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Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/62

CHAPTER 24. The Evening of a Long Day

That illustrious man and great national ornament, Mr Merdle, continuedhis shining course. It began to be widely understood that one who haddone society the admirable service of making so much money out of it,could not be suffered to remain a commoner. A baronetcy was spoken ofwith confidence; a peerage was frequently mentioned. Rumour had itthat Mr Merdle had set his golden face against a baronetcy; that he hadplainly intimated to Lord Decimus that a baronetcy was not enoughfor him; that he had said, 'No--a Peerage, or plain Merdle.' This wasreported to have plunged Lord Decimus as nigh to his noble chin in aslough of doubts as so lofty a person could be sunk. For the Barnacles,as a group of themselves in creation, had an idea that such distinctionsbelonged to them; and that when a soldier, sailor, or lawyer becameennobled, they let him in, as it were, by an act of condescension, atthe family door, and immediately shut it again. Not only (said Rumour)had the troubled Decimus his own hereditary part in this impression, buthe also knew of several Barnacle claims already on the file, which cameinto collision with that of the master spirit. Right or wrong, Rumourwas very busy; and Lord Decimus, while he was, or was supposed to be, instately excogitation of the difficulty, lent her some countenance bytaking, on several public occasions, one of those elephantine trots ofhis through a jungle of overgrown sentences, waving Mr Merdle about onhis trunk as Gigantic Enterprise, The Wealth of England, Elasticity,Credit, Capital, Prosperity, and all manner of blessings.

So quietly did the mowing of the old scythe go on, that fully threemonths had passed unnoticed since the two English brothers had been laidin one tomb in the strangers' cemetery at Rome. Mr and Mrs Sparkler wereestablished in their own house: a little mansion, rather of the TiteBarnacle class, quite a triumph of inconvenience, with a perpetual smellin it of the day before yesterday's soup and coach-horses, but extremelydear, as being exactly in the centre of the habitable globe. In thisenviable abode (and envied it really was by many people), Mrs Sparklerhad intended to proceed at once to the demolition of the Bosom, whenactive hostilities had been suspended by the arrival of the Courier withhis tidings of death. Mrs Sparkler, who was not unfeeling, had receivedthem with a violent burst of grief, which had lasted twelve hours;after which, she had arisen to see about her mourning, and to take everyprecaution that could ensure its being as becoming as Mrs Merdle's. Agloom was then cast over more than one distinguished family (accordingto the politest sources of intelligence), and the Courier went backagain.

Mr and Mrs Sparkler had been dining alone, with their gloom cast overthem, and Mrs Sparkler reclined on a drawing-room sofa. It was a hotsummer Sunday evening. The residence in the centre of the habitableglobe, at all times stuffed and close as if it had an incurable cold inits head, was that evening particularly stifling. The bells of thechurches had done their worst in the way of clanging among theunmelodious echoes of the streets, and the lighted windows of thechurches had ceased to be yellow in the grey dusk, and had died outopaque black. Mrs Sparkler, lying on her sofa, looking through an openwindow at the opposite side of a narrow street over boxes of mignonetteand flowers, was tired of the view. Mrs Sparkler, looking at anotherwindow where her husband stood in the balcony, was tired of that view.Mrs Sparkler, looking at herself in her mourning, was even tired of thatview: though, naturally, not so tired of that as of the other two.

'It's like lying in a well,' said Mrs Sparkler, changing her positionfretfully. 'Dear me, Edmund, if you have anything to say, why don't yousay it?'

Mr Sparkler might have replied with ingenuousness, 'My life, I havenothing to say.' But, as the repartee did not occur to him, he contentedhimself with coming in from the balcony and standing at the side of hiswife's couch.

'Good gracious, Edmund!' said Mrs Sparkler more fretfully still, 'you areabsolutely putting mignonette up your nose! Pray don't!'

Mr Sparkler, in absence of mind--perhaps in a more literal absence ofmind than is usually understood by the phrase--had smelt so hard at asprig in his hand as to be on the verge of the offence in question. Hesmiled, said, 'I ask your pardon, my dear,' and threw it out of window.

'You make my head ache by remaining in that position, Edmund,' said MrsSparkler, raising her eyes to him after another minute; 'you look soaggravatingly large by this light. Do sit down.'

