Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/34

CHAPTER 33. Mrs Merdle's Complaint

Resigning herself to inevitable fate by making the best of those people,the Miggleses, and submitting her philosophy to the draught upon it, ofwhich she had foreseen the likelihood in her interview with Arthur,Mrs Gowan handsomely resolved not to oppose her son's marriage. In herprogress to, and happy arrival at, this resolution, she was possiblyinfluenced, not only by her maternal affections but by three politicconsiderations.

Of these, the first may have been that her son had never signified thesmallest intention to ask her consent, or any mistrust of his abilityto dispense with it; the second, that the pension bestowed upon her by agrateful country (and a Barnacle) would be freed from any little filialinroads, when her Henry should be married to the darling only child ofa man in very easy circumstances; the third, that Henry's debts mustclearly be paid down upon the altar-railing by his father-in-law. When,to these three-fold points of prudence there is added the fact thatMrs Gowan yielded her consent the moment she knew of Mr Meagles havingyielded his, and that Mr Meagles's objection to the marriage hadbeen the sole obstacle in its way all along, it becomes the height ofprobability that the relict of the deceased Commissioner of nothingparticular, turned these ideas in her sagacious mind.

Among her connections and acquaintances, however, she maintained herindividual dignity and the dignity of the blood of the Barnacles, bydiligently nursing the pretence that it was a most unfortunate business;that she was sadly cut up by it; that this was a perfect fascinationunder which Henry laboured; that she had opposed it for a long time,but what could a mother do; and the like. She had already called ArthurClennam to bear witness to this fable, as a friend of the Meaglesfamily; and she followed up the move by now impounding the family itselffor the same purpose. In the first interview she accorded to Mr Meagles,she slided herself into the position of disconsolately but gracefullyyielding to irresistible pressure. With the utmost politeness andgood-breeding, she feigned that it was she--not he--who had made thedifficulty, and who at length gave way; and that the sacrifice washers--not his. The same feint, with the same polite dexterity, shefoisted on Mrs Meagles, as a conjuror might have forced a card on thatinnocent lady; and, when her future daughter-in-law was presented to herby her son, she said on embracing her, 'My dear, what have you done toHenry that has bewitched him so!' at the same time allowing a few tearsto carry before them, in little pills, the cosmetic powder on her nose;as a delicate but touching signal that she suffered much inwardly forthe show of composure with which she bore her misfortune.

Among the friends of Mrs Gowan (who piqued herself at once on beingSociety, and on maintaining intimate and easy relations with thatPower), Mrs Merdle occupied a front row. True, the Hampton CourtBohemians, without exception, turned up their noses at Merdle as anupstart; but they turned them down again, by falling flat on their facesto worship his wealth. In which compensating adjustment of their noses,they were pretty much like Treasury, Bar, and Bishop, and all the restof them.

To Mrs Merdle, Mrs Gowan repaired on a visit of self-condolence, afterhaving given the gracious consent aforesaid. She drove into town for thepurpose in a one-horse carriage irreverently called at that period ofEnglish history, a pill-box. It belonged to a job-master in a small way,who drove it himself, and who jobbed it by the day, or hour, to most ofthe old ladies in Hampton Court Palace; but it was a point of ceremony,in that encampment, that the whole equipage should be tacitly regardedas the private property of the jobber for the time being, and that thejob-master should betray personal knowledge of nobody but the jobberin possession. So the Circumlocution Barnacles, who were the largestjob-masters in the universe, always pretended to know of no other jobbut the job immediately in hand.

Mrs Merdle was at home, and was in her nest of crimson and gold, withthe parrot on a neighbouring stem watching her with his head on oneside, as if he took her for another splendid parrot of a larger species.To whom entered Mrs Gowan, with her favourite green fan, which softenedthe light on the spots of bloom.

'My dear soul,' said Mrs Gowan, tapping the back of her friend's handwith this fan after a little indifferent conversation, 'you are my onlycomfort. That affair of Henry's that I told you of, is to take place.Now, how does it strike you? I am dying to know, because you representand express Society so well.'

