Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/45

CHAPTER 7. Mostly, Prunes and Prism

Mrs General, always on her coach-box keeping the proprieties welltogether, took pains to form a surface on her very dear young friend,and Mrs General's very dear young friend tried hard to receive it. Hardas she had tried in her laborious life to attain many ends, she hadnever tried harder than she did now, to be varnished by Mrs General. Itmade her anxious and ill at ease to be operated upon by that smoothinghand, it is true; but she submitted herself to the family want inits greatness as she had submitted herself to the family want in itslittleness, and yielded to her own inclinations in this thing no morethan she had yielded to her hunger itself, in the days when she hadsaved her dinner that her father might have his supper.

One comfort that she had under the Ordeal by General was moresustaining to her, and made her more grateful than to a less devotedand affectionate spirit, not habituated to her struggles and sacrifices,might appear quite reasonable; and, indeed, it may often be observed inlife, that spirits like Little Dorrit do not appear to reason halfas carefully as the folks who get the better of them. The continuedkindness of her sister was this comfort to Little Dorrit. It was nothingto her that the kindness took the form of tolerant patronage; she wasused to that. It was nothing to her that it kept her in a tributaryposition, and showed her in attendance on the flaming car in which MissFanny sat on an elevated seat, exacting homage; she sought no betterplace. Always admiring Fanny's beauty, and grace, and readiness, and notnow asking herself how much of her disposition to be strongly attachedto Fanny was due to her own heart, and how much to Fanny's, she gave herall the sisterly fondness her great heart contained.

The wholesale amount of Prunes and Prism which Mrs General infused intothe family life, combined with the perpetual plunges made by Fanny intosociety, left but a very small residue of any natural deposit at thebottom of the mixture. This rendered confidences with Fanny doublyprecious to Little Dorrit, and heightened the relief they afforded her.

'Amy,' said Fanny to her one night when they were alone, after a day sotiring that Little Dorrit was quite worn out, though Fanny would havetaken another dip into society with the greatest pleasure in life, 'Iam going to put something into your little head. You won't guess what itis, I suspect.'

'I don't think that's likely, dear,' said Little Dorrit.

'Come, I'll give you a clue, child,' said Fanny. 'Mrs General.'

Prunes and Prism, in a thousand combinations, having been wearily in theascendant all day--everything having been surface and varnish and showwithout substance--Little Dorrit looked as if she had hoped that MrsGeneral was safely tucked up in bed for some hours.

'_Now_, can you guess, Amy?' said Fanny.

'No, dear. Unless I have done anything,' said Little Dorrit, ratheralarmed, and meaning anything calculated to crack varnish and rufflesurface.

Fanny was so very much amused by the misgiving, that she took up herfavourite fan (being then seated at her dressing-table with her armouryof cruel instruments about her, most of them reeking from the heartof Sparkler), and tapped her sister frequently on the nose with it,laughing all the time.

'Oh, our Amy, our Amy!' said Fanny. 'What a timid little goose our Amyis! But this is nothing to laugh at. On the contrary, I am very cross,my dear.'

'As it is not with me, Fanny, I don't mind,' returned her sister,smiling.

'Ah! But I do mind,' said Fanny, 'and so will you, Pet, when I enlightenyou. Amy, has it never struck you that somebody is monstrously polite toMrs General?'

'Everybody is polite to Mrs General,' said Little Dorrit. 'Because--'

'Because she freezes them into it?' interrupted Fanny. 'I don't meanthat; quite different from that. Come! Has it never struck you, Amy,that Pa is monstrously polite to Mrs General.'

Amy, murmuring 'No,' looked quite confounded.

'No; I dare say not. But he is,' said Fanny. 'He is, Amy. And remembermy words. Mrs General has designs on Pa!'

'Dear Fanny, do you think it possible that Mrs General has designs onany one?'

'Do I think it possible?' retorted Fanny. 'My love, I know it. I tellyou she has designs on Pa. And more than that, I tell you Pa considersher such a wonder, such a paragon of accomplishment, and such anacquisition to our family, that he is ready to get himself into a stateof perfect infatuation with her at any moment. And that opens a prettypicture of things, I hope? Think of me with Mrs General for a Mama!'

Little Dorrit did not reply, 'Think of me with Mrs General for a Mama;'but she looked anxious, and seriously inquired what had led Fanny tothese conclusions.

'Lord, my darling,' said Fanny, tartly. 'You might as well ask me howI know when a man is struck with myself! But, of course I do know. Ithappens pretty often: but I always know it. I know this in much the sameway, I suppose. At all events, I know it.'

'You never heard Papa say anything?'