'Certainly, my dear,' said Mr Sparkler, and took a chair on the samespot.

'If I didn't know that the longest day was past,' said Fanny, yawning ina dreary manner, 'I should have felt certain this was the longest day. Inever did experience such a day.'

'Is that your fan, my love?' asked Mr Sparkler, picking up one andpresenting it.

'Edmund,' returned his wife, more wearily yet, 'don't ask weakquestions, I entreat you not. Whose can it be but mine?'

'Yes, I thought it was yours,' said Mr Sparkler.

'Then you shouldn't ask,' retorted Fanny. After a little while sheturned on her sofa and exclaimed, 'Dear me, dear me, there never wassuch a long day as this!' After another little while, she got up slowly,walked about, and came back again.

'My dear,' said Mr Sparkler, flashing with an original conception, 'Ithink you must have got the fidgets.'

'Oh, Fidgets!' repeated Mrs Sparkler. 'Don't.'

'My adorable girl,' urged Mr Sparkler, 'try your aromatic vinegar. Ihave often seen my mother try it, and it seemingly refreshed her.

And she is, as I believe you are aware, a remarkably fine woman, with nonon--'

'Good Gracious!' exclaimed Fanny, starting up again. 'It's beyond allpatience! This is the most wearisome day that ever did dawn upon theworld, I am certain.'

Mr Sparkler looked meekly after her as she lounged about the room, andhe appeared to be a little frightened. When she had tossed a few triflesabout, and had looked down into the darkening street out of all thethree windows, she returned to her sofa, and threw herself among itspillows.

'Now Edmund, come here! Come a little nearer, because I want to be ableto touch you with my fan, that I may impress you very much with what Iam going to say. That will do. Quite close enough. Oh, you _do_ look sobig!'

Mr Sparkler apologised for the circumstance, pleaded that he couldn'thelp it, and said that 'our fellows,' without more particularlyindicating whose fellows, used to call him by the name of QuinbusFlestrin, Junior, or the Young Man Mountain.

'You ought to have told me so before,' Fanny complained.

'My dear,' returned Mr Sparkler, rather gratified, 'I didn't knowIt would interest you, or I would have made a point of telling you.'

'There! For goodness sake, don't talk,' said Fanny; 'I want to talk,myself. Edmund, we must not be alone any more. I must take suchprecautions as will prevent my being ever again reduced to the state ofdreadful depression in which I am this evening.'

'My dear,' answered Mr Sparkler; 'being as you are well known to be, aremarkably fine woman with no--'

'Oh, good GRACIOUS!' cried Fanny.

Mr Sparkler was so discomposed by the energy of this exclamation,accompanied with a flouncing up from the sofa and a flouncing downagain, that a minute or two elapsed before he felt himself equal tosaying in explanation:

'I mean, my dear, that everybody knows you are calculated to shine insociety.'

'Calculated to shine in society,' retorted Fanny with greatirritability; 'yes, indeed! And then what happens? I no sooner recover,in a visiting point of view, the shock of poor dear papa's death, and mypoor uncle's--though I do not disguise from myself that the last wasa happy release, for, if you are not presentable you had much betterdie--'

'You are not referring to me, my love, I hope?' Mr Sparkler humblyinterrupted.

'Edmund, Edmund, you would wear out a Saint. Am I not expressly speakingof my poor uncle?'

'You looked with so much expression at myself, my dear girl,' said MrSparkler, 'that I felt a little uncomfortable. Thank you, my love.'

'Now you have put me out,' observed Fanny with a resigned toss of herfan, 'and I had better go to bed.'

'Don't do that, my love,' urged Mr Sparkler. 'Take time.'

Fanny took a good deal of time: lying back with her eyes shut, and hereyebrows raised with a hopeless expression as if she had utterly givenup all terrestrial affairs. At length, without the slightest notice, sheopened her eyes again, and recommenced in a short, sharp manner:

'What happens then, I ask! What happens? Why, I find myself at the veryperiod when I might shine most in society, and should most like forvery momentous reasons to shine in society--I find myself in a situationwhich to a certain extent disqualifies me for going into society. It'stoo bad, really!'

'My dear,' said Mr Sparkler. 'I don't think it need keep you athome.'