Mrs Merdle reviewed the bosom which Society was accustomed to review;and having ascertained that show-window of Mr Merdle's and the Londonjewellers' to be in good order, replied:

'As to marriage on the part of a man, my dear, Society requires thathe should retrieve his fortunes by marriage. Society requires thathe should gain by marriage. Society requires that he should found ahandsome establishment by marriage. Society does not see, otherwise,what he has to do with marriage. Bird, be quiet!'

For the parrot on his cage above them, presiding over the conference asif he were a judge (and indeed he looked rather like one), had wound upthe exposition with a shriek.

'Cases there are,' said Mrs Merdle, delicately crooking the littlefinger of her favourite hand, and making her remarks neater by that neataction; 'cases there are where a man is not young or elegant, and isrich, and has a handsome establishment already. Those are of a differentkind. In such cases--'

Mrs Merdle shrugged her snowy shoulders and put her hand upon thejewel-stand, checking a little cough, as though to add, 'why, a manlooks out for this sort of thing, my dear.' Then the parrot shriekedagain, and she put up her glass to look at him, and said, 'Bird! Do bequiet!'

'But, young men,' resumed Mrs Merdle, 'and by young men you knowwhat I mean, my love--I mean people's sons who have the world beforethem--they must place themselves in a better position towards Society bymarriage, or Society really will not have any patience with their makingfools of themselves. Dreadfully worldly all this sounds,' said MrsMerdle, leaning back in her nest and putting up her glass again, 'doesit not?'

'But it is true,' said Mrs Gowan, with a highly moral air.

'My dear, it is not to be disputed for a moment,' returned Mrs Merdle;'because Society has made up its mind on the subject, and there isnothing more to be said. If we were in a more primitive state, if welived under roofs of leaves, and kept cows and sheep and creaturesinstead of banker's accounts (which would be delicious; my dear, I ampastoral to a degree, by nature), well and good. But we don't liveunder leaves, and keep cows and sheep and creatures. I perfectly exhaustmyself sometimes, in pointing out the distinction to Edmund Sparkler.'

Mrs Gowan, looking over her green fan when this young gentleman's namewas mentioned, replied as follows:

'My love, you know the wretched state of the country--those unfortunateconcessions of John Barnacle's!--and you therefore know the reasons formy being as poor as Thingummy.'

'A church mouse?' Mrs Merdle suggested with a smile.

'I was thinking of the other proverbial church person--Job,' said MrsGowan. 'Either will do. It would be idle to disguise, consequently, thatthere is a wide difference between the position of your son and mine. Imay add, too, that Henry has talent--'

'Which Edmund certainly has not,' said Mrs Merdle, with the greatestsuavity.

'--and that his talent, combined with disappointment,' Mrs Gowan wenton, 'has led him into a pursuit which--ah dear me! You know, my dear.Such being Henry's different position, the question is what is the mostinferior class of marriage to which I can reconcile myself.'

Mrs Merdle was so much engaged with the contemplation of her arms(beautiful-formed arms, and the very thing for bracelets), that sheomitted to reply for a while. Roused at length by the silence, shefolded the arms, and with admirable presence of mind looked her friendfull in the face, and said interrogatively, 'Ye-es? And then?'

'And then, my dear,' said Mrs Gowan not quite so sweetly as before, 'Ishould be glad to hear what you have to say to it.'

Here the parrot, who had been standing on one leg since he screamedlast, burst into a fit of laughter, bobbed himself derisively up anddown on both legs, and finished by standing on one leg again, andpausing for a reply, with his head as much awry as he could possiblytwist it.

'Sounds mercenary to ask what the gentleman is to get with the lady,'said Mrs Merdle; 'but Society is perhaps a little mercenary, you know,my dear.'

'From what I can make out,' said Mrs Gowan, 'I believe I may say thatHenry will be relieved from debt--'

'Much in debt?' asked Mrs Merdle through her eyeglass.

'Why tolerably, I should think,' said Mrs Gowan.

'Meaning the usual thing; I understand; just so,' Mrs Merdle observed ina comfortable sort of way.

'And that the father will make them an allowance of three hundreda-year, or perhaps altogether something more, which, in Italy-'

'Oh! Going to Italy?' said Mrs Merdle.

