to heighten Mr Boffin’s enjoyment; while Silas Wegg, for his part, though of a jealous temperament which might under ordinary circumstances have resented the anatomist’s getting into favour, was so very anxious to keep his eye on that gentleman—lest, being too much left to himself, he should be tempted to play any tricks with the precious document in his keeping—that he never lost an opportunity of commending him to Mr Boffin’s notice as a third party whose company was much to be desired. Another friendly demonstration towards him Mr Wegg now regularly gratified. After each sitting was over, and the patron had departed, Mr Wegg invariably saw Mr Venus home. To be sure, he as invariably requested to be refreshed with a sight of the paper in which he was a joint proprietor; but he never failed to remark that it was the great pleasure he derived from Mr Venus’s improving society which had insensibly lured him round to Clerkenwell again, and that, finding himself once more attracted to the spot by the social powers of Mr V., he would beg leave to go through that little incidental procedure, as a matter of form. ‘For well I know, sir,’ Mr Wegg would add, ‘that a man of your delicate mind would wish to be checked off whenever the opportunity arises, and it is not for me to baulk your feelings.’

A certain rustiness in Mr Venus, which never became so lubricated by the oil of Mr Wegg but that he turned under the screw in a creaking and stiff manner, was very noticeable at about this period. While assisting at the literary evenings, he even went so far, on two or three occasions, as to correct Mr Wegg when he grossly mispronounced a word, or made nonsense of a passage; insomuch that Mr Wegg took to surveying his course in the day, and to making arrangements for getting round rocks at night instead of running straight upon them. Of the slightest anatomical reference he became particularly shy, and, if he saw a bone ahead, would go any distance out of his way rather than mention it by name.

The adverse destinies ordained that one evening Mr Wegg’s labouring bark became beset by polysyllables, and embarrassed among a perfect archipelago of hard words. It being necessary to take soundings every minute, and to feel the way with the greatest caution, Mr Wegg’s attention was fully employed. Advantage was taken of this dilemma by Mr Venus, to pass a scrap of paper into Mr Boffin’s hand, and lay his finger on his own lip.

When Mr Boffin got home at night he found that the paper contained Mr Venus’s card and these words: ‘Should be glad to be honoured with a call respecting business of your own, about dusk on an early evening.’

The very next evening saw Mr Boffin peeping in at the preserved frogs in Mr Venus’s shop-window, and saw Mr Venus espying Mr Boffin with the readiness of one on the alert, and beckoning that gentleman into his interior. Responding, Mr Boffin was invited to seat himself on the box of human miscellanies before the fire, and did so, looking round the place with admiring eyes. The fire being low and fitful, and the dusk gloomy, the whole stock seemed to be winking and blinking with both eyes, as Mr Venus did. The French gentleman, though he had no eyes, was not at all behind-hand, but appeared, as the flame rose and fell, to open and shut his no eyes, with the regularity of the glass-eyed dogs and ducks and birds. The big-headed babies were equally obliging in lending their grotesque aid to the general effect.

‘You see, Mr Venus, I’ve lost no time,’ said Mr Boffin. ‘Here I am.’

‘Here you are, sir,’ assented Mr Venus.

‘I don’t like secrecy,’ pursued Mr Boffin—‘at least, not in a general way I don’t—but I dare say you’ll show me good reason for being secret so far.’

‘I think I shall, sir,’ returned Venus.

‘Good,’ said Mr Boffin. ‘You don’t expect Wegg, I take it for granted?’

‘No, sir. I expect no one but the present company.’

Mr Boffin glanced about him, as accepting under that inclusive denomination the French gentleman and the circle in which he didn’t move, and repeated, ‘The present company.’

‘Sir,’ said Mr Venus, ‘before entering upon business, I shall have to ask you for your word and honour that we are in confidence.’

‘Let’s wait a bit and understand what the expression means,’ answered Mr Boffin. ‘In confidence for how long? In confidence for ever and a day?’

‘I take your hint, sir,’ said Venus; ‘you think you might consider the business, when you came to know it, to be of a nature incompatible with confidence on your part?’

‘I might,’ said Mr Boffin with a cautious look.

‘True, sir. Well, sir,’ observed Venus, after clutching at his dusty hair, to brighten his ideas, ‘let us put it another way. I open the business with you, relying upon your honour not to do anything in it, and not to mention me in it, without my knowledge.’

‘That sounds fair,’ said Mr Boffin. ‘I agree to that.’

‘I have your word and honour, sir?’

‘My good fellow,’ retorted Mr Boffin, ‘you have my word; and how you can have that, without my honour too, I don’t know. I’ve sorted a lot of dust in my time, but I never knew the two things go into separate heaps.’

This remark seemed rather to abash Mr Venus. He hesitated, and said, ‘Very true, sir;’ and again, ‘Very true, sir,’ before resuming the thread of his discourse.

‘Mr Boffin, if I confess to you that I fell into a proposal of which you were the subject, and of which you oughtn’t to have been the subject, you will allow me to mention, and will please take into favourable consideration, that I was in a crushed state of mind at the time.’

The Golden Dustman, with his hands folded on the top of his stout stick, with his chin resting upon them, and with something leering and whimsical in his eyes, gave a nod, and said, ‘Quite so, Venus.’

‘That proposal, sir, was a conspiring breach of your confidence, to such an extent, that I ought at once to have made it known to you. But I didn’t, Mr Boffin, and I fell into it.’

Without moving eye or finger, Mr Boffin gave another nod, and placidly repeated, ‘Quite so, Venus.’

‘Not that I was ever hearty in it, sir,’ the penitent anatomist went on, ‘or that I ever viewed myself with anything but reproach for having turned out of the paths of science into the paths of—’ he was going to say ‘villany,’ but, unwilling to press too hard upon himself, substituted with great emphasis—‘Weggery.’

Placid and whimsical of look as ever, Mr Boffin answered:

‘Quite so, Venus.’

‘And now, sir,’ said Venus, ‘having prepared your mind in the rough, I will articulate the details.’ With which brief professional exordium, he entered on the history of the friendly move, and truly recounted it. One might have thought that it would have extracted some show of surprise or anger, or other emotion, from Mr Boffin, but it extracted nothing beyond his former comment:

‘Quite so, Venus.’

‘I have astonished you, sir, I believe?’ said Mr Venus, pausing dubiously.

Mr Boffin simply answered as aforesaid: ‘Quite so, Venus.’

By this time the astonishment was all on the other side. It did not, however, so continue. For, when Venus passed to Wegg’s discovery, and from that to their having both seen Mr Boffin dig up the Dutch bottle, that gentleman changed colour, changed his attitude, became extremely restless, and ended (when Venus ended) by being in a state of manifest anxiety, trepidation, and confusion.

‘Now, sir,’ said Venus, finishing off; ‘you best know what was in that Dutch bottle, and why you dug it up, and took it away. I don’t pretend to know anything more about it than I saw. All I know is this: I am proud of my calling after all (though it has been attended by one dreadful drawback which has told upon my heart, and almost equally upon my skeleton), and I mean to live by my calling. Putting the same meaning into other words, I do not mean to turn a single dishonest penny by this affair. As the best amends I can make you for having ever gone into it, I make known to you, as a warning, what Wegg has found out. My opinion is, that Wegg is not to be silenced at a modest price, and I build that opinion on his beginning to dispose of your property the moment he knew his power. Whether it’s worth your while to silence him at any price, you will decide for yourself, and take your measures accordingly. As far as I am concerned, I have no price. If I am ever called upon for the truth, I tell it, but I want to do no more than I have now done and ended.’

‘Thank’ee, Venus!’ said Mr Boffin, with a hearty grip of his hand; ‘thank’ee, Venus, thank’ee, Venus!’ And then walked up and down the little shop in great agitation. ‘But look here, Venus,’ he by-and-by resumed, nervously sitting down again; ‘if I have to buy Wegg up, I shan’t buy him any cheaper for your being out of it. Instead of his having half the money—it was to have been half, I suppose? Share and share alike?’

‘It was to have been half, sir,’ answered Venus.

‘Instead of that, he’ll now have all. I shall pay the same, if not more. For you tell me he’s an unconscionable dog, a ravenous rascal.’

‘He is,’ said Venus.

‘Don’t you think, Venus,’ insinuated Mr Boffin, after looking at the fire for a while—‘don’t you feel as if—you might like to pretend to be in it till Wegg was bought up, and then ease your mind by handing over to me what you had made believe to pocket?’

‘No I don’t, sir,’ returned Venus, very positively.

‘Not to make amends?’ insinuated Mr Boffin.

‘No, sir. It seems to me, after maturely thinking it over, that the best amends for having got out of the square is to get back into the square.’

‘Humph!’ mused Mr Boffin. ‘When you say the square, you mean—’

‘I mean,’ said Venus, stoutly and shortly, ‘the right.’

‘It appears to me,’ said Mr Boffin, grumbling over the fire in an injured manner, ‘that the right is with me, if it’s anywhere. I have much more right to the old man’s money than the Crown can ever have. What was the Crown to him except the King’s Taxes? Whereas, me and my wife, we was all in all to him.’

Mr Venus, with his head upon his hands, rendered melancholy by the contemplation of Mr Boffin’s avarice, only murmured to steep himself in the luxury of that frame of mind: ‘She did not wish so to regard herself, nor yet to be so regarded.’

‘And how am I to live,’ asked Mr Boffin, piteously, ‘if I’m to be going buying fellows up out of the little that I’ve got? And how am I to set about it? When am I to get my money ready? When am I to make a bid? You haven’t told me when he threatens to drop down upon me.’

Venus explained under what conditions, and with what views, the dropping down upon Mr Boffin was held over until the Mounds should be cleared away. Mr Boffin listened attentively. ‘I suppose,’ said he, with a gleam of hope, ‘there’s no doubt about the genuineness and date of this confounded will?’

‘None whatever,’ said Mr Venus.

‘Where might it be deposited at present?’ asked Mr Boffin, in a wheedling tone.

‘It’s in my possession, sir.’

‘Is it?’ he cried, with great eagerness. ‘Now, for any liberal sum of money that could be agreed upon, Venus, would you put it in the fire?’

‘No, sir, I wouldn’t,’ interrupted Mr Venus.

‘Nor pass it over to me?’

‘That would be the same thing. No, sir,’ said Mr Venus.

The Golden Dustman seemed about to pursue these questions, when a stumping noise was heard outside, coming towards the door. ‘Hush! here’s Wegg!’ said Venus. ‘Get behind the young alligator in the corner, Mr Boffin, and judge him for yourself. I won’t light a candle till he’s gone; there’ll only be the glow of the fire; Wegg’s well acquainted with the alligator, and he won’t take particular notice of him. Draw your legs in, Mr Boffin, at present I see a pair of shoes at the end of his tail. Get your head well behind his smile, Mr Boffin, and you’ll lie comfortable there; you’ll find plenty of room behind his smile. He’s a little dusty, but he’s very like you in tone. Are you right, sir?’

Mr Boffin had but whispered an affirmative response, when Wegg came stumping in. ‘Partner,’ said that gentleman in a sprightly manner, ‘how’s yourself?’

‘Tolerable,’ returned Mr Venus. ‘Not much to boast of.’

‘In-deed!’ said Wegg: ‘sorry, partner, that you’re not picking up faster, but your soul’s too large for your body, sir; that’s where it is. And how’s our stock in trade, partner? Safe bind, safe find, partner? Is that about it?’

‘Do you wish to see it?’ asked Venus.

‘If you please, partner,’ said Wegg, rubbing his hands. ‘I wish to see it jintly with yourself. Or, in similar words to some that was set to music some time back:

     “I wish you to see it with your eyes,
     And I will pledge with mine.”’

Turning his back and turning a key, Mr Venus produced the document, holding on by his usual corner. Mr Wegg, holding on by the opposite corner, sat down on the seat so lately vacated by Mr Boffin, and looked it over. ‘All right, sir,’ he slowly and unwillingly admitted, in his reluctance to loose his hold, ‘all right!’ And greedily watched his partner as he turned his back again, and turned his key again.

‘There’s nothing new, I suppose?’ said Venus, resuming his low chair behind the counter.

‘Yes there is, sir,’ replied Wegg; ‘there was something new this morning. That foxey old grasper and griper—’

‘Mr Boffin?’ inquired Venus, with a glance towards the alligator’s yard or two of smile.

‘Mister be blowed!’ cried Wegg, yielding to his honest indignation. ‘Boffin. Dusty Boffin. That foxey old grunter and grinder, sir, turns into the yard this morning, to meddle with our property, a menial tool of his own, a young man by the name of Sloppy. Ecod, when I say to him, “What do you want here, young man? This is a private yard,” he pulls out a paper from Boffin’s other blackguard, the one I was passed over for. “This is to authorize Sloppy to overlook the carting and to watch the work.” That’s pretty strong, I think, Mr Venus?’

‘Remember he doesn’t know yet of our claim on the property,’ suggested Venus.

‘Then he must have a hint of it,’ said Wegg, ‘and a strong one that’ll jog his terrors a bit. Give him an inch, and he’ll take an ell. Let him alone this time, and what’ll he do with our property next? I tell you what, Mr Venus; it comes to this; I must be overbearing with Boffin, or I shall fly into several pieces. I can’t contain myself when I look at him. Every time I see him putting his hand in his pocket, I see him putting it into my pocket. Every time I hear him jingling his money, I hear him taking liberties with my money. Flesh and blood can’t bear it. No,’ said Mr Wegg, greatly exasperated, ‘and I’ll go further. A wooden leg can’t bear it!’

