As he knew the house well, he conducted Arthur to it by the way that showed it to the best advantage. It was a charming place (none the worse for being a little eccentric), on the road by the river, and just what the residence of the Meagles family ought to be. It stood in a garden, no doubt as fresh and beautiful in the May of the Year as Pet now was in the May of her life; and it was defended by a goodly show of handsome trees and spreading evergreens, as Pet was by Mr and Mrs Meagles. It was made out of an old brick house, of which a part had been altogether pulled down, and another part had been changed into the present cottage; so there was a hale elderly portion, to represent Mr and Mrs Meagles, and a young picturesque, very pretty portion to represent Pet. There was even the later addition of a conservatory sheltering itself against it, uncertain of hue in its deep-stained glass, and in its more transparent portions flashing to the sun’s rays, now like fire and now like harmless water drops; which might have stood for Tattycoram. Within view was the peaceful river and the ferry-boat, to moralise to all the inmates saying: Young or old, passionate or tranquil, chafing or content, you, thus runs the current always. Let the heart swell into what discord it will, thus plays the rippling water on the prow of the ferry-boat ever the same tune. Year after year, so much allowance for the drifting of the boat, so many miles an hour the flowing of the stream, here the rushes, there the lilies, nothing uncertain or unquiet, upon this road that steadily runs away; while you, upon your flowing road of time, are so capricious and distracted.
The bell at the gate had scarcely sounded when Mr Meagles came out to receive them. Mr Meagles had scarcely come out, when Mrs Meagles came out. Mrs Meagles had scarcely come out, when Pet came out. Pet scarcely had come out, when Tattycoram came out. Never had visitors a more hospitable reception.
‘Here we are, you see,’ said Mr Meagles, ‘boxed up, Mr Clennam, within our own home-limits, as if we were never going to expand–that is, travel–again. Not like Marseilles, eh? No allonging and marshonging here!’
‘A different kind of beauty, indeed!’ said Clennam, looking about him.
‘But, Lord bless me!’ cried Mr Meagles, rubbing his hands with a relish, ‘it was an uncommonly pleasant thing being in quarantine, wasn’t it? Do you know, I have often wished myself back again? We were a capital party.’
This was Mr Meagles’s invariable habit. Always to object to everything while he was travelling, and always to want to get back to it when he was not travelling.
‘If it was summer-time,’ said Mr Meagles, ‘which I wish it was on your account, and in order that you might see the place at its best, you would hardly be able to hear yourself speak for birds. Being practical people, we never allow anybody to scare the birds; and the birds, being practical people too, come about us in myriads. We are delighted to see you, Clennam (if you’ll allow me, I shall drop the Mister); I heartily assure you, we are delighted.’
‘I have not had so pleasant a greeting,’ said Clennam–then he recalled what Little Dorrit had said to him in his own room, and faithfully added ‘except once–since we last walked to and fro, looking down at the Mediterranean.’
‘Ah!’ returned Mr Meagles. ‘Something like a look out, _that_ was, wasn’t it? I don’t want a military government, but I shouldn’t mind a little allonging and marshonging–just a dash of it–in this neighbourhood sometimes. It’s Devilish still.’
Bestowing this eulogium on the retired character of his retreat with a dubious shake of the head, Mr Meagles led the way into the house. It was just large enough, and no more; was as pretty within as it was without, and was perfectly well-arranged and comfortable. Some traces of the migratory habits of the family were to be observed in the covered frames and furniture, and wrapped-up hangings; but it was easy to see that it was one of Mr Meagles’s whims to have the cottage always kept, in their absence, as if they were always coming back the day after to-morrow. Of articles collected on his various expeditions, there was such a vast miscellany that it was like the dwelling of an amiable Corsair. There were antiquities from Central Italy, made by the best modern houses in that department of industry; bits of mummy from Egypt (and perhaps Birmingham); model gondolas from Venice; model villages from Switzerland; morsels of tesselated pavement from Herculaneum and Pompeii, like petrified minced veal; ashes out of tombs, and lava out of Vesuvius; Spanish fans, Spezzian straw hats, Moorish slippers, Tuscan hairpins, Carrara sculpture, Trastaverini scarves, Genoese velvets and filigree, Neapolitan coral, Roman cameos, Geneva jewellery, Arab lanterns, rosaries blest all round by the Pope himself, and an infinite variety of lumber. There were views, like and unlike, of a multitude of places; and there was one little picture-room devoted to a few of the regular sticky old Saints, with sinews like whipcord, hair like Neptune’s, wrinkles like tattooing, and such coats of varnish that every holy personage served for a fly-trap, and became what is now called in the vulgar tongue a Catch-em-alive O. Of these pictorial acquisitions Mr Meagles spoke in the usual manner. He was no judge, he said, except of what pleased himself; he had picked them up, dirt-cheap, and people _had_ considered them rather fine. One man, who at any rate ought to know something of the subject, had declared that ‘Sage, Reading’ (a specially oily old gentleman in a blanket, with a swan’s-down tippet for a beard, and a web of cracks all over him like rich pie-crust), to be a fine Guercino. As for Sebastian del Piombo there, you would judge for yourself; if it were not his later manner, the question was, Who was it? Titian, that might or might not be–perhaps he had only touched it. Daniel Doyce said perhaps he hadn’t touched it, but Mr Meagles rather declined to overhear the remark.
