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Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/35

CHAPTER 34. A Shoal of Barnacles

Mr Henry Gowan and the dog were established frequenters of the cottage,and the day was fixed for the wedding. There was to be a convocation ofBarnacles on the occasion, in order that that very high and very largefamily might shed as much lustre on the marriage as so dim an event wascapable of receiving.

To have got the whole Barnacle family together would have beenimpossible for two reasons. Firstly, because no building could have heldall the members and connections of that illustrious house. Secondly,because wherever there was a square yard of ground in British occupationunder the sun or moon, with a public post upon it, sticking to that postwas a Barnacle. No intrepid navigator could plant a flag-staff upon anyspot of earth, and take possession of it in the British name, butto that spot of earth, so soon as the discovery was known, theCircumlocution Office sent out a Barnacle and a despatch-box. Thus theBarnacles were all over the world, in every direction--despatch-boxingthe compass.

But, while the so-potent art of Prospero himself would have failed insummoning the Barnacles from every speck of ocean and dry land onwhich there was nothing (except mischief) to be done and anything to bepocketed, it was perfectly feasible to assemble a good many Barnacles.This Mrs Gowan applied herself to do; calling on Mr Meagles frequentlywith new additions to the list, and holding conferences with thatgentleman when he was not engaged (as he generally was at this period)in examining and paying the debts of his future son-in-law, in theapartment of scales and scoop.

One marriage guest there was, in reference to whose presence Mr Meaglesfelt a nearer interest and concern than in the attendance of the mostelevated Barnacle expected; though he was far from insensible of thehonour of having such company. This guest was Clennam. But Clennam hadmade a promise he held sacred, among the trees that summer night, and,in the chivalry of his heart, regarded it as binding him to many impliedobligations. In forgetfulness of himself, and delicate service to her onall occasions, he was never to fail; to begin it, he answered Mr Meaglescheerfully, 'I shall come, of course.'

His partner, Daniel Doyce, was something of a stumbling-block in MrMeagles's way, the worthy gentleman being not at all clear in his ownanxious mind but that the mingling of Daniel with official Barnacleismmight produce some explosive combination, even at a marriage breakfast.The national offender, however, lightened him of his uneasiness bycoming down to Twickenham to represent that he begged, with the freedomof an old friend, and as a favour to one, that he might not be invited.'For,' said he, 'as my business with this set of gentlemen was to do apublic duty and a public service, and as their business with me was toprevent it by wearing my soul out, I think we had better not eat anddrink together with a show of being of one mind.' Mr Meagles was muchamused by his friend's oddity; and patronised him with a more protectingair of allowance than usual, when he rejoined: 'Well, well, Dan, youshall have your own crotchety way.'

To Mr Henry Gowan, as the time approached, Clennam tried to conveyby all quiet and unpretending means, that he was frankly anddisinterestedly desirous of tendering him any friendship he wouldaccept. Mr Gowan treated him in return with his usual ease, and with hisusual show of confidence, which was no confidence at all.

'You see, Clennam,' he happened to remark in the course of conversationone day, when they were walking near the Cottage within a week of themarriage, 'I am a disappointed man. That you know already.'

'Upon my word,' said Clennam, a little embarrassed, 'I scarcely knowhow.'

'Why,' returned Gowan, 'I belong to a clan, or a clique, or a family, ora connection, or whatever you like to call it, that might have providedfor me in any one of fifty ways, and that took it into its head not todo it at all. So here I am, a poor devil of an artist.'

Clennam was beginning, 'But on the other hand--' when Gowan took him up.

'Yes, yes, I know. I have the good fortune of being beloved by abeautiful and charming girl whom I love with all my heart.'

('Is there much of it?' Clennam thought. And as he thought it, feltashamed of himself.)

'And of finding a father-in-law who is a capital fellow and a liberalgood old boy. Still, I had other prospects washed and combed into mychildish head when it was washed and combed for me, and I took them toa public school when I washed and combed it for myself, and I am herewithout them, and thus I am a disappointed man.'

Clennam thought (and as he thought it, again felt ashamed of himself),was this notion of being disappointed in life, an assertion of stationwhich the bridegroom brought into the family as his property, havingalready carried it detrimentally into his pursuit? And was it a hopefulor a promising thing anywhere?

'Not bitterly disappointed, I think,' he said aloud.

'Hang it, no; not bitterly,' laughed Gowan. 'My people are not worththat--though they are charming fellows, and I have the greatestaffection for them. Besides, it's pleasant to show them that I can dowithout them, and that they may all go to the Devil. And besides, again,most men are disappointed in life, somehow or other, and influenced bytheir disappointment. But it's a dear good world, and I love it!'

'It lies fair before you now,' said Arthur.