‘But, Mr Wegg,’ urged Venus, ‘it was your own idea that he should not be exploded upon, till the Mounds were carted away.’

‘But it was likewise my idea, Mr Venus,’ retorted Wegg, ‘that if he came sneaking and sniffing about the property, he should be threatened, given to understand that he has no right to it, and be made our slave. Wasn’t that my idea, Mr Venus?’

‘It certainly was, Mr Wegg.’

‘It certainly was, as you say, partner,’ assented Wegg, put into a better humour by the ready admission. ‘Very well. I consider his planting one of his menial tools in the yard, an act of sneaking and sniffing. And his nose shall be put to the grindstone for it.’

‘It was not your fault, Mr Wegg, I must admit,’ said Venus, ‘that he got off with the Dutch bottle that night.’

‘As you handsomely say again, partner! No, it was not my fault. I’d have had that bottle out of him. Was it to be borne that he should come, like a thief in the dark, digging among stuff that was far more ours than his (seeing that we could deprive him of every grain of it, if he didn’t buy us at our own figure), and carrying off treasure from its bowels? No, it was not to be borne. And for that, too, his nose shall be put to the grindstone.’

‘How do you propose to do it, Mr Wegg?’

‘To put his nose to the grindstone? I propose,’ returned that estimable man, ‘to insult him openly. And, if looking into this eye of mine, he dares to offer a word in answer, to retort upon him before he can take his breath, “Add another word to that, you dusty old dog, and you’re a beggar.”’

‘Suppose he says nothing, Mr Wegg?’

‘Then,’ replied Wegg, ‘we shall have come to an understanding with very little trouble, and I’ll break him and drive him, Mr Venus. I’ll put him in harness, and I’ll bear him up tight, and I’ll break him and drive him. The harder the old Dust is driven, sir, the higher he’ll pay. And I mean to be paid high, Mr Venus, I promise you.’

‘You speak quite revengefully, Mr Wegg.’

‘Revengefully, sir? Is it for him that I have declined and falled, night after night? Is it for his pleasure that I’ve waited at home of an evening, like a set of skittles, to be set up and knocked over, set up and knocked over, by whatever balls—or books—he chose to bring against me? Why, I’m a hundred times the man he is, sir; five hundred times!’

Perhaps it was with the malicious intent of urging him on to his worst that Mr Venus looked as if he doubted that.

‘What? Was it outside the house at present ockypied, to its disgrace, by that minion of fortune and worm of the hour,’ said Wegg, falling back upon his strongest terms of reprobation, and slapping the counter, ‘that I, Silas Wegg, five hundred times the man he ever was, sat in all weathers, waiting for a errand or a customer? Was it outside that very house as I first set eyes upon him, rolling in the lap of luxury, when I was selling halfpenny ballads there for a living? And am I to grovel in the dust for him to walk over? No!’

There was a grin upon the ghastly countenance of the French gentleman under the influence of the firelight, as if he were computing how many thousand slanderers and traitors array themselves against the fortunate, on premises exactly answering to those of Mr Wegg. One might have fancied that the big-headed babies were toppling over with their hydrocephalic attempts to reckon up the children of men who transform their benefactors into their injurers by the same process. The yard or two of smile on the part of the alligator might have been invested with the meaning, ‘All about this was quite familiar knowledge down in the depths of the slime, ages ago.’

‘But,’ said Wegg, possibly with some slight perception to the foregoing effect, ‘your speaking countenance remarks, Mr Venus, that I’m duller and savager than usual. Perhaps I have allowed myself to brood too much. Begone, dull Care! ‘Tis gone, sir. I’ve looked in upon you, and empire resumes her sway. For, as the song says—subject to your correction, sir—

     “When the heart of a man is depressed with cares,
     The mist is dispelled if Venus appears.
     Like the notes of a fiddle, you sweetly, sir, sweetly,
     Raises our spirits and charms our ears.”
 
Good-night, sir.’

‘I shall have a word or two to say to you, Mr Wegg, before long,’ remarked Venus, ‘respecting my share in the project we’ve been speaking of.’

‘My time, sir,’ returned Wegg, ‘is yours. In the meanwhile let it be fully understood that I shall not neglect bringing the grindstone to bear, nor yet bringing Dusty Boffin’s nose to it. His nose once brought to it, shall be held to it by these hands, Mr Venus, till the sparks flies out in showers.’

With this agreeable promise Wegg stumped out, and shut the shop-door after him. ‘Wait till I light a candle, Mr Boffin,’ said Venus, ‘and you’ll come out more comfortable.’ So, he lighting a candle and holding it up at arm’s length, Mr Boffin disengaged himself from behind the alligator’s smile, with an expression of countenance so very downcast that it not only appeared as if the alligator had the whole of the joke to himself, but further as if it had been conceived and executed at Mr Boffin’s expense.

‘That’s a treacherous fellow,’ said Mr Boffin, dusting his arms and legs as he came forth, the alligator having been but musty company. ‘That’s a dreadful fellow.’

‘The alligator, sir?’ said Venus.

‘No, Venus, no. The Serpent.’

‘You’ll have the goodness to notice, Mr Boffin,’ remarked Venus, ‘that I said nothing to him about my going out of the affair altogether, because I didn’t wish to take you anyways by surprise. But I can’t be too soon out of it for my satisfaction, Mr Boffin, and I now put it to you when it will suit your views for me to retire?’

‘Thank’ee, Venus, thank’ee, Venus; but I don’t know what to say,’ returned Mr Boffin, ‘I don’t know what to do. He’ll drop down on me any way. He seems fully determined to drop down; don’t he?’

Mr Venus opined that such was clearly his intention.

‘You might be a sort of protection for me, if you remained in it,’ said Mr Boffin; ‘you might stand betwixt him and me, and take the edge off him. Don’t you feel as if you could make a show of remaining in it, Venus, till I had time to turn myself round?’

Venus naturally inquired how long Mr Boffin thought it might take him to turn himself round?

‘I am sure I don’t know,’ was the answer, given quite at a loss. ‘Everything is so at sixes and sevens. If I had never come into the property, I shouldn’t have minded. But being in it, it would be very trying to be turned out; now, don’t you acknowledge that it would, Venus?’

Mr Venus preferred, he said, to leave Mr Boffin to arrive at his own conclusions on that delicate question.

‘I am sure I don’t know what to do,’ said Mr Boffin. ‘If I ask advice of any one else, it’s only letting in another person to be bought out, and then I shall be ruined that way, and might as well have given up the property and gone slap to the workhouse. If I was to take advice of my young man, Rokesmith, I should have to buy him out. Sooner or later, of course, he’d drop down upon me, like Wegg. I was brought into the world to be dropped down upon, it appears to me.’

Mr Venus listened to these lamentations in silence, while Mr Boffin jogged to and fro, holding his pockets as if he had a pain in them.

‘After all, you haven’t said what you mean to do yourself, Venus. When you do go out of it, how do you mean to go?’

Venus replied that as Wegg had found the document and handed it to him, it was his intention to hand it back to Wegg, with the declaration that he himself would have nothing to say to it, or do with it, and that Wegg must act as he chose, and take the consequences.

‘And then he drops down with his whole weight upon me!’ cried Mr Boffin, ruefully. ‘I’d sooner be dropped upon by you than by him, or even by you jintly, than by him alone!’

Mr Venus could only repeat that it was his fixed intention to betake himself to the paths of science, and to walk in the same all the days of his life; not dropping down upon his fellow-creatures until they were deceased, and then only to articulate them to the best of his humble ability.

‘How long could you be persuaded to keep up the appearance of remaining in it?’ asked Mr Boffin, retiring on his other idea. ‘Could you be got to do so, till the Mounds are gone?’

No. That would protract the mental uneasiness of Mr Venus too long, he said.

‘Not if I was to show you reason now?’ demanded Mr Boffin; ‘not if I was to show you good and sufficient reason?’

If by good and sufficient reason Mr Boffin meant honest and unimpeachable reason, that might weigh with Mr Venus against his personal wishes and convenience. But he must add that he saw no opening to the possibility of such reason being shown him.

‘Come and see me, Venus,’ said Mr Boffin, ‘at my house.’

‘Is the reason there, sir?’ asked Mr Venus, with an incredulous smile and blink.

‘It may be, or may not be,’ said Mr Boffin, ‘just as you view it. But in the meantime don’t go out of the matter. Look here. Do this. Give me your word that you won’t take any steps with Wegg, without my knowledge, just as I have given you my word that I won’t without yours.’

‘Done, Mr Boffin!’ said Venus, after brief consideration.

‘Thank’ee, Venus, thank’ee, Venus! Done!’

‘When shall I come to see you, Mr Boffin.’

‘When you like. The sooner the better. I must be going now. Good-night, Venus.’

‘Good-night, sir.’

‘And good-night to the rest of the present company,’ said Mr Boffin, glancing round the shop. ‘They make a queer show, Venus, and I should like to be better acquainted with them some day. Good-night, Venus, good-night! Thankee, Venus, thankee, Venus!’ With that he jogged out into the street, and jogged upon his homeward way.

‘Now, I wonder,’ he meditated as he went along, nursing his stick, ‘whether it can be, that Venus is setting himself to get the better of Wegg? Whether it can be, that he means, when I have bought Wegg out, to have me all to himself and to pick me clean to the bones!’

It was a cunning and suspicious idea, quite in the way of his school of Misers, and he looked very cunning and suspicious as he went jogging through the streets. More than once or twice, more than twice or thrice, say half a dozen times, he took his stick from the arm on which he nursed it, and hit a straight sharp rap at the air with its head. Possibly the wooden countenance of Mr Silas Wegg was incorporeally before him at those moments, for he hit with intense satisfaction.

He was within a few streets of his own house, when a little private carriage, coming in the contrary direction, passed him, turned round, and passed him again. It was a little carriage of eccentric movement, for again he heard it stop behind him and turn round, and again he saw it pass him. Then it stopped, and then went on, out of sight. But, not far out of sight, for, when he came to the corner of his own street, there it stood again.

There was a lady’s face at the window as he came up with this carriage, and he was passing it when the lady softly called to him by his name.

‘I beg your pardon, Ma’am?’ said Mr Boffin, coming to a stop.

‘It is Mrs Lammle,’ said the lady.

Mr Boffin went up to the window, and hoped Mrs Lammle was well.

‘Not very well, dear Mr Boffin; I have fluttered myself by being—perhaps foolishly—uneasy and anxious. I have been waiting for you some time. Can I speak to you?’

Mr Boffin proposed that Mrs Lammle should drive on to his house, a few hundred yards further.

‘I would rather not, Mr Boffin, unless you particularly wish it. I feel the difficulty and delicacy of the matter so much that I would rather avoid speaking to you at your own home. You must think this very strange?’

Mr Boffin said no, but meant yes.

‘It is because I am so grateful for the good opinion of all my friends, and am so touched by it, that I cannot bear to run the risk of forfeiting it in any case, even in the cause of duty. I have asked my husband (my dear Alfred, Mr Boffin) whether it is the cause of duty, and he has most emphatically said Yes. I wish I had asked him sooner. It would have spared me much distress.’

(‘Can this be more dropping down upon me!’ thought Mr Boffin, quite bewildered.)

‘It was Alfred who sent me to you, Mr Boffin. Alfred said, “Don’t come back, Sophronia, until you have seen Mr Boffin, and told him all. Whatever he may think of it, he ought certainly to know it.” Would you mind coming into the carriage?’

Mr Boffin answered, ‘Not at all,’ and took his seat at Mrs Lammle’s side.

‘Drive slowly anywhere,’ Mrs Lammle called to her coachman, ‘and don’t let the carriage rattle.’

‘It must be more dropping down, I think,’ said Mr Boffin to himself. ‘What next?’






Chapter 15. 
THE GOLDEN DUSTMAN AT HIS WORST

The breakfast table at Mr Boffin’s was usually a very pleasant one, and was always presided over by Bella. As though he began each new day in his healthy natural character, and some waking hours were necessary to his relapse into the corrupting influences of his wealth, the face and the demeanour of the Golden Dustman were generally unclouded at that meal. It would have been easy to believe then, that there was no change in him. It was as the day went on that the clouds gathered, and the brightness of the morning became obscured. One might have said that the shadows of avarice and distrust lengthened as his own shadow lengthened, and that the night closed around him gradually.

But, one morning long afterwards to be remembered, it was black midnight with the Golden Dustman when he first appeared. His altered character had never been so grossly marked. His bearing towards his Secretary was so charged with insolent distrust and arrogance, that the latter rose and left the table before breakfast was half done. The look he directed at the Secretary’s retiring figure was so cunningly malignant, that Bella would have sat astounded and indignant, even though he had not gone the length of secretly threatening Rokesmith with his clenched fist as he closed the door. This unlucky morning, of all mornings in the year, was the morning next after Mr Boffin’s interview with Mrs Lammle in her little carriage.

Bella looked to Mrs Boffin’s face for comment on, or explanation of, this stormy humour in her husband, but none was there. An anxious and a distressed observation of her own face was all she could read in it. When they were left alone together—which was not until noon, for Mr Boffin sat long in his easy-chair, by turns jogging up and down the breakfast-room, clenching his fist and muttering—Bella, in consternation, asked her what had happened, what was wrong? ‘I am forbidden to speak to you about it, Bella dear; I mustn’t tell you,’ was all the answer she could get. And still, whenever, in her wonder and dismay, she raised her eyes to Mrs Boffin’s face, she saw in it the same anxious and distressed observation of her own.