'Say anything?' repeated Fanny. 'My dearest, darling child, whatnecessity has he had, yet awhile, to say anything?'

'And you have never heard Mrs General say anything?'

'My goodness me, Amy,' returned Fanny, 'is she the sort of woman to sayanything? Isn't it perfectly plain and clear that she has nothing to doat present but to hold herself upright, keep her aggravating gloves on,and go sweeping about? Say anything! If she had the ace of trumps in herhand at whist, she wouldn't say anything, child. It would come out whenshe played it.'

'At least, you may be mistaken, Fanny. Now, may you not?'

'O yes, I _may_ be,' said Fanny, 'but I am not. However, I am glad youcan contemplate such an escape, my dear, and I am glad that you can takethis for the present with sufficient coolness to think of such a chance.It makes me hope that you may be able to bear the connection. I shouldnot be able to bear it, and I should not try. I'd marry young Sparklerfirst.'

'O, you would never marry him, Fanny, under any circumstances.'

'Upon my word, my dear,' rejoined that young lady with exceedingindifference, 'I wouldn't positively answer even for that. There'sno knowing what might happen. Especially as I should have manyopportunities, afterwards, of treating that woman, his mother, in herown style. Which I most decidedly should not be slow to avail myself of,Amy.'

No more passed between the sisters then; but what had passed gave thetwo subjects of Mrs General and Mr Sparkler great prominence in LittleDorrit's mind, and thenceforth she thought very much of both.

Mrs General, having long ago formed her own surface to such perfectionthat it hid whatever was below it (if anything), no observation was tobe made in that quarter. Mr Dorrit was undeniably very polite to herand had a high opinion of her; but Fanny, impetuous at most times, mighteasily be wrong for all that. Whereas, the Sparkler question was on thedifferent footing that any one could see what was going on there, andLittle Dorrit saw it and pondered on it with many doubts and wonderings.

The devotion of Mr Sparkler was only to be equalled by the capriceand cruelty of his enslaver. Sometimes she would prefer him to suchdistinction of notice, that he would chuckle aloud with joy; next day,or next hour, she would overlook him so completely, and drop him intosuch an abyss of obscurity, that he would groan under a weak pretence ofcoughing. The constancy of his attendance never touched Fanny: though hewas so inseparable from Edward, that, when that gentleman wished fora change of society, he was under the irksome necessity of gliding outlike a conspirator in disguised boats and by secret doors and back ways;though he was so solicitous to know how Mr Dorrit was, that he calledevery other day to inquire, as if Mr Dorrit were the prey of anintermittent fever; though he was so constantly being paddled up anddown before the principal windows, that he might have been supposed tohave made a wager for a large stake to be paddled a thousand miles ina thousand hours; though whenever the gondola of his mistress left thegate, the gondola of Mr Sparkler shot out from some watery ambushand gave chase, as if she were a fair smuggler and he a custom-houseofficer. It was probably owing to this fortification of the naturalstrength of his constitution with so much exposure to the air, and thesalt sea, that Mr Sparkler did not pine outwardly; but, whatever thecause, he was so far from having any prospect of moving his mistress bya languishing state of health, that he grew bluffer every day, and thatpeculiarity in his appearance of seeming rather a swelled boy thana young man, became developed to an extraordinary degree of ruddypuffiness.

Blandois calling to pay his respects, Mr Dorrit received him withaffability as the friend of Mr Gowan, and mentioned to him his idea ofcommissioning Mr Gowan to transmit him to posterity. Blandois highlyextolling it, it occurred to Mr Dorrit that it might be agreeable toBlandois to communicate to his friend the great opportunity reservedfor him. Blandois accepted the commission with his own free elegance ofmanner, and swore he would discharge it before he was an hour older. Onhis imparting the news to Gowan, that Master gave Mr Dorrit to theDevil with great liberality some round dozen of times (for he resentedpatronage almost as much as he resented the want of it), and wasinclined to quarrel with his friend for bringing him the message.

'It may be a defect in my mental vision, Blandois,' said he, 'but may Idie if I see what you have to do with this.'

'Death of my life,' replied Blandois, 'nor I neither, except that Ithought I was serving my friend.'

'By putting an upstart's hire in his pocket?' said Gowan, frowning.'Do you mean that? Tell your other friend to get his head painted forthe sign of some public-house, and to get it done by a sign-painter. Whoam I, and who is he?'

'Professore,' returned the ambassador, 'and who is Blandois?'

Without appearing at all interested in the latter question, Gowanangrily whistled Mr Dorrit away. But, next day, he resumed the subjectby saying in his off-hand manner and with a slighting laugh, 'Well,Blandois, when shall we go to this Maecenas of yours? We journeymen musttake jobs when we can get them. When shall we go and look after thisjob?'

