‘And so, Amy,’ said her sister, when the three together passed out at the door that had such a shame-faced consciousness of being different from other doors: the uncle instinctively taking Amy’s arm as the arm to be relied on: ‘so, Amy, you are curious about me?’
She was pretty, and conscious, and rather flaunting; and the condescension with which she put aside the superiority of her charms, and of her worldly experience, and addressed her sister on almost equal terms, had a vast deal of the family in it.
‘I am interested, Fanny, and concerned in anything that concerns you.’
‘So you are, so you are, and you are the best of Amys. If I am ever a little provoking, I am sure you’ll consider what a thing it is to occupy my position and feel a consciousness of being superior to it. I shouldn’t care,’ said the Daughter of the Father of the Marshalsea, ‘if the others were not so common. None of them have come down in the world as we have. They are all on their own level. Common.’
Little Dorrit mildly looked at the speaker, but did not interrupt her. Fanny took out her handkerchief, and rather angrily wiped her eyes. ‘I was not born where you were, you know, Amy, and perhaps that makes a difference. My dear child, when we get rid of Uncle, you shall know all about it. We’ll drop him at the cook’s shop where he is going to dine.’
They walked on with him until they came to a dirty shop window in a dirty street, which was made almost opaque by the steam of hot meats, vegetables, and puddings. But glimpses were to be caught of a roast leg of pork bursting into tears of sage and onion in a metal reservoir full of gravy, of an unctuous piece of roast beef and blisterous Yorkshire pudding, bubbling hot in a similar receptacle, of a stuffed fillet of veal in rapid cut, of a ham in a perspiration with the pace it was going at, of a shallow tank of baked potatoes glued together by their own richness, of a truss or two of boiled greens, and other substantial delicacies. Within, were a few wooden partitions, behind which such customers as found it more convenient to take away their dinners in stomachs than in their hands, Packed their purchases in solitude. Fanny opening her reticule, as they surveyed these things, produced from that repository a shilling and handed it to Uncle. Uncle, after not looking at it a little while, divined its object, and muttering ‘Dinner? Ha! Yes, yes, yes!’ slowly vanished from them into the mist.
‘Now, Amy,’ said her sister, ‘come with me, if you are not too tired to walk to Harley Street, Cavendish Square.’
The air with which she threw off this distinguished address and the toss she gave to her new bonnet (which was more gauzy than serviceable), made her sister wonder; however, she expressed her readiness to go to Harley Street, and thither they directed their steps. Arrived at that grand destination, Fanny singled out the handsomest house, and knocking at the door, inquired for Mrs Merdle. The footman who opened the door, although he had powder on his head and was backed up by two other footmen likewise powdered, not only admitted Mrs Merdle to be at home, but asked Fanny to walk in. Fanny walked in, taking her sister with her; and they went up-stairs with powder going before and powder stopping behind, and were left in a spacious semicircular drawing-room, one of several drawing-rooms, where there was a parrot on the outside of a golden cage holding on by its beak, with its scaly legs in the air, and putting itself into many strange upside-down postures. This peculiarity has been observed in birds of quite another feather, climbing upon golden wires.
The room was far more splendid than anything Little Dorrit had ever imagined, and would have been splendid and costly in any eyes. She looked in amazement at her sister and would have asked a question, but that Fanny with a warning frown pointed to a curtained doorway of communication with another room. The curtain shook next moment, and a lady, raising it with a heavily ringed hand, dropped it behind her again as she entered.
The lady was not young and fresh from the hand of Nature, but was young and fresh from the hand of her maid. She had large unfeeling handsome eyes, and dark unfeeling handsome hair, and a broad unfeeling handsome bosom, and was made the most of in every particular. Either because she had a cold, or because it suited her face, she wore a rich white fillet tied over her head and under her chin. And if ever there were an unfeeling handsome chin that looked as if, for certain, it had never been, in familiar parlance, ‘chucked’ by the hand of man, it was the chin curbed up so tight and close by that laced bridle.