'Edmund, you ridiculous creature,' returned Fanny, with greatindignation; 'do you suppose that a woman in the bloom of youth and notwholly devoid of personal attractions, can put herself, at such atime, in competition as to figure with a woman in every other way herinferior? If you do suppose such a thing, your folly is boundless.'

Mr Sparkler submitted that he had thought 'it might be got over.'

'Got over!' repeated Fanny, with immeasurable scorn.

'For a time,' Mr Sparkler submitted.

Honouring the last feeble suggestion with no notice, Mrs Sparklerdeclared with bitterness that it really was too bad, and that positivelyit was enough to make one wish one was dead!

'However,' she said, when she had in some measure recovered from hersense of personal ill-usage; 'provoking as it is, and cruel as it seems,I suppose it must be submitted to.'

'Especially as it was to be expected,' said Mr Sparkler.

'Edmund,' returned his wife, 'if you have nothing more becoming to dothan to attempt to insult the woman who has honoured you with her hand,when she finds herself in adversity, I think _you_ had better go to bed!'

Mr Sparkler was much afflicted by the charge, and offered a mosttender and earnest apology. His apology was accepted; but Mrs Sparklerrequested him to go round to the other side of the sofa and sit in thewindow-curtain, to tone himself down.

'Now, Edmund,' she said, stretching out her fan, and touching him withit at arm's length, 'what I was going to say to you when you began asusual to prose and worry, is, that I shall guard against our being aloneany more, and that when circumstances prevent my going out to my ownsatisfaction, I must arrange to have some people or other always here;for I really cannot, and will not, have another such day as this hasbeen.'

Mr Sparkler's sentiments as to the plan were, in brief, that it had nononsense about it. He added, 'And besides, you know it's likely thatyou'll soon have your sister--'

'Dearest Amy, yes!' cried Mrs Sparkler with a sigh of affection.'Darling little thing! Not, however, that Amy would do here alone.'

Mr Sparkler was going to say 'No?' interrogatively, but he saw hisdanger and said it assentingly, 'No, Oh dear no; she wouldn't do herealone.'

'No, Edmund. For not only are the virtues of the precious child of thatstill character that they require a contrast--require life and movementaround them to bring them out in their right colours and make one lovethem of all things; but she will require to be roused, on more accountsthan one.'

'That's it,' said Mr Sparkler. 'Roused.'

'Pray don't, Edmund! Your habit of interrupting without having the leastthing in the world to say, distracts one. You must be broken of it.Speaking of Amy;--my poor little pet was devotedly attached to poorpapa, and no doubt will have lamented his loss exceedingly, and grievedvery much. I have done so myself. I have felt it dreadfully. But Amywill no doubt have felt it even more, from having been on the spot thewhole time, and having been with poor dear papa at the last; which Iunhappily was not.'

Here Fanny stopped to weep, and to say, 'Dear, dear, beloved papa! Howtruly gentlemanly he was! What a contrast to poor uncle!'

'From the effects of that trying time,' she pursued, 'my good littleMouse will have to be roused. Also, from the effects of this longattendance upon Edward in his illness; an attendance which is notyet over, which may even go on for some time longer, and which in themeanwhile unsettles us all by keeping poor dear papa's affairs frombeing wound up. Fortunately, however, the papers with his agentshere being all sealed up and locked up, as he left them when heprovidentially came to England, the affairs are in that state of orderthat they can wait until my brother Edward recovers his health inSicily, sufficiently to come over, and administer, or execute, orwhatever it may be that will have to be done.'

'He couldn't have a better nurse to bring him round,' Mr Sparkler madebold to opine.

'For a wonder, I can agree with you,' returned his wife, languidlyturning her eyelids a little in his direction (she held forth, ingeneral, as if to the drawing-room furniture), 'and can adopt yourwords. He couldn't have a better nurse to bring him round. There aretimes when my dear child is a little wearing to an active mind; but, asa nurse, she is Perfection. Best of Amys!'

Mr Sparkler, growing rash on his late success, observed that Edward hadhad, biggodd, a long bout of it, my dear girl.