'Fair as this summer river,' cried the other, with enthusiasm, 'and byJove I glow with admiration of it, and with ardour to run a race in it.It's the best of old worlds! And my calling! The best of old callings,isn't it?'

'Full of interest and ambition, I conceive,' said Clennam.

'And imposition,' added Gowan, laughing; 'we won't leave out theimposition. I hope I may not break down in that; but there, my beinga disappointed man may show itself. I may not be able to face it outgravely enough. Between you and me, I think there is some danger of mybeing just enough soured not to be able to do that.'

'To do what?' asked Clennam.

'To keep it up. To help myself in my turn, as the man before me helpshimself in his, and pass the bottle of smoke. To keep up the pretenceas to labour, and study, and patience, and being devoted to my art, andgiving up many solitary days to it, and abandoning many pleasures forit, and living in it, and all the rest of it--in short, to pass thebottle of smoke according to rule.'

'But it is well for a man to respect his own vocation, whatever it is;and to think himself bound to uphold it, and to claim for it the respectit deserves; is it not?' Arthur reasoned. 'And your vocation, Gowan,may really demand this suit and service. I confess I should have thoughtthat all Art did.'

'What a good fellow you are, Clennam!' exclaimed the other, stoppingto look at him, as if with irrepressible admiration. 'What a capitalfellow! _You_ have never been disappointed. That's easy to see.'

It would have been so cruel if he had meant it, that Clennam firmlyresolved to believe he did not mean it. Gowan, without pausing, laid hishand upon his shoulder, and laughingly and lightly went on:

'Clennam, I don't like to dispel your generous visions, and I would giveany money (if I had any), to live in such a rose-coloured mist. But whatI do in my trade, I do to sell. What all we fellows do, we do tosell. If we didn't want to sell it for the most we can get for it, weshouldn't do it. Being work, it has to be done; but it's easily enoughdone. All the rest is hocus-pocus. Now here's one of the advantages, ordisadvantages, of knowing a disappointed man. You hear the truth.'

Whatever he had heard, and whether it deserved that name or another, itsank into Clennam's mind. It so took root there, that he began to fearHenry Gowan would always be a trouble to him, and that so far he hadgained little or nothing from the dismissal of Nobody, with all hisinconsistencies, anxieties, and contradictions. He found a contest stillalways going on in his breast between his promise to keep Gowan innone but good aspects before the mind of Mr Meagles, and his enforcedobservation of Gowan in aspects that had no good in them. Nor could hequite support his own conscientious nature against misgivings that hedistorted and discoloured himself, by reminding himself that he neversought those discoveries, and that he would have avoided them withwillingness and great relief. For he never could forget what he hadbeen; and he knew that he had once disliked Gowan for no better reasonthan that he had come in his way.

Harassed by these thoughts, he now began to wish the marriage over,Gowan and his young wife gone, and himself left to fulfil his promise,and discharge the generous function he had accepted. This last week was,in truth, an uneasy interval for the whole house. Before Pet, or beforeGowan, Mr Meagles was radiant; but Clennam had more than once found himalone, with his view of the scales and scoop much blurred, and had oftenseen him look after the lovers, in the garden or elsewhere when he wasnot seen by them, with the old clouded face on which Gowan had fallenlike a shadow. In the arrangement of the house for the great occasion,many little reminders of the old travels of the father and motherand daughter had to be disturbed and passed from hand to hand; andsometimes, in the midst of these mute witnesses, to the life they hadhad together, even Pet herself would yield to lamenting and weeping.Mrs Meagles, the blithest and busiest of mothers, went about singingand cheering everybody; but she, honest soul, had her flights into storerooms, where she would cry until her eyes were red, and would thencome out, attributing that appearance to pickled onions and pepper, andsinging clearer than ever. Mrs Tickit, finding no balsam for a woundedmind in Buchan's Domestic Medicine, suffered greatly from low spirits,and from moving recollections of Minnie's infancy. When the latter waspowerful with her, she usually sent up secret messages importingthat she was not in parlour condition as to her attire, and that shesolicited a sight of 'her child' in the kitchen; there, she would blessher child's face, and bless her child's heart, and hug her child, in amedley of tears and congratulations, chopping-boards, rolling-pins, andpie-crust, with the tenderness of an old attached servant, which is avery pretty tenderness indeed.

But all days come that are to be; and the marriage-day was to be, and itcame; and with it came all the Barnacles who were bidden to the feast.

