Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/63

CHAPTER 25. The Chief Butler Resigns the Seals of Office

The dinner-party was at the great Physician's. Bar was there, and infull force. Ferdinand Barnacle was there, and in his most engagingstate. Few ways of life were hidden from Physician, and he was oftenerin its darkest places than even Bishop. There were brilliant ladiesabout London who perfectly doted on him, my dear, as the most charmingcreature and the most delightful person, who would have been shocked tofind themselves so close to him if they could have known on what sightsthose thoughtful eyes of his had rested within an hour or two, and nearto whose beds, and under what roofs, his composed figure had stood. ButPhysician was a composed man, who performed neither on his own trumpet,nor on the trumpets of other people. Many wonderful things did he seeand hear, and much irreconcilable moral contradiction did he pass hislife among; yet his equality of compassion was no more disturbed thanthe Divine Master's of all healing was. He went, like the rain,among the just and unjust, doing all the good he could, and neitherproclaiming it in the synagogues nor at the corner of streets.

As no man of large experience of humanity, however quietly carriedit may be, can fail to be invested with an interest peculiar to thepossession of such knowledge, Physician was an attractive man. Even thedaintier gentlemen and ladies who had no idea of his secret, andwho would have been startled out of more wits than they had, by themonstrous impropriety of his proposing to them 'Come and see what Isee!' confessed his attraction. Where he was, something real was. Andhalf a grain of reality, like the smallest portion of some other scarcenatural productions, will flavour an enormous quantity of diluent.

It came to pass, therefore, that Physician's little dinners alwayspresented people in their least conventional lights. The guests said tothemselves, whether they were conscious of it or no, 'Here is a man whoreally has an acquaintance with us as we are, who is admitted to someof us every day with our wigs and paint off, who hears the wanderings ofour minds, and sees the undisguised expression of our faces, when bothare past our control; we may as well make an approach to reality withhim, for the man has got the better of us and is too strong for us.'Therefore, Physician's guests came out so surprisingly at his roundtable that they were almost natural.

Bar's knowledge of that agglomeration of jurymen which is calledhumanity was as sharp as a razor; yet a razor is not a generallyconvenient instrument, and Physician's plain bright scalpel, though farless keen, was adaptable to far wider purposes. Bar knew all about thegullibility and knavery of people; but Physician could have given hima better insight into their tendernesses and affections, in one week ofhis rounds, than Westminster Hall and all the circuits put together,in threescore years and ten. Bar always had a suspicion of this, andperhaps was glad to encourage it (for, if the world were really a greatLaw Court, one would think that the last day of Term could not too soonarrive); and so he liked and respected Physician quite as much as anyother kind of man did.

Mr Merdle's default left a Banquo's chair at the table; but, if he hadbeen there, he would have merely made the difference of Banquo in it,and consequently he was no loss. Bar, who picked up all sorts of oddsand ends about Westminster Hall, much as a raven would have done if hehad passed as much of his time there, had been picking up a great manystraws lately and tossing them about, to try which way the Merdle windblew. He now had a little talk on the subject with Mrs Merdle herself;sidling up to that lady, of course, with his double eye-glass and hisjury droop.

'A certain bird,' said Bar; and he looked as if it could have been noother bird than a magpie; 'has been whispering among us lawyers lately,that there is to be an addition to the titled personages of this realm.'

'Really?' said Mrs Merdle.

'Yes,' said Bar. 'Has not the bird been whispering in very differentears from ours--in lovely ears?' He looked expressively at Mrs Merdle'snearest ear-ring.

'Do you mean mine?' asked Mrs Merdle.

'When I say lovely,' said Bar, 'I always mean you.'

'You never mean anything, I think,' returned Mrs Merdle (notdispleased).

'Oh, cruelly unjust!' said Bar. 'But, the bird.'

'I am the last person in the world to hear news,' observed Mrs Merdle,carelessly arranging her stronghold. 'Who is it?'

'What an admirable witness you would make!' said Bar. 'No jury (unlesswe could empanel one of blind men) could resist you, if you were ever sobad a one; but you would be such a good one!'

'Why, you ridiculous man?' asked Mrs Merdle, laughing.

Bar waved his double eye-glass three or four times between himself andthe Bosom, as a rallying answer, and inquired in his most insinuatingaccents:

'What am I to call the most elegant, accomplished and charming of women,a few weeks, or it may be a few days, hence?'

'Didn't your bird tell you what to call her?' answered Mrs Merdle. 'Doask it to-morrow, and tell me the next time you see me what it says.'

