Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/22

CHAPTER 21. Mr Merdle's Complaint

Upon that establishment of state, the Merdle establishment in HarleyStreet, Cavendish Square, there was the shadow of no more common wallthan the fronts of other establishments of state on the opposite side ofthe street. Like unexceptionable Society, the opposing rows of houses inHarley Street were very grim with one another. Indeed, the mansions andtheir inhabitants were so much alike in that respect, that the peoplewere often to be found drawn up on opposite sides of dinner-tables, inthe shade of their own loftiness, staring at the other side of the waywith the dullness of the houses.

Everybody knows how like the street the two dinner-rows of people whotake their stand by the street will be. The expressionless uniformtwenty houses, all to be knocked at and rung at in the same form, allapproachable by the same dull steps, all fended off by the same patternof railing, all with the same impracticable fire-escapes, the sameinconvenient fixtures in their heads, and everything without exceptionto be taken at a high valuation--who has not dined with these? Thehouse so drearily out of repair, the occasional bow-window, the stuccoedhouse, the newly-fronted house, the corner house with nothing butangular rooms, the house with the blinds always down, the house with thehatchment always up, the house where the collector has called for onequarter of an Idea, and found nobody at home--who has not dined withthese? The house that nobody will take, and is to be had a bargain--whodoes not know her? The showy house that was taken for life by thedisappointed gentleman, and which does not suit him at all--who isunacquainted with that haunted habitation?

Harley Street, Cavendish Square, was more than aware of Mr and MrsMerdle. Intruders there were in Harley Street, of whom it was not aware;but Mr and Mrs Merdle it delighted to honour. Society was aware ofMr and Mrs Merdle. Society had said 'Let us license them; let us knowthem.'

Mr Merdle was immensely rich; a man of prodigious enterprise; aMidas without the ears, who turned all he touched to gold. He was ineverything good, from banking to building. He was in Parliament, ofcourse. He was in the City, necessarily. He was Chairman of this,Trustee of that, President of the other. The weightiest of men had saidto projectors, 'Now, what name have you got? Have you got Merdle?' And,the reply being in the negative, had said, 'Then I won't look at you.'

This great and fortunate man had provided that extensive bosom whichrequired so much room to be unfeeling enough in, with a nest of crimsonand gold some fifteen years before. It was not a bosom to reposeupon, but it was a capital bosom to hang jewels upon. Mr Merdle wantedsomething to hang jewels upon, and he bought it for the purpose. Storrand Mortimer might have married on the same speculation.

Like all his other speculations, it was sound and successful. The jewelsshowed to the richest advantage. The bosom moving in Society withthe jewels displayed upon it, attracted general admiration. Societyapproving, Mr Merdle was satisfied. He was the most disinterested ofmen,--did everything for Society, and got as little for himself out ofall his gain and care, as a man might.

That is to say, it may be supposed that he got all he wanted, otherwisewith unlimited wealth he would have got it. But his desire was to theutmost to satisfy Society (whatever that was), and take up all itsdrafts upon him for tribute. He did not shine in company; he had notvery much to say for himself; he was a reserved man, with a broad,overhanging, watchful head, that particular kind of dull red colourin his cheeks which is rather stale than fresh, and a somewhat uneasyexpression about his coat-cuffs, as if they were in his confidence, andhad reasons for being anxious to hide his hands. In the little he said,he was a pleasant man enough; plain, emphatic about public and privateconfidence, and tenacious of the utmost deference being shown by everyone, in all things, to Society. In this same Society (if that were itwhich came to his dinners, and to Mrs Merdle's receptions and concerts),he hardly seemed to enjoy himself much, and was mostly to be foundagainst walls and behind doors. Also when he went out to it, instead ofits coming home to him, he seemed a little fatigued, and upon thewhole rather more disposed for bed; but he was always cultivating itnevertheless, and always moving in it--and always laying out money on itwith the greatest liberality.