'If Bout, Edmund,' returned Mrs Sparkler, 'is the slang term forindisposition, he has. If it is not, I am unable to give an opinionon the barbarous language you address to Edward's sister. That hecontracted Malaria Fever somewhere, either by travelling day and nightto Rome, where, after all, he arrived too late to see poor dear papabefore his death--or under some other unwholesome circumstances--isindubitable, if that is what you mean. Likewise that his extremelycareless life has made him a very bad subject for it indeed.'

Mr Sparkler considered it a parallel case to that of some of our fellowsin the West Indies with Yellow Jack. Mrs Sparkler closed her eyes again,and refused to have any consciousness of our fellows of the West Indies,or of Yellow Jack.

'So, Amy,' she pursued, when she reopened her eyelids, 'will requireto be roused from the effects of many tedious and anxious weeks. Andlastly, she will require to be roused from a low tendency which I knowvery well to be at the bottom of her heart. Don't ask me what it is,Edmund, because I must decline to tell you.'

'I am not going to, my dear,' said Mr Sparkler.

'I shall thus have much improvement to effect in my sweet child,' MrsSparkler continued, 'and cannot have her near me too soon. Amiable anddear little Twoshoes! As to the settlement of poor papa's affairs, myinterest in that is not very selfish. Papa behaved very generously to mewhen I was married, and I have little or nothing to expect. Providedhe had made no will that can come into force, leaving a legacy to MrsGeneral, I am contented. Dear papa, dear papa.'

She wept again, but Mrs General was the best of restoratives. The namesoon stimulated her to dry her eyes and say:

'It is a highly encouraging circumstance in Edward's illness, I amthankful to think, and gives one the greatest confidence in his sensenot being impaired, or his proper spirit weakened--down to the timeof poor dear papa's death at all events--that he paid off Mrs Generalinstantly, and sent her out of the house. I applaud him for it. I couldforgive him a great deal for doing, with such promptitude, so exactlywhat I would have done myself!'

Mrs Sparkler was in the full glow of her gratification, when a doubleknock was heard at the door. A very odd knock. Low, as if to avoidmaking a noise and attracting attention. Long, as if the person knockingwere preoccupied in mind, and forgot to leave off.

'Halloa!' said Mr Sparkler. 'Who's this?'

'Not Amy and Edward without notice and without a carriage!' said MrsSparkler. 'Look out.'

The room was dark, but the street was lighter, because of its lamps. MrSparkler's head peeping over the balcony looked so very bulky and heavythat it seemed on the point of overbalancing him and flattening theunknown below.

'It's one fellow,' said Mr Sparkler. 'I can't see who--stop though!'

On this second thought he went out into the balcony again and hadanother look. He came back as the door was opened, and announced that hebelieved he had identified 'his governor's tile.' He was not mistaken,for his governor, with his tile in his hand, was introduced immediatelyafterwards.

'Candles!' said Mrs Sparkler, with a word of excuse for the darkness.

'It's light enough for me,' said Mr Merdle.

When the candles were brought in, Mr Merdle was discovered standingbehind the door, picking his lips. 'I thought I'd give you a call,' hesaid. 'I am rather particularly occupied just now; and, as I happened tobe out for a stroll, I thought I'd give you a call.'

As he was in dinner dress, Fanny asked him where he had been dining?

'Well,' said Mr Merdle, 'I haven't been dining anywhere, particularly.'

'Of course you have dined?' said Fanny.

'Why--no, I haven't exactly dined,' said Mr Merdle.

He had passed his hand over his yellow forehead and considered, as if hewere not sure about it. Something to eat was proposed. 'No, thank you,'said Mr Merdle, 'I don't feel inclined for it. I was to have dined outalong with Mrs Merdle. But as I didn't feel inclined for dinner, I letMrs Merdle go by herself just as we were getting into the carriage, andthought I'd take a stroll instead.'

Would he have tea or coffee? 'No, thank you,' said Mr Merdle. 'I lookedin at the Club, and got a bottle of wine.'

At this period of his visit, Mr Merdle took the chair which EdmundSparkler had offered him, and which he had hitherto been pushing slowlyabout before him, like a dull man with a pair of skates on for the firsttime, who could not make up his mind to start. He now put his hat uponanother chair beside him, and, looking down into it as if it were sometwenty feet deep, said again: 'You see I thought I'd give you a call.'

'Flattering to us,' said Fanny, 'for you are not a calling man.'