Oppressed by her sense that trouble was impending, and lost in speculations why Mrs Boffin should look at her as if she had any part in it, Bella found the day long and dreary. It was far on in the afternoon when, she being in her own room, a servant brought her a message from Mr Boffin begging her to come to his.

Mrs Boffin was there, seated on a sofa, and Mr Boffin was jogging up and down. On seeing Bella he stopped, beckoned her to him, and drew her arm through his. ‘Don’t be alarmed, my dear,’ he said, gently; ‘I am not angry with you. Why you actually tremble! Don’t be alarmed, Bella my dear. I’ll see you righted.’

‘See me righted?’ thought Bella. And then repeated aloud in a tone of astonishment: ‘see me righted, sir?’

‘Ay, ay!’ said Mr Boffin. ‘See you righted. Send Mr Rokesmith here, you sir.’

Bella would have been lost in perplexity if there had been pause enough; but the servant found Mr Rokesmith near at hand, and he almost immediately presented himself.

‘Shut the door, sir!’ said Mr Boffin. ‘I have got something to say to you which I fancy you’ll not be pleased to hear.’

‘I am sorry to reply, Mr Boffin,’ returned the Secretary, as, having closed the door, he turned and faced him, ‘that I think that very likely.’

‘What do you mean?’ blustered Mr Boffin.

‘I mean that it has become no novelty to me to hear from your lips what I would rather not hear.’

‘Oh! Perhaps we shall change that,’ said Mr Boffin with a threatening roll of his head.

‘I hope so,’ returned the Secretary. He was quiet and respectful; but stood, as Bella thought (and was glad to think), on his manhood too.

‘Now, sir,’ said Mr Boffin, ‘look at this young lady on my arm.’

Bella involuntarily raising her eyes, when this sudden reference was made to herself, met those of Mr Rokesmith. He was pale and seemed agitated. Then her eyes passed on to Mrs Boffin’s, and she met the look again. In a flash it enlightened her, and she began to understand what she had done.

‘I say to you, sir,’ Mr Boffin repeated, ‘look at this young lady on my arm.’

‘I do so,’ returned the Secretary.

As his glance rested again on Bella for a moment, she thought there was reproach in it. But it is possible that the reproach was within herself.

‘How dare you, sir,’ said Mr Boffin, ‘tamper, unknown to me, with this young lady? How dare you come out of your station, and your place in my house, to pester this young lady with your impudent addresses?’

‘I must decline to answer questions,’ said the Secretary, ‘that are so offensively asked.’

‘You decline to answer?’ retorted Mr Boffin. ‘You decline to answer, do you? Then I’ll tell you what it is, Rokesmith; I’ll answer for you. There are two sides to this matter, and I’ll take ‘em separately. The first side is, sheer Insolence. That’s the first side.’

The Secretary smiled with some bitterness, as though he would have said, ‘So I see and hear.’

‘It was sheer Insolence in you, I tell you,’ said Mr Boffin, ‘even to think of this young lady. This young lady was far above you. This young lady was no match for you. This young lady was lying in wait (as she was qualified to do) for money, and you had no money.’

Bella hung her head and seemed to shrink a little from Mr Boffin’s protecting arm.

‘What are you, I should like to know,’ pursued Mr Boffin, ‘that you were to have the audacity to follow up this young lady? This young lady was looking about the market for a good bid; she wasn’t in it to be snapped up by fellows that had no money to lay out; nothing to buy with.’

‘Oh, Mr Boffin! Mrs Boffin, pray say something for me!’ murmured Bella, disengaging her arm, and covering her face with her hands.

‘Old lady,’ said Mr Boffin, anticipating his wife, ‘you hold your tongue. Bella, my dear, don’t you let yourself be put out. I’ll right you.’

‘But you don’t, you don’t right me!’ exclaimed Bella, with great emphasis. ‘You wrong me, wrong me!’

‘Don’t you be put out, my dear,’ complacently retorted Mr Boffin. ‘I’ll bring this young man to book. Now, you Rokesmith! You can’t decline to hear, you know, as well as to answer. You hear me tell you that the first side of your conduct was Insolence—Insolence and Presumption. Answer me one thing, if you can. Didn’t this young lady tell you so herself?’

‘Did I, Mr Rokesmith?’ asked Bella with her face still covered. ‘O say, Mr Rokesmith! Did I?’

‘Don’t be distressed, Miss Wilfer; it matters very little now.’

‘Ah! You can’t deny it, though!’ said Mr Boffin, with a knowing shake of his head.

‘But I have asked him to forgive me since,’ cried Bella; ‘and I would ask him to forgive me now again, upon my knees, if it would spare him!’

Here Mrs Boffin broke out a-crying.

‘Old lady,’ said Mr Boffin, ‘stop that noise! Tender-hearted in you, Miss Bella; but I mean to have it out right through with this young man, having got him into a corner. Now, you Rokesmith. I tell you that’s one side of your conduct—Insolence and Presumption. Now, I’m a-coming to the other, which is much worse. This was a speculation of yours.’

‘I indignantly deny it.’

‘It’s of no use your denying it; it doesn’t signify a bit whether you deny it or not; I’ve got a head upon my shoulders, and it ain’t a baby’s. What!’ said Mr Boffin, gathering himself together in his most suspicious attitude, and wrinkling his face into a very map of curves and corners. ‘Don’t I know what grabs are made at a man with money? If I didn’t keep my eyes open, and my pockets buttoned, shouldn’t I be brought to the workhouse before I knew where I was? Wasn’t the experience of Dancer, and Elwes, and Hopkins, and Blewbury Jones, and ever so many more of ‘em, similar to mine? Didn’t everybody want to make grabs at what they’d got, and bring ‘em to poverty and ruin? Weren’t they forced to hide everything belonging to ‘em, for fear it should be snatched from ‘em? Of course they was. I shall be told next that they didn’t know human natur!’

‘They! Poor creatures,’ murmured the Secretary.

‘What do you say?’ asked Mr Boffin, snapping at him. ‘However, you needn’t be at the trouble of repeating it, for it ain’t worth hearing, and won’t go down with me. I’m a-going to unfold your plan, before this young lady; I’m a-going to show this young lady the second view of you; and nothing you can say will stave it off. (Now, attend here, Bella, my dear.) Rokesmith, you’re a needy chap. You’re a chap that I pick up in the street. Are you, or ain’t you?’

‘Go on, Mr Boffin; don’t appeal to me.’

‘Not appeal to you,’ retorted Mr Boffin as if he hadn’t done so. ‘No, I should hope not! Appealing to you, would be rather a rum course. As I was saying, you’re a needy chap that I pick up in the street. You come and ask me in the street to take you for a Secretary, and I take you. Very good.’

‘Very bad,’ murmured the Secretary.

‘What do you say?’ asked Mr Boffin, snapping at him again.

He returned no answer. Mr Boffin, after eyeing him with a comical look of discomfited curiosity, was fain to begin afresh.

‘This Rokesmith is a needy young man that I take for my Secretary out of the open street. This Rokesmith gets acquainted with my affairs, and gets to know that I mean to settle a sum of money on this young lady. “Oho!” says this Rokesmith;’ here Mr Boffin clapped a finger against his nose, and tapped it several times with a sneaking air, as embodying Rokesmith confidentially confabulating with his own nose; ‘“This will be a good haul; I’ll go in for this!” And so this Rokesmith, greedy and hungering, begins a-creeping on his hands and knees towards the money. Not so bad a speculation either: for if this young lady had had less spirit, or had had less sense, through being at all in the romantic line, by George he might have worked it out and made it pay! But fortunately she was too many for him, and a pretty figure he cuts now he is exposed. There he stands!’ said Mr Boffin, addressing Rokesmith himself with ridiculous inconsistency. ‘Look at him!’

‘Your unfortunate suspicions, Mr Boffin—’ began the Secretary.

‘Precious unfortunate for you, I can tell you,’ said Mr Boffin.

‘—are not to be combated by any one, and I address myself to no such hopeless task. But I will say a word upon the truth.’

‘Yah! Much you care about the truth,’ said Mr Boffin, with a snap of his fingers.

‘Noddy! My dear love!’ expostulated his wife.

‘Old lady,’ returned Mr Boffin, ‘you keep still. I say to this Rokesmith here, much he cares about the truth. I tell him again, much he cares about the truth.’

‘Our connexion being at an end, Mr Boffin,’ said the Secretary, ‘it can be of very little moment to me what you say.’

‘Oh! You are knowing enough,’ retorted Mr Boffin, with a sly look, ‘to have found out that our connexion’s at an end, eh? But you can’t get beforehand with me. Look at this in my hand. This is your pay, on your discharge. You can only follow suit. You can’t deprive me of the lead. Let’s have no pretending that you discharge yourself. I discharge you.’

‘So that I go,’ remarked the Secretary, waving the point aside with his hand, ‘it is all one to me.’

‘Is it?’ said Mr Boffin. ‘But it’s two to me, let me tell you. Allowing a fellow that’s found out, to discharge himself, is one thing; discharging him for insolence and presumption, and likewise for designs upon his master’s money, is another. One and one’s two; not one. (Old lady, don’t you cut in. You keep still.)’

‘Have you said all you wish to say to me?’ demanded the Secretary.

‘I don’t know whether I have or not,’ answered Mr Boffin. ‘It depends.’

‘Perhaps you will consider whether there are any other strong expressions that you would like to bestow upon me?’

‘I’ll consider that,’ said Mr Boffin, obstinately, ‘at my convenience, and not at yours. You want the last word. It may not be suitable to let you have it.’

‘Noddy! My dear, dear Noddy! You sound so hard!’ cried poor Mrs Boffin, not to be quite repressed.

‘Old lady,’ said her husband, but without harshness, ‘if you cut in when requested not, I’ll get a pillow and carry you out of the room upon it. What do you want to say, you Rokesmith?’

‘To you, Mr Boffin, nothing. But to Miss Wilfer and to your good kind wife, a word.’

‘Out with it then,’ replied Mr Boffin, ‘and cut it short, for we’ve had enough of you.’

‘I have borne,’ said the Secretary, in a low voice, ‘with my false position here, that I might not be separated from Miss Wilfer. To be near her, has been a recompense to me from day to day, even for the undeserved treatment I have had here, and for the degraded aspect in which she has often seen me. Since Miss Wilfer rejected me, I have never again urged my suit, to the best of my belief, with a spoken syllable or a look. But I have never changed in my devotion to her, except—if she will forgive my saying so—that it is deeper than it was, and better founded.’

‘Now, mark this chap’s saying Miss Wilfer, when he means L.s.d.!’ cried Mr Boffin, with a cunning wink. ‘Now, mark this chap’s making Miss Wilfer stand for Pounds, Shillings, and Pence!’

‘My feeling for Miss Wilfer,’ pursued the Secretary, without deigning to notice him, ‘is not one to be ashamed of. I avow it. I love her. Let me go where I may when I presently leave this house, I shall go into a blank life, leaving her.’

‘Leaving L.s.d. behind me,’ said Mr Boffin, by way of commentary, with another wink.

‘That I am incapable,’ the Secretary went on, still without heeding him, ‘of a mercenary project, or a mercenary thought, in connexion with Miss Wilfer, is nothing meritorious in me, because any prize that I could put before my fancy would sink into insignificance beside her. If the greatest wealth or the highest rank were hers, it would only be important in my sight as removing her still farther from me, and making me more hopeless, if that could be. Say,’ remarked the Secretary, looking full at his late master, ‘say that with a word she could strip Mr Boffin of his fortune and take possession of it, she would be of no greater worth in my eyes than she is.’

‘What do you think by this time, old lady,’ asked Mr Boffin, turning to his wife in a bantering tone, ‘about this Rokesmith here, and his caring for the truth? You needn’t say what you think, my dear, because I don’t want you to cut in, but you can think it all the same. As to taking possession of my property, I warrant you he wouldn’t do that himself if he could.’

‘No,’ returned the Secretary, with another full look.

‘Ha, ha, ha!’ laughed Mr Boffin. ‘There’s nothing like a good ‘un while you are about it.’

‘I have been for a moment,’ said the Secretary, turning from him and falling into his former manner, ‘diverted from the little I have to say. My interest in Miss Wilfer began when I first saw her; even began when I had only heard of her. It was, in fact, the cause of my throwing myself in Mr Boffin’s way, and entering his service. Miss Wilfer has never known this until now. I mention it now, only as a corroboration (though I hope it may be needless) of my being free from the sordid design attributed to me.’

‘Now, this is a very artful dog,’ said Mr Boffin, with a deep look. ‘This is a longer-headed schemer than I thought him. See how patiently and methodically he goes to work. He gets to know about me and my property, and about this young lady, and her share in poor young John’s story, and he puts this and that together, and he says to himself, “I’ll get in with Boffin, and I’ll get in with this young lady, and I’ll work ‘em both at the same time, and I’ll bring my pigs to market somewhere.” I hear him say it, bless you! I look at him, now, and I see him say it!’

Mr Boffin pointed at the culprit, as it were in the act, and hugged himself in his great penetration.

‘But luckily he hadn’t to deal with the people he supposed, Bella, my dear!’ said Mr Boffin. ‘No! Luckily he had to deal with you, and with me, and with Daniel and Miss Dancer, and with Elwes, and with Vulture Hopkins, and with Blewbury Jones and all the rest of us, one down t’other come on. And he’s beat; that’s what he is; regularly beat. He thought to squeeze money out of us, and he has done for himself instead, Bella my dear!’

Bella my dear made no response, gave no sign of acquiescence. When she had first covered her face she had sunk upon a chair with her hands resting on the back of it, and had never moved since. There was a short silence at this point, and Mrs Boffin softly rose as if to go to her. But, Mr Boffin stopped her with a gesture, and she obediently sat down again and stayed where she was.