There was Mr Tite Barnacle, from the Circumlocution Office, and MewsStreet, Grosvenor Square, with the expensive Mrs Tite Barnacle _nee_Stiltstalking, who made the Quarter Days so long in coming, and thethree expensive Miss Tite Barnacles, double-loaded with accomplishmentsand ready to go off, and yet not going off with the sharpness of flashand bang that might have been expected, but rather hanging fire. Therewas Barnacle junior, also from the Circumlocution Office, leaving theTonnage of the country, which he was somehow supposed to take underhis protection, to look after itself, and, sooth to say, not at allimpairing the efficiency of its protection by leaving it alone. Therewas the engaging Young Barnacle, deriving from the sprightly side of thefamily, also from the Circumlocution Office, gaily and agreeably helpingthe occasion along, and treating it, in his sparkling way, as one of theofficial forms and fees of the Church Department of How not to do it.There were three other Young Barnacles from three other offices, insipidto all the senses, and terribly in want of seasoning, doing the marriageas they would have 'done' the Nile, Old Rome, the new singer, orJerusalem.

But there was greater game than this. There was Lord Decimus TiteBarnacle himself, in the odour of Circumlocution--with the very smell ofDespatch-Boxes upon him. Yes, there was Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle, whohad risen to official heights on the wings of one indignant idea, andthat was, My Lords, that I am yet to be told that it behoves a Ministerof this free country to set bounds to the philanthropy, to cramp thecharity, to fetter the public spirit, to contract the enterprise, todamp the independent self-reliance, of its people. That was, in otherwords, that this great statesman was always yet to be told that itbehoved the Pilot of the ship to do anything but prosper in the privateloaf and fish trade ashore, the crew being able, by dint of hardpumping, to keep the ship above water without him. On this sublimediscovery in the great art How not to do it, Lord Decimus had longsustained the highest glory of the Barnacle family; and let anyill-advised member of either House but try How to do it by bringing ina Bill to do it, that Bill was as good as dead and buried when LordDecimus Tite Barnacle rose up in his place and solemnly said, soaringinto indignant majesty as the Circumlocution cheering soared aroundhim, that he was yet to be told, My Lords, that it behoved him as theMinister of this free country, to set bounds to the philanthropy,to cramp the charity, to fetter the public spirit, to contract theenterprise, to damp the independent self-reliance, of its people. Thediscovery of this Behoving Machine was the discovery of the politicalperpetual motion. It never wore out, though it was always going roundand round in all the State Departments.

And there, with his noble friend and relative Lord Decimus, wasWilliam Barnacle, who had made the ever-famous coalition with TudorStiltstalking, and who always kept ready his own particular recipe forHow not to do it; sometimes tapping the Speaker, and drawing it freshout of him, with a 'First, I will beg you, sir, to inform the House whatPrecedent we have for the course into which the honourable gentlemanwould precipitate us;' sometimes asking the honourable gentleman tofavour him with his own version of the Precedent; sometimes tellingthe honourable gentleman that he (William Barnacle) would search for aPrecedent; and oftentimes crushing the honourable gentleman flat onthe spot by telling him there was no Precedent. But Precedent andPrecipitate were, under all circumstances, the well-matched pair ofbattle-horses of this able Circumlocutionist. No matter that the unhappyhonourable gentleman had been trying in vain, for twenty-five years, toprecipitate William Barnacle into this--William Barnacle still put it tothe House, and (at second-hand or so) to the country, whether he was tobe precipitated into this. No matter that it was utterly irreconcilablewith the nature of things and course of events that the wretchedhonourable gentleman could possibly produce a Precedent forthis--William Barnacle would nevertheless thank the honourable gentlemanfor that ironical cheer, and would close with him upon that issue, andwould tell him to his teeth that there Was NO Precedent for this. Itmight perhaps have been objected that the William Barnacle wisdom wasnot high wisdom or the earth it bamboozled would never have been made,or, if made in a rash mistake, would have remained blank mud. ButPrecedent and Precipitate together frightened all objection out of mostpeople.

And there, too, was another Barnacle, a lively one, who had leapedthrough twenty places in quick succession, and was always in two orthree at once, and who was the much-respected inventor of an artwhich he practised with great success and admiration in all BarnacleGovernments. This was, when he was asked a Parliamentary question onany one topic, to return an answer on any other. It had done immenseservice, and brought him into high esteem with the CircumlocutionOffice.

And there, too, was a sprinkling of less distinguished ParliamentaryBarnacles, who had not as yet got anything snug, and were going throughtheir probation to prove their worthiness. These Barnacles perched uponstaircases and hid in passages, waiting their orders to make housesor not to make houses; and they did all their hearing, and ohing, andcheering, and barking, under directions from the heads of the family;and they put dummy motions on the paper in the way of other men'smotions; and they stalled disagreeable subjects off until late in thenight and late in the session, and then with virtuous patriotism criedout that it was too late; and they went down into the country, wheneverthey were sent, and swore that Lord Decimus had revived trade from aswoon, and commerce from a fit, and had doubled the harvest of corn,quadrupled the harvest of hay, and prevented no end of gold from flyingout of the Bank. Also these Barnacles were dealt, by the heads of thefamily, like so many cards below the court-cards, to public meetings anddinners; where they bore testimony to all sorts of services on the partof their noble and honourable relatives, and buttered the Barnacles onall sorts of toasts. And they stood, under similar orders, at all sortsof elections; and they turned out of their own seats, on the shortestnotice and the most unreasonable terms, to let in other men; and theyfetched and carried, and toadied and jobbed, and corrupted, and ateheaps of dirt, and were indefatigable in the public service. And therewas not a list, in all the Circumlocution Office, of places that mightfall vacant anywhere within half a century, from a lord of the Treasuryto a Chinese consul, and up again to a governor-general of India, but asapplicants for such places, the names of some or of every one of thesehungry and adhesive Barnacles were down.