'No--no,' returned Mr Merdle, who was by this time taking himself intocustody under both coat-sleeves. 'No, I am not a calling man.'

'You have too much to do for that,' said Fanny. 'Having so much to do,Mr Merdle, loss of appetite is a serious thing with you, and you musthave it seen to. You must not be ill.'

'Oh! I am very well,' replied Mr Merdle, after deliberating about it. 'Iam as well as I usually am. I am well enough. I am as well as I want tobe.'

The master-mind of the age, true to its characteristic of being at alltimes a mind that had as little as possible to say for itself and greatdifficulty in saying it, became mute again. Mrs Sparkler began to wonderhow long the master-mind meant to stay.

'I was speaking of poor papa when you came in, sir.'

'Aye! Quite a coincidence,' said Mr Merdle.

Fanny did not see that; but felt it incumbent on her to continuetalking. 'I was saying,' she pursued, 'that my brother's illness hasoccasioned a delay in examining and arranging papa's property.'

'Yes,' said Mr Merdle; 'yes. There has been a delay.'

'Not that it is of consequence,' said Fanny.

'Not,' assented Mr Merdle, after having examined the cornice of allthat part of the room which was within his range: 'not that it is of anyconsequence.'

'My only anxiety is,' said Fanny, 'that Mrs General should not getanything.'

'_She_ won't get anything,' said Mr Merdle.

Fanny was delighted to hear him express the opinion. Mr Merdle, aftertaking another gaze into the depths of his hat as if he thought he sawsomething at the bottom, rubbed his hair and slowly appended to his lastremark the confirmatory words, 'Oh dear no. No. Not she. Not likely.'

As the topic seemed exhausted, and Mr Merdle too, Fanny inquired if hewere going to take up Mrs Merdle and the carriage in his way home?

'No,' he answered; 'I shall go by the shortest way, and leave Mrs Merdleto--' here he looked all over the palms of both his hands as if he weretelling his own fortune--'to take care of herself. I dare say she'llmanage to do it.'

'Probably,' said Fanny.

There was then a long silence; during which, Mrs Sparkler, lying backon her sofa again, shut her eyes and raised her eyebrows in her formerretirement from mundane affairs.

'But, however,' said Mr Merdle, 'I am equally detaining you and myself.I thought I'd give you a call, you know.'

'Charmed, I am sure,' said Fanny.

'So I am off,' added Mr Merdle, getting up. 'Could you lend me apenknife?'

It was an odd thing, Fanny smilingly observed, for her who could seldomprevail upon herself even to write a letter, to lend to a man of suchvast business as Mr Merdle. 'Isn't it?' Mr Merdle acquiesced; 'butI want one; and I know you have got several little wedding keepsakesabout, with scissors and tweezers and such things in them. You shallhave it back to-morrow.'

'Edmund,' said Mrs Sparkler, 'open (now, very carefully, I beg andbeseech, for you are so very awkward) the mother of pearl box on mylittle table there, and give Mr Merdle the mother of pearl penknife.'

'Thank you,' said Mr Merdle; 'but if you have got one with a darkerhandle, I think I should prefer one with a darker handle.'

'Tortoise-shell?'

'Thank you,' said Mr Merdle; 'yes. I think I should prefertortoise-shell.'

Edmund accordingly received instructions to open the tortoise-shell box,and give Mr Merdle the tortoise-shell knife. On his doing so, his wifesaid to the master-spirit graciously:

'I will forgive you, if you ink it.'

'I'll undertake not to ink it,' said Mr Merdle.

The illustrious visitor then put out his coat-cuff, and for a momententombed Mrs Sparkler's hand: wrist, bracelet, and all. Where his ownhand had shrunk to, was not made manifest, but it was as remote from MrsSparkler's sense of touch as if he had been a highly meritorious ChelseaVeteran or Greenwich Pensioner.

Thoroughly convinced, as he went out of the room, that it was thelongest day that ever did come to an end at last, and that there neverwas a woman, not wholly devoid of personal attractions, so worn out byidiotic and lumpish people, Fanny passed into the balcony for a breathof air. Waters of vexation filled her eyes; and they had the effect ofmaking the famous Mr Merdle, in going down the street, appear to leap,and waltz, and gyrate, as if he were possessed of several Devils.