Was it possible that Flora could have been such a chatterer in the days she referred to? Could there have been anything like her present disjointed volubility in the fascinations that had captivated him?
‘Indeed I have little doubt,’ said Flora, running on with astonishing speed, and pointing her conversation with nothing but commas, and very few of them, ‘that you are married to some Chinese lady, being in China so long and being in business and naturally desirous to settle and extend your connection nothing was more likely than that you should propose to a Chinese lady and nothing was more natural I am sure than that the Chinese lady should accept you and think herself very well off too, I only hope she’s not a Pagodian dissenter.’
‘I am not,’ returned Arthur, smiling in spite of himself, ‘married to any lady, Flora.’
‘Oh good gracious me I hope you never kept yourself a bachelor so long on my account!’ tittered Flora; ‘but of course you never did why should you, pray don’t answer, I don’t know where I’m running to, oh do tell me something about the Chinese ladies whether their eyes are really so long and narrow always putting me in mind of mother-of-pearl fish at cards and do they really wear tails down their back and plaited too or is it only the men, and when they pull their hair so very tight off their foreheads don’t they hurt themselves, and why do they stick little bells all over their bridges and temples and hats and things or don’t they really do it?’ Flora gave him another of her old glances. Instantly she went on again, as if he had spoken in reply for some time.
‘Then it’s all true and they really do! good gracious Arthur!–pray excuse me–old habit–Mr Clennam far more proper–what a country to live in for so long a time, and with so many lanterns and umbrellas too how very dark and wet the climate ought to be and no doubt actually is, and the sums of money that must be made by those two trades where everybody carries them and hangs them everywhere, the little shoes too and the feet screwed back in infancy is quite surprising, what a traveller you are!’
In his ridiculous distress, Clennam received another of the old glances without in the least knowing what to do with it.
‘Dear dear,’ said Flora, ‘only to think of the changes at home Arthur–cannot overcome it, and seems so natural, Mr Clennam far more proper–since you became familiar with the Chinese customs and language which I am persuaded you speak like a Native if not better for you were always quick and clever though immensely difficult no doubt, I am sure the tea chests alone would kill me if I tried, such changes Arthur–I am doing it again, seems so natural, most improper–as no one could have believed, who could have ever imagined Mrs Finching when I can’t imagine it myself!’
‘Is that your married name?’ asked Arthur, struck, in the midst of all this, by a certain warmth of heart that expressed itself in her tone when she referred, however oddly, to the youthful relation in which they had stood to one another. ‘Finching?’
‘Finching oh yes isn’t it a dreadful name, but as Mr F. said when he proposed to me which he did seven times and handsomely consented I must say to be what he used to call on liking twelve months, after all, he wasn’t answerable for it and couldn’t help it could he, Excellent man, not at all like you but excellent man!’
Flora had at last talked herself out of breath for one moment. One moment; for she recovered breath in the act of raising a minute corner of her pocket-handkerchief to her eye, as a tribute to the ghost of the departed Mr F., and began again.
‘No one could dispute, Arthur–Mr Clennam–that it’s quite right you should be formally friendly to me under the altered circumstances and indeed you couldn’t be anything else, at least I suppose not you ought to know, but I can’t help recalling that there _was_ a time when things were very different.’
‘My dear Mrs Finching,’ Arthur began, struck by the good tone again.
‘Oh not that nasty ugly name, say Flora!’
‘Flora. I assure you, Flora, I am happy in seeing you once more, and in finding that, like me, you have not forgotten the old foolish dreams, when we saw all before us in the light of our youth and hope.’
‘You don’t seem so,’ pouted Flora, ‘you take it very coolly, but however I know you are disappointed in me, I suppose the Chinese ladies–Mandarinesses if you call them so–are the cause or perhaps I am the cause myself, it’s just as likely.’
‘No, no,’ Clennam entreated, ‘don’t say that.’
‘Oh I must you know,’ said Flora, in a positive tone, ‘what nonsense not to, I know I am not what you expected, I know that very well.’
In the midst of her rapidity, she had found that out with the quick perception of a cleverer woman. The inconsistent and profoundly unreasonable way in which she instantly went on, nevertheless, to interweave their long-abandoned boy and girl relations with their present interview, made Clennam feel as if he were light-headed.
