Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/59

CHAPTER 21. The History of a Self-Tormentor

I have the misfortune of not being a fool. From a very early age I havedetected what those about me thought they hid from me. If I could havebeen habitually imposed upon, instead of habitually discerning thetruth, I might have lived as smoothly as most fools do.

My childhood was passed with a grandmother; that is to say, with a ladywho represented that relative to me, and who took that title on herself.She had no claim to it, but I--being to that extent a little fool--hadno suspicion of her. She had some children of her own family in herhouse, and some children of other people. All girls; ten in number,including me. We all lived together and were educated together.

I must have been about twelve years old when I began to see howdeterminedly those girls patronised me. I was told I was an orphan.There was no other orphan among us; and I perceived (here was thefirst disadvantage of not being a fool) that they conciliated me in aninsolent pity, and in a sense of superiority. I did not set this downas a discovery, rashly. I tried them often. I could hardly make themquarrel with me. When I succeeded with any of them, they were sure tocome after an hour or two, and begin a reconciliation. I tried them overand over again, and I never knew them wait for me to begin. They werealways forgiving me, in their vanity and condescension. Little images ofgrown people!

One of them was my chosen friend. I loved that stupid mite in apassionate way that she could no more deserve than I can rememberwithout feeling ashamed of, though I was but a child. She had what theycalled an amiable temper, an affectionate temper. She could distribute,and did distribute pretty looks and smiles to every one among them. Ibelieve there was not a soul in the place, except myself, who knew thatshe did it purposely to wound and gall me!

Nevertheless, I so loved that unworthy girl that my life was made stormyby my fondness for her. I was constantly lectured and disgraced for whatwas called 'trying her;' in other words charging her with her littleperfidy and throwing her into tears by showing her that I read herheart. However, I loved her faithfully; and one time I went home withher for the holidays.

She was worse at home than she had been at school. She had a crowd ofcousins and acquaintances, and we had dances at her house, and went outto dances at other houses, and, both at home and out, she tormented mylove beyond endurance. Her plan was, to make them all fond of her--andso drive me wild with jealousy. To be familiar and endearing with themall--and so make me mad with envying them. When we were left alone inour bedroom at night, I would reproach her with my perfect knowledge ofher baseness; and then she would cry and cry and say I was cruel, andthen I would hold her in my arms till morning: loving her as much asever, and often feeling as if, rather than suffer so, I could so holdher in my arms and plunge to the bottom of a river--where I would stillhold her after we were both dead.

It came to an end, and I was relieved. In the family there was an auntwho was not fond of me. I doubt if any of the family liked me much; butI never wanted them to like me, being altogether bound up in the onegirl. The aunt was a young woman, and she had a serious way with hereyes of watching me. She was an audacious woman, and openly lookedcompassionately at me. After one of the nights that I have spoken of, Icame down into a greenhouse before breakfast. Charlotte (the name ofmy false young friend) had gone down before me, and I heard this auntspeaking to her about me as I entered. I stopped where I was, among theleaves, and listened.

The aunt said, 'Charlotte, Miss Wade is wearing you to death, and thismust not continue.' I repeat the very words I heard.

Now, what did she answer? Did she say, 'It is I who am wearing her todeath, I who am keeping her on a rack and am the executioner, yet shetells me every night that she loves me devotedly, though she knows whatI make her undergo?' No; my first memorable experience was true towhat I knew her to be, and to all my experience. She began sobbing andweeping (to secure the aunt's sympathy to herself), and said, 'Dearaunt, she has an unhappy temper; other girls at school, besides I, tryhard to make it better; we all try hard.'

Upon that the aunt fondled her, as if she had said something nobleinstead of despicable and false, and kept up the infamous pretence byreplying, 'But there are reasonable limits, my dear love, to everything,and I see that this poor miserable girl causes you more constant anduseless distress than even so good an effort justifies.'

The poor miserable girl came out of her concealment, as you may beprepared to hear, and said, 'Send me home.' I never said another wordto either of them, or to any of them, but 'Send me home, or I willwalk home alone, night and day!' When I got home, I told my supposedgrandmother that, unless I was sent away to finish my educationsomewhere else before that girl came back, or before any one of themcame back, I would burn my sight away by throwing myself into the fire,rather than I would endure to look at their plotting faces.

