Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/18

CHAPTER 17. Nobody's Rival

Before breakfast in the morning, Arthur walked out to look about him.As the morning was fine and he had an hour on his hands, he crossed theriver by the ferry, and strolled along a footpath through some meadows.When he came back to the towing-path, he found the ferry-boat on theopposite side, and a gentleman hailing it and waiting to be taken over.

This gentleman looked barely thirty. He was well dressed, of a sprightlyand gay appearance, a well-knit figure, and a rich dark complexion. AsArthur came over the stile and down to the water's edge, the loungerglanced at him for a moment, and then resumed his occupation of idlytossing stones into the water with his foot. There was something in hisway of spurning them out of their places with his heel, and getting theminto the required position, that Clennam thought had an air of crueltyin it. Most of us have more or less frequently derived a similarimpression from a man's manner of doing some very little thing: pluckinga flower, clearing away an obstacle, or even destroying an insentientobject.

The gentleman's thoughts were preoccupied, as his face showed, and hetook no notice of a fine Newfoundland dog, who watched him attentively,and watched every stone too, in its turn, eager to spring into theriver on receiving his master's sign. The ferry-boat came over, however,without his receiving any sign, and when it grounded his master took himby the collar and walked him into it.

'Not this morning,' he said to the dog. 'You won't do for ladies'company, dripping wet. Lie down.'

Clennam followed the man and the dog into the boat, and took his seat.The dog did as he was ordered. The man remained standing, with his handsin his pockets, and towered between Clennam and the prospect. Man anddog both jumped lightly out as soon as they touched the other side, andwent away. Clennam was glad to be rid of them.

The church clock struck the breakfast hour as he walked up the littlelane by which the garden-gate was approached. The moment he pulled thebell a deep loud barking assailed him from within the wall.

'I heard no dog last night,' thought Clennam. The gate was opened byone of the rosy maids, and on the lawn were the Newfoundland dog and theman.

'Miss Minnie is not down yet, gentlemen,' said the blushing portress, asthey all came together in the garden. Then she said to the master of thedog, 'Mr Clennam, sir,' and tripped away.

'Odd enough, Mr Clennam, that we should have met just now,' saidthe man. Upon which the dog became mute. 'Allow me to introducemyself--Henry Gowan. A pretty place this, and looks wonderfully wellthis morning!'

The manner was easy, and the voice agreeable; but still Clennam thought,that if he had not made that decided resolution to avoid falling in lovewith Pet, he would have taken a dislike to this Henry Gowan.

'It's new to you, I believe?' said this Gowan, when Arthur had extolledthe place.

'Quite new. I made acquaintance with it only yesterday afternoon.'

'Ah! Of course this is not its best aspect. It used to look charming inthe spring, before they went away last time. I should like you to haveseen it then.'

But for that resolution so often recalled, Clennam might have wished himin the crater of Mount Etna, in return for this civility.

'I have had the pleasure of seeing it under many circumstances duringthe last three years, and it's--a Paradise.'

It was (at least it might have been, always excepting for that wiseresolution) like his dexterous impudence to call it a Paradise. He onlycalled it a Paradise because he first saw her coming, and so made herout within her hearing to be an angel, Confusion to him!

And ah! how beaming she looked, and how glad! How she caressed the dog,and how the dog knew her! How expressive that heightened colour in herface, that fluttered manner, her downcast eyes, her irresolutehappiness! When had Clennam seen her look like this? Not that there wasany reason why he might, could, would, or should have ever seen her looklike this, or that he had ever hoped for himself to see her look likethis; but still--when had he ever known her do it!

He stood at a little distance from them. This Gowan when he had talkedabout a Paradise, had gone up to her and taken her hand. The dog had puthis great paws on her arm and laid his head against her dear bosom. Shehad laughed and welcomed them, and made far too much of the dog, far,far, too much--that is to say, supposing there had been any third personlooking on who loved her.

She disengaged herself now, and came to Clennam, and put her hand in hisand wished him good morning, and gracefully made as if she would takehis arm and be escorted into the house. To this Gowan had no objection.No, he knew he was too safe.

There was a passing cloud on Mr Meagles's good-humoured face when theyall three (four, counting the dog, and he was the most objectionablebut one of the party) came in to breakfast. Neither it, nor the touchof uneasiness on Mrs Meagles as she directed her eyes towards it, wasunobserved by Clennam.

'Well, Gowan,' said Mr Meagles, even suppressing a sigh; 'how goes theworld with you this morning?'

'Much as usual, sir. Lion and I being determined not to waste anythingof our weekly visit, turned out early, and came over from Kingston, mypresent headquarters, where I am making a sketch or two.' Then he toldhow he had met Mr Clennam at the ferry, and they had come over together.