‘There’s your pay, Mister Rokesmith,’ said the Golden Dustman, jerking the folded scrap of paper he had in his hand, towards his late Secretary. ‘I dare say you can stoop to pick it up, after what you have stooped to here.’

‘I have stooped to nothing but this,’ Rokesmith answered as he took it from the ground; ‘and this is mine, for I have earned it by the hardest of hard labour.’

‘You’re a pretty quick packer, I hope,’ said Mr Boffin; ‘because the sooner you are gone, bag and baggage, the better for all parties.’

‘You need have no fear of my lingering.’

‘There’s just one thing though,’ said Mr Boffin, ‘that I should like to ask you before we come to a good riddance, if it was only to show this young lady how conceited you schemers are, in thinking that nobody finds out how you contradict yourselves.’

‘Ask me anything you wish to ask,’ returned Rokesmith, ‘but use the expedition that you recommend.’

‘You pretend to have a mighty admiration for this young lady?’ said Mr Boffin, laying his hand protectingly on Bella’s head without looking down at her.

‘I do not pretend.’

‘Oh! Well. You have a mighty admiration for this young lady—since you are so particular?’

‘Yes.’

‘How do you reconcile that, with this young lady’s being a weak-spirited, improvident idiot, not knowing what was due to herself, flinging up her money to the church-weathercocks, and racing off at a splitting pace for the workhouse?’

‘I don’t understand you.’

‘Don’t you? Or won’t you? What else could you have made this young lady out to be, if she had listened to such addresses as yours?’

‘What else, if I had been so happy as to win her affections and possess her heart?’

‘Win her affections,’ retorted Mr Boffin, with ineffable contempt, ‘and possess her heart! Mew says the cat, Quack-quack says the duck, Bow-wow-wow says the dog! Win her affections and possess her heart! Mew, Quack-quack, Bow-wow!’

John Rokesmith stared at him in his outburst, as if with some faint idea that he had gone mad.

‘What is due to this young lady,’ said Mr Boffin, ‘is Money, and this young lady right well knows it.’

‘You slander the young lady.’

‘You slander the young lady; you with your affections and hearts and trumpery,’ returned Mr Boffin. ‘It’s of a piece with the rest of your behaviour. I heard of these doings of yours only last night, or you should have heard of ‘em from me, sooner, take your oath of it. I heard of ‘em from a lady with as good a headpiece as the best, and she knows this young lady, and I know this young lady, and we all three know that it’s Money she makes a stand for—money, money, money—and that you and your affections and hearts are a Lie, sir!’

‘Mrs Boffin,’ said Rokesmith, quietly turning to her, ‘for your delicate and unvarying kindness I thank you with the warmest gratitude. Good-bye! Miss Wilfer, good-bye!’

‘And now, my dear,’ said Mr Boffin, laying his hand on Bella’s head again, ‘you may begin to make yourself quite comfortable, and I hope you feel that you’ve been righted.’

But, Bella was so far from appearing to feel it, that she shrank from his hand and from the chair, and, starting up in an incoherent passion of tears, and stretching out her arms, cried, ‘O Mr Rokesmith, before you go, if you could but make me poor again! O! Make me poor again, Somebody, I beg and pray, or my heart will break if this goes on! Pa, dear, make me poor again and take me home! I was bad enough there, but I have been so much worse here. Don’t give me money, Mr Boffin, I won’t have money. Keep it away from me, and only let me speak to good little Pa, and lay my head upon his shoulder, and tell him all my griefs. Nobody else can understand me, nobody else can comfort me, nobody else knows how unworthy I am, and yet can love me like a little child. I am better with Pa than any one—more innocent, more sorry, more glad!’ So, crying out in a wild way that she could not bear this, Bella drooped her head on Mrs Boffin’s ready breast.

John Rokesmith from his place in the room, and Mr Boffin from his, looked on at her in silence until she was silent herself. Then Mr Boffin observed in a soothing and comfortable tone, ‘There, my dear, there; you are righted now, and it’s all right. I don’t wonder, I’m sure, at your being a little flurried by having a scene with this fellow, but it’s all over, my dear, and you’re righted, and it’s—and it’s all right!’ Which Mr Boffin repeated with a highly satisfied air of completeness and finality.

‘I hate you!’ cried Bella, turning suddenly upon him, with a stamp of her little foot—‘at least, I can’t hate you, but I don’t like you!’

‘Hul—lo!’ exclaimed Mr Boffin in an amazed under-tone.

‘You’re a scolding, unjust, abusive, aggravating, bad old creature!’ cried Bella. ‘I am angry with my ungrateful self for calling you names; but you are, you are; you know you are!’

Mr Boffin stared here, and stared there, as misdoubting that he must be in some sort of fit.

‘I have heard you with shame,’ said Bella. ‘With shame for myself, and with shame for you. You ought to be above the base tale-bearing of a time-serving woman; but you are above nothing now.’

Mr Boffin, seeming to become convinced that this was a fit, rolled his eyes and loosened his neckcloth.

‘When I came here, I respected you and honoured you, and I soon loved you,’ cried Bella. ‘And now I can’t bear the sight of you. At least, I don’t know that I ought to go so far as that—only you’re a—you’re a Monster!’ Having shot this bolt out with a great expenditure of force, Bella hysterically laughed and cried together.

‘The best wish I can wish you is,’ said Bella, returning to the charge, ‘that you had not one single farthing in the world. If any true friend and well-wisher could make you a bankrupt, you would be a Duck; but as a man of property you are a Demon!’

After despatching this second bolt with a still greater expenditure of force, Bella laughed and cried still more.

‘Mr Rokesmith, pray stay one moment. Pray hear one word from me before you go! I am deeply sorry for the reproaches you have borne on my account. Out of the depths of my heart I earnestly and truly beg your pardon.’

As she stepped towards him, he met her. As she gave him her hand, he put it to his lips, and said, ‘God bless you!’ No laughing was mixed with Bella’s crying then; her tears were pure and fervent.

‘There is not an ungenerous word that I have heard addressed to you—heard with scorn and indignation, Mr Rokesmith—but it has wounded me far more than you, for I have deserved it, and you never have. Mr Rokesmith, it is to me you owe this perverted account of what passed between us that night. I parted with the secret, even while I was angry with myself for doing so. It was very bad in me, but indeed it was not wicked. I did it in a moment of conceit and folly—one of my many such moments—one of my many such hours—years. As I am punished for it severely, try to forgive it!’

‘I do with all my soul.’

‘Thank you. O thank you! Don’t part from me till I have said one other word, to do you justice. The only fault you can be truly charged with, in having spoken to me as you did that night—with how much delicacy and how much forbearance no one but I can know or be grateful to you for—is, that you laid yourself open to be slighted by a worldly shallow girl whose head was turned, and who was quite unable to rise to the worth of what you offered her. Mr Rokesmith, that girl has often seen herself in a pitiful and poor light since, but never in so pitiful and poor a light as now, when the mean tone in which she answered you—sordid and vain girl that she was—has been echoed in her ears by Mr Boffin.’

He kissed her hand again.

‘Mr Boffin’s speeches were detestable to me, shocking to me,’ said Bella, startling that gentleman with another stamp of her little foot. ‘It is quite true that there was a time, and very lately, when I deserved to be so “righted,” Mr Rokesmith; but I hope that I shall never deserve it again!’

He once more put her hand to his lips, and then relinquished it, and left the room. Bella was hurrying back to the chair in which she had hidden her face so long, when, catching sight of Mrs Boffin by the way, she stopped at her. ‘He is gone,’ sobbed Bella indignantly, despairingly, in fifty ways at once, with her arms round Mrs Boffin’s neck. ‘He has been most shamefully abused, and most unjustly and most basely driven away, and I am the cause of it!’

All this time, Mr Boffin had been rolling his eyes over his loosened neckerchief, as if his fit were still upon him. Appearing now to think that he was coming to, he stared straight before him for a while, tied his neckerchief again, took several long inspirations, swallowed several times, and ultimately exclaimed with a deep sigh, as if he felt himself on the whole better: ‘Well!’

No word, good or bad, did Mrs Boffin say; but she tenderly took care of Bella, and glanced at her husband as if for orders. Mr Boffin, without imparting any, took his seat on a chair over against them, and there sat leaning forward, with a fixed countenance, his legs apart, a hand on each knee, and his elbows squared, until Bella should dry her eyes and raise her head, which in the fulness of time she did.

‘I must go home,’ said Bella, rising hurriedly. ‘I am very grateful to you for all you have done for me, but I can’t stay here.’

‘My darling girl!’ remonstrated Mrs Boffin.

‘No, I can’t stay here,’ said Bella; ‘I can’t indeed.—Ugh! you vicious old thing!’ (This to Mr Boffin.)

‘Don’t be rash, my love,’ urged Mrs Boffin. ‘Think well of what you do.’

‘Yes, you had better think well,’ said Mr Boffin.

‘I shall never more think well of you,’ cried Bella, cutting him short, with intense defiance in her expressive little eyebrows, and championship of the late Secretary in every dimple. ‘No! Never again! Your money has changed you to marble. You are a hard-hearted Miser. You are worse than Dancer, worse than Hopkins, worse than Blackberry Jones, worse than any of the wretches. And more!’ proceeded Bella, breaking into tears again, ‘you were wholly undeserving of the Gentleman you have lost.’

‘Why, you don’t mean to say, Miss Bella,’ the Golden Dustman slowly remonstrated, ‘that you set up Rokesmith against me?’

‘I do!’ said Bella. ‘He is worth a Million of you.’

Very pretty she looked, though very angry, as she made herself as tall as she possibly could (which was not extremely tall), and utterly renounced her patron with a lofty toss of her rich brown head.

‘I would rather he thought well of me,’ said Bella, ‘though he swept the street for bread, than that you did, though you splashed the mud upon him from the wheels of a chariot of pure gold.—There!’

‘Well I’m sure!’ cried Mr Boffin, staring.

‘And for a long time past, when you have thought you set yourself above him, I have only seen you under his feet,’ said Bella—‘There! And throughout I saw in him the master, and I saw in you the man—There! And when you used him shamefully, I took his part and loved him—There! I boast of it!’

After which strong avowal Bella underwent reaction, and cried to any extent, with her face on the back of her chair.

‘Now, look here,’ said Mr Boffin, as soon as he could find an opening for breaking the silence and striking in. ‘Give me your attention, Bella. I am not angry.’

‘I am!’ said Bella.

‘I say,’ resumed the Golden Dustman, ‘I am not angry, and I mean kindly to you, and I want to overlook this. So you’ll stay where you are, and we’ll agree to say no more about it.’

‘No, I can’t stay here,’ cried Bella, rising hurriedly again; ‘I can’t think of staying here. I must go home for good.’

‘Now, don’t be silly,’ Mr Boffin reasoned. ‘Don’t do what you can’t undo; don’t do what you’re sure to be sorry for.’

‘I shall never be sorry for it,’ said Bella; ‘and I should always be sorry, and should every minute of my life despise myself if I remained here after what has happened.’

‘At least, Bella,’ argued Mr Boffin, ‘let there be no mistake about it. Look before you leap, you know. Stay where you are, and all’s well, and all’s as it was to be. Go away, and you can never come back.’

‘I know that I can never come back, and that’s what I mean,’ said Bella.

‘You mustn’t expect,’ Mr Boffin pursued, ‘that I’m a-going to settle money on you, if you leave us like this, because I am not. No, Bella! Be careful! Not one brass farthing.’

‘Expect!’ said Bella, haughtily. ‘Do you think that any power on earth could make me take it, if you did, sir?’

But there was Mrs Boffin to part from, and, in the full flush of her dignity, the impressible little soul collapsed again. Down upon her knees before that good woman, she rocked herself upon her breast, and cried, and sobbed, and folded her in her arms with all her might.

‘You’re a dear, a dear, the best of dears!’ cried Bella. ‘You’re the best of human creatures. I can never be thankful enough to you, and I can never forget you. If I should live to be blind and deaf I know I shall see and hear you, in my fancy, to the last of my dim old days!’

Mrs Boffin wept most heartily, and embraced her with all fondness; but said not one single word except that she was her dear girl. She said that often enough, to be sure, for she said it over and over again; but not one word else.

Bella broke from her at length, and was going weeping out of the room, when in her own little queer affectionate way, she half relented towards Mr Boffin.

‘I am very glad,’ sobbed Bella, ‘that I called you names, sir, because you richly deserved it. But I am very sorry that I called you names, because you used to be so different. Say good-bye!’

‘Good-bye,’ said Mr Boffin, shortly.

‘If I knew which of your hands was the least spoilt, I would ask you to let me touch it,’ said Bella, ‘for the last time. But not because I repent of what I have said to you. For I don’t. It’s true!’

‘Try the left hand,’ said Mr Boffin, holding it out in a stolid manner; ‘it’s the least used.’

‘You have been wonderfully good and kind to me,’ said Bella, ‘and I kiss it for that. You have been as bad as bad could be to Mr Rokesmith, and I throw it away for that. Thank you for myself, and good-bye!’

‘Good-bye,’ said Mr Boffin as before.

Bella caught him round the neck and kissed him, and ran out for ever.

She ran up-stairs, and sat down on the floor in her own room, and cried abundantly. But the day was declining and she had no time to lose. She opened all the places where she kept her dresses; selected only those she had brought with her, leaving all the rest; and made a great misshapen bundle of them, to be sent for afterwards.