I went among young women next, and I found them no better. Fairwords and fair pretences; but I penetrated below those assertions ofthemselves and depreciations of me, and they were no better. BeforeI left them, I learned that I had no grandmother and no recognisedrelation. I carried the light of that information both into my pastand into my future. It showed me many new occasions on which peopletriumphed over me, when they made a pretence of treating me withconsideration, or doing me a service.

A man of business had a small property in trust for me. I was to bea governess; I became a governess; and went into the family of a poornobleman, where there were two daughters--little children, but theparents wished them to grow up, if possible, under one instructress. Themother was young and pretty. From the first, she made a show of behavingto me with great delicacy. I kept my resentment to myself; but I knewvery well that it was her way of petting the knowledge that she was myMistress, and might have behaved differently to her servant if it hadbeen her fancy.

I say I did not resent it, nor did I; but I showed her, by notgratifying her, that I understood her. When she pressed me to take wine,I took water. If there happened to be anything choice at table, shealways sent it to me: but I always declined it, and ate of the rejecteddishes. These disappointments of her patronage were a sharp retort, andmade me feel independent.

I liked the children. They were timid, but on the whole disposed toattach themselves to me. There was a nurse, however, in the house, arosy-faced woman always making an obtrusive pretence of being gay andgood-humoured, who had nursed them both, and who had secured theiraffections before I saw them. I could almost have settled down to myfate but for this woman. Her artful devices for keeping herself beforethe children in constant competition with me, might have blinded manyin my place; but I saw through them from the first. On the pretext ofarranging my rooms and waiting on me and taking care of my wardrobe (allof which she did busily), she was never absent. The most crafty of hermany subtleties was her feint of seeking to make the children fonder ofme. She would lead them to me and coax them to me. 'Come to good MissWade, come to dear Miss Wade, come to pretty Miss Wade. She loves youvery much. Miss Wade is a clever lady, who has read heaps of books, andcan tell you far better and more interesting stories than I know. Comeand hear Miss Wade!' How could I engage their attentions, when my heartwas burning against these ignorant designs? How could I wonder, when Isaw their innocent faces shrinking away, and their arms twining roundher neck, instead of mine? Then she would look up at me, shaking theircurls from her face, and say, 'They'll come round soon, Miss Wade;they're very simple and loving, ma'am; don't be at all cast down aboutit, ma'am'--exulting over me!

There was another thing the woman did. At times, when she saw that shehad safely plunged me into a black despondent brooding by these means,she would call the attention of the children to it, and would show themthe difference between herself and me. 'Hush! Poor Miss Wade is notwell. Don't make a noise, my dears, her head aches. Come and comforther. Come and ask her if she is better; come and ask her to lie down. Ihope you have nothing on your mind, ma'am. Don't take on, ma'am, and besorry!'

It became intolerable. Her ladyship, my Mistress, coming in one day whenI was alone, and at the height of feeling that I could support it nolonger, I told her I must go. I could not bear the presence of thatwoman Dawes.

'Miss Wade! Poor Dawes is devoted to you; would do anything for you!'

I knew beforehand she would say so; I was quite prepared for it; I onlyanswered, it was not for me to contradict my Mistress; I must go.

'I hope, Miss Wade,' she returned, instantly assuming the tone ofsuperiority she had always so thinly concealed, 'that nothing I haveever said or done since we have been together, has justified your use ofthat disagreeable word, ”Mistress.” It must have been wholly inadvertenton my part. Pray tell me what it is.'

I replied that I had no complaint to make, either of my Mistress or tomy Mistress; but I must go.

She hesitated a moment, and then sat down beside me, and laid her handon mine. As if that honour would obliterate any remembrance!

'Miss Wade, I fear you are unhappy, through causes over which I have noinfluence.'

I smiled, thinking of the experience the word awakened, and said, 'Ihave an unhappy temper, I suppose.'

'I did not say that.'

'It is an easy way of accounting for anything,' said I.

'It may be; but I did not say so. What I wish to approach is somethingvery different. My husband and I have exchanged some remarks upon thesubject, when we have observed with pain that you have not been easywith us.'

'Easy? Oh! You are such great people, my lady,' said I.