Mrs Merdle's first husband had been a colonel, under whose auspices thebosom had entered into competition with the snows of North America, andhad come off at little disadvantage in point of whiteness, and at nonein point of coldness. The colonel's son was Mrs Merdle's only child. Hewas of a chuckle-headed, high-shouldered make, with a general appearanceof being, not so much a young man as a swelled boy. He had given so fewsigns of reason, that a by-word went among his companions that his brainhad been frozen up in a mighty frost which prevailed at St John's, NewBrunswick, at the period of his birth there, and had never thawed fromthat hour. Another by-word represented him as having in his infancy,through the negligence of a nurse, fallen out of a high window on hishead, which had been heard by responsible witnesses to crack. It isprobable that both these representations were of ex post factoorigin; the young gentleman (whose expressive name was Sparkler) beingmonomaniacal in offering marriage to all manner of undesirable youngladies, and in remarking of every successive young lady to whom hetendered a matrimonial proposal that she was 'a doosed fine gal--welleducated too--with no biggodd nonsense about her.'

A son-in-law with these limited talents, might have been a clog uponanother man; but Mr Merdle did not want a son-in-law for himself; hewanted a son-in-law for Society. Mr Sparkler having been in the Guards,and being in the habit of frequenting all the races, and all thelounges, and all the parties, and being well known, Society wassatisfied with its son-in-law. This happy result Mr Merdle would haveconsidered well attained, though Mr Sparkler had been a more expensivearticle. And he did not get Mr Sparkler by any means cheap forSociety, even as it was.

There was a dinner giving in the Harley Street establishment, whileLittle Dorrit was stitching at her father's new shirts by his side thatnight; and there were magnates from the Court and magnates from theCity, magnates from the Commons and magnates from the Lords, magnatesfrom the bench and magnates from the bar, Bishop magnates, Treasurymagnates, Horse Guard magnates, Admiralty magnates,--all the magnatesthat keep us going, and sometimes trip us up.

'I am told,' said Bishop magnate to Horse Guards, 'that Mr Merdle hasmade another enormous hit. They say a hundred thousand pounds.'

Horse Guards had heard two.

Treasury had heard three.

Bar, handling his persuasive double eye-glass, was by no means clear butthat it might be four. It was one of those happy strokes of calculationand combination, the result of which it was difficult to estimate. Itwas one of those instances of a comprehensive grasp, associated withhabitual luck and characteristic boldness, of which an age presented usbut few. But here was Brother Bellows, who had been in the great Bankcase, and who could probably tell us more. What did Brother Bellows putthis new success at?

Brother Bellows was on his way to make his bow to the bosom, and couldonly tell them in passing that he had heard it stated, with greatappearance of truth, as being worth, from first to last, half-a-millionof money.

Admiralty said Mr Merdle was a wonderful man, Treasury said he was anew power in the country, and would be able to buy up the whole House ofCommons. Bishop said he was glad to think that this wealth flowed intothe coffers of a gentleman who was always disposed to maintain the bestinterests of Society.

Mr Merdle himself was usually late on these occasions, as a man stilldetained in the clutch of giant enterprises when other men had shakenoff their dwarfs for the day. On this occasion, he was the last arrival.Treasury said Merdle's work punished him a little. Bishop said he wasglad to think that this wealth flowed into the coffers of a gentlemanwho accepted it with meekness.

Powder! There was so much Powder in waiting, that it flavoured thedinner. Pulverous particles got into the dishes, and Society's meats hada seasoning of first-rate footmen. Mr Merdle took down a countess whowas secluded somewhere in the core of an immense dress, to which shewas in the proportion of the heart to the overgrown cabbage. If so low asimile may be admitted, the dress went down the staircase like a richlybrocaded Jack in the Green, and nobody knew what sort of small personcarried it.

Society had everything it could want, and could not want, for dinner.It had everything to look at, and everything to eat, and everything todrink. It is to be hoped it enjoyed itself; for Mr Merdle's own share ofthe repast might have been paid for with eighteenpence. Mrs Merdle wasmagnificent. The chief butler was the next magnificent institution ofthe day. He was the stateliest man in the company. He did nothing, buthe looked on as few other men could have done. He was Mr Merdle'slast gift to Society. Mr Merdle didn't want him, and was put out ofcountenance when the great creature looked at him; but inappeasableSociety would have him--and had got him.

The invisible countess carried out the Green at the usual stage ofthe entertainment, and the file of beauty was closed up by the bosom.Treasury said, Juno. Bishop said, Judith.