'Mrs Gowan is well, Henry?' said Mrs Meagles. (Clennam becameattentive.)

'My mother is quite well, thank you.' (Clennam became inattentive.) 'Ihave taken the liberty of making an addition to your family dinner-partyto-day, which I hope will not be inconvenient to you or to Mr Meagles. Icouldn't very well get out of it,' he explained, turning to the latter.'The young fellow wrote to propose himself to me; and as he is wellconnected, I thought you would not object to my transferring him here.'

'Who _is_ the young fellow?' asked Mr Meagles with peculiar complacency.

'He is one of the Barnacles. Tite Barnacle's son, Clarence Barnacle, whois in his father's Department. I can at least guarantee that the rivershall not suffer from his visit. He won't set it on fire.'

'Aye, aye?' said Meagles. 'A Barnacle is he? _We_ know something of thatfamily, eh, Dan? By George, they are at the top of the tree, though! Letme see. What relation will this young fellow be to Lord Decimus now? HisLordship married, in seventeen ninety-seven, Lady Jemima Bilberry, whowas the second daughter by the third marriage--no! There I am wrong!That was Lady Seraphina--Lady Jemima was the first daughter by thesecond marriage of the fifteenth Earl of Stiltstalking with theHonourable Clementina Toozellem. Very well. Now this young fellow'sfather married a Stiltstalking and _his_ father married his cousin whowas a Barnacle. The father of that father who married a Barnacle,married a Joddleby.--I am getting a little too far back, Gowan; I wantto make out what relation this young fellow is to Lord Decimus.'

'That's easily stated. His father is nephew to Lord Decimus.'

'Nephew--to--Lord--Decimus,' Mr Meagles luxuriously repeated with hiseyes shut, that he might have nothing to distract him from the fullflavour of the genealogical tree. 'By George, you are right, Gowan. Sohe is.'

'Consequently, Lord Decimus is his great uncle.'

'But stop a bit!' said Mr Meagles, opening his eyes with a freshdiscovery. 'Then on the mother's side, Lady Stiltstalking is his greataunt.'

'Of course she is.'

'Aye, aye, aye?' said Mr Meagles with much interest. 'Indeed, indeed? Weshall be glad to see him. We'll entertain him as well as we can, in ourhumble way; and we shall not starve him, I hope, at all events.'

In the beginning of this dialogue, Clennam had expected some greatharmless outburst from Mr Meagles, like that which had made him burstout of the Circumlocution Office, holding Doyce by the collar. But hisgood friend had a weakness which none of us need go into the next streetto find, and which no amount of Circumlocution experience could longsubdue in him. Clennam looked at Doyce; but Doyce knew all about itbeforehand, and looked at his plate, and made no sign, and said no word.

'I am much obliged to you,' said Gowan, to conclude the subject.'Clarence is a great ass, but he is one of the dearest and best fellowsthat ever lived!'

It appeared, before the breakfast was over, that everybody whom thisGowan knew was either more or less of an ass, or more or less of aknave; but was, notwithstanding, the most lovable, the most engaging,the simplest, truest, kindest, dearest, best fellow that ever lived.The process by which this unvarying result was attained, whatever thepremises, might have been stated by Mr Henry Gowan thus: 'I claim to bealways book-keeping, with a peculiar nicety, in every man's case, andposting up a careful little account of Good and Evil with him. I dothis so conscientiously, that I am happy to tell you I find the mostworthless of men to be the dearest old fellow too: and am in a conditionto make the gratifying report, that there is much less difference thanyou are inclined to suppose between an honest man and a scoundrel.' Theeffect of this cheering discovery happened to be, that while he seemedto be scrupulously finding good in most men, he did in reality lowerit where it was, and set it up where it was not; but that was its onlydisagreeable or dangerous feature.

It scarcely seemed, however, to afford Mr Meagles as much satisfactionas the Barnacle genealogy had done. The cloud that Clennam had neverseen upon his face before that morning, frequently overcast it again;and there was the same shadow of uneasy observation of him on the comelyface of his wife. More than once or twice when Pet caressed the dog,it appeared to Clennam that her father was unhappy in seeing her do it;and, in one particular instance when Gowan stood on the other side ofthe dog, and bent his head at the same time, Arthur fancied that he sawtears rise to Mr Meagles's eyes as he hurried out of the room. It waseither the fact too, or he fancied further, that Pet herself was notinsensible to these little incidents; that she tried, with a moredelicate affection than usual, to express to her good father how muchshe loved him; that it was on this account that she fell behind therest, both as they went to church and as they returned from it, andtook his arm. He could not have sworn but that as he walked alone inthe garden afterwards, he had an instantaneous glimpse of her inher father's room, clinging to both her parents with the greatesttenderness, and weeping on her father's shoulder.