‘I won’t take one of the others,’ said Bella, tying the knots of the bundle very tight, in the severity of her resolution. ‘I’ll leave all the presents behind, and begin again entirely on my own account.’ That the resolution might be thoroughly carried into practice, she even changed the dress she wore, for that in which she had come to the grand mansion. Even the bonnet she put on, was the bonnet that had mounted into the Boffin chariot at Holloway.

‘Now, I am complete,’ said Bella. ‘It’s a little trying, but I have steeped my eyes in cold water, and I won’t cry any more. You have been a pleasant room to me, dear room. Adieu! We shall never see each other again.’

With a parting kiss of her fingers to it, she softly closed the door and went with a light foot down the great staircase, pausing and listening as she went, that she might meet none of the household. No one chanced to be about, and she got down to the hall in quiet. The door of the late Secretary’s room stood open. She peeped in as she passed, and divined from the emptiness of his table, and the general appearance of things, that he was already gone. Softly opening the great hall door, and softly closing it upon herself, she turned and kissed it on the outside—insensible old combination of wood and iron that it was!—before she ran away from the house at a swift pace.

‘That was well done!’ panted Bella, slackening in the next street, and subsiding into a walk. ‘If I had left myself any breath to cry with, I should have cried again. Now poor dear darling little Pa, you are going to see your lovely woman unexpectedly.’






Chapter 16. 
THE FEAST OF THE THREE HOBGOBLINS

The City looked unpromising enough, as Bella made her way along its gritty streets. Most of its money-mills were slackening sail, or had left off grinding for the day. The master-millers had already departed, and the journeymen were departing. There was a jaded aspect on the business lanes and courts, and the very pavements had a weary appearance, confused by the tread of a million of feet. There must be hours of night to temper down the day’s distraction of so feverish a place. As yet the worry of the newly-stopped whirling and grinding on the part of the money-mills seemed to linger in the air, and the quiet was more like the prostration of a spent giant than the repose of one who was renewing his strength.

If Bella thought, as she glanced at the mighty Bank, how agreeable it would be to have an hour’s gardening there, with a bright copper shovel, among the money, still she was not in an avaricious vein. Much improved in that respect, and with certain half-formed images which had little gold in their composition, dancing before her bright eyes, she arrived in the drug-flavoured region of Mincing Lane, with the sensation of having just opened a drawer in a chemist’s shop.

The counting-house of Chicksey, Veneering, and Stobbles was pointed out by an elderly female accustomed to the care of offices, who dropped upon Bella out of a public-house, wiping her mouth, and accounted for its humidity on natural principles well known to the physical sciences, by explaining that she had looked in at the door to see what o’clock it was. The counting-house was a wall-eyed ground floor by a dark gateway, and Bella was considering, as she approached it, could there be any precedent in the City for her going in and asking for R. Wilfer, when whom should she see, sitting at one of the windows with the plate-glass sash raised, but R. Wilfer himself, preparing to take a slight refection.

On approaching nearer, Bella discerned that the refection had the appearance of a small cottage-loaf and a pennyworth of milk. Simultaneously with this discovery on her part, her father discovered her, and invoked the echoes of Mincing Lane to exclaim ‘My gracious me!’

He then came cherubically flying out without a hat, and embraced her, and handed her in. ‘For it’s after hours and I am all alone, my dear,’ he explained, ‘and am having—as I sometimes do when they are all gone—a quiet tea.’

Looking round the office, as if her father were a captive and this his cell, Bella hugged him and choked him to her heart’s content.

‘I never was so surprised, my dear!’ said her father. ‘I couldn’t believe my eyes. Upon my life, I thought they had taken to lying! The idea of your coming down the Lane yourself! Why didn’t you send the footman down the Lane, my dear?’

‘I have brought no footman with me, Pa.’

‘Oh indeed! But you have brought the elegant turn-out, my love?’

‘No, Pa.’

‘You never can have walked, my dear?’

‘Yes, I have, Pa.’

He looked so very much astonished, that Bella could not make up her mind to break it to him just yet.

‘The consequence is, Pa, that your lovely woman feels a little faint, and would very much like to share your tea.’

The cottage loaf and the pennyworth of milk had been set forth on a sheet of paper on the window-seat. The cherubic pocket-knife, with the first bit of the loaf still on its point, lay beside them where it had been hastily thrown down. Bella took the bit off, and put it in her mouth. ‘My dear child,’ said her father, ‘the idea of your partaking of such lowly fare! But at least you must have your own loaf and your own penn’orth. One moment, my dear. The Dairy is just over the way and round the corner.’

Regardless of Bella’s dissuasions he ran out, and quickly returned with the new supply. ‘My dear child,’ he said, as he spread it on another piece of paper before her, ‘the idea of a splendid—!’ and then looked at her figure, and stopped short.

‘What’s the matter, Pa?’

‘—of a splendid female,’ he resumed more slowly, ‘putting up with such accommodation as the present!—Is that a new dress you have on, my dear?’

‘No, Pa, an old one. Don’t you remember it?’

‘Why, I thought I remembered it, my dear!’

‘You should, for you bought it, Pa.’

‘Yes, I thought I bought it my dear!’ said the cherub, giving himself a little shake, as if to rouse his faculties.

‘And have you grown so fickle that you don’t like your own taste, Pa dear?’

‘Well, my love,’ he returned, swallowing a bit of the cottage loaf with considerable effort, for it seemed to stick by the way: ‘I should have thought it was hardly sufficiently splendid for existing circumstances.’

‘And so, Pa,’ said Bella, moving coaxingly to his side instead of remaining opposite, ‘you sometimes have a quiet tea here all alone? I am not in the tea’s way, if I draw my arm over your shoulder like this, Pa?’

‘Yes, my dear, and no, my dear. Yes to the first question, and Certainly Not to the second. Respecting the quiet tea, my dear, why you see the occupations of the day are sometimes a little wearing; and if there’s nothing interposed between the day and your mother, why she is sometimes a little wearing, too.’

‘I know, Pa.’

‘Yes, my dear. So sometimes I put a quiet tea at the window here, with a little quiet contemplation of the Lane (which comes soothing), between the day, and domestic—’

‘Bliss,’ suggested Bella, sorrowfully.

‘And domestic Bliss,’ said her father, quite contented to accept the phrase.

Bella kissed him. ‘And it is in this dark dingy place of captivity, poor dear, that you pass all the hours of your life when you are not at home?’

‘Not at home, or not on the road there, or on the road here, my love. Yes. You see that little desk in the corner?’

‘In the dark corner, furthest both from the light and from the fireplace? The shabbiest desk of all the desks?’

‘Now, does it really strike you in that point of view, my dear?’ said her father, surveying it artistically with his head on one side: ‘that’s mine. That’s called Rumty’s Perch.’

‘Whose Perch?’ asked Bella with great indignation.

‘Rumty’s. You see, being rather high and up two steps they call it a Perch. And they call me Rumty.’

‘How dare they!’ exclaimed Bella.

‘They’re playful, Bella my dear; they’re playful. They’re more or less younger than I am, and they’re playful. What does it matter? It might be Surly, or Sulky, or fifty disagreeable things that I really shouldn’t like to be considered. But Rumty! Lor, why not Rumty?’

To inflict a heavy disappointment on this sweet nature, which had been, through all her caprices, the object of her recognition, love, and admiration from infancy, Bella felt to be the hardest task of her hard day. ‘I should have done better,’ she thought, ‘to tell him at first; I should have done better to tell him just now, when he had some slight misgiving; he is quite happy again, and I shall make him wretched.’

He was falling back on his loaf and milk, with the pleasantest composure, and Bella stealing her arm a little closer about him, and at the same time sticking up his hair with an irresistible propensity to play with him founded on the habit of her whole life, had prepared herself to say: ‘Pa dear, don’t be cast down, but I must tell you something disagreeable!’ when he interrupted her in an unlooked-for manner.

‘My gracious me!’ he exclaimed, invoking the Mincing Lane echoes as before. ‘This is very extraordinary!’

‘What is, Pa?’

‘Why here’s Mr Rokesmith now!’

‘No, no, Pa, no,’ cried Bella, greatly flurried. ‘Surely not.’

‘Yes there is! Look here!’

Sooth to say, Mr Rokesmith not only passed the window, but came into the counting-house. And not only came into the counting-house, but, finding himself alone there with Bella and her father, rushed at Bella and caught her in his arms, with the rapturous words ‘My dear, dear girl; my gallant, generous, disinterested, courageous, noble girl!’ And not only that even, (which one might have thought astonishment enough for one dose), but Bella, after hanging her head for a moment, lifted it up and laid it on his breast, as if that were her head’s chosen and lasting resting-place!

‘I knew you would come to him, and I followed you,’ said Rokesmith. ‘My love, my life! You are mine?’

To which Bella responded, ‘Yes, I am yours if you think me worth taking!’ And after that, seemed to shrink to next to nothing in the clasp of his arms, partly because it was such a strong one on his part, and partly because there was such a yielding to it on hers.

The cherub, whose hair would have done for itself under the influence of this amazing spectacle, what Bella had just now done for it, staggered back into the window-seat from which he had risen, and surveyed the pair with his eyes dilated to their utmost.

‘But we must think of dear Pa,’ said Bella; ‘I haven’t told dear Pa; let us speak to Pa.’ Upon which they turned to do so.

‘I wish first, my dear,’ remarked the cherub faintly, ‘that you’d have the kindness to sprinkle me with a little milk, for I feel as if I was—Going.’

In fact, the good little fellow had become alarmingly limp, and his senses seemed to be rapidly escaping, from the knees upward. Bella sprinkled him with kisses instead of milk, but gave him a little of that article to drink; and he gradually revived under her caressing care.

‘We’ll break it to you gently, dearest Pa,’ said Bella.

‘My dear,’ returned the cherub, looking at them both, ‘you broke so much in the first—Gush, if I may so express myself—that I think I am equal to a good large breakage now.’

‘Mr Wilfer,’ said John Rokesmith, excitedly and joyfully, ‘Bella takes me, though I have no fortune, even no present occupation; nothing but what I can get in the life before us. Bella takes me!’

‘Yes, I should rather have inferred, my dear sir,’ returned the cherub feebly, ‘that Bella took you, from what I have within these few minutes remarked.’

‘You don’t know, Pa,’ said Bella, ‘how ill I have used him!’

‘You don’t know, sir,’ said Rokesmith, ‘what a heart she has!’

‘You don’t know, Pa,’ said Bella, ‘what a shocking creature I was growing, when he saved me from myself!’

‘You don’t know, sir,’ said Rokesmith, ‘what a sacrifice she has made for me!’

‘My dear Bella,’ replied the cherub, still pathetically scared, ‘and my dear John Rokesmith, if you will allow me so to call you—’

‘Yes do, Pa, do!’ urged Bella. ‘I allow you, and my will is his law. Isn’t it—dear John Rokesmith?’

There was an engaging shyness in Bella, coupled with an engaging tenderness of love and confidence and pride, in thus first calling him by name, which made it quite excusable in John Rokesmith to do what he did. What he did was, once more to give her the appearance of vanishing as aforesaid.

‘I think, my dears,’ observed the cherub, ‘that if you could make it convenient to sit one on one side of me, and the other on the other, we should get on rather more consecutively, and make things rather plainer. John Rokesmith mentioned, a while ago, that he had no present occupation.’

‘None,’ said Rokesmith.

‘No, Pa, none,’ said Bella.

‘From which I argue,’ proceeded the cherub, ‘that he has left Mr Boffin?’

‘Yes, Pa. And so—’

‘Stop a bit, my dear. I wish to lead up to it by degrees. And that Mr Boffin has not treated him well?’

‘Has treated him most shamefully, dear Pa!’ cried Bella with a flashing face.

‘Of which,’ pursued the cherub, enjoining patience with his hand, ‘a certain mercenary young person distantly related to myself, could not approve? Am I leading up to it right?’

‘Could not approve, sweet Pa,’ said Bella, with a tearful laugh and a joyful kiss.

‘Upon which,’ pursued the cherub, ‘the certain mercenary young person distantly related to myself, having previously observed and mentioned to myself that prosperity was spoiling Mr Boffin, felt that she must not sell her sense of what was right and what was wrong, and what was true and what was false, and what was just and what was unjust, for any price that could be paid to her by any one alive? Am I leading up to it right?’

With another tearful laugh Bella joyfully kissed him again.

‘And therefore—and therefore,’ the cherub went on in a glowing voice, as Bella’s hand stole gradually up his waistcoat to his neck, ‘this mercenary young person distantly related to myself, refused the price, took off the splendid fashions that were part of it, put on the comparatively poor dress that I had last given her, and trusting to my supporting her in what was right, came straight to me. Have I led up to it?’

Bella’s hand was round his neck by this time, and her face was on it.

‘The mercenary young person distantly related to myself,’ said her good father, ‘did well! The mercenary young person distantly related to myself, did not trust to me in vain! I admire this mercenary young person distantly related to myself, more in this dress than if she had come to me in China silks, Cashmere shawls, and Golconda diamonds. I love this young person dearly. I say to the man of this young person’s heart, out of my heart and with all of it, “My blessing on this engagement betwixt you, and she brings you a good fortune when she brings you the poverty she has accepted for your sake and the honest truth’s!”’

The stanch little man’s voice failed him as he gave John Rokesmith his hand, and he was silent, bending his face low over his daughter. But, not for long. He soon looked up, saying in a sprightly tone:

‘And now, my dear child, if you think you can entertain John Rokesmith for a minute and a half, I’ll run over to the Dairy, and fetch him a cottage loaf and a drink of milk, that we may all have tea together.’