This led to further passages of similar pleasantry between the two; butBar, with all his sharpness, got nothing out of them. Physician, on theother hand, taking Mrs Merdle down to her carriage and attending on heras she put on her cloak, inquired into the symptoms with his usual calmdirectness.

'May I ask,' he said, 'is this true about Merdle?'

'My dear doctor,' she returned, 'you ask me the very question that I washalf disposed to ask you.'

'To ask me! Why me?'

'Upon my honour, I think Mr Merdle reposes greater confidence in youthan in any one.'

'On the contrary, he tells me absolutely nothing, even professionally.You have heard the talk, of course?'

'Of course I have. But you know what Mr Merdle is; you know howtaciturn and reserved he is. I assure you I have no idea what foundationfor it there may be. I should like it to be true; why should I deny thatto you? You would know better, if I did!'

'Just so,' said Physician.

'But whether it is all true, or partly true, or entirely false, I amwholly unable to say. It is a most provoking situation, a most absurdsituation; but you know Mr Merdle, and are not surprised.'

Physician was not surprised, handed her into her carriage, and bade herGood Night. He stood for a moment at his own hall door, looking sedatelyat the elegant equipage as it rattled away. On his return up-stairs, therest of the guests soon dispersed, and he was left alone. Being a greatreader of all kinds of literature (and never at all apologetic for thatweakness), he sat down comfortably to read.

The clock upon his study table pointed to a few minutes short of twelve,when his attention was called to it by a ringing at the door bell. A manof plain habits, he had sent his servants to bed and must needs go downto open the door. He went down, and there found a man without hat orcoat, whose shirt sleeves were rolled up tight to his shoulders. For amoment, he thought the man had been fighting: the rather, as he was muchagitated and out of breath. A second look, however, showed him thatthe man was particularly clean, and not otherwise discomposed as to hisdress than as it answered this description.

'I come from the warm-baths, sir, round in the neighbouring street.'

'And what is the matter at the warm-baths?'

'Would you please to come directly, sir. We found that, lying on thetable.'

He put into the physician's hand a scrap of paper. Physician looked atit, and read his own name and address written in pencil; nothing more.He looked closer at the writing, looked at the man, took his hat fromits peg, put the key of his door in his pocket, and they hurried awaytogether.

When they came to the warm-baths, all the other people belonging to thatestablishment were looking out for them at the door, and running up anddown the passages. 'Request everybody else to keep back, if you please,'said the physician aloud to the master; 'and do you take me straight tothe place, my friend,' to the messenger.

The messenger hurried before him, along a grove of little rooms,and turning into one at the end of the grove, looked round the door.Physician was close upon him, and looked round the door too.

There was a bath in that corner, from which the water had been hastilydrained off. Lying in it, as in a grave or sarcophagus, with a hurrieddrapery of sheet and blanket thrown across it, was the body of aheavily-made man, with an obtuse head, and coarse, mean, commonfeatures. A sky-light had been opened to release the steam with whichthe room had been filled; but it hung, condensed into water-drops,heavily upon the walls, and heavily upon the face and figure in thebath. The room was still hot, and the marble of the bath still warm; butthe face and figure were clammy to the touch. The white marble at thebottom of the bath was veined with a dreadful red. On the ledge atthe side, were an empty laudanum-bottle and a tortoise-shell handledpenknife--soiled, but not with ink.

'Separation of jugular vein--death rapid--been dead at least half anhour.' This echo of the physician's words ran through the passagesand little rooms, and through the house while he was yet straighteninghimself from having bent down to reach to the bottom of the bath, andwhile he was yet dabbling his hands in water; redly veining it as themarble was veined, before it mingled into one tint.

He turned his eyes to the dress upon the sofa, and to the watch, money,and pocket-book on the table. A folded note half buckled up in thepocket-book, and half protruding from it, caught his observant glance.He looked at it, touched it, pulled it a little further out from amongthe leaves, said quietly, 'This is addressed to me,' and opened and readit.

There were no directions for him to give. The people of the house knewwhat to do; the proper authorities were soon brought; and they took anequable business-like possession of the deceased, and of what had beenhis property, with no greater disturbance of manner or countenance thanusually attends the winding-up of a clock. Physician was glad to walkout into the night air--was even glad, in spite of his great experience,to sit down upon a door-step for a little while: feeling sick and faint.