'When you will,' said the injured Blandois, 'as you please. What have Ito do with it? What is it to me?'

'I can tell you what it is to me,' said Gowan. 'Bread and cheese. Onemust eat! So come along, my Blandois.'

Mr Dorrit received them in the presence of his daughters and of MrSparkler, who happened, by some surprising accident, to be callingthere. 'How are you, Sparkler?' said Gowan carelessly. 'When you haveto live by your mother wit, old boy, I hope you may get on better than Ido.'

Mr Dorrit then mentioned his proposal. 'Sir,' said Gowan, laughing,after receiving it gracefully enough, 'I am new to the trade, and notexpert at its mysteries. I believe I ought to look at you in variouslights, tell you you are a capital subject, and consider when I shall besufficiently disengaged to devote myself with the necessary enthusiasmto the fine picture I mean to make of you. I assure you,' and he laughedagain, 'I feel quite a traitor in the camp of those dear, gifted, good,noble fellows, my brother artists, by not doing the hocus-pocus better.But I have not been brought up to it, and it's too late to learn it.Now, the fact is, I am a very bad painter, but not much worse than thegenerality. If you are going to throw away a hundred guineas or so, Iam as poor as a poor relation of great people usually is, and I shall bevery much obliged to you, if you'll throw them away upon me. I'll do thebest I can for the money; and if the best should be bad, why even then,you may probably have a bad picture with a small name to it, instead ofa bad picture with a large name to it.'

This tone, though not what he had expected, on the whole suited MrDorrit remarkably well. It showed that the gentleman, highly connected,and not a mere workman, would be under an obligation to him. Heexpressed his satisfaction in placing himself in Mr Gowan's hands, andtrusted that he would have the pleasure, in their characters of privategentlemen, of improving his acquaintance.

'You are very good,' said Gowan. 'I have not forsworn society since Ijoined the brotherhood of the brush (the most delightful fellows on theface of the earth), and am glad enough to smell the old fine gunpowdernow and then, though it did blow me into mid-air and my present calling.You'll not think, Mr Dorrit,' and here he laughed again in the easiestway, 'that I am lapsing into the freemasonry of the craft--for it's notso; upon my life I can't help betraying it wherever I go, though, byJupiter, I love and honour the craft with all my might--if I propose astipulation as to time and place?'

Ha! Mr Dorrit could erect no--hum--suspicion of that kind on Mr Gowan'sfrankness.

'Again you are very good,' said Gowan. 'Mr Dorrit, I hear you are goingto Rome. I am going to Rome, having friends there. Let me begin to doyou the injustice I have conspired to do you, there--not here. We shallall be hurried during the rest of our stay here; and though there's nota poorer man with whole elbows in Venice, than myself, I have not quitegot all the Amateur out of me yet--comprising the trade again, yousee!--and can't fall on to order, in a hurry, for the mere sake of thesixpences.'

These remarks were not less favourably received by Mr Dorrit than theirpredecessors. They were the prelude to the first reception of Mr and MrsGowan at dinner, and they skilfully placed Gowan on his usual ground inthe new family.

His wife, too, they placed on her usual ground. Miss Fanny understood,with particular distinctness, that Mrs Gowan's good looks had cost herhusband very dear; that there had been a great disturbance about herin the Barnacle family; and that the Dowager Mrs Gowan, nearlyheart-broken, had resolutely set her face against the marriage untiloverpowered by her maternal feelings. Mrs General likewise clearlyunderstood that the attachment had occasioned much family grief anddissension. Of honest Mr Meagles no mention was made; except that itwas natural enough that a person of that sort should wish to raise hisdaughter out of his own obscurity, and that no one could blame him fortrying his best to do so.

Little Dorrit's interest in the fair subject of this easily acceptedbelief was too earnest and watchful to fail in accurate observation. Shecould see that it had its part in throwing upon Mrs Gowan the touch of ashadow under which she lived, and she even had an instinctive knowledgethat there was not the least truth in it. But it had an influence inplacing obstacles in the way of her association with Mrs Gowan by makingthe Prunes and Prism school excessively polite to her, but not veryintimate with her; and Little Dorrit, as an enforced sizar of thatcollege, was obliged to submit herself humbly to its ordinances.

Nevertheless, there was a sympathetic understanding alreadyestablished between the two, which would have carried them overgreater difficulties, and made a friendship out of a more restrictedintercourse. As though accidents were determined to be favourable toit, they had a new assurance of congeniality in the aversion which eachperceived that the other felt towards Blandois of Paris; an aversionamounting to the repugnance and horror of a natural antipathy towards anodious creature of the reptile kind.

