Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/52

CHAPTER 14. Taking Advice

When it became known to the Britons on the shore of the yellow Tiberthat their intelligent compatriot, Mr Sparkler, was made one of theLords of their Circumlocution Office, they took it as a piece of newswith which they had no nearer concern than with any other piece ofnews--any other Accident or Offence--in the English papers. Somelaughed; some said, by way of complete excuse, that the post wasvirtually a sinecure, and any fool who could spell his name was goodenough for it; some, and these the more solemn political oracles,said that Decimus did wisely to strengthen himself, and that the soleconstitutional purpose of all places within the gift of Decimus, was,that Decimus _should_ strengthen himself. A few bilious Britons there werewho would not subscribe to this article of faith; but their objectionwas purely theoretical. In a practical point of view, they listlesslyabandoned the matter, as being the business of some other Britonsunknown, somewhere, or nowhere. In like manner, at home, great numbersof Britons maintained, for as long as four-and-twenty consecutive hours,that those invisible and anonymous Britons 'ought to take it up;' andthat if they quietly acquiesced in it, they deserved it. But of whatclass the remiss Britons were composed, and where the unlucky creatureshid themselves, and why they hid themselves, and how it constantlyhappened that they neglected their interests, when so many other Britonswere quite at a loss to account for their not looking after thoseinterests, was not, either upon the shore of the yellow Tiber or theshore of the black Thames, made apparent to men.

Mrs Merdle circulated the news, as she received congratulations on it,with a careless grace that displayed it to advantage, as the settingdisplays the jewel. Yes, she said, Edmund had taken the place. Mr Merdlewished him to take it, and he had taken it. She hoped Edmund might likeit, but really she didn't know. It would keep him in town a gooddeal, and he preferred the country. Still, it was not a disagreeableposition--and it was a position. There was no denying that the thingwas a compliment to Mr Merdle, and was not a bad thing for Edmund if heliked it. It was just as well that he should have something to do, andit was just as well that he should have something for doing it. Whetherit would be more agreeable to Edmund than the army, remained to be seen.

Thus the Bosom; accomplished in the art of seeming to make things ofsmall account, and really enhancing them in the process. While HenryGowan, whom Decimus had thrown away, went through the whole round ofhis acquaintance between the Gate of the People and the town of Albano,vowing, almost (but not quite) with tears in his eyes, that Sparkler wasthe sweetest-tempered, simplest-hearted, altogether most lovable jackassthat ever grazed on the public common; and that only one circumstancecould have delighted him (Gowan) more, than his (the beloved jackass's)getting this post, and that would have been his (Gowan's) getting ithimself. He said it was the very thing for Sparkler. There was nothingto do, and he would do it charmingly; there was a handsome salary todraw, and he would draw it charmingly; it was a delightful, appropriate,capital appointment; and he almost forgave the donor his slight ofhimself, in his joy that the dear donkey for whom he had so great anaffection was so admirably stabled. Nor did his benevolence stop here.He took pains, on all social occasions, to draw Mr Sparkler out, andmake him conspicuous before the company; and, although the considerateaction always resulted in that young gentleman's making a dreary andforlorn mental spectacle of himself, the friendly intention was not tobe doubted.

Unless, indeed, it chanced to be doubted by the object of Mr Sparkler'saffections. Miss Fanny was now in the difficult situation of beinguniversally known in that light, and of not having dismissed MrSparkler, however capriciously she used him. Hence, she was sufficientlyidentified with the gentleman to feel compromised by his being more thanusually ridiculous; and hence, being by no means deficient in quickness,she sometimes came to his rescue against Gowan, and did him very goodservice. But, while doing this, she was ashamed of him, undeterminedwhether to get rid of him or more decidedly encourage him, distractedwith apprehensions that she was every day becoming more and moreimmeshed in her uncertainties, and tortured by misgivings that MrsMerdle triumphed in her distress. With this tumult in her mind, it is nosubject for surprise that Miss Fanny came home one night in a stateof agitation from a concert and ball at Mrs Merdle's house, and on hersister affectionately trying to soothe her, pushed that sister away fromthe toilette-table at which she sat angrily trying to cry, and declaredwith a heaving bosom that she detested everybody, and she wished she wasdead.

'Dear Fanny, what is the matter? Tell me.'

'Matter, you little Mole,' said Fanny. 'If you were not the blindest ofthe blind, you would have no occasion to ask me. The idea of daring topretend to assert that you have eyes in your head, and yet ask me what'sthe matter!'