Bar fell into discussion with Horse Guards concerning courts-martial.Brothers Bellows and Bench struck in. Other magnates paired off. MrMerdle sat silent, and looked at the table-cloth. Sometimes a magnateaddressed him, to turn the stream of his own particular discussiontowards him; but Mr Merdle seldom gave much attention to it, or did morethan rouse himself from his calculations and pass the wine.

When they rose, so many of the magnates had something to say to MrMerdle individually that he held little levees by the sideboard, andchecked them off as they went out at the door.

Treasury hoped he might venture to congratulate one of England'sworld-famed capitalists and merchant-princes (he had turned thatoriginal sentiment in the house a few times, and it came easy to him) ona new achievement. To extend the triumphs of such men was to extendthe triumphs and resources of the nation; and Treasury felt--he gave MrMerdle to understand--patriotic on the subject.

'Thank you, my lord,' said Mr Merdle; 'thank you. I accept yourcongratulations with pride, and I am glad you approve.'

'Why, I don't unreservedly approve, my dear Mr Merdle. Because,'smiling Treasury turned him by the arm towards the sideboard and spokebanteringly, 'it never can be worth your while to come among us and helpus.'

Mr Merdle felt honoured by the--

'No, no,' said Treasury, 'that is not the light in which one sodistinguished for practical knowledge and great foresight, can beexpected to regard it. If we should ever be happily enabled, byaccidentally possessing the control over circumstances, to proposeto one so eminent to--to come among us, and give us the weight of hisinfluence, knowledge, and character, we could only propose it to him asa duty. In fact, as a duty that he owed to Society.'

Mr Merdle intimated that Society was the apple of his eye, and that itsclaims were paramount to every other consideration. Treasury movedon, and Bar came up.

Bar, with his little insinuating jury droop, and fingering hispersuasive double eye-glass, hoped he might be excused if he mentionedto one of the greatest converters of the root of all evil into the rootof all good, who had for a long time reflected a shining lustre on theannals even of our commercial country--if he mentioned, disinterestedly,and as, what we lawyers called in our pedantic way, amicus curiae, afact that had come by accident within his knowledge. He had beenrequired to look over the title of a very considerable estate in one ofthe eastern counties--lying, in fact, for Mr Merdle knew we lawyersloved to be particular, on the borders of two of the eastern counties.Now, the title was perfectly sound, and the estate was to be purchasedby one who had the command of--Money (jury droop and persuasiveeye-glass), on remarkably advantageous terms. This had come to Bar'sknowledge only that day, and it had occurred to him, 'I shall have thehonour of dining with my esteemed friend Mr Merdle this evening, and,strictly between ourselves, I will mention the opportunity.' Such apurchase would involve not only a great legitimate political influence,but some half-dozen church presentations of considerable annual value.Now, that Mr Merdle was already at no loss to discover means ofoccupying even his capital, and of fully employing even his active andvigorous intellect, Bar well knew: but he would venture to suggest thatthe question arose in his mind, whether one who had deservedly gained sohigh a position and so European a reputation did not owe it--we wouldnot say to himself, but we would say to Society, to possess himself ofsuch influences as these; and to exercise them--we would not say for hisown, or for his party's, but we would say for Society's--benefit.

Mr Merdle again expressed himself as wholly devoted to that object ofhis constant consideration, and Bar took his persuasive eye-glass up thegrand staircase. Bishop then came undesignedly sidling in the directionof the sideboard.

Surely the goods of this world, it occurred in an accidental way toBishop to remark, could scarcely be directed into happier channels thanwhen they accumulated under the magic touch of the wise and sagacious,who, while they knew the just value of riches (Bishop tried here tolook as if he were rather poor himself), were aware of their importance,judiciously governed and rightly distributed, to the welfare of ourbrethren at large.

Mr Merdle with humility expressed his conviction that Bishop couldn'tmean him, and with inconsistency expressed his high gratification inBishop's good opinion.

Bishop then--jauntily stepping out a little with his well-shaped rightleg, as though he said to Mr Merdle 'don't mind the apron; a mere form!'put this case to his good friend:

Whether it had occurred to his good friend, that Society might notunreasonably hope that one so blest in his undertakings, and whoseexample on his pedestal was so influential with it, would shed a littlemoney in the direction of a mission or so to Africa?

Mr Merdle signifying that the idea should have his best attention,Bishop put another case:

Whether his good friend had at all interested himself in the proceedingsof our Combined Additional Endowed Dignitaries Committee, and whether ithad occurred to him that to shed a little money in _that_ direction mightbe a great conception finely executed?