And there was a passive congeniality between them, besides this activeone. To both of them, Blandois behaved in exactly the same manner; andto both of them his manner had uniformly something in it, whichthey both knew to be different from his bearing towards others. Thedifference was too minute in its expression to be perceived by others,but they knew it to be there. A mere trick of his evil eyes, a mere turnof his smooth white hand, a mere hair's-breadth of addition to the fallof his nose and the rise of the moustache in the most frequent movementof his face, conveyed to both of them, equally, a swagger personal tothemselves. It was as if he had said, 'I have a secret power in thisquarter. I know what I know.'

This had never been felt by them both in so great a degree, and neverby each so perfectly to the knowledge of the other, as on a day when hecame to Mr Dorrit's to take his leave before quitting Venice. MrsGowan was herself there for the same purpose, and he came upon thetwo together; the rest of the family being out. The two had not beentogether five minutes, and the peculiar manner seemed to convey to them,'You were going to talk about me. Ha! Behold me here to prevent it!'

'Gowan is coming here?' said Blandois, with a smile.

Mrs Gowan replied he was not coming.

'Not coming!' said Blandois. 'Permit your devoted servant, when youleave here, to escort you home.'

'Thank you: I am not going home.'

'Not going home!' said Blandois. 'Then I am forlorn.'

That he might be; but he was not so forlorn as to roam away and leavethem together. He sat entertaining them with his finest compliments, andhis choicest conversation; but he conveyed to them, all the time, 'No,no, no, dear ladies. Behold me here expressly to prevent it!'

He conveyed it to them with so much meaning, and he had such adiabolical persistency in him, that at length, Mrs Gowan rose to depart.On his offering his hand to Mrs Gowan to lead her down the staircase,she retained Little Dorrit's hand in hers, with a cautious pressure, andsaid, 'No, thank you. But, if you will please to see if my boatman isthere, I shall be obliged to you.'

It left him no choice but to go down before them. As he did so, hat inhand, Mrs Gowan whispered:

'He killed the dog.'

'Does Mr Gowan know it?' Little Dorrit whispered.

'No one knows it. Don't look towards me; look towards him. He will turnhis face in a moment. No one knows it, but I am sure he did. You are?'

'I--I think so,' Little Dorrit answered.

'Henry likes him, and he will not think ill of him; he is so generousand open himself. But you and I feel sure that we think of him as hedeserves. He argued with Henry that the dog had been already poisonedwhen he changed so, and sprang at him. Henry believes it, but we do not.I see he is listening, but can't hear. Good-bye, my love! Good-bye!'

The last words were spoken aloud, as the vigilant Blandois stopped,turned his head, and looked at them from the bottom of the staircase.Assuredly he did look then, though he looked his politest, as if anyreal philanthropist could have desired no better employment than to lasha great stone to his neck, and drop him into the water flowing beyondthe dark arched gateway in which he stood. No such benefactor to mankindbeing on the spot, he handed Mrs Gowan to her boat, and stood thereuntil it had shot out of the narrow view; when he handed himself intohis own boat and followed.

Little Dorrit had sometimes thought, and now thought again as sheretraced her steps up the staircase, that he had made his way too easilyinto her father's house. But so many and such varieties of people didthe same, through Mr Dorrit's participation in his elder daughter'ssociety mania, that it was hardly an exceptional case. A perfect furyfor making acquaintances on whom to impress their riches and importance,had seized the House of Dorrit.

It appeared on the whole, to Little Dorrit herself, that this samesociety in which they lived, greatly resembled a superior sort ofMarshalsea. Numbers of people seemed to come abroad, pretty muchas people had come into the prison; through debt, through idleness,relationship, curiosity, and general unfitness for getting on at home.They were brought into these foreign towns in the custody of couriersand local followers, just as the debtors had been brought into theprison. They prowled about the churches and picture-galleries, much inthe old, dreary, prison-yard manner. They were usually going away againto-morrow or next week, and rarely knew their own minds, and seldom didwhat they said they would do, or went where they said they would go: inall this again, very like the prison debtors. They paid high for pooraccommodation, and disparaged a place while they pretended to like it:which was exactly the Marshalsea custom. They were envied when they wentaway by people left behind, feigning not to want to go: and that againwas the Marshalsea habit invariably. A certain set of words and phrases,as much belonging to tourists as the College and the Snuggery belongedto the jail, was always in their mouths. They had precisely the sameincapacity for settling down to anything, as the prisoners used to have;they rather deteriorated one another, as the prisoners used to do; andthey wore untidy dresses, and fell into a slouching way of life: still,always like the people in the Marshalsea.