'Is it Mr Sparkler, dear?'

'Mis-ter Spark-ler!' repeated Fanny, with unbounded scorn, as if he werethe last subject in the Solar system that could possibly be near hermind. 'No, Miss Bat, it is not.'

Immediately afterwards, she became remorseful for having called hersister names; declaring with sobs that she knew she made herselfhateful, but that everybody drove her to it.

'I don't think you are well to-night, dear Fanny.'

'Stuff and nonsense!' replied the young lady, turning angry again; 'I amas well as you are. Perhaps I might say better, and yet make no boast ofit.'

Poor Little Dorrit, not seeing her way to the offering of any soothingwords that would escape repudiation, deemed it best to remain quiet. Atfirst, Fanny took this ill, too; protesting to her looking-glass, thatof all the trying sisters a girl could have, she did think the mosttrying sister was a flat sister. That she knew she was at times awretched temper; that she knew she made herself hateful; that when shemade herself hateful, nothing would do her half the good as being toldso; but that, being afflicted with a flat sister, she never _was_ told so,and the consequence resulted that she was absolutely tempted andgoaded into making herself disagreeable. Besides (she angrily toldher looking-glass), she didn't want to be forgiven. It was not a rightexample, that she should be constantly stooping to be forgiven by ayounger sister. And this was the Art of it--that she was always beingplaced in the position of being forgiven, whether she liked it or not.Finally she burst into violent weeping, and, when her sister came andsat close at her side to comfort her, said, 'Amy, you're an Angel!'

'But, I tell you what, my Pet,' said Fanny, when her sister's gentlenesshad calmed her, 'it now comes to this; that things cannot and shall notgo on as they are at present going on, and that there must be an end ofthis, one way or another.'

As the announcement was vague, though very peremptory, Little Dorritreturned, 'Let us talk about it.'

'Quite so, my dear,' assented Fanny, as she dried her eyes. 'Let us talkabout it. I am rational again now, and you shall advise me. _Will_ youadvise me, my sweet child?'

Even Amy smiled at this notion, but she said, 'I will, Fanny, as well asI can.'

'Thank you, dearest Amy,' returned Fanny, kissing her. 'You are myanchor.'

Having embraced her Anchor with great affection, Fanny took a bottle ofsweet toilette water from the table, and called to her maid for a finehandkerchief. She then dismissed that attendant for the night, and wenton to be advised; dabbing her eyes and forehead from time to time tocool them.

'My love,' Fanny began, 'our characters and points of view aresufficiently different (kiss me again, my darling), to make it veryprobable that I shall surprise you by what I am going to say. What I amgoing to say, my dear, is, that notwithstanding our property, we labour,socially speaking, under disadvantages. You don't quite understand whatI mean, Amy?'

'I have no doubt I shall,' said Amy, mildly, 'after a few words more.'

'Well, my dear, what I mean is, that we are, after all, newcomers intofashionable life.'

'I am sure, Fanny,' Little Dorrit interposed in her zealous admiration,'no one need find that out in you.'

'Well, my dear child, perhaps not,' said Fanny, 'though it's most kindand most affectionate in you, you precious girl, to say so.' Here shedabbed her sister's forehead, and blew upon it a little. 'But you are,'resumed Fanny, 'as is well known, the dearest little thing that everwas! To resume, my child. Pa is extremely gentlemanly and extremely wellinformed, but he is, in some trifling respects, a little different fromother gentlemen of his fortune: partly on account of what he has gonethrough, poor dear: partly, I fancy, on account of its often running inhis mind that other people are thinking about that, while he is talkingto them. Uncle, my love, is altogether unpresentable. Though a dearcreature to whom I am tenderly attached, he is, socially speaking,shocking. Edward is frightfully expensive and dissipated. I don't meanthat there is anything ungenteel in that itself--far from it--but Ido mean that he doesn't do it well, and that he doesn't, if I mayso express myself, get the money's-worth in the sort of dissipatedreputation that attaches to him.'

'Poor Edward!' sighed Little Dorrit, with the whole family history inthe sigh.

'Yes. And poor you and me, too,' returned Fanny, rather sharply.'Very true! Then, my dear, we have no mother, and we have a Mrs General.And I tell you again, darling, that Mrs General, if I may reverse acommon proverb and adapt it to her, is a cat in gloves who _will_catch mice. That woman, I am quite sure and confident, will be ourmother-in-law.'