The latter part of the day turning out wet, they were fain to keep thehouse, look over Mr Meagles's collection, and beguile the time withconversation. This Gowan had plenty to say for himself, and said itin an off-hand and amusing manner. He appeared to be an artist byprofession, and to have been at Rome some time; yet he had a slight,careless, amateur way with him--a perceptible limp, both in his devotionto art and his attainments--which Clennam could scarcely understand.

He applied to Daniel Doyce for help, as they stood together, looking outof window.

'You know Mr Gowan?' he said in a low voice.

'I have seen him here. Comes here every Sunday when they are at home.'

'An artist, I infer from what he says?'

'A sort of a one,' said Daniel Doyce, in a surly tone.

'What sort of a one?' asked Clennam, with a smile.

'Why, he has sauntered into the Arts at a leisurely Pall-Mall pace,'said Doyce, 'and I doubt if they care to be taken quite so coolly.'

Pursuing his inquiries, Clennam found that the Gowan family were a verydistant ramification of the Barnacles; and that the paternal Gowan,originally attached to a legation abroad, had been pensioned off as aCommissioner of nothing particular somewhere or other, and had died athis post with his drawn salary in his hand, nobly defending it to thelast extremity. In consideration of this eminent public service, theBarnacle then in power had recommended the Crown to bestow a pension oftwo or three hundred a-year on his widow; to which the next Barnacle inpower had added certain shady and sedate apartments in the Palaces atHampton Court, where the old lady still lived, deploring the degeneracyof the times in company with several other old ladies of both sexes. Herson, Mr Henry Gowan, inheriting from his father, the Commissioner, thatvery questionable help in life, a very small independence, had beendifficult to settle; the rather, as public appointments chanced tobe scarce, and his genius, during his earlier manhood, was of thatexclusively agricultural character which applies itself to thecultivation of wild oats. At last he had declared that he would becomea Painter; partly because he had always had an idle knack that way,and partly to grieve the souls of the Barnacles-in-chief who had notprovided for him. So it had come to pass successively, first, thatseveral distinguished ladies had been frightfully shocked; then, thatportfolios of his performances had been handed about o' nights, anddeclared with ecstasy to be perfect Claudes, perfect Cuyps, perfectphaenomena; then, that Lord Decimus had bought his picture, and hadasked the President and Council to dinner at a blow, and had said, withhis own magnificent gravity, 'Do you know, there appears to me tobe really immense merit in that work?' and, in short, that people ofcondition had absolutely taken pains to bring him into fashion. But,somehow, it had all failed. The prejudiced public had stood out againstit obstinately. They had determined not to admire Lord Decimus'spicture. They had determined to believe that in every service, excepttheir own, a man must qualify himself, by striving early and late, andby working heart and soul, might and main. So now Mr Gowan, like thatworn-out old coffin which never was Mahomet's nor anybody else's, hungmidway between two points: jaundiced and jealous as to the one he hadleft: jaundiced and jealous as to the other that he couldn't reach.

Such was the substance of Clennam's discoveries concerning him, madethat rainy Sunday afternoon and afterwards.

About an hour or so after dinner time, Young Barnacle appeared, attendedby his eye-glass; in honour of whose family connections, Mr Meagles hadcashiered the pretty parlour-maids for the day, and had placed on dutyin their stead two dingy men. Young Barnacle was in the lastdegree amazed and disconcerted at sight of Arthur, and had murmuredinvoluntarily, 'Look here! upon my soul, you know!' before his presenceof mind returned.

Even then, he was obliged to embrace the earliest opportunity of takinghis friend into a window, and saying, in a nasal way that was a part ofhis general debility:

'I want to speak to you, Gowan. I say. Look here. Who is that fellow?'

'A friend of our host's. None of mine.'

'He's a most ferocious Radical, you know,' said Young Barnacle.

'Is he? How do you know?'

'Ecod, sir, he was Pitching into our people the other day in the mosttremendous manner. Went up to our place and Pitched into my father tothat extent that it was necessary to order him out. Came back toour Department, and Pitched into me. Look here. You never saw such afellow.'

'What did he want?'

'Ecod, sir,' returned Young Barnacle, 'he said he wanted to know, youknow! Pervaded our Department--without an appointment--and said hewanted to know!'

The stare of indignant wonder with which Young Barnacle accompaniedthis disclosure, would have strained his eyes injuriously but forthe opportune relief of dinner. Mr Meagles (who had been extremelysolicitous to know how his uncle and aunt were) begged him to conductMrs Meagles to the dining-room. And when he sat on Mrs Meagles's righthand, Mr Meagles looked as gratified as if his whole family were there.