When he had shown all his spoils, Mr Meagles took them into his own snug room overlooking the lawn, which was fitted up in part like a dressing-room and in part like an office, and in which, upon a kind of counter-desk, were a pair of brass scales for weighing gold, and a scoop for shovelling out money.
‘Here they are, you see,’ said Mr Meagles. ‘I stood behind these two articles five-and-thirty years running, when I no more thought of gadding about than I now think of–staying at home. When I left the Bank for good, I asked for them, and brought them away with me. I mention it at once, or you might suppose that I sit in my counting-house (as Pet says I do), like the king in the poem of the four-and-twenty blackbirds, counting out my money.’
Clennam’s eyes had strayed to a natural picture on the wall, of two pretty little girls with their arms entwined. ‘Yes, Clennam,’ said Mr Meagles, in a lower voice. ‘There they both are. It was taken some seventeen years ago. As I often say to Mother, they were babies then.’
‘Their names?’ said Arthur.
‘Ah, to be sure! You have never heard any name but Pet. Pet’s name is Minnie; her sister’s Lillie.’
‘Should you have known, Mr Clennam, that one of them was meant for me?’ asked Pet herself, now standing in the doorway.
‘I might have thought that both of them were meant for you, both are still so like you. Indeed,’ said Clennam, glancing from the fair original to the picture and back, ‘I cannot even now say which is not your portrait.’
‘D’ye hear that, Mother?’ cried Mr Meagles to his wife, who had followed her daughter. ‘It’s always the same, Clennam; nobody can decide. The child to your left is Pet.’
The picture happened to be near a looking-glass. As Arthur looked at it again, he saw, by the reflection of the mirror, Tattycoram stop in passing outside the door, listen to what was going on, and pass away with an angry and contemptuous frown upon her face, that changed its beauty into ugliness.
‘But come!’ said Mr Meagles. ‘You have had a long walk, and will be glad to get your boots off. As to Daniel here, I suppose he’d never think of taking _his_ boots off, unless we showed him a boot-jack.’
‘Why not?’ asked Daniel, with a significant smile at Clennam.
‘Oh! You have so many things to think about,’ returned Mr Meagles, clapping him on the shoulder, as if his weakness must not be left to itself on any account. ‘Figures, and wheels, and cogs, and levers, and screws, and cylinders, and a thousand things.’
‘In my calling,’ said Daniel, amused, ‘the greater usually includes the less. But never mind, never mind! Whatever pleases you, pleases me.’
Clennam could not help speculating, as he seated himself in his room by the fire, whether there might be in the breast of this honest, affectionate, and cordial Mr Meagles, any microscopic portion of the mustard-seed that had sprung up into the great tree of the Circumlocution Office. His curious sense of a general superiority to Daniel Doyce, which seemed to be founded, not so much on anything in Doyce’s personal character as on the mere fact of his being an originator and a man out of the beaten track of other men, suggested the idea. It might have occupied him until he went down to dinner an hour afterwards, if he had not had another question to consider, which had been in his mind so long ago as before he was in quarantine at Marseilles, and which had now returned to it, and was very urgent with it. No less a question than this: Whether he should allow himself to fall in love with Pet?
He was twice her age. (He changed the leg he had crossed over the other, and tried the calculation again, but could not bring out the total at less.) He was twice her age. Well! He was young in appearance, young in health and strength, young in heart. A man was certainly not old at forty; and many men were not in circumstances to marry, or did not marry, until they had attained that time of life. On the other hand, the question was, not what he thought of the point, but what she thought of it.
He believed that Mr Meagles was disposed to entertain a ripe regard for him, and he knew that he had a sincere regard for Mr Meagles and his good wife. He could foresee that to relinquish this beautiful only child, of whom they were so fond, to any husband, would be a trial of their love which perhaps they never yet had had the fortitude to contemplate. But the more beautiful and winning and charming she, the nearer they must always be to the necessity of approaching it. And why not in his favour, as well as in another’s?
When he had got so far, it came again into his head that the question was, not what they thought of it, but what she thought of it.
Arthur Clennam was a retiring man, with a sense of many deficiencies; and he so exalted the merits of the beautiful Minnie in his mind, and depressed his own, that when he pinned himself to this point, his hopes began to fail him. He came to the final resolution, as he made himself ready for dinner, that he would not allow himself to fall in love with Pet.
There were only five, at a round table, and it was very pleasant indeed. They had so many places and people to recall, and they were all so easy and cheerful together (Daniel Doyce either sitting out like an amused spectator at cards, or coming in with some shrewd little experiences of his own, when it happened to be to the purpose), that they might have been together twenty times, and not have known so much of one another.
‘And Miss Wade,’ said Mr Meagles, after they had recalled a number of fellow-travellers. ‘Has anybody seen Miss Wade?’