'I am unfortunate in using a word which may convey a meaning--andevidently does--quite opposite to my intention.' (She had not expectedmy reply, and it shamed her.) 'I only mean, not happy with us. It isa difficult topic to enter on; but, from one young woman to another,perhaps--in short, we have been apprehensive that you may allow somefamily circumstances of which no one can be more innocent than yourself,to prey upon your spirits. If so, let us entreat you not to make thema cause of grief. My husband himself, as is well known, formerly had avery dear sister who was not in law his sister, but who was universallybeloved and respected--'

I saw directly that they had taken me in for the sake of the dead woman,whoever she was, and to have that boast of me and advantage of me; Isaw, in the nurse's knowledge of it, an encouragement to goad me asshe had done; and I saw, in the children's shrinking away, a vagueimpression, that I was not like other people. I left that house thatnight.

After one or two short and very similar experiences, which are not tothe present purpose, I entered another family where I had but one pupil:a girl of fifteen, who was the only daughter. The parents here wereelderly people: people of station, and rich. A nephew whom they hadbrought up was a frequent visitor at the house, among many othervisitors; and he began to pay me attention. I was resolute in repulsinghim; for I had determined when I went there, that no one should pity meor condescend to me. But he wrote me a letter. It led to our beingengaged to be married.

He was a year younger than I, and young-looking even when that allowancewas made. He was on absence from India, where he had a post that wassoon to grow into a very good one. In six months we were to be married,and were to go to India. I was to stay in the house, and was to bemarried from the house. Nobody objected to any part of the plan.

I cannot avoid saying he admired me; but, if I could, I would. Vanityhas nothing to do with the declaration, for his admiration worried me.He took no pains to hide it; and caused me to feel among the rich peopleas if he had bought me for my looks, and made a show of his purchase tojustify himself. They appraised me in their own minds, I saw, and werecurious to ascertain what my full value was. I resolved that theyshould not know. I was immovable and silent before them; and would havesuffered any one of them to kill me sooner than I would have laid myselfout to bespeak their approval.

He told me I did not do myself justice. I told him I did, and it wasbecause I did and meant to do so to the last, that I would not stoop topropitiate any of them. He was concerned and even shocked, when I addedthat I wished he would not parade his attachment before them; but hesaid he would sacrifice even the honest impulses of his affection to mypeace.

Under that pretence he began to retort upon me. By the hour together, hewould keep at a distance from me, talking to any one rather than to me.I have sat alone and unnoticed, half an evening, while he conversed withhis young cousin, my pupil. I have seen all the while, in people's eyes,that they thought the two looked nearer on an equality than he and I.I have sat, divining their thoughts, until I have felt that his youngappearance made me ridiculous, and have raged against myself for everloving him.

For I did love him once. Undeserving as he was, and little as he thoughtof all these agonies that it cost me--agonies which should have made himwholly and gratefully mine to his life's end--I loved him. I bore withhis cousin's praising him to my face, and with her pretending to thinkthat it pleased me, but full well knowing that it rankled in my breast;for his sake. While I have sat in his presence recalling all my slightsand wrongs, and deliberating whether I should not fly from the house atonce and never see him again--I have loved him.

His aunt (my Mistress you will please to remember) deliberately,wilfully, added to my trials and vexations. It was her delight toexpatiate on the style in which we were to live in India, and on theestablishment we should keep, and the company we should entertain whenhe got his advancement. My pride rose against this barefaced way ofpointing out the contrast my married life was to present to my thendependent and inferior position. I suppressed my indignation; but Ishowed her that her intention was not lost upon me, and I repaid herannoyance by affecting humility. What she described would surely bea great deal too much honour for me, I would tell her. I was afraidI might not be able to support so great a change. Think of a meregoverness, her daughter's governess, coming to that high distinction! Itmade her uneasy, and made them all uneasy, when I answered in this way.They knew that I fully understood her.

It was at the time when my troubles were at their highest, and whenI was most incensed against my lover for his ingratitude in caring aslittle as he did for the innumerable distresses and mortifications Iunderwent on his account, that your dear friend, Mr Gowan, appearedat the house. He had been intimate there for a long time, but had beenabroad. He understood the state of things at a glance, and he understoodme.