The period of the family's stay at Venice came, in its course, to anend, and they moved, with their retinue, to Rome. Through a repetitionof the former Italian scenes, growing more dirty and more haggard asthey went on, and bringing them at length to where the very air wasdiseased, they passed to their destination. A fine residence had beentaken for them on the Corso, and there they took up their abode, in acity where everything seemed to be trying to stand still for ever onthe ruins of something else--except the water, which, following eternallaws, tumbled and rolled from its glorious multitude of fountains.

Here it seemed to Little Dorrit that a change came over the Marshalseaspirit of their society, and that Prunes and Prism got the upper hand.Everybody was walking about St Peter's and the Vatican on somebodyelse's cork legs, and straining every visible object through somebodyelse's sieve. Nobody said what anything was, but everybody said what theMrs Generals, Mr Eustace, or somebody else said it was. The whole bodyof travellers seemed to be a collection of voluntary human sacrifices,bound hand and foot, and delivered over to Mr Eustace and hisattendants, to have the entrails of their intellects arranged accordingto the taste of that sacred priesthood. Through the rugged remainsof temples and tombs and palaces and senate halls and theatres andamphitheatres of ancient days, hosts of tongue-tied and blindfoldedmoderns were carefully feeling their way, incessantly repeating Prunesand Prism in the endeavour to set their lips according to the receivedform. Mrs General was in her pure element. Nobody had an opinion. Therewas a formation of surface going on around her on an amazing scale, andit had not a flaw of courage or honest free speech in it.

Another modification of Prunes and Prism insinuated itself on LittleDorrit's notice very shortly after their arrival. They received an earlyvisit from Mrs Merdle, who led that extensive department of life in theEternal City that winter; and the skilful manner in which she and Fannyfenced with one another on the occasion, almost made her quiet sisterwink, like the glittering of small-swords.

'So delighted,' said Mrs Merdle, 'to resume an acquaintance soinauspiciously begun at Martigny.'

'At Martigny, of course,' said Fanny. 'Charmed, I am sure!'

'I understand,' said Mrs Merdle, 'from my son Edmund Sparkler, thathe has already improved that chance occasion. He has returned quitetransported with Venice.'

'Indeed?' returned the careless Fanny. 'Was he there long?'

'I might refer that question to Mr Dorrit,' said Mrs Merdle, turning thebosom towards that gentleman; 'Edmund having been so much indebted tohim for rendering his stay agreeable.'

'Oh, pray don't speak of it,' returned Fanny. 'I believe Papa had thepleasure of inviting Mr Sparkler twice or thrice,--but it was nothing.We had so many people about us, and kept such open house, that if he hadthat pleasure, it was less than nothing.'

'Except, my dear,' said Mr Dorrit, 'except--ha--as it afforded meunusual gratification to--hum--show by any means, however slight andworthless, the--ha, hum--high estimation in which, in--ha--common withthe rest of the world, I hold so distinguished and princely a characteras Mr Merdle's.'

The bosom received this tribute in its most engaging manner. 'MrMerdle,' observed Fanny, as a means of dismissing Mr Sparkler into thebackground, 'is quite a theme of Papa's, you must know, Mrs Merdle.'

'I have been--ha--disappointed, madam,' said Mr Dorrit, 'to understandfrom Mr Sparkler that there is no great--hum--probability of Mr Merdle'scoming abroad.'

'Why, indeed,' said Mrs Merdle, 'he is so much engaged and in suchrequest, that I fear not. He has not been able to get abroad for years.You, Miss Dorrit, I believe have been almost continually abroad for along time.'

'Oh dear yes,' drawled Fanny, with the greatest hardihood. 'An immensenumber of years.'

'So I should have inferred,' said Mrs Merdle.

'Exactly,' said Fanny.

'I trust, however,' resumed Mr Dorrit, 'that if I have notthe--hum--great advantage of becoming known to Mr Merdle on this sideof the Alps or Mediterranean, I shall have that honour on returning toEngland. It is an honour I particularly desire and shall particularlyesteem.'

'Mr Merdle,' said Mrs Merdle, who had been looking admiringly at Fannythrough her eye-glass, 'will esteem it, I am sure, no less.'

Little Dorrit, still habitually thoughtful and solitary though no longeralone, at first supposed this to be mere Prunes and Prism. But as herfather when they had been to a brilliant reception at Mrs Merdle's,harped at their own family breakfast-table on his wish to know MrMerdle, with the contingent view of benefiting by the advice of thatwonderful man in the disposal of his fortune, she began to think it hada real meaning, and to entertain a curiosity on her own part to see theshining light of the time.