All the natural charm of the previous day was gone. The eaters of thedinner, like the dinner itself, were lukewarm, insipid, overdone--andall owing to this poor little dull Young Barnacle. Conversationless atany time, he was now the victim of a weakness special to the occasion,and solely referable to Clennam. He was under a pressing and continualnecessity of looking at that gentleman, which occasioned his eye-glassto get into his soup, into his wine-glass, into Mrs Meagles's plate, tohang down his back like a bell-rope, and be several times disgracefullyrestored to his bosom by one of the dingy men. Weakened in mind by hisfrequent losses of this instrument, and its determination not to stickin his eye, and more and more enfeebled in intellect every time helooked at the mysterious Clennam, he applied spoons to his eyes,forks, and other foreign matters connected with the furniture of thedinner-table. His discovery of these mistakes greatly increased hisdifficulties, but never released him from the necessity of looking atClennam. And whenever Clennam spoke, this ill-starred young man wasclearly seized with a dread that he was coming, by some artful device,round to that point of wanting to know, you know.

It may be questioned, therefore, whether any one but Mr Meagles had muchenjoyment of the time. Mr Meagles, however, thoroughly enjoyed YoungBarnacle. As a mere flask of the golden water in the tale became a fullfountain when it was poured out, so Mr Meagles seemed to feel that thissmall spice of Barnacle imparted to his table the flavour of the wholefamily-tree. In its presence, his frank, fine, genuine qualitiespaled; he was not so easy, he was not so natural, he was striving aftersomething that did not belong to him, he was not himself. What a strangepeculiarity on the part of Mr Meagles, and where should we find anothersuch case!

At last the wet Sunday wore itself out in a wet night; and YoungBarnacle went home in a cab, feebly smoking; and the objectionable Gowanwent away on foot, accompanied by the objectionable dog. Pet had takenthe most amiable pains all day to be friendly with Clennam, but Clennamhad been a little reserved since breakfast--that is to say, would havebeen, if he had loved her.

When he had gone to his own room, and had again thrown himself into thechair by the fire, Mr Doyce knocked at the door, candle in hand, toask him how and at what hour he proposed returning on the morrow? Aftersettling this question, he said a word to Mr Doyce about this Gowan--whowould have run in his head a good deal, if he had been his rival.

'Those are not good prospects for a painter,' said Clennam.

'No,' returned Doyce.

Mr Doyce stood, chamber-candlestick in hand, the other hand in hispocket, looking hard at the flame of his candle, with a certain quietperception in his face that they were going to say something more.

'I thought our good friend a little changed, and out of spirits, afterhe came this morning?' said Clennam.

'Yes,' returned Doyce.

'But not his daughter?' said Clennam.

'No,' said Doyce.

There was a pause on both sides. Mr Doyce, still looking at the flame ofhis candle, slowly resumed:

'The truth is, he has twice taken his daughter abroad in the hope ofseparating her from Mr Gowan. He rather thinks she is disposed to likehim, and he has painful doubts (I quite agree with him, as I dare sayyou do) of the hopefulness of such a marriage.'

'There--' Clennam choked, and coughed, and stopped.

'Yes, you have taken cold,' said Daniel Doyce. But without looking athim.

'--There is an engagement between them, of course?' said Clennam airily.

'No. As I am told, certainly not. It has been solicited on thegentleman's part, but none has been made. Since their recent return,our friend has yielded to a weekly visit, but that is the utmost. Minniewould not deceive her father and mother. You have travelled with them,and I believe you know what a bond there is among them, extending evenbeyond this present life. All that there is between Miss Minnie and MrGowan, I have no doubt we see.'

'Ah! We see enough!' cried Arthur.

Mr Doyce wished him Good Night in the tone of a man who had heard amournful, not to say despairing, exclamation, and who sought to infusesome encouragement and hope into the mind of the person by whom it hadbeen uttered. Such tone was probably a part of his oddity, as one ofa crotchety band; for how could he have heard anything of that kind,without Clennam's hearing it too?

The rain fell heavily on the roof, and pattered on the ground, anddripped among the evergreens and the leafless branches of the trees. Therain fell heavily, drearily. It was a night of tears.

If Clennam had not decided against falling in love with Pet; if hehad had the weakness to do it; if he had, little by little, persuadedhimself to set all the earnestness of his nature, all the might of hishope, and all the wealth of his matured character, on that cast; ifhe had done this and found that all was lost; he would have been,that night, unutterably miserable. As it was--

As it was, the rain fell heavily, drearily.