'For Henry to study. You need be at no loss to guess why, my dear.That dreadful Art--'

True. Mrs Merdle hastened to spare the feelings of her afflicted friend.She understood. Say no more!

'And that,' said Mrs Gowan, shaking her despondent head, 'that's all.That,' repeated Mrs Gowan, furling her green fan for the moment, andtapping her chin with it (it was on the way to being a double chin;might be called a chin and a half at present), 'that's all! On the deathof the old people, I suppose there will be more to come; but how it maybe restricted or locked up, I don't know. And as to that, they may livefor ever. My dear, they are just the kind of people to do it.'

Now, Mrs Merdle, who really knew her friend Society pretty well, and whoknew what Society's mothers were, and what Society's daughters were, andwhat Society's matrimonial market was, and how prices ruled in it, andwhat scheming and counter-scheming took place for the high buyers, andwhat bargaining and huckstering went on, thought in the depths ofher capacious bosom that this was a sufficiently good catch. Knowing,however, what was expected of her, and perceiving the exact nature ofthe fiction to be nursed, she took it delicately in her arms, and puther required contribution of gloss upon it.

'And that is all, my dear?' said she, heaving a friendly sigh. 'Well,well! The fault is not yours. You have nothing to reproach yourselfwith. You must exercise the strength of mind for which you are renowned,and make the best of it.'

'The girl's family have made,' said Mrs Gowan, 'of course, the moststrenuous endeavours to--as the lawyers say--to have and to hold Henry.'

'Of course they have, my dear,' said Mrs Merdle.

'I have persisted in every possible objection, and have worriedmyself morning, noon, and night, for means to detach Henry from theconnection.'

'No doubt you have, my dear,' said Mrs Merdle.

'And all of no use. All has broken down beneath me. Now tell me, mylove. Am I justified in at last yielding my most reluctant consent toHenry's marrying among people not in Society; or, have I acted withinexcusable weakness?'

In answer to this direct appeal, Mrs Merdle assured Mrs Gowan (speakingas a Priestess of Society) that she was highly to be commended, thatshe was much to be sympathised with, that she had taken the highest ofparts, and had come out of the furnace refined. And Mrs Gowan, who ofcourse saw through her own threadbare blind perfectly, and who knew thatMrs Merdle saw through it perfectly, and who knew that Society would seethrough it perfectly, came out of this form, notwithstanding, as she hadgone into it, with immense complacency and gravity.

The conference was held at four or five o'clock in the afternoon, whenall the region of Harley Street, Cavendish Square, was resonant ofcarriage-wheels and double-knocks. It had reached this point when MrMerdle came home from his daily occupation of causing the Britishname to be more and more respected in all parts of the civilised globecapable of the appreciation of world-wide commercial enterprise andgigantic combinations of skill and capital. For, though nobody knew withthe least precision what Mr Merdle's business was, except that it wasto coin money, these were the terms in which everybody defined it on allceremonious occasions, and which it was the last new polite reading ofthe parable of the camel and the needle's eye to accept without inquiry.

For a gentleman who had this splendid work cut out for him, Mr Merdlelooked a little common, and rather as if, in the course of his vasttransactions, he had accidentally made an interchange of heads withsome inferior spirit. He presented himself before the two ladies in thecourse of a dismal stroll through his mansion, which had no apparentobject but escape from the presence of the chief butler.

'I beg your pardon,' he said, stopping short in confusion; 'I didn'tknow there was anybody here but the parrot.'

However, as Mrs Merdle said, 'You can come in!' and as Mrs Gowan saidshe was just going, and had already risen to take her leave, he came in,and stood looking out at a distant window, with his hands crossed underhis uneasy coat-cuffs, clasping his wrists as if he were taking himselfinto custody. In this attitude he fell directly into a reverie fromwhich he was only aroused by his wife's calling to him from her ottoman,when they had been for some quarter of an hour alone.

'Eh? Yes?' said Mr Merdle, turning towards her. 'What is it?'

'What is it?' repeated Mrs Merdle. 'It is, I suppose, that you have notheard a word of my complaint.'

'Your complaint, Mrs Merdle?' said Mr Merdle. 'I didn't know that youwere suffering from a complaint. What complaint?'

'A complaint of you,' said Mrs Merdle.