Mr Merdle made a similar reply, and Bishop explained his reason forinquiring.

Society looked to such men as his good friend to do such things. It wasnot that _he_ looked to them, but that Society looked to them.Just as it was not Our Committee who wanted the Additional EndowedDignitaries, but it was Society that was in a state of the mostagonising uneasiness of mind until it got them. He begged to assure hisgood friend that he was extremely sensible of his good friend's regardon all occasions for the best interests of Society; and he consideredthat he was at once consulting those interests and expressing thefeeling of Society, when he wished him continued prosperity, continuedincrease of riches, and continued things in general.

Bishop then betook himself up-stairs, and the other magnates graduallyfloated up after him until there was no one left below but Mr Merdle.That gentleman, after looking at the table-cloth until the soul of thechief butler glowed with a noble resentment, went slowly up after therest, and became of no account in the stream of people on the grandstaircase. Mrs Merdle was at home, the best of the jewels were hung outto be seen, Society got what it came for, Mr Merdle drank twopennyworthof tea in a corner and got more than he wanted.

Among the evening magnates was a famous physician, who knew everybody,and whom everybody knew. On entering at the door, he came upon Mr Merdledrinking his tea in a corner, and touched him on the arm.

Mr Merdle started. 'Oh! It's you!'

'Any better to-day?'

'No,' said Mr Merdle, 'I am no better.'

'A pity I didn't see you this morning. Pray come to me to-morrow, or letme come to you.'

'Well!' he replied. 'I will come to-morrow as I drive by.'

Bar and Bishop had both been bystanders during this short dialogue, andas Mr Merdle was swept away by the crowd, they made their remarks uponit to the Physician. Bar said, there was a certain point of mentalstrain beyond which no man could go; that the point varied with varioustextures of brain and peculiarities of constitution, as he had hadoccasion to notice in several of his learned brothers; but the point ofendurance passed by a line's breadth, depression and dyspepsia ensued.Not to intrude on the sacred mysteries of medicine, he took it, now(with the jury droop and persuasive eye-glass), that this was Merdle'scase? Bishop said that when he was a young man, and had fallen for abrief space into the habit of writing sermons on Saturdays, a habitwhich all young sons of the church should sedulously avoid, he hadfrequently been sensible of a depression, arising as he supposed from anover-taxed intellect, upon which the yolk of a new-laid egg, beaten upby the good woman in whose house he at that time lodged, with a glassof sound sherry, nutmeg, and powdered sugar acted like a charm. Withoutpresuming to offer so simple a remedy to the consideration of soprofound a professor of the great healing art, he would venture toinquire whether the strain, being by way of intricate calculations,the spirits might not (humanly speaking) be restored to their tone by agentle and yet generous stimulant?

'Yes,' said the physician, 'yes, you are both right. But I may as welltell you that I can find nothing the matter with Mr Merdle. He hasthe constitution of a rhinoceros, the digestion of an ostrich, andthe concentration of an oyster. As to nerves, Mr Merdle is of a cooltemperament, and not a sensitive man: is about as invulnerable, I shouldsay, as Achilles. How such a man should suppose himself unwell withoutreason, you may think strange. But I have found nothing the matter withhim. He may have some deep-seated recondite complaint. I can't say. Ionly say, that at present I have not found it out.'

There was no shadow of Mr Merdle's complaint on the bosom now displayingprecious stones in rivalry with many similar superb jewel-stands; therewas no shadow of Mr Merdle's complaint on young Sparkler hovering aboutthe rooms, monomaniacally seeking any sufficiently ineligible young ladywith no nonsense about her; there was no shadow of Mr Merdle's complainton the Barnacles and Stiltstalkings, of whom whole colonies werepresent; or on any of the company. Even on himself, its shadow was faintenough as he moved about among the throng, receiving homage.

Mr Merdle's complaint. Society and he had so much to do with one anotherin all things else, that it is hard to imagine his complaint, if hehad one, being solely his own affair. Had he that deep-seated reconditecomplaint, and did any doctor find it out? Patience, in the meantime,the shadow of the Marshalsea wall was a real darkening influence, andcould be seen on the Dorrit Family at any stage of the sun's course.