'I can hardly think, Fanny--' Fanny stopped her.

'Now, don't argue with me about it, Amy,' said she, 'because I knowbetter.' Feeling that she had been sharp again, she dabbed her sister'sforehead again, and blew upon it again. 'To resume once more, my dear.It then becomes a question with me (I am proud and spirited, Amy, as youvery well know: too much so, I dare say) whether I shall make up my mindto take it upon myself to carry the family through.'

'How?' asked her sister, anxiously.

'I will not,' said Fanny, without answering the question, 'submit tobe mother-in-lawed by Mrs General; and I will not submit to be, in anyrespect whatever, either patronised or tormented by Mrs Merdle.'

Little Dorrit laid her hand upon the hand that held the bottle of sweetwater, with a still more anxious look. Fanny, quite punishing her ownforehead with the vehement dabs she now began to give it, fitfully wenton.

'That he has somehow or other, and how is of no consequence, attained avery good position, no one can deny. That it is a very good connection,no one can deny. And as to the question of clever or not clever, I doubtvery much whether a clever husband would be suitable to me. I cannotsubmit. I should not be able to defer to him enough.'

'O, my dear Fanny!' expostulated Little Dorrit, upon whom a kind ofterror had been stealing as she perceived what her sister meant. 'If youloved any one, all this feeling would change. If you loved any one, youwould no more be yourself, but you would quite lose and forget yourselfin your devotion to him. If you loved him, Fanny--' Fanny had stoppedthe dabbing hand, and was looking at her fixedly.

'O, indeed!' cried Fanny. 'Really? Bless me, how much some people knowof some subjects! They say every one has a subject, and I certainlyseem to have hit upon yours, Amy. There, you little thing, I was only infun,' dabbing her sister's forehead; 'but don't you be a silly puss,and don't you think flightily and eloquently about degenerateimpossibilities. There! Now, I'll go back to myself.'

'Dear Fanny, let me say first, that I would far rather we worked fora scanty living again than I would see you rich and married to MrSparkler.'

'_Let_ you say, my dear?' retorted Fanny. 'Why, of course, I will _let_you say anything. There is no constraint upon you, I hope. We aretogether to talk it over. And as to marrying Mr Sparkler, I have not theslightest intention of doing so to-night, my dear, or to-morrow morningeither.'

'But at some time?'

'At no time, for anything I know at present,' answered Fanny, withindifference. Then, suddenly changing her indifference into a burningrestlessness, she added, 'You talk about the clever men, you littlething! It's all very fine and easy to talk about the clever men; butwhere are they? _I_ don't see them anywhere near _me_!'

'My dear Fanny, so short a time--'

'Short time or long time,' interrupted Fanny. 'I am impatient of oursituation. I don't like our situation, and very little would induceme to change it. Other girls, differently reared and differentlycircumstanced altogether, might wonder at what I say or may do. Letthem. They are driven by their lives and characters; I am driven bymine.'

'Fanny, my dear Fanny, you know that you have qualities to make you thewife of one very superior to Mr Sparkler.'

'Amy, my dear Amy,' retorted Fanny, parodying her words, 'I know that Iwish to have a more defined and distinct position, in which I can assertmyself with greater effect against that insolent woman.'

'Would you therefore--forgive my asking, Fanny--therefore marry herson?'

'Why, perhaps,' said Fanny, with a triumphant smile. 'There may be manyless promising ways of arriving at an end than that, my dear. That pieceof insolence may think, now, that it would be a great success to get herson off upon me, and shelve me. But, perhaps, she little thinks how Iwould retort upon her if I married her son. I would oppose her ineverything, and compete with her. I would make it the business of mylife.'

Fanny set down the bottle when she came to this, and walked about theroom; always stopping and standing still while she spoke.

'One thing I could certainly do, my child: I could make her older. And Iwould!'

This was followed by another walk.

'I would talk of her as an old woman. I would pretend to know--if Ididn't, but I should from her son--all about her age. And she shouldhear me say, Amy: affectionately, quite dutifully and affectionately:how well she looked, considering her time of life. I could make her seemolder at once, by being myself so much younger. I may not be as handsomeas she is; I am not a fair judge of that question, I suppose; but I knowI am handsome enough to be a thorn in her side. And I would be!'

'My dear sister, would you condemn yourself to an unhappy life forthis?'