'Oh! A complaint of me,' said Mr Merdle. 'What is the--what have I--whatmay you have to complain of in me, Mrs Merdle?'

In his withdrawing, abstracted, pondering way, it took him some time toshape this question. As a kind of faint attempt to convince himselfthat he was the master of the house, he concluded by presenting hisforefinger to the parrot, who expressed his opinion on that subject byinstantly driving his bill into it.

'You were saying, Mrs Merdle,' said Mr Merdle, with his wounded fingerin his mouth, 'that you had a complaint against me?'

'A complaint which I could scarcely show the justice of moreemphatically, than by having to repeat it,' said Mrs Merdle. 'I might aswell have stated it to the wall. I had far better have stated it to thebird. He would at least have screamed.'

'You don't want me to scream, Mrs Merdle, I suppose,' said Mr Merdle,taking a chair.

'Indeed I don't know,' retorted Mrs Merdle, 'but that you had better dothat, than be so moody and distraught. One would at least know that youwere sensible of what was going on around you.'

'A man might scream, and yet not be that, Mrs Merdle,' said Mr Merdle,heavily.

'And might be dogged, as you are at present, without screaming,'returned Mrs Merdle. 'That's very true. If you wish to know thecomplaint I make against you, it is, in so many plain words, that youreally ought not to go into Society unless you can accommodate yourselfto Society.'

Mr Merdle, so twisting his hands into what hair he had upon his headthat he seemed to lift himself up by it as he started out of his chair,cried:

'Why, in the name of all the infernal powers, Mrs Merdle, whodoes more for Society than I do? Do you see these premises, Mrs Merdle?Do you see this furniture, Mrs Merdle? Do you look in the glass and seeyourself, Mrs Merdle? Do you know the cost of all this, and who it'sall provided for? And yet will you tell me that I oughtn't to go intoSociety? I, who shower money upon it in this way? I, who might always besaid--to--to--to harness myself to a watering-cart full of money, and goabout saturating Society every day of my life.'

'Pray, don't be violent, Mr Merdle,' said Mrs Merdle.

'Violent?' said Mr Merdle. 'You are enough to make me desperate. Youdon't know half of what I do to accommodate Society. You don't knowanything of the sacrifices I make for it.'

'I know,' returned Mrs Merdle, 'that you receive the best in the land. Iknow that you move in the whole Society of the country. And I believeI know (indeed, not to make any ridiculous pretence about it, I know Iknow) who sustains you in it, Mr Merdle.'

'Mrs Merdle,' retorted that gentleman, wiping his dull red and yellowface, 'I know that as well as you do. If you were not an ornament toSociety, and if I was not a benefactor to Society, you and I would neverhave come together. When I say a benefactor to it, I mean a person whoprovides it with all sorts of expensive things to eat and drink and lookat. But, to tell me that I am not fit for it after all I have donefor it--after all I have done for it,' repeated Mr Merdle, with a wildemphasis that made his wife lift up her eyelids, 'after all--all!--totell me I have no right to mix with it after all, is a pretty reward.'

'I say,' answered Mrs Merdle composedly, 'that you ought to makeyourself fit for it by being more degage, and less preoccupied. There isa positive vulgarity in carrying your business affairs about with you asyou do.'

'How do I carry them about, Mrs Merdle?' asked Mr Merdle.

'How do you carry them about?' said Mrs Merdle. 'Look at yourself in theglass.'

Mr Merdle involuntarily turned his eyes in the direction of the nearestmirror, and asked, with a slow determination of his turbid blood to histemples, whether a man was to be called to account for his digestion?

'You have a physician,' said Mrs Merdle.

'He does me no good,' said Mr Merdle.

Mrs Merdle changed her ground.

'Besides,' said she, 'your digestion is nonsense. I don't speak of yourdigestion. I speak of your manner.'

'Mrs Merdle,' returned her husband, 'I look to you for that. You supplymanner, and I supply money.'

'I don't expect you,' said Mrs Merdle, reposing easily among hercushions, 'to captivate people. I don't want you to take any troubleupon yourself, or to try to be fascinating. I simply request you to careabout nothing--or seem to care about nothing--as everybody else does.'