It was, as Bella gaily said, like the supper provided for the three nursery hobgoblins at their house in the forest, without their thunderous low growlings of the alarming discovery, ‘Somebody’s been drinking my milk!’ It was a delicious repast; by far the most delicious that Bella, or John Rokesmith, or even R. Wilfer had ever made. The uncongenial oddity of its surroundings, with the two brass knobs of the iron safe of Chicksey, Veneering, and Stobbles staring from a corner, like the eyes of some dull dragon, only made it the more delightful.

‘To think,’ said the cherub, looking round the office with unspeakable enjoyment, ‘that anything of a tender nature should come off here, is what tickles me. To think that ever I should have seen my Bella folded in the arms of her future husband, here, you know!’

It was not until the cottage loaves and the milk had for some time disappeared, and the foreshadowings of night were creeping over Mincing Lane, that the cherub by degrees became a little nervous, and said to Bella, as he cleared his throat:

‘Hem!—Have you thought at all about your mother, my dear?’

‘Yes, Pa.’

‘And your sister Lavvy, for instance, my dear?’

‘Yes, Pa. I think we had better not enter into particulars at home. I think it will be quite enough to say that I had a difference with Mr Boffin, and have left for good.’

‘John Rokesmith being acquainted with your Ma, my love,’ said her father, after some slight hesitation, ‘I need have no delicacy in hinting before him that you may perhaps find your Ma a little wearing.’

‘A little, patient Pa?’ said Bella with a tuneful laugh: the tune fuller for being so loving in its tone.

‘Well! We’ll say, strictly in confidence among ourselves, wearing; we won’t qualify it,’ the cherub stoutly admitted. ‘And your sister’s temper is wearing.’

‘I don’t mind, Pa.’

‘And you must prepare yourself you know, my precious,’ said her father, with much gentleness, ‘for our looking very poor and meagre at home, and being at the best but very uncomfortable, after Mr Boffin’s house.’

‘I don’t mind, Pa. I could bear much harder trials—for John.’

The closing words were not so softly and blushingly said but that John heard them, and showed that he heard them by again assisting Bella to another of those mysterious disappearances.

‘Well!’ said the cherub gaily, and not expressing disapproval, ‘when you—when you come back from retirement, my love, and reappear on the surface, I think it will be time to lock up and go.’

If the counting-house of Chicksey, Veneering, and Stobbles had ever been shut up by three happier people, glad as most people were to shut it up, they must have been superlatively happy indeed. But first Bella mounted upon Rumty’s Perch, and said, ‘Show me what you do here all day long, dear Pa. Do you write like this?’ laying her round cheek upon her plump left arm, and losing sight of her pen in waves of hair, in a highly unbusiness-like manner. Though John Rokesmith seemed to like it.

So, the three hobgoblins, having effaced all traces of their feast, and swept up the crumbs, came out of Mincing Lane to walk to Holloway; and if two of the hobgoblins didn’t wish the distance twice as long as it was, the third hobgoblin was much mistaken. Indeed, that modest spirit deemed himself so much in the way of their deep enjoyment of the journey, that he apologetically remarked: ‘I think, my dears, I’ll take the lead on the other side of the road, and seem not to belong to you.’ Which he did, cherubically strewing the path with smiles, in the absence of flowers.

It was almost ten o’clock when they stopped within view of Wilfer Castle; and then, the spot being quiet and deserted, Bella began a series of disappearances which threatened to last all night.

‘I think, John,’ the cherub hinted at last, ‘that if you can spare me the young person distantly related to myself, I’ll take her in.’

‘I can’t spare her,’ answered John, ‘but I must lend her to you.—My Darling!’ A word of magic which caused Bella instantly to disappear again.

‘Now, dearest Pa,’ said Bella, when she became visible, ‘put your hand in mine, and we’ll run home as fast as ever we can run, and get it over. Now, Pa. Once!—’

‘My dear,’ the cherub faltered, with something of a craven air, ‘I was going to observe that if your mother—’

‘You mustn’t hang back, sir, to gain time,’ cried Bella, putting out her right foot; ‘do you see that, sir? That’s the mark; come up to the mark, sir. Once! Twice! Three times and away, Pa!’ Off she skimmed, bearing the cherub along, nor ever stopped, nor suffered him to stop, until she had pulled at the bell. ‘Now, dear Pa,’ said Bella, taking him by both ears as if he were a pitcher, and conveying his face to her rosy lips, ‘we are in for it!’

Miss Lavvy came out to open the gate, waited on by that attentive cavalier and friend of the family, Mr George Sampson. ‘Why, it’s never Bella!’ exclaimed Miss Lavvy starting back at the sight. And then bawled, ‘Ma! Here’s Bella!’

This produced, before they could get into the house, Mrs Wilfer. Who, standing in the portal, received them with ghostly gloom, and all her other appliances of ceremony.

‘My child is welcome, though unlooked for,’ said she, at the time presenting her cheek as if it were a cool slate for visitors to enrol themselves upon. ‘You too, R. W., are welcome, though late. Does the male domestic of Mrs Boffin hear me there?’ This deep-toned inquiry was cast forth into the night, for response from the menial in question.

‘There is no one waiting, Ma, dear,’ said Bella.

‘There is no one waiting?’ repeated Mrs Wilfer in majestic accents.

‘No, Ma, dear.’

A dignified shiver pervaded Mrs Wilfer’s shoulders and gloves, as who should say, ‘An Enigma!’ and then she marched at the head of the procession to the family keeping-room, where she observed:

‘Unless, R. W.‘: who started on being solemnly turned upon: ‘you have taken the precaution of making some addition to our frugal supper on your way home, it will prove but a distasteful one to Bella. Cold neck of mutton and a lettuce can ill compete with the luxuries of Mr Boffin’s board.’

‘Pray don’t talk like that, Ma dear,’ said Bella; ‘Mr Boffin’s board is nothing to me.’

But, here Miss Lavinia, who had been intently eyeing Bella’s bonnet, struck in with ‘Why, Bella!’

‘Yes, Lavvy, I know.’

The Irrepressible lowered her eyes to Bella’s dress, and stooped to look at it, exclaiming again: ‘Why, Bella!’

‘Yes, Lavvy, I know what I have got on. I was going to tell Ma when you interrupted. I have left Mr Boffin’s house for good, Ma, and I have come home again.’

Mrs Wilfer spake no word, but, having glared at her offspring for a minute or two in an awful silence, retired into her corner of state backward, and sat down: like a frozen article on sale in a Russian market.

‘In short, dear Ma,’ said Bella, taking off the depreciated bonnet and shaking out her hair, ‘I have had a very serious difference with Mr Boffin on the subject of his treatment of a member of his household, and it’s a final difference, and there’s an end of all.’

‘And I am bound to tell you, my dear,’ added R. W., submissively, ‘that Bella has acted in a truly brave spirit, and with a truly right feeling. And therefore I hope, my dear, you’ll not allow yourself to be greatly disappointed.’

‘George!’ said Miss Lavvy, in a sepulchral, warning voice, founded on her mother’s; ‘George Sampson, speak! What did I tell you about those Boffins?’

Mr Sampson perceiving his frail bark to be labouring among shoals and breakers, thought it safest not to refer back to any particular thing that he had been told, lest he should refer back to the wrong thing. With admirable seamanship he got his bark into deep water by murmuring ‘Yes indeed.’

‘Yes! I told George Sampson, as George Sampson tells you,’ said Miss Lavvy, ‘that those hateful Boffins would pick a quarrel with Bella, as soon as her novelty had worn off. Have they done it, or have they not? Was I right, or was I wrong? And what do you say to us, Bella, of your Boffins now?’

‘Lavvy and Ma,’ said Bella, ‘I say of Mr and Mrs Boffin what I always have said; and I always shall say of them what I always have said. But nothing will induce me to quarrel with any one to-night. I hope you are not sorry to see me, Ma dear,’ kissing her; ‘and I hope you are not sorry to see me, Lavvy,’ kissing her too; ‘and as I notice the lettuce Ma mentioned, on the table, I’ll make the salad.’

Bella playfully setting herself about the task, Mrs Wilfer’s impressive countenance followed her with glaring eyes, presenting a combination of the once popular sign of the Saracen’s Head, with a piece of Dutch clock-work, and suggesting to an imaginative mind that from the composition of the salad, her daughter might prudently omit the vinegar. But no word issued from the majestic matron’s lips. And this was more terrific to her husband (as perhaps she knew) than any flow of eloquence with which she could have edified the company.

‘Now, Ma dear,’ said Bella in due course, ‘the salad’s ready, and it’s past supper-time.’

Mrs Wilfer rose, but remained speechless. ‘George!’ said Miss Lavinia in her voice of warning, ‘Ma’s chair!’ Mr Sampson flew to the excellent lady’s back, and followed her up close chair in hand, as she stalked to the banquet. Arrived at the table, she took her rigid seat, after favouring Mr Sampson with a glare for himself, which caused the young gentleman to retire to his place in much confusion.

The cherub not presuming to address so tremendous an object, transacted her supper through the agency of a third person, as ‘Mutton to your Ma, Bella, my dear’; and ‘Lavvy, I dare say your Ma would take some lettuce if you were to put it on her plate.’ Mrs Wilfer’s manner of receiving those viands was marked by petrified absence of mind; in which state, likewise, she partook of them, occasionally laying down her knife and fork, as saying within her own spirit, ‘What is this I am doing?’ and glaring at one or other of the party, as if in indignant search of information. A magnetic result of such glaring was, that the person glared at could not by any means successfully pretend to be ignorant of the fact: so that a bystander, without beholding Mrs Wilfer at all, must have known at whom she was glaring, by seeing her refracted from the countenance of the beglared one.

Miss Lavinia was extremely affable to Mr Sampson on this special occasion, and took the opportunity of informing her sister why.

‘It was not worth troubling you about, Bella, when you were in a sphere so far removed from your family as to make it a matter in which you could be expected to take very little interest,’ said Lavinia with a toss of her chin; ‘but George Sampson is paying his addresses to me.’

Bella was glad to hear it. Mr Sampson became thoughtfully red, and felt called upon to encircle Miss Lavinia’s waist with his arm; but, encountering a large pin in the young lady’s belt, scarified a finger, uttered a sharp exclamation, and attracted the lightning of Mrs Wilfer’s glare.

‘George is getting on very well,’ said Miss Lavinia which might not have been supposed at the moment—‘and I dare say we shall be married, one of these days. I didn’t care to mention it when you were with your Bof—’ here Miss Lavinia checked herself in a bounce, and added more placidly, ‘when you were with Mr and Mrs Boffin; but now I think it sisterly to name the circumstance.’

‘Thank you, Lavvy dear. I congratulate you.’

‘Thank you, Bella. The truth is, George and I did discuss whether I should tell you; but I said to George that you wouldn’t be much interested in so paltry an affair, and that it was far more likely you would rather detach yourself from us altogether, than have him added to the rest of us.’

‘That was a mistake, dear Lavvy,’ said Bella.

‘It turns out to be,’ replied Miss Lavinia; ‘but circumstances have changed, you know, my dear. George is in a new situation, and his prospects are very good indeed. I shouldn’t have had the courage to tell you so yesterday, when you would have thought his prospects poor, and not worth notice; but I feel quite bold tonight.’

‘When did you begin to feel timid, Lavvy?’ inquired Bella, with a smile.

‘I didn’t say that I ever felt timid, Bella,’ replied the Irrepressible. ‘But perhaps I might have said, if I had not been restrained by delicacy towards a sister’s feelings, that I have for some time felt independent; too independent, my dear, to subject myself to have my intended match (you’ll prick yourself again, George) looked down upon. It is not that I could have blamed you for looking down upon it, when you were looking up to a rich and great match, Bella; it is only that I was independent.’

Whether the Irrepressible felt slighted by Bella’s declaration that she would not quarrel, or whether her spitefulness was evoked by Bella’s return to the sphere of Mr George Sampson’s courtship, or whether it was a necessary fillip to her spirits that she should come into collision with somebody on the present occasion,—anyhow she made a dash at her stately parent now, with the greatest impetuosity.

‘Ma, pray don’t sit staring at me in that intensely aggravating manner! If you see a black on my nose, tell me so; if you don’t, leave me alone.’

‘Do you address Me in those words?’ said Mrs Wilfer. ‘Do you presume?’

‘Don’t talk about presuming, Ma, for goodness’ sake. A girl who is old enough to be engaged, is quite old enough to object to be stared at as if she was a Clock.’

‘Audacious one!’ said Mrs Wilfer. ‘Your grandmamma, if so addressed by one of her daughters, at any age, would have insisted on her retiring to a dark apartment.’

‘My grandmamma,’ returned Lavvy, folding her arms and leaning back in her chair, ‘wouldn’t have sat staring people out of countenance, I think.’

‘She would!’ said Mrs Wilfer.

‘Then it’s a pity she didn’t know better,’ said Lavvy. ‘And if my grandmamma wasn’t in her dotage when she took to insisting on people’s retiring to dark apartments, she ought to have been. A pretty exhibition my grandmamma must have made of herself! I wonder whether she ever insisted on people’s retiring into the ball of St Paul’s; and if she did, how she got them there!’

‘Silence!’ proclaimed Mrs Wilfer. ‘I command silence!’

‘I have not the slightest intention of being silent, Ma,’ returned Lavinia coolly, ‘but quite the contrary. I am not going to be eyed as if I had come from the Boffins, and sit silent under it. I am not going to have George Sampson eyed as if he had come from the Boffins, and sit silent under it. If Pa thinks proper to be eyed as if he had come from the Boffins also, well and good. I don’t choose to. And I won’t!’