‘One remark,’ said Flora, giving their conversation, without the slightest notice and to the great terror of Clennam, the tone of a love-quarrel, ‘I wish to make, one explanation I wish to offer, when your Mama came and made a scene of it with my Papa and when I was called down into the little breakfast-room where they were looking at one another with your Mama’s parasol between them seated on two chairs like mad bulls what was I to do?’
‘My dear Mrs Finching,’ urged Clennam–‘all so long ago and so long concluded, is it worth while seriously to–’
‘I can’t Arthur,’ returned Flora, ‘be denounced as heartless by the whole society of China without setting myself right when I have the opportunity of doing so, and you must be very well aware that there was Paul and Virginia which had to be returned and which was returned without note or comment, not that I mean to say you could have written to me watched as I was but if it had only come back with a red wafer on the cover I should have known that it meant Come to Pekin Nankeen and What’s the third place, barefoot.’
‘My dear Mrs Finching, you were not to blame, and I never blamed you. We were both too young, too dependent and helpless, to do anything but accept our separation.–Pray think how long ago,’ gently remonstrated Arthur.
‘One more remark,’ proceeded Flora with unslackened volubility, ‘I wish to make, one more explanation I wish to offer, for five days I had a cold in the head from crying which I passed entirely in the back drawing-room–there is the back drawing-room still on the first floor and still at the back of the house to confirm my words–when that dreary period had passed a lull succeeded years rolled on and Mr F. became acquainted with us at a mutual friend’s, he was all attention he called next day he soon began to call three evenings a week and to send in little things for supper it was not love on Mr F.’s part it was adoration, Mr F. proposed with the full approval of Papa and what could I do?’
‘Nothing whatever,’ said Arthur, with the cheerfulest readiness, ‘but what you did. Let an old friend assure you of his full conviction that you did quite right.’
‘One last remark,’ proceeded Flora, rejecting commonplace life with a wave of her hand, ‘I wish to make, one last explanation I wish to offer, there _was_ a time ere Mr F. first paid attentions incapable of being mistaken, but that is past and was not to be, dear Mr Clennam you no longer wear a golden chain you are free I trust you may be happy, here is Papa who is always tiresome and putting in his nose everywhere where he is not wanted.’
With these words, and with a hasty gesture fraught with timid caution–such a gesture had Clennam’s eyes been familiar with in the old time–poor Flora left herself at eighteen years of age, a long long way behind again; and came to a full stop at last.
Or rather, she left about half of herself at eighteen years of age behind, and grafted the rest on to the relict of the late Mr F.; thus making a moral mermaid of herself, which her once boy-lover contemplated with feelings wherein his sense of the sorrowful and his sense of the comical were curiously blended.
For example. As if there were a secret understanding between herself and Clennam of the most thrilling nature; as if the first of a train of post-chaises and four, extending all the way to Scotland, were at that moment round the corner; and as if she couldn’t (and wouldn’t) have walked into the Parish Church with him, under the shade of the family umbrella, with the Patriarchal blessing on her head, and the perfect concurrence of all mankind; Flora comforted her soul with agonies of mysterious signalling, expressing dread of discovery. With the sensation of becoming more and more light-headed every minute, Clennam saw the relict of the late Mr F. enjoying herself in the most wonderful manner, by putting herself and him in their old places, and going through all the old performances–now, when the stage was dusty, when the scenery was faded, when the youthful actors were dead, when the orchestra was empty, when the lights were out. And still, through all this grotesque revival of what he remembered as having once been prettily natural to her, he could not but feel that it revived at sight of him, and that there was a tender memory in it.
The Patriarch insisted on his staying to dinner, and Flora signalled ‘Yes!’ Clennam so wished he could have done more than stay to dinner–so heartily wished he could have found the Flora that had been, or that never had been–that he thought the least atonement he could make for the disappointment he almost felt ashamed of, was to give himself up to the family desire. Therefore, he stayed to dinner.
Pancks dined with them. Pancks steamed out of his little dock at a quarter before six, and bore straight down for the Patriarch, who happened to be then driving, in an inane manner, through a stagnant account of Bleeding Heart Yard. Pancks instantly made fast to him and hauled him out.