'It wouldn't be an unhappy life, Amy. It would be the life I am fittedfor. Whether by disposition, or whether by circumstances, is no matter;I am better fitted for such a life than for almost any other.'

There was something of a desolate tone in those words; but, with ashort proud laugh she took another walk, and after passing a greatlooking-glass came to another stop.

'Figure! Figure, Amy! Well. The woman has a good figure. I will give herher due, and not deny it. But is it so far beyond all others that it isaltogether unapproachable? Upon my word, I am not so sure of it. Givesome much younger woman the latitude as to dress that she has, beingmarried; and we would see about that, my dear!'

Something in the thought that was agreeable and flattering, brought herback to her seat in a gayer temper. She took her sister's hands in hers,and clapped all four hands above her head as she looked in her sister'sface laughing:

'And the dancer, Amy, that she has quite forgotten--the dancer who boreno sort of resemblance to me, and of whom I never remind her, oh dearno!--should dance through her life, and dance in her way, to such a tuneas would disturb her insolent placidity a little. Just a little, my dearAmy, just a little!'

Meeting an earnest and imploring look in Amy's face, she brought thefour hands down, and laid only one on Amy's lips.

'Now, don't argue with me, child,' she said in a sterner way, 'becauseit is of no use. I understand these subjects much better than you do. Ihave not nearly made up my mind, but it may be. Now we have talked thisover comfortably, and may go to bed. You best and dearest little mouse,Good night!' With those words Fanny weighed her Anchor, and--havingtaken so much advice--left off being advised for that occasion.

Thenceforward, Amy observed Mr Sparkler's treatment by his enslaver,with new reasons for attaching importance to all that passed betweenthem. There were times when Fanny appeared quite unable to endure hismental feebleness, and when she became so sharply impatient of it thatshe would all but dismiss him for good. There were other times when shegot on much better with him; when he amused her, and when her sense ofsuperiority seemed to counterbalance that opposite side of the scale. IfMr Sparkler had been other than the faithfullest and most submissive ofswains, he was sufficiently hard pressed to have fled from the scene ofhis trials, and have set at least the whole distance from Rome to Londonbetween himself and his enchantress. But he had no greater will of hisown than a boat has when it is towed by a steam-ship; and he followedhis cruel mistress through rough and smooth, on equally strongcompulsion.

Mrs Merdle, during these passages, said little to Fanny, but saidmore about her. She was, as it were, forced to look at her through hereye-glass, and in general conversation to allow commendations of herbeauty to be wrung from her by its irresistible demands. The defiantcharacter it assumed when Fanny heard these extollings (as it generallyhappened that she did), was not expressive of concessions to theimpartial bosom; but the utmost revenge the bosom took was, to sayaudibly, 'A spoilt beauty--but with that face and shape, who couldwonder?'

It might have been about a month or six weeks after the night of thenew advice, when Little Dorrit began to think she detected some newunderstanding between Mr Sparkler and Fanny. Mr Sparkler, as if inattendance to some compact, scarcely ever spoke without first lookingtowards Fanny for leave. That young lady was too discreet ever to lookback again; but, if Mr Sparkler had permission to speak, she remainedsilent; if he had not, she herself spoke. Moreover, it became plainwhenever Henry Gowan attempted to perform the friendly office of drawinghim out, that he was not to be drawn. And not only that, but Fanny wouldpresently, without any pointed application in the world, chance to saysomething with such a sting in it that Gowan would draw back as if hehad put his hand into a bee-hive.

There was yet another circumstance which went a long way to confirmLittle Dorrit in her fears, though it was not a great circumstancein itself. Mr Sparkler's demeanour towards herself changed. It becamefraternal. Sometimes, when she was in the outer circle of assemblies--attheir own residence, at Mrs Merdle's, or elsewhere--she would findherself stealthily supported round the waist by Mr Sparkler's arm. MrSparkler never offered the slightest explanation of this attention;but merely smiled with an air of blundering, contented, good-naturedproprietorship, which, in so heavy a gentleman, was ominouslyexpressive.

Little Dorrit was at home one day, thinking about Fanny with a heavyheart. They had a room at one end of their drawing-room suite, nearlyall irregular bay-window, projecting over the street, and commandingall the picturesque life and variety of the Corso, both up and down. Atthree or four o'clock in the afternoon, English time, the view from thiswindow was very bright and peculiar; and Little Dorrit used to sitand muse here, much as she had been used to while away the time in herbalcony at Venice. Seated thus one day, she was softly touched on theshoulder, and Fanny said, 'Well, Amy dear,' and took her seat at herside. Their seat was a part of the window; when there was anything inthe way of a procession going on, they used to have bright draperieshung out of the window, and used to kneel or sit on this seat, and lookout at it, leaning on the brilliant colour. But there was no processionthat day, and Little Dorrit was rather surprised by Fanny's being athome at that hour, as she was generally out on horseback then.