Lavinia’s engineering having made this crooked opening at Bella, Mrs Wilfer strode into it.

‘You rebellious spirit! You mutinous child! Tell me this, Lavinia. If in violation of your mother’s sentiments, you had condescended to allow yourself to be patronized by the Boffins, and if you had come from those halls of slavery—’

‘That’s mere nonsense, Ma,’ said Lavinia.

‘How!’ exclaimed Mrs Wilfer, with sublime severity.

‘Halls of slavery, Ma, is mere stuff and nonsense,’ returned the unmoved Irrepressible.

‘I say, presumptuous child, if you had come from the neighbourhood of Portland Place, bending under the yoke of patronage and attended by its domestics in glittering garb to visit me, do you think my deep-seated feelings could have been expressed in looks?’

‘All I think about it, is,’ returned Lavinia, ‘that I should wish them expressed to the right person.’

‘And if,’ pursued her mother, ‘if making light of my warnings that the face of Mrs Boffin alone was a face teeming with evil, you had clung to Mrs Boffin instead of to me, and had after all come home rejected by Mrs Boffin, trampled under foot by Mrs Boffin, and cast out by Mrs Boffin, do you think my feelings could have been expressed in looks?’

Lavinia was about replying to her honoured parent that she might as well have dispensed with her looks altogether then, when Bella rose and said, ‘Good night, dear Ma. I have had a tiring day, and I’ll go to bed.’ This broke up the agreeable party. Mr George Sampson shortly afterwards took his leave, accompanied by Miss Lavinia with a candle as far as the hall, and without a candle as far as the garden gate; Mrs Wilfer, washing her hands of the Boffins, went to bed after the manner of Lady Macbeth; and R. W. was left alone among the dilapidations of the supper table, in a melancholy attitude.

But, a light footstep roused him from his meditations, and it was Bella’s. Her pretty hair was hanging all about her, and she had tripped down softly, brush in hand, and barefoot, to say good-night to him.

‘My dear, you most unquestionably are a lovely woman,’ said the cherub, taking up a tress in his hand.

‘Look here, sir,’ said Bella; ‘when your lovely woman marries, you shall have that piece if you like, and she’ll make you a chain of it. Would you prize that remembrance of the dear creature?’

‘Yes, my precious.’

‘Then you shall have it if you’re good, sir. I am very, very sorry, dearest Pa, to have brought home all this trouble.’

‘My pet,’ returned her father, in the simplest good faith, ‘don’t make yourself uneasy about that. It really is not worth mentioning, because things at home would have taken pretty much the same turn any way. If your mother and sister don’t find one subject to get at times a little wearing on, they find another. We’re never out of a wearing subject, my dear, I assure you. I am afraid you find your old room with Lavvy, dreadfully inconvenient, Bella?’

‘No I don’t, Pa; I don’t mind. Why don’t I mind, do you think, Pa?’

‘Well, my child, you used to complain of it when it wasn’t such a contrast as it must be now. Upon my word, I can only answer, because you are so much improved.’

‘No, Pa. Because I am so thankful and so happy!’

Here she choked him until her long hair made him sneeze, and then she laughed until she made him laugh, and then she choked him again that they might not be overheard.

‘Listen, sir,’ said Bella. ‘Your lovely woman was told her fortune to night on her way home. It won’t be a large fortune, because if the lovely woman’s Intended gets a certain appointment that he hopes to get soon, she will marry on a hundred and fifty pounds a year. But that’s at first, and even if it should never be more, the lovely woman will make it quite enough. But that’s not all, sir. In the fortune there’s a certain fair man—a little man, the fortune-teller said—who, it seems, will always find himself near the lovely woman, and will always have kept, expressly for him, such a peaceful corner in the lovely woman’s little house as never was. Tell me the name of that man, sir.’

‘Is he a Knave in the pack of cards?’ inquired the cherub, with a twinkle in his eyes.

‘Yes!’ cried Bella, in high glee, choking him again. ‘He’s the Knave of Wilfers! Dear Pa, the lovely woman means to look forward to this fortune that has been told for her, so delightfully, and to cause it to make her a much better lovely woman than she ever has been yet. What the little fair man is expected to do, sir, is to look forward to it also, by saying to himself when he is in danger of being over-worried, “I see land at last!”

‘I see land at last!’ repeated her father.

‘There’s a dear Knave of Wilfers!’ exclaimed Bella; then putting out her small white bare foot, ‘That’s the mark, sir. Come to the mark. Put your boot against it. We keep to it together, mind! Now, sir, you may kiss the lovely woman before she runs away, so thankful and so happy. O yes, fair little man, so thankful and so happy!’






Chapter 17. 
A SOCIAL CHORUS

Amazement sits enthroned upon the countenances of Mr and Mrs Alfred Lammle’s circle of acquaintance, when the disposal of their first-class furniture and effects (including a Billiard Table in capital letters), ‘by auction, under a bill of sale,’ is publicly announced on a waving hearthrug in Sackville Street. But, nobody is half so much amazed as Hamilton Veneering, Esquire, M.P. for Pocket-Breaches, who instantly begins to find out that the Lammles are the only people ever entered on his soul’s register, who are not the oldest and dearest friends he has in the world. Mrs Veneering, W.M.P. for Pocket-Breaches, like a faithful wife shares her husband’s discovery and inexpressible astonishment. Perhaps the Veneerings twain may deem the last unutterable feeling particularly due to their reputation, by reason that once upon a time some of the longer heads in the City are whispered to have shaken themselves, when Veneering’s extensive dealings and great wealth were mentioned. But, it is certain that neither Mr nor Mrs Veneering can find words to wonder in, and it becomes necessary that they give to the oldest and dearest friends they have in the world, a wondering dinner.

For, it is by this time noticeable that, whatever befals, the Veneerings must give a dinner upon it. Lady Tippins lives in a chronic state of invitation to dine with the Veneerings, and in a chronic state of inflammation arising from the dinners. Boots and Brewer go about in cabs, with no other intelligible business on earth than to beat up people to come and dine with the Veneerings. Veneering pervades the legislative lobbies, intent upon entrapping his fellow-legislators to dinner. Mrs Veneering dined with five-and-twenty bran-new faces over night; calls upon them all to day; sends them every one a dinner-card to-morrow, for the week after next; before that dinner is digested, calls upon their brothers and sisters, their sons and daughters, their nephews and nieces, their aunts and uncles and cousins, and invites them all to dinner. And still, as at first, howsoever, the dining circle widens, it is to be observed that all the diners are consistent in appearing to go to the Veneerings, not to dine with Mr and Mrs Veneering (which would seem to be the last thing in their minds), but to dine with one another.

Perhaps, after all,—who knows?—Veneering may find this dining, though expensive, remunerative, in the sense that it makes champions. Mr Podsnap, as a representative man, is not alone in caring very particularly for his own dignity, if not for that of his acquaintances, and therefore in angrily supporting the acquaintances who have taken out his Permit, lest, in their being lessened, he should be. The gold and silver camels, and the ice-pails, and the rest of the Veneering table decorations, make a brilliant show, and when I, Podsnap, casually remark elsewhere that I dined last Monday with a gorgeous caravan of camels, I find it personally offensive to have it hinted to me that they are broken-kneed camels, or camels labouring under suspicion of any sort. ‘I don’t display camels myself, I am above them: I am a more solid man; but these camels have basked in the light of my countenance, and how dare you, sir, insinuate to me that I have irradiated any but unimpeachable camels?’

The camels are polishing up in the Analytical’s pantry for the dinner of wonderment on the occasion of the Lammles going to pieces, and Mr Twemlow feels a little queer on the sofa at his lodgings over the stable yard in Duke Street, Saint James’s, in consequence of having taken two advertised pills at about mid-day, on the faith of the printed representation accompanying the box (price one and a penny halfpenny, government stamp included), that the same ‘will be found highly salutary as a precautionary measure in connection with the pleasures of the table.’ To whom, while sickly with the fancy of an insoluble pill sticking in his gullet, and also with the sensation of a deposit of warm gum languidly wandering within him a little lower down, a servant enters with the announcement that a lady wishes to speak with him.

‘A lady!’ says Twemlow, pluming his ruffled feathers. ‘Ask the favour of the lady’s name.’

The lady’s name is Lammle. The lady will not detain Mr Twemlow longer than a very few minutes. The lady is sure that Mr Twemlow will do her the kindness to see her, on being told that she particularly desires a short interview. The lady has no doubt whatever of Mr Twemlow’s compliance when he hears her name. Has begged the servant to be particular not to mistake her name. Would have sent in a card, but has none.

‘Show the lady in.’ Lady shown in, comes in.

Mr Twemlow’s little rooms are modestly furnished, in an old-fashioned manner (rather like the housekeeper’s room at Snigsworthy Park), and would be bare of mere ornament, were it not for a full-length engraving of the sublime Snigsworth over the chimneypiece, snorting at a Corinthian column, with an enormous roll of paper at his feet, and a heavy curtain going to tumble down on his head; those accessories being understood to represent the noble lord as somehow in the act of saving his country.

‘Pray take a seat, Mrs Lammle.’ Mrs Lammle takes a seat and opens the conversation.

‘I have no doubt, Mr Twemlow, that you have heard of a reverse of fortune having befallen us. Of course you have heard of it, for no kind of news travels so fast—among one’s friends especially.’

Mindful of the wondering dinner, Twemlow, with a little twinge, admits the imputation.

‘Probably it will not,’ says Mrs Lammle, with a certain hardened manner upon her, that makes Twemlow shrink, ‘have surprised you so much as some others, after what passed between us at the house which is now turned out at windows. I have taken the liberty of calling upon you, Mr Twemlow, to add a sort of postscript to what I said that day.’

Mr Twemlow’s dry and hollow cheeks become more dry and hollow at the prospect of some new complication.

‘Really,’ says the uneasy little gentleman, ‘really, Mrs Lammle, I should take it as a favour if you could excuse me from any further confidence. It has ever been one of the objects of my life—which, unfortunately, has not had many objects—to be inoffensive, and to keep out of cabals and interferences.’

Mrs Lammle, by far the more observant of the two, scarcely finds it necessary to look at Twemlow while he speaks, so easily does she read him.

‘My postscript—to retain the term I have used’—says Mrs Lammle, fixing her eyes on his face, to enforce what she says herself—‘coincides exactly with what you say, Mr Twemlow. So far from troubling you with any new confidence, I merely wish to remind you what the old one was. So far from asking you for interference, I merely wish to claim your strict neutrality.’

Twemlow going on to reply, she rests her eyes again, knowing her ears to be quite enough for the contents of so weak a vessel.

‘I can, I suppose,’ says Twemlow, nervously, ‘offer no reasonable objection to hearing anything that you do me the honour to wish to say to me under those heads. But if I may, with all possible delicacy and politeness, entreat you not to range beyond them, I—I beg to do so.’

‘Sir,’ says Mrs Lammle, raising her eyes to his face again, and quite daunting him with her hardened manner, ‘I imparted to you a certain piece of knowledge, to be imparted again, as you thought best, to a certain person.’

‘Which I did,’ says Twemlow.

‘And for doing which, I thank you; though, indeed, I scarcely know why I turned traitress to my husband in the matter, for the girl is a poor little fool. I was a poor little fool once myself; I can find no better reason.’ Seeing the effect she produces on him by her indifferent laugh and cold look, she keeps her eyes upon him as she proceeds. ‘Mr Twemlow, if you should chance to see my husband, or to see me, or to see both of us, in the favour or confidence of any one else—whether of our common acquaintance or not, is of no consequence—you have no right to use against us the knowledge I intrusted you with, for one special purpose which has been accomplished. This is what I came to say. It is not a stipulation; to a gentleman it is simply a reminder.’

Twemlow sits murmuring to himself with his hand to his forehead.

‘It is so plain a case,’ Mrs Lammle goes on, ‘as between me (from the first relying on your honour) and you, that I will not waste another word upon it.’ She looks steadily at Mr Twemlow, until, with a shrug, he makes her a little one-sided bow, as though saying ‘Yes, I think you have a right to rely upon me,’ and then she moistens her lips, and shows a sense of relief.

‘I trust I have kept the promise I made through your servant, that I would detain you a very few minutes. I need trouble you no longer, Mr Twemlow.’

‘Stay!’ says Twemlow, rising as she rises. ‘Pardon me a moment. I should never have sought you out, madam, to say what I am going to say, but since you have sought me out and are here, I will throw it off my mind. Was it quite consistent, in candour, with our taking that resolution against Mr Fledgeby, that you should afterwards address Mr Fledgeby as your dear and confidential friend, and entreat a favour of Mr Fledgeby? Always supposing that you did; I assert no knowledge of my own on the subject; it has been represented to me that you did.’

‘Then he told you?’ retorts Mrs Lammle, who again has saved her eyes while listening, and uses them with strong effect while speaking.

‘Yes.’

‘It is strange that he should have told you the truth,’ says Mrs Lammle, seriously pondering. ‘Pray where did a circumstance so very extraordinary happen?’

Twemlow hesitates. He is shorter than the lady as well as weaker, and, as she stands above him with her hardened manner and her well-used eyes, he finds himself at such a disadvantage that he would like to be of the opposite sex.

‘May I ask where it happened, Mr Twemlow? In strict confidence?’