Bar was a near neighbour of his, and, when he came to the house, he sawa light in the room where he knew his friend often sat late getting uphis work. As the light was never there when Bar was not, it gave himassurance that Bar was not yet in bed. In fact, this busy bee hada verdict to get to-morrow, against evidence, and was improving theshining hours in setting snares for the gentlemen of the jury.

Physician's knock astonished Bar; but, as he immediately suspected thatsomebody had come to tell him that somebody else was robbing him, orotherwise trying to get the better of him, he came down promptly andsoftly. He had been clearing his head with a lotion of cold water, as agood preparative to providing hot water for the heads of the jury, andhad been reading with the neck of his shirt thrown wide open that hemight the more freely choke the opposite witnesses. In consequence, hecame down, looking rather wild. Seeing Physician, the least expected ofmen, he looked wilder and said, 'What's the matter?'

'You asked me once what Merdle's complaint was.'

'Extraordinary answer! I know I did.'

'I told you I had not found out.'

'Yes. I know you did.'

'I have found it out.'

'My God!' said Bar, starting back, and clapping his hand upon theother's breast. 'And so have I! I see it in your face.'

They went into the nearest room, where Physician gave him the letter toread. He read it through half-a-dozen times. There was not much in itas to quantity; but it made a great demand on his close and continuousattention. He could not sufficiently give utterance to his regret thathe had not himself found a clue to this. The smallest clue, he said,would have made him master of the case, and what a case it would havebeen to have got to the bottom of!

Physician had engaged to break the intelligence in Harley Street. Barcould not at once return to his inveiglements of the most enlightenedand remarkable jury he had ever seen in that box, with whom, he couldtell his learned friend, no shallow sophistry would go down, and nounhappily abused professional tact and skill prevail (this was the wayhe meant to begin with them); so he said he would go too, and wouldloiter to and fro near the house while his friend was inside. Theywalked there, the better to recover self-possession in the air; and thewings of day were fluttering the night when Physician knocked at thedoor.

A footman of rainbow hues, in the public eye, was sitting up for hismaster--that is to say, was fast asleep in the kitchen over a coupleof candles and a newspaper, demonstrating the great accumulation ofmathematical odds against the probabilities of a house being set on fireby accident When this serving man was roused, Physician had still toawait the rousing of the Chief Butler. At last that noble creature cameinto the dining-room in a flannel gown and list shoes; but with hiscravat on, and a Chief Butler all over. It was morning now. Physicianhad opened the shutters of one window while waiting, that he might seethe light.

'Mrs Merdle's maid must be called, and told to get Mrs Merdle up, andprepare her as gently as she can to see me. I have dreadful news tobreak to her.'

Thus Physician to the Chief Butler. The latter, who had a candle in hishand, called his man to take it away. Then he approached the window withdignity; looking on at Physician's news exactly as he had looked on atthe dinners in that very room.

'Mr Merdle is dead.'

'I should wish,' said the Chief Butler, 'to give a month's notice.'

'Mr Merdle has destroyed himself.'

'Sir,' said the Chief Butler, 'that is very unpleasant to the feelingsof one in my position, as calculated to awaken prejudice; and I shouldwish to leave immediately.'

'If you are not shocked, are you not surprised, man?' demanded thePhysician, warmly.

The Chief Butler, erect and calm, replied in these memorable words.'Sir, Mr Merdle never was the gentleman, and no ungentlemanly act onMr Merdle's part would surprise me. Is there anybody else I can send toyou, or any other directions I can give before I leave, respecting whatyou would wish to be done?'

When Physician, after discharging himself of his trust up-stairs,rejoined Bar in the street, he said no more of his interview with MrsMerdle than that he had not yet told her all, but that what he had toldher she had borne pretty well. Bar had devoted his leisure in the streetto the construction of a most ingenious man-trap for catching the wholeof his jury at a blow; having got that matter settled in his mind,it was lucid on the late catastrophe, and they walked home slowly,discussing it in every bearing. Before parting at the Physician's door,they both looked up at the sunny morning sky, into which the smoke of afew early fires and the breath and voices of a few early stirrers werepeacefully rising, and then looked round upon the immense city, andsaid, if all those hundreds and thousands of beggared people who wereyet asleep could only know, as they two spoke, the ruin that impendedover them, what a fearful cry against one miserable soul would go up toHeaven!