'Well, Amy,' said Fanny, 'what are you thinking of, little one?'

'I was thinking of you, Fanny.'

'No? What a coincidence! I declare here's some one else. You were notthinking of this some one else too; were you, Amy?'

Amy _had_ been thinking of this some one else too; for it was Mr Sparkler.She did not say so, however, as she gave him her hand. Mr Sparklercame and sat down on the other side of her, and she felt the fraternalrailing come behind her, and apparently stretch on to include Fanny.

'Well, my little sister,' said Fanny with a sigh, 'I suppose you knowwhat this means?'

'She's as beautiful as she's doated on,' stammered Mr Sparkler--'andthere's no nonsense about her--it's arranged--'

'You needn't explain, Edmund,' said Fanny.

'No, my love,' said Mr Sparkler.

'In short, pet,' proceeded Fanny, 'on the whole, we are engaged. Wemust tell papa about it either to-night or to-morrow, according to theopportunities. Then it's done, and very little more need be said.'

'My dear Fanny,' said Mr Sparkler, with deference, 'I should like to saya word to Amy.'

'Well, well! Say it for goodness' sake,' returned the young lady.

'I am convinced, my dear Amy,' said Mr Sparkler, 'that if ever therewas a girl, next to your highly endowed and beautiful sister, who had nononsense about her--'

'We know all about that, Edmund,' interposed Miss Fanny. 'Never mindthat. Pray go on to something else besides our having no nonsense aboutus.'

'Yes, my love,' said Mr Sparkler. 'And I assure you, Amy, that nothingcan be a greater happiness to myself, myself--next to the happiness ofbeing so highly honoured with the choice of a glorious girl who hasn'tan atom of--'

'Pray, Edmund, pray!' interrupted Fanny, with a slight pat of her prettyfoot upon the floor.

'My love, you're quite right,' said Mr Sparkler, 'and I know I have ahabit of it. What I wished to declare was, that nothing can be a greaterhappiness to myself, myself-next to the happiness of being united topre-eminently the most glorious of girls--than to have the happinessof cultivating the affectionate acquaintance of Amy. I may not myself,'said Mr Sparkler manfully, 'be up to the mark on some other subjectsat a short notice, and I am aware that if you were to poll Society thegeneral opinion would be that I am not; but on the subject of Amy I AMup to the mark!'

Mr Sparkler kissed her, in witness thereof.

'A knife and fork and an apartment,' proceeded Mr Sparkler, growing, incomparison with his oratorical antecedents, quite diffuse, 'will everbe at Amy's disposal. My Governor, I am sure, will always be proud toentertain one whom I so much esteem. And regarding my mother,' said MrSparkler, 'who is a remarkably fine woman, with--'

'Edmund, Edmund!' cried Miss Fanny, as before.

'With submission, my soul,' pleaded Mr Sparkler. 'I know I have a habitof it, and I thank you very much, my adorable girl, for taking thetrouble to correct it; but my mother is admitted on all sides to be aremarkably fine woman, and she really hasn't any.'

'That may be, or may not be,' returned Fanny, 'but pray don't mention itany more.'

'I will not, my love,' said Mr Sparkler.

'Then, in fact, you have nothing more to say, Edmund; have you?'inquired Fanny.

'So far from it, my adorable girl,' answered Mr Sparkler, 'I apologisefor having said so much.'

Mr Sparkler perceived, by a kind of inspiration, that the questionimplied had he not better go? He therefore withdrew the fraternalrailing, and neatly said that he thought he would, with submission, takehis leave. He did not go without being congratulated by Amy, as wellas she could discharge that office in the flutter and distress of herspirits.

When he was gone, she said, 'O Fanny, Fanny!' and turned to her sisterin the bright window, and fell upon her bosom and cried there. Fannylaughed at first; but soon laid her face against her sister's and criedtoo--a little. It was the last time Fanny ever showed that there was anyhidden, suppressed, or conquered feeling in her on the matter. From thathour the way she had chosen lay before her, and she trod it with her ownimperious self-willed step.