Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/40

CHAPTER 2. Mrs General

It is indispensable to present the accomplished lady who was ofsufficient importance in the suite of the Dorrit Family to have a lineto herself in the Travellers' Book.

Mrs General was the daughter of a clerical dignitary in a cathedraltown, where she had led the fashion until she was as near forty-five asa single lady can be. A stiff commissariat officer of sixty, famous as amartinet, had then become enamoured of the gravity with which she drovethe proprieties four-in-hand through the cathedral town society, andhad solicited to be taken beside her on the box of the cool coach ofceremony to which that team was harnessed. His proposal of marriagebeing accepted by the lady, the commissary took his seat behindthe proprieties with great decorum, and Mrs General drove until thecommissary died. In the course of their united journey, they ran overseveral people who came in the way of the proprieties; but always in ahigh style and with composure.

The commissary having been buried with all the decorations suitable tothe service (the whole team of proprieties were harnessed to his hearse,and they all had feathers and black velvet housings with his coat ofarms in the corner), Mrs General began to inquire what quantity of dustand ashes was deposited at the bankers'. It then transpired that thecommissary had so far stolen a march on Mrs General as to have boughthimself an annuity some years before his marriage, and to have reservedthat circumstance in mentioning, at the period of his proposal, thathis income was derived from the interest of his money. Mrs Generalconsequently found her means so much diminished, that, but for theperfect regulation of her mind, she might have felt disposed to questionthe accuracy of that portion of the late service which had declared thatthe commissary could take nothing away with him.

In this state of affairs it occurred to Mrs General, that she might'form the mind,' and eke the manners of some young lady of distinction.Or, that she might harness the proprieties to the carriage of some richyoung heiress or widow, and become at once the driver and guard of suchvehicle through the social mazes. Mrs General's communication of thisidea to her clerical and commissariat connection was so warmly applaudedthat, but for the lady's undoubted merit, it might have appeared asthough they wanted to get rid of her. Testimonials representing MrsGeneral as a prodigy of piety, learning, virtue, and gentility, werelavishly contributed from influential quarters; and one venerablearchdeacon even shed tears in recording his testimony to her perfections(described to him by persons on whom he could rely), though he had neverhad the honour and moral gratification of setting eyes on Mrs General inall his life.

Thus delegated on her mission, as it were by Church and State, MrsGeneral, who had always occupied high ground, felt in a condition tokeep it, and began by putting herself up at a very high figure. Aninterval of some duration elapsed, in which there was no bid for MrsGeneral. At length a county-widower, with a daughter of fourteen, openednegotiations with the lady; and as it was a part either of the nativedignity or of the artificial policy of Mrs General (but certainly oneor the other) to comport herself as if she were much more sought thanseeking, the widower pursued Mrs General until he prevailed upon her toform his daughter's mind and manners.

The execution of this trust occupied Mrs General about seven years, inthe course of which time she made the tour of Europe, and saw most ofthat extensive miscellany of objects which it is essential that allpersons of polite cultivation should see with other people's eyes,and never with their own. When her charge was at length formed, themarriage, not only of the young lady, but likewise of her father, thewidower, was resolved on. The widower then finding Mrs General bothinconvenient and expensive, became of a sudden almost as much affectedby her merits as the archdeacon had been, and circulated such praisesof her surpassing worth, in all quarters where he thought an opportunitymight arise of transferring the blessing to somebody else, that MrsGeneral was a name more honourable than ever.

The phoenix was to let, on this elevated perch, when Mr Dorrit, whohad lately succeeded to his property, mentioned to his bankers that hewished to discover a lady, well-bred, accomplished, well connected, wellaccustomed to good society, who was qualified at once to complete theeducation of his daughters, and to be their matron or chaperon. MrDorrit's bankers, as bankers of the county-widower, instantly said, 'MrsGeneral.'

Pursuing the light so fortunately hit upon, and finding the concurrenttestimony of the whole of Mrs General's acquaintance to be of thepathetic nature already recorded, Mr Dorrit took the trouble of goingdown to the county of the county-widower to see Mrs General, in whom hefound a lady of a quality superior to his highest expectations.