‘I must confess,’ says the mild little gentleman, coming to his answer by degrees, ‘that I felt some compunctions when Mr Fledgeby mentioned it. I must admit that I could not regard myself in an agreeable light. More particularly, as Mr Fledgeby did, with great civility, which I could not feel that I deserved from him, render me the same service that you had entreated him to render you.’

It is a part of the true nobility of the poor gentleman’s soul to say this last sentence. ‘Otherwise,’ he has reflected, ‘I shall assume the superior position of having no difficulties of my own, while I know of hers. Which would be mean, very mean.’

‘Was Mr Fledgeby’s advocacy as effectual in your case as in ours?’ Mrs Lammle demands.

‘As ineffectual.’

‘Can you make up your mind to tell me where you saw Mr Fledgeby, Mr Twemlow?’

‘I beg your pardon. I fully intended to have done so. The reservation was not intentional. I encountered Mr Fledgeby, quite by accident, on the spot.—By the expression, on the spot, I mean at Mr Riah’s in Saint Mary Axe.’

‘Have you the misfortune to be in Mr Riah’s hands then?’

‘Unfortunately, madam,’ returns Twemlow, ‘the one money obligation to which I stand committed, the one debt of my life (but it is a just debt; pray observe that I don’t dispute it), has fallen into Mr Riah’s hands.’

‘Mr Twemlow,’ says Mrs Lammle, fixing his eyes with hers: which he would prevent her doing if he could, but he can’t; ‘it has fallen into Mr Fledgeby’s hands. Mr Riah is his mask. It has fallen into Mr Fledgeby’s hands. Let me tell you that, for your guidance. The information may be of use to you, if only to prevent your credulity, in judging another man’s truthfulness by your own, from being imposed upon.’

‘Impossible!’ cries Twemlow, standing aghast. ‘How do you know it?’

‘I scarcely know how I know it. The whole train of circumstances seemed to take fire at once, and show it to me.’

‘Oh! Then you have no proof.’

‘It is very strange,’ says Mrs Lammle, coldly and boldly, and with some disdain, ‘how like men are to one another in some things, though their characters are as different as can be! No two men can have less affinity between them, one would say, than Mr Twemlow and my husband. Yet my husband replies to me “You have no proof,” and Mr Twemlow replies to me with the very same words!’

‘But why, madam?’ Twemlow ventures gently to argue. ‘Consider why the very same words? Because they state the fact. Because you have no proof.’

‘Men are very wise in their way,’ quoth Mrs Lammle, glancing haughtily at the Snigsworth portrait, and shaking out her dress before departing; ‘but they have wisdom to learn. My husband, who is not over-confiding, ingenuous, or inexperienced, sees this plain thing no more than Mr Twemlow does—because there is no proof! Yet I believe five women out of six, in my place, would see it as clearly as I do. However, I will never rest (if only in remembrance of Mr Fledgeby’s having kissed my hand) until my husband does see it. And you will do well for yourself to see it from this time forth, Mr Twemlow, though I can give you no proof.’

As she moves towards the door, Mr Twemlow, attending on her, expresses his soothing hope that the condition of Mr Lammle’s affairs is not irretrievable.

‘I don’t know,’ Mrs Lammle answers, stopping, and sketching out the pattern of the paper on the wall with the point of her parasol; ‘it depends. There may be an opening for him dawning now, or there may be none. We shall soon find out. If none, we are bankrupt here, and must go abroad, I suppose.’

Mr Twemlow, in his good-natured desire to make the best of it, remarks that there are pleasant lives abroad.

‘Yes,’ returns Mrs Lammle, still sketching on the wall; ‘but I doubt whether billiard-playing, card-playing, and so forth, for the means to live under suspicion at a dirty table-d’hote, is one of them.’

It is much for Mr Lammle, Twemlow politely intimates (though greatly shocked), to have one always beside him who is attached to him in all his fortunes, and whose restraining influence will prevent him from courses that would be discreditable and ruinous. As he says it, Mrs Lammle leaves off sketching, and looks at him.

‘Restraining influence, Mr Twemlow? We must eat and drink, and dress, and have a roof over our heads. Always beside him and attached in all his fortunes? Not much to boast of in that; what can a woman at my age do? My husband and I deceived one another when we married; we must bear the consequences of the deception—that is to say, bear one another, and bear the burden of scheming together for to-day’s dinner and to-morrow’s breakfast—till death divorces us.’

With those words, she walks out into Duke Street, Saint James’s. Mr Twemlow returning to his sofa, lays down his aching head on its slippery little horsehair bolster, with a strong internal conviction that a painful interview is not the kind of thing to be taken after the dinner pills which are so highly salutary in connexion with the pleasures of the table.

But, six o’clock in the evening finds the worthy little gentleman getting better, and also getting himself into his obsolete little silk stockings and pumps, for the wondering dinner at the Veneerings. And seven o’clock in the evening finds him trotting out into Duke Street, to trot to the corner and save a sixpence in coach-hire.

Tippins the divine has dined herself into such a condition by this time, that a morbid mind might desire her, for a blessed change, to sup at last, and turn into bed. Such a mind has Mr Eugene Wrayburn, whom Twemlow finds contemplating Tippins with the moodiest of visages, while that playful creature rallies him on being so long overdue at the woolsack. Skittish is Tippins with Mortimer Lightwood too, and has raps to give him with her fan for having been best man at the nuptials of these deceiving what’s-their-names who have gone to pieces. Though, indeed, the fan is generally lively, and taps away at the men in all directions, with something of a grisly sound suggestive of the clattering of Lady Tippins’s bones.

A new race of intimate friends has sprung up at Veneering’s since he went into Parliament for the public good, to whom Mrs Veneering is very attentive. These friends, like astronomical distances, are only to be spoken of in the very largest figures. Boots says that one of them is a Contractor who (it has been calculated) gives employment, directly and indirectly, to five hundred thousand men. Brewer says that another of them is a Chairman, in such request at so many Boards, so far apart, that he never travels less by railway than three thousand miles a week. Buffer says that another of them hadn’t a sixpence eighteen months ago, and, through the brilliancy of his genius in getting those shares issued at eighty-five, and buying them all up with no money and selling them at par for cash, has now three hundred and seventy-five thousand pounds—Buffer particularly insisting on the odd seventy-five, and declining to take a farthing less. With Buffer, Boots, and Brewer, Lady Tippins is eminently facetious on the subject of these Fathers of the Scrip-Church: surveying them through her eyeglass, and inquiring whether Boots and Brewer and Buffer think they will make her fortune if she makes love to them? with other pleasantries of that nature. Veneering, in his different way, is much occupied with the Fathers too, piously retiring with them into the conservatory, from which retreat the word ‘Committee’ is occasionally heard, and where the Fathers instruct Veneering how he must leave the valley of the piano on his left, take the level of the mantelpiece, cross by an open cutting at the candelabra, seize the carrying-traffic at the console, and cut up the opposition root and branch at the window curtains.

Mr and Mrs Podsnap are of the company, and the Fathers descry in Mrs Podsnap a fine woman. She is consigned to a Father—Boots’s Father, who employs five hundred thousand men—and is brought to anchor on Veneering’s left; thus affording opportunity to the sportive Tippins on his right (he, as usual, being mere vacant space), to entreat to be told something about those loves of Navvies, and whether they really do live on raw beefsteaks, and drink porter out of their barrows. But, in spite of such little skirmishes it is felt that this was to be a wondering dinner, and that the wondering must not be neglected. Accordingly, Brewer, as the man who has the greatest reputation to sustain, becomes the interpreter of the general instinct.

‘I took,’ says Brewer in a favourable pause, ‘a cab this morning, and I rattled off to that Sale.’

Boots (devoured by envy) says, ‘So did I.’

Buffer says, ‘So did I’; but can find nobody to care whether he did or not.

‘And what was it like?’ inquires Veneering.

‘I assure you,’ replies Brewer, looking about for anybody else to address his answer to, and giving the preference to Lightwood; ‘I assure you, the things were going for a song. Handsome things enough, but fetching nothing.’

‘So I heard this afternoon,’ says Lightwood.

Brewer begs to know now, would it be fair to ask a professional man how—on—earth—these—people—ever—did—come—TO—such—A—total smash? (Brewer’s divisions being for emphasis.)

Lightwood replies that he was consulted certainly, but could give no opinion which would pay off the Bill of Sale, and therefore violates no confidence in supposing that it came of their living beyond their means.

‘But how,’ says Veneering, ‘can people do that!’

Hah! That is felt on all hands to be a shot in the bull’s eye. How can people do that! The Analytical Chemist going round with champagne, looks very much as if he could give them a pretty good idea how people did that, if he had a mind.

‘How,’ says Mrs Veneering, laying down her fork to press her aquiline hands together at the tips of the fingers, and addressing the Father who travels the three thousand miles per week: ‘how a mother can look at her baby, and know that she lives beyond her husband’s means, I cannot imagine.’

Eugene suggests that Mrs Lammle, not being a mother, had no baby to look at.

‘True,’ says Mrs Veneering, ‘but the principle is the same.’

Boots is clear that the principle is the same. So is Buffer. It is the unfortunate destiny of Buffer to damage a cause by espousing it. The rest of the company have meekly yielded to the proposition that the principle is the same, until Buffer says it is; when instantly a general murmur arises that the principle is not the same.

‘But I don’t understand,’ says the Father of the three hundred and seventy-five thousand pounds, ‘—if these people spoken of, occupied the position of being in society—they were in society?’

Veneering is bound to confess that they dined here, and were even married from here.

‘Then I don’t understand,’ pursues the Father, ‘how even their living beyond their means could bring them to what has been termed a total smash. Because, there is always such a thing as an adjustment of affairs, in the case of people of any standing at all.’

Eugene (who would seem to be in a gloomy state of suggestiveness), suggests, ‘Suppose you have no means and live beyond them?’

This is too insolvent a state of things for the Father to entertain. It is too insolvent a state of things for any one with any self-respect to entertain, and is universally scouted. But, it is so amazing how any people can have come to a total smash, that everybody feels bound to account for it specially. One of the Fathers says, ‘Gaming table.’ Another of the Fathers says, ‘Speculated without knowing that speculation is a science.’ Boots says ‘Horses.’ Lady Tippins says to her fan, ‘Two establishments.’ Mr Podsnap, saying nothing, is referred to for his opinion; which he delivers as follows; much flushed and extremely angry:

‘Don’t ask me. I desire to take no part in the discussion of these people’s affairs. I abhor the subject. It is an odious subject, an offensive subject, a subject that makes me sick, and I—’ And with his favourite right-arm flourish which sweeps away everything and settles it for ever, Mr Podsnap sweeps these inconveniently unexplainable wretches who have lived beyond their means and gone to total smash, off the face of the universe.

Eugene, leaning back in his chair, is observing Mr Podsnap with an irreverent face, and may be about to offer a new suggestion, when the Analytical is beheld in collision with the Coachman; the Coachman manifesting a purpose of coming at the company with a silver salver, as though intent upon making a collection for his wife and family; the Analytical cutting him off at the sideboard. The superior stateliness, if not the superior generalship, of the Analytical prevails over a man who is as nothing off the box; and the Coachman, yielding up his salver, retires defeated.

Then, the Analytical, perusing a scrap of paper lying on the salver, with the air of a literary Censor, adjusts it, takes his time about going to the table with it, and presents it to Mr Eugene Wrayburn. Whereupon the pleasant Tippins says aloud, ‘The Lord Chancellor has resigned!’

With distracting coolness and slowness—for he knows the curiosity of the Charmer to be always devouring—Eugene makes a pretence of getting out an eyeglass, polishing it, and reading the paper with difficulty, long after he has seen what is written on it. What is written on it in wet ink, is:

‘Young Blight.’

‘Waiting?’ says Eugene over his shoulder, in confidence, with the Analytical.

‘Waiting,’ returns the Analytical in responsive confidence.

Eugene looks ‘Excuse me,’ towards Mrs Veneering, goes out, and finds Young Blight, Mortimer’s clerk, at the hall-door.

‘You told me to bring him, sir, to wherever you was, if he come while you was out and I was in,’ says that discreet young gentleman, standing on tiptoe to whisper; ‘and I’ve brought him.’

‘Sharp boy. Where is he?’ asks Eugene.

‘He’s in a cab, sir, at the door. I thought it best not to show him, you see, if it could be helped; for he’s a-shaking all over, like—Blight’s simile is perhaps inspired by the surrounding dishes of sweets—‘like Glue Monge.’

‘Sharp boy again,’ returns Eugene. ‘I’ll go to him.’

Goes out straightway, and, leisurely leaning his arms on the open window of a cab in waiting, looks in at Mr Dolls: who has brought his own atmosphere with him, and would seem from its odour to have brought it, for convenience of carriage, in a rum-cask.

‘Now Dolls, wake up!’

‘Mist Wrayburn? Drection! Fifteen shillings!’

After carefully reading the dingy scrap of paper handed to him, and as carefully tucking it into his waistcoat pocket, Eugene tells out the money; beginning incautiously by telling the first shilling into Mr Dolls’s hand, which instantly jerks it out of window; and ending by telling the fifteen shillings on the seat.

‘Give him a ride back to Charing Cross, sharp boy, and there get rid of him.’

Returning to the dining-room, and pausing for an instant behind the screen at the door, Eugene overhears, above the hum and clatter, the fair Tippins saying: ‘I am dying to ask him what he was called out for!’

‘Are you?’ mutters Eugene, ‘then perhaps if you can’t ask him, you’ll die. So I’ll be a benefactor to society, and go. A stroll and a cigar, and I can think this over. Think this over.’ Thus, with a thoughtful face, he finds his hat and cloak, unseen of the Analytical, and goes his way.