He was the first person I had ever seen in my life who had understoodme. He was not in the house three times before I knew that heaccompanied every movement of my mind. In his coldly easy way with allof them, and with me, and with the whole subject, I saw it clearly.In his light protestations of admiration of my future husband, in hisenthusiasm regarding our engagement and our prospects, in his hopefulcongratulations on our future wealth and his despondent references tohis own poverty--all equally hollow, and jesting, and full of mockery--Isaw it clearly. He made me feel more and more resentful, and more andmore contemptible, by always presenting to me everything that surroundedme with some new hateful light upon it, while he pretended to exhibitit in its best aspect for my admiration and his own. He was like thedressed-up Death in the Dutch series; whatever figure he took upon hisarm, whether it was youth or age, beauty or ugliness, whether he dancedwith it, sang with it, played with it, or prayed with it, he made itghastly.

You will understand, then, that when your dear friend complimented me,he really condoled with me; that when he soothed me under my vexations,he laid bare every smarting wound I had; that when he declared my'faithful swain' to be 'the most loving young fellow in the world, withthe tenderest heart that ever beat,' he touched my old misgiving thatI was made ridiculous. These were not great services, you may say. Theywere acceptable to me, because they echoed my own mind, and confirmedmy own knowledge. I soon began to like the society of your dear friendbetter than any other.

When I perceived (which I did, almost as soon) that jealousy was growingout of this, I liked this society still better. Had I not been subjectto jealousy, and were the endurances to be all mine? No. Let him knowwhat it was! I was delighted that he should know it; I was delightedthat he should feel keenly, and I hoped he did. More than that. He wastame in comparison with Mr Gowan, who knew how to address me on equalterms, and how to anatomise the wretched people around us.

This went on, until the aunt, my Mistress, took it upon herself to speakto me. It was scarcely worth alluding to; she knew I meant nothing; butshe suggested from herself, knowing it was only necessary to suggest,that it might be better if I were a little less companionable with MrGowan.

I asked her how she could answer for what I meant? She could alwaysanswer, she replied, for my meaning nothing wrong. I thanked her,but said I would prefer to answer for myself and to myself. Her otherservants would probably be grateful for good characters, but I wantednone.

Other conversation followed, and induced me to ask her how she knew thatit was only necessary for her to make a suggestion to me, to have itobeyed? Did she presume on my birth, or on my hire? I was not bought,body and soul. She seemed to think that her distinguished nephew hadgone into a slave-market and purchased a wife.

It would probably have come, sooner or later, to the end to which it didcome, but she brought it to its issue at once. She told me, with assumedcommiseration, that I had an unhappy temper. On this repetition of theold wicked injury, I withheld no longer, but exposed to her all I hadknown of her and seen in her, and all I had undergone within myselfsince I had occupied the despicable position of being engaged to hernephew. I told her that Mr Gowan was the only relief I had had in mydegradation; that I had borne it too long, and that I shook it off toolate; but that I would see none of them more. And I never did.

Your dear friend followed me to my retreat, and was very droll on theseverance of the connection; though he was sorry, too, for the excellentpeople (in their way the best he had ever met), and deplored thenecessity of breaking mere house-flies on the wheel. He protested beforelong, and far more truly than I then supposed, that he was not worthacceptance by a woman of such endowments, and such power of character;but--well, well--!

Your dear friend amused me and amused himself as long as it suitedhis inclinations; and then reminded me that we were both people of theworld, that we both understood mankind, that we both knew there was nosuch thing as romance, that we were both prepared for going differentways to seek our fortunes like people of sense, and that we both foresawthat whenever we encountered one another again we should meet as thebest friends on earth. So he said, and I did not contradict him.

It was not very long before I found that he was courting his presentwife, and that she had been taken away to be out of his reach. I hatedher then, quite as much as I hate her now; and naturally, therefore,could desire nothing better than that she should marry him. But I wasrestlessly curious to look at her--so curious that I felt it to be oneof the few sources of entertainment left to me. I travelled a little:travelled until I found myself in her society, and in yours. Your dearfriend, I think, was not known to you then, and had not given you any ofthose signal marks of his friendship which he has bestowed upon you.

In that company I found a girl, in various circumstances of whoseposition there was a singular likeness to my own, and in whose characterI was interested and pleased to see much of the rising against swollenpatronage and selfishness, calling themselves kindness, protection,benevolence, and other fine names, which I have described as inherent inmy nature. I often heard it said, too, that she had 'an unhappy temper.'Well understanding what was meant by the convenient phrase, and wantinga companion with a knowledge of what I knew, I thought I would try torelease the girl from her bondage and sense of injustice. I have nooccasion to relate that I succeeded.

We have been together ever since, sharing my small means.