'Might I be excused,' said Mr Dorrit, 'if I inquired--ha--what remune--'

'Why, indeed,' returned Mrs General, stopping the word, 'it is a subjecton which I prefer to avoid entering. I have never entered on it with myfriends here; and I cannot overcome the delicacy, Mr Dorrit, withwhich I have always regarded it. I am not, as I hope you are aware, agoverness--'

'O dear no!' said Mr Dorrit. 'Pray, madam, do not imagine for a momentthat I think so.' He really blushed to be suspected of it.

Mrs General gravely inclined her head. 'I cannot, therefore, put a priceupon services which it is a pleasure to me to render if I can renderthem spontaneously, but which I could not render in mere return for anyconsideration. Neither do I know how, or where, to find a case parallelto my own. It is peculiar.'

No doubt. But how then (Mr Dorrit not unnaturally hinted) could thesubject be approached?

'I cannot object,' said Mrs General--'though even that is disagreeableto me--to Mr Dorrit's inquiring, in confidence of my friends here, whatamount they have been accustomed, at quarterly intervals, to pay to mycredit at my bankers'.'

Mr Dorrit bowed his acknowledgements.

'Permit me to add,' said Mrs General, 'that beyond this, I can neverresume the topic. Also that I can accept no second or inferior position.If the honour were proposed to me of becoming known to Mr Dorrit'sfamily--I think two daughters were mentioned?--'

'Two daughters.'

'I could only accept it on terms of perfect equality, as a companion,protector, Mentor, and friend.'

Mr Dorrit, in spite of his sense of his importance, felt as if it wouldbe quite a kindness in her to accept it on any conditions. He almostsaid as much.

'I think,' repeated Mrs General, 'two daughters were mentioned?'

'Two daughters,' said Mr Dorrit again.

'It would therefore,' said Mrs General, 'be necessary to add a thirdmore to the payment (whatever its amount may prove to be), which myfriends here have been accustomed to make to my bankers'.'

Mr Dorrit lost no time in referring the delicate question to thecounty-widower, and finding that he had been accustomed to pay threehundred pounds a-year to the credit of Mrs General, arrived, without anysevere strain on his arithmetic, at the conclusion that he himself mustpay four. Mrs General being an article of that lustrous surface whichsuggests that it is worth any money, he made a formal proposal to beallowed to have the honour and pleasure of regarding her as a member ofhis family. Mrs General conceded that high privilege, and here she was.

In person, Mrs General, including her skirts which had much to do withit, was of a dignified and imposing appearance; ample, rustling, gravelyvoluminous; always upright behind the proprieties. She might havebeen taken--had been taken--to the top of the Alps and the bottom ofHerculaneum, without disarranging a fold in her dress, or displacinga pin. If her countenance and hair had rather a floury appearance, asthough from living in some transcendently genteel Mill, it was ratherbecause she was a chalky creation altogether, than because she mendedher complexion with violet powder, or had turned grey. If her eyes hadno expression, it was probably because they had nothing to express. Ifshe had few wrinkles, it was because her mind had never traced its nameor any other inscription on her face. A cool, waxy, blown-out woman, whohad never lighted well.

Mrs General had no opinions. Her way of forming a mind was to prevent itfrom forming opinions. She had a little circular set of mental groovesor rails on which she started little trains of other people's opinions,which never overtook one another, and never got anywhere. Even herpropriety could not dispute that there was impropriety in the world; butMrs General's way of getting rid of it was to put it out of sight, andmake believe that there was no such thing. This was another of her waysof forming a mind--to cram all articles of difficulty into cupboards,lock them up, and say they had no existence. It was the easiest way,and, beyond all comparison, the properest.

Mrs General was not to be told of anything shocking. Accidents,miseries, and offences, were never to be mentioned before her. Passionwas to go to sleep in the presence of Mrs General, and blood was tochange to milk and water. The little that was left in the world,when all these deductions were made, it was Mrs General's province tovarnish. In that formation process of hers, she dipped the smallest ofbrushes into the largest of pots, and varnished the surface of everyobject that came under consideration. The more cracked it was, the moreMrs General varnished it.

There was varnish in Mrs General's voice, varnish in Mrs General'stouch, an atmosphere of varnish round Mrs General's figure. MrsGeneral's dreams ought to have been varnished--if she had any--lyingasleep in the arms of the good Saint Bernard, with the feathery snowfalling on his house-top.