'Do I ever say I care about anything?' asked Mr Merdle.

'Say? No! Nobody would attend to you if you did. But you show it.'

'Show what? What do I show?' demanded Mr Merdle hurriedly.

'I have already told you. You show that you carry your business caresan projects about, instead of leaving them in the City, or wherever elsethey belong to,' said Mrs Merdle. 'Or seeming to. Seeming would be quiteenough: I ask no more. Whereas you couldn't be more occupied with yourday's calculations and combinations than you habitually show yourself tobe, if you were a carpenter.'

'A carpenter!' repeated Mr Merdle, checking something like a groan.'I shouldn't so much mind being a carpenter, Mrs Merdle.'

'And my complaint is,' pursued the lady, disregarding the low remark,'that it is not the tone of Society, and that you ought to correctit, Mr Merdle. If you have any doubt of my judgment, ask even EdmundSparkler.' The door of the room had opened, and Mrs Merdle now surveyedthe head of her son through her glass. 'Edmund; we want you here.'

Mr Sparkler, who had merely put in his head and looked round the roomwithout entering (as if he were searching the house for that young ladywith no nonsense about her), upon this followed up his head with hisbody, and stood before them. To whom, in a few easy words adapted to hiscapacity, Mrs Merdle stated the question at issue.

The young gentleman, after anxiously feeling his shirt-collar as if itwere his pulse and he were hypochondriacal, observed, 'That he had heardit noticed by fellers.'

'Edmund Sparkler has heard it noticed,' said Mrs Merdle, with languidtriumph. 'Why, no doubt everybody has heard it noticed!' Which in truthwas no unreasonable inference; seeing that Mr Sparkler would probably bethe last person, in any assemblage of the human species, to receive animpression from anything that passed in his presence.

'And Edmund Sparkler will tell you, I dare say,' said Mrs Merdle, wavingher favourite hand towards her husband, 'how he has heard it noticed.'

'I couldn't,' said Mr Sparkler, after feeling his pulse as before,'couldn't undertake to say what led to it--'cause memory desperateloose. But being in company with the brother of a doosed fine gal--welleducated too--with no biggodd nonsense about her--at the period alludedto--'

'There! Never mind the sister,' remarked Mrs Merdle, a littleimpatiently. 'What did the brother say?'

'Didn't say a word, ma'am,' answered Mr Sparkler. 'As silent a feller asmyself. Equally hard up for a remark.'

'Somebody said something,' returned Mrs Merdle. 'Never mind who it was.'

('Assure you I don't in the least,' said Mr Sparkler.)

'But tell us what it was.'

Mr Sparkler referred to his pulse again, and put himself through somesevere mental discipline before he replied:

'Fellers referring to my Governor--expression not my own--occasionallycompliment my Governor in a very handsome way on being immensely richand knowing--perfect phenomenon of Buyer and Banker and that--but saythe Shop sits heavily on him. Say he carried the Shop about, on his backrather--like Jew clothesmen with too much business.'

'Which,' said Mrs Merdle, rising, with her floating drapery about her,'is exactly my complaint. Edmund, give me your arm up-stairs.'

Mr Merdle, left alone to meditate on a better conformation of himself toSociety, looked out of nine windows in succession, and appeared tosee nine wastes of space. When he had thus entertained himself he wentdown-stairs, and looked intently at all the carpets on the ground-floor;and then came up-stairs again, and looked intently at all the carpetson the first-floor; as if they were gloomy depths, in unison with hisoppressed soul. Through all the rooms he wandered, as he always did,like the last person on earth who had any business to approach them. LetMrs Merdle announce, with all her might, that she was at Home everso many nights in a season, she could not announce more widely andunmistakably than Mr Merdle did that he was never at home.

At last he met the chief butler, the sight of which splendid retaineralways finished him. Extinguished by this great creature, he sneakedto his dressing-room, and there remained shut up until he rode out todinner, with Mrs Merdle, in her own handsome chariot. At dinner, he wasenvied and flattered as a being of might, was Treasuried, Barred, andBishoped, as much as he would; and an hour after midnight came homealone, and being instantly put out again in his own hall, like arushlight, by the chief butler, went sighing to bed.