It was necessarily but a sprinkling of any class of Barnacles thatattended the marriage, for there were not two score in all, and whatis that subtracted from Legion! But the sprinkling was a swarm in theTwickenham cottage, and filled it. A Barnacle (assisted by a Barnacle)married the happy pair, and it behoved Lord Decimus Tite Barnaclehimself to conduct Mrs Meagles to breakfast.

The entertainment was not as agreeable and natural as it might havebeen. Mr Meagles, hove down by his good company while he highlyappreciated it, was not himself. Mrs Gowan was herself, and that did notimprove him. The fiction that it was not Mr Meagles who had stood in theway, but that it was the Family greatness, and that the Family greatnesshad made a concession, and there was now a soothing unanimity, pervadedthe affair, though it was never openly expressed. Then the Barnaclesfelt that they for their parts would have done with the Meagleses whenthe present patronising occasion was over; and the Meagleses felt thesame for their parts. Then Gowan asserting his rights as a disappointedman who had his grudge against the family, and who, perhaps, had allowedhis mother to have them there, as much in the hope it might give themsome annoyance as with any other benevolent object, aired his pencil andhis poverty ostentatiously before them, and told them he hoped in timeto settle a crust of bread and cheese on his wife, and that he beggedsuch of them as (more fortunate than himself) came in for any goodthing, and could buy a picture, to please to remember the poor painter.Then Lord Decimus, who was a wonder on his own Parliamentary pedestal,turned out to be the windiest creature here: proposing happiness to thebride and bridegroom in a series of platitudes that would have made thehair of any sincere disciple and believer stand on end; and trotting,with the complacency of an idiotic elephant, among howling labyrinths ofsentences which he seemed to take for high roads, and never so muchas wanted to get out of. Then Mr Tite Barnacle could not but feel thatthere was a person in company, who would have disturbed his life-longsitting to Sir Thomas Lawrence in full official character, if suchdisturbance had been possible: while Barnacle junior did, withindignation, communicate to two vapid gentlemen, his relatives, thatthere was a feller here, look here, who had come to our Departmentwithout an appointment and said he wanted to know, you know; and that,look here, if he was to break out now, as he might you know (for younever could tell what an ungentlemanly Radical of that sort would be upto next), and was to say, look here, that he wanted to know this moment,you know, that would be jolly; wouldn't it?

The pleasantest part of the occasion by far, to Clennam, was thepainfullest. When Mr and Mrs Meagles at last hung about Pet in the roomwith the two pictures (where the company were not), before going withher to the threshold which she could never recross to be the old Pet andthe old delight, nothing could be more natural and simple than the threewere. Gowan himself was touched, and answered Mr Meagles's 'O Gowan,take care of her, take care of her!' with an earnest 'Don't be sobroken-hearted, sir. By Heaven I will!'

And so, with the last sobs and last loving words, and a last look toClennam of confidence in his promise, Pet fell back in the carriage,and her husband waved his hand, and they were away for Dover; though notuntil the faithful Mrs Tickit, in her silk gown and jet black curls, hadrushed out from some hiding-place, and thrown both her shoes afterthe carriage: an apparition which occasioned great surprise to thedistinguished company at the windows.

The said company being now relieved from further attendance, and thechief Barnacles being rather hurried (for they had it in hand justthen to send a mail or two which was in danger of going straight to itsdestination, beating about the seas like the Flying Dutchman, and toarrange with complexity for the stoppage of a good deal of importantbusiness otherwise in peril of being done), went their several ways;with all affability conveying to Mr and Mrs Meagles that generalassurance that what they had been doing there, they had been doing at asacrifice for Mr and Mrs Meagles's good, which they always conveyed toMr John Bull in their official condescension to that most unfortunatecreature.

A miserable blank remained in the house and in the hearts of the fatherand mother and Clennam. Mr Meagles called only one remembrance to hisaid, that really did him good.

'It's very gratifying, Arthur,' he said, 'after all, to look back upon.'

'The past?' said Clennam.

'Yes--but I mean the company.'

It had made him much more low and unhappy at the time, but now it reallydid him good. 'It's very gratifying,' he said, often repeating theremark in the course of the evening. 'Such high company!'