The report that the great man was dead, got about with astonishingrapidity. At first, he was dead of all the diseases that ever wereknown, and of several bran-new maladies invented with the speed ofLight to meet the demand of the occasion. He had concealed a dropsy frominfancy, he had inherited a large estate of water on the chest from hisgrandfather, he had had an operation performed upon him every morningof his life for eighteen years, he had been subject to the explosion ofimportant veins in his body after the manner of fireworks, he had hadsomething the matter with his lungs, he had had something the matterwith his heart, he had had something the matter with his brain. Fivehundred people who sat down to breakfast entirely uninformed on thewhole subject, believed before they had done breakfast, that theyprivately and personally knew Physician to have said to Mr Merdle, 'Youmust expect to go out, some day, like the snuff of a candle;' and thatthey knew Mr Merdle to have said to Physician, 'A man can die but once.'By about eleven o'clock in the forenoon, something the matter with thebrain, became the favourite theory against the field; and by twelve thesomething had been distinctly ascertained to be 'Pressure.'

Pressure was so entirely satisfactory to the public mind, and seemed tomake everybody so comfortable, that it might have lasted all day but forBar's having taken the real state of the case into Court at half-pastnine. This led to its beginning to be currently whispered all overLondon by about one, that Mr Merdle had killed himself. Pressure,however, so far from being overthrown by the discovery, became a greaterfavourite than ever. There was a general moralising upon Pressure, inevery street. All the people who had tried to make money and had notbeen able to do it, said, There you were! You no sooner began to devoteyourself to the pursuit of wealth than you got Pressure. The idle peopleimproved the occasion in a similar manner. See, said they, what youbrought yourself to by work, work, work! You persisted in working, youoverdid it. Pressure came on, and you were done for! This considerationwas very potent in many quarters, but nowhere more so than among theyoung clerks and partners who had never been in the slightest dangerof overdoing it. These, one and all, declared, quite piously, that theyhoped they would never forget the warning as long as they lived, andthat their conduct might be so regulated as to keep off Pressure, andpreserve them, a comfort to their friends, for many years.

But, at about the time of High 'Change, Pressure began to wane, andappalling whispers to circulate, east, west, north, and south. At firstthey were faint, and went no further than a doubt whether Mr Merdle'swealth would be found to be as vast as had been supposed; whether theremight not be a temporary difficulty in 'realising' it; whether theremight not even be a temporary suspension (say a month or so), on thepart of the wonderful Bank. As the whispers became louder, which theydid from that time every minute, they became more threatening. He hadsprung from nothing, by no natural growth or process that any one couldaccount for; he had been, after all, a low, ignorant fellow; he had beena down-looking man, and no one had ever been able to catch his eye;he had been taken up by all sorts of people in quite an unaccountablemanner; he had never had any money of his own, his ventures had beenutterly reckless, and his expenditure had been most enormous. In steadyprogression, as the day declined, the talk rose in sound and purpose.He had left a letter at the Baths addressed to his physician, and hisphysician had got the letter, and the letter would be produced at theInquest on the morrow, and it would fall like a thunderbolt upon themultitude he had deluded. Numbers of men in every profession and tradewould be blighted by his insolvency; old people who had been in easycircumstances all their lives would have no place of repentance fortheir trust in him but the workhouse; legions of women and childrenwould have their whole future desolated by the hand of this mightyscoundrel. Every partaker of his magnificent feasts would be seen tohave been a sharer in the plunder of innumerable homes; every servileworshipper of riches who had helped to set him on his pedestal, wouldhave done better to worship the Devil point-blank. So, the talk, lashedlouder and higher by confirmation on confirmation, and by edition afteredition of the evening papers, swelled into such a roar when night came,as might have brought one to believe that a solitary watcher on thegallery above the Dome of St Paul's would have perceived the night airto be laden with a heavy muttering of the name of Merdle, coupled withevery form of execration.

For by that time it was known that the late Mr Merdle's complainthad been simply Forgery and Robbery. He, the uncouth object of suchwide-spread adulation, the sitter at great men's feasts, the roc's eggof great ladies' assemblies, the subduer of exclusiveness, the levellerof pride, the patron of patrons, the bargain-driver with a Ministerfor Lordships of the Circumlocution Office, the recipient of moreacknowledgment within some ten or fifteen years, at most, than had beenbestowed in England upon all peaceful public benefactors, and uponall the leaders of all the Arts and Sciences, with all their works totestify for them, during two centuries at least--he, the shining wonder,the new constellation to be followed by the wise men bringing gifts,until it stopped over a certain carrion at the bottom of a bath anddisappeared--was simply the greatest Forger and the greatest Thief thatever cheated the gallows.