‘Mrs Merdle,’ said Fanny. ‘My sister, ma’am.’
‘I am glad to see your sister, Miss Dorrit. I did not remember that you had a sister.’
‘I did not mention that I had,’ said Fanny.
‘Ah!’ Mrs Merdle curled the little finger of her left hand as who should say, ‘I have caught you. I know you didn’t!’ All her action was usually with her left hand because her hands were not a pair; and left being much the whiter and plumper of the two. Then she added: ‘Sit down,’ and composed herself voluptuously, in a nest of crimson and gold cushions, on an ottoman near the parrot.
‘Also professional?’ said Mrs Merdle, looking at Little Dorrit through an eye-glass.
Fanny answered No. ‘No,’ said Mrs Merdle, dropping her glass. ‘Has not a professional air. Very pleasant; but not professional.’
‘My sister, ma’am,’ said Fanny, in whom there was a singular mixture of deference and hardihood, ‘has been asking me to tell her, as between sisters, how I came to have the honour of knowing you. And as I had engaged to call upon you once more, I thought I might take the liberty of bringing her with me, when perhaps you would tell her. I wish her to know, and perhaps you will tell her?’
‘Do you think, at your sister’s age–’ hinted Mrs Merdle.
‘She is much older than she looks,’ said Fanny; ‘almost as old as I am.’
‘Society,’ said Mrs Merdle, with another curve of her little finger, ‘is so difficult to explain to young persons (indeed is so difficult to explain to most persons), that I am glad to hear that. I wish Society was not so arbitrary, I wish it was not so exacting–Bird, be quiet!’
The parrot had given a most piercing shriek, as if its name were Society and it asserted its right to its exactions.
‘But,’ resumed Mrs Merdle, ‘we must take it as we find it. We know it is hollow and conventional and worldly and very shocking, but unless we are Savages in the Tropical seas (I should have been charmed to be one myself–most delightful life and perfect climate, I am told), we must consult it. It is the common lot. Mr Merdle is a most extensive merchant, his transactions are on the vastest scale, his wealth and influence are very great, but even he–Bird, be quiet!’
The parrot had shrieked another shriek; and it filled up the sentence so expressively that Mrs Merdle was under no necessity to end it.
‘Since your sister begs that I would terminate our personal acquaintance,’ she began again, addressing Little Dorrit, ‘by relating the circumstances that are much to her credit, I cannot object to comply with her request, I am sure. I have a son (I was first married extremely young) of two or three-and-twenty.’
Fanny set her lips, and her eyes looked half triumphantly at her sister.
‘A son of two or three-and-twenty. He is a little gay, a thing Society is accustomed to in young men, and he is very impressible. Perhaps he inherits that misfortune. I am very impressible myself, by nature. The weakest of creatures–my feelings are touched in a moment.’
She said all this, and everything else, as coldly as a woman of snow; quite forgetting the sisters except at odd times, and apparently addressing some abstraction of Society; for whose behoof, too, she occasionally arranged her dress, or the composition of her figure upon the ottoman.
‘So he is very impressible. Not a misfortune in our natural state I dare say, but we are not in a natural state. Much to be lamented, no doubt, particularly by myself, who am a child of nature if I could but show it; but so it is. Society suppresses us and dominates us–Bird, be quiet!’
The parrot had broken into a violent fit of laughter, after twisting divers bars of his cage with his crooked bill, and licking them with his black tongue.
‘It is quite unnecessary to say to a person of your good sense, wide range of experience, and cultivated feeling,’ said Mrs Merdle from her nest of crimson and gold–and there put up her glass to refresh her memory as to whom she was addressing,–‘that the stage sometimes has a fascination for young men of that class of character. In saying the stage, I mean the people on it of the female sex. Therefore, when I heard that my son was supposed to be fascinated by a dancer, I knew what that usually meant in Society, and confided in her being a dancer at the Opera, where young men moving in Society are usually fascinated.’