She passed her white hands over one another, observant of the sisters now; and the rings upon her fingers grated against each other with a hard sound.
‘As your sister will tell you, when I found what the theatre was I was much surprised and much distressed. But when I found that your sister, by rejecting my son’s advances (I must add, in an unexpected manner), had brought him to the point of proposing marriage, my feelings were of the profoundest anguish–acute.’
She traced the outline of her left eyebrow, and put it right.
‘In a distracted condition, which only a mother–moving in Society–can be susceptible of, I determined to go myself to the theatre, and represent my state of mind to the dancer. I made myself known to your sister. I found her, to my surprise, in many respects different from my expectations; and certainly in none more so, than in meeting me with–what shall I say–a sort of family assertion on her own part?’ Mrs Merdle smiled.
‘I told you, ma’am,’ said Fanny, with a heightening colour, ‘that although you found me in that situation, I was so far above the rest, that I considered my family as good as your son’s; and that I had a brother who, knowing the circumstances, would be of the same opinion, and would not consider such a connection any honour.’
‘Miss Dorrit,’ said Mrs Merdle, after frostily looking at her through her glass, ‘precisely what I was on the point of telling your sister, in pursuance of your request. Much obliged to you for recalling it so accurately and anticipating me. I immediately,’ addressing Little Dorrit, ‘(for I am the creature of impulse), took a bracelet from my arm, and begged your sister to let me clasp it on hers, in token of the delight I had in our being able to approach the subject so far on a common footing.’ (This was perfectly true, the lady having bought a cheap and showy article on her way to the interview, with a general eye to bribery.)
‘And I told you, Mrs Merdle,’ said Fanny, ‘that we might be unfortunate, but we are not common.’
‘I think, the very words, Miss Dorrit,’ assented Mrs Merdle.
‘And I told you, Mrs Merdle,’ said Fanny, ‘that if you spoke to me of the superiority of your son’s standing in Society, it was barely possible that you rather deceived yourself in your suppositions about my origin; and that my father’s standing, even in the Society in which he now moved (what that was, was best known to myself), was eminently superior, and was acknowledged by every one.’
‘Quite accurate,’ rejoined Mrs Merdle. ‘A most admirable memory.’
‘Thank you, ma’am. Perhaps you will be so kind as to tell my sister the rest.’
‘There is very little to tell,’ said Mrs Merdle, reviewing the breadth of bosom which seemed essential to her having room enough to be unfeeling in, ‘but it is to your sister’s credit. I pointed out to your sister the plain state of the case; the impossibility of the Society in which we moved recognising the Society in which she moved–though charming, I have no doubt; the immense disadvantage at which she would consequently place the family she had so high an opinion of, upon which we should find ourselves compelled to look down with contempt, and from which (socially speaking) we should feel obliged to recoil with abhorrence. In short, I made an appeal to that laudable pride in your sister.’
‘Let my sister know, if you please, Mrs Merdle,’ Fanny pouted, with a toss of her gauzy bonnet, ‘that I had already had the honour of telling your son that I wished to have nothing whatever to say to him.’
‘Well, Miss Dorrit,’ assented Mrs Merdle, ‘perhaps I might have mentioned that before. If I did not think of it, perhaps it was because my mind reverted to the apprehensions I had at the time that he might persevere and you might have something to say to him. I also mentioned to your sister–I again address the non-professional Miss Dorrit–that my son would have nothing in the event of such a marriage, and would be an absolute beggar. (I mention that merely as a fact which is part of the narrative, and not as supposing it to have influenced your sister, except in the prudent and legitimate way in which, constituted as our artificial system is, we must all be influenced by such considerations.) Finally, after some high words and high spirit on the part of your sister, we came to the complete understanding that there was no danger; and your sister was so obliging as to allow me to present her with a mark or two of my appreciation at my dressmaker’s.’
Little Dorrit looked sorry, and glanced at Fanny with a troubled face.
‘Also,’ said Mrs Merdle, ‘as to promise to give me the present pleasure of a closing interview, and of parting with her on the best of terms. On which occasion,’ added Mrs Merdle, quitting her nest, and putting something in Fanny’s hand, ‘Miss Dorrit will permit me to say Farewell with best wishes in my own dull manner.’
The sisters rose at the same time, and they all stood near the cage of the parrot, as he tore at a claw-full of biscuit and spat it out, seemed to mock them with a pompous dance of his body without moving his feet, and suddenly turned himself upside down and trailed himself all over the outside of his golden cage, with the aid of his cruel beak and black tongue.
‘Adieu, Miss Dorrit, with best wishes,’ said Mrs Merdle. ‘If we could only come to a Millennium, or something of that sort, I for one might have the pleasure of knowing a number of charming and talented persons from whom I am at present excluded. A more primitive state of society would be delicious to me. There used to be a poem when I learnt lessons, something about Lo the poor Indians whose something mind! If a few thousand persons moving in Society, could only go and be Indians, I would put my name down directly; but as, moving in Society, we can’t be Indians, unfortunately–Good morning!’
They came down-stairs with powder before them and powder behind, the elder sister haughty and the younger sister humbled, and were shut out into unpowdered Harley Street, Cavendish Square.
‘Well?’ said Fanny, when they had gone a little way without speaking. ‘Have you nothing to say, Amy?’
‘Oh, I don’t know what to say!’ she answered, distressed. ‘You didn’t like this young man, Fanny?’
‘Like him? He is almost an idiot.’
‘I am so sorry–don’t be hurt–but, since you ask me what I have to say, I am so very sorry, Fanny, that you suffered this lady to give you anything.’
‘You little Fool!’ returned her sister, shaking her with the sharp pull she gave her arm. ‘Have you no spirit at all? But that’s just the way! You have no self-respect, you have no becoming pride, just as you allow yourself to be followed about by a contemptible little Chivery of a thing,’ with the scornfullest emphasis, ‘you would let your family be trodden on, and never turn.’
‘Don’t say that, dear Fanny. I do what I can for them.’
‘You do what you can for them!’ repeated Fanny, walking her on very fast. ‘Would you let a woman like this, whom you could see, if you had any experience of anything, to be as false and insolent as a woman can be–would you let her put her foot upon your family, and thank her for it?’
‘No, Fanny, I am sure.’
‘Then make her pay for it, you mean little thing. What else can you make her do? Make her pay for it, you stupid child; and do your family some credit with the money!’
They spoke no more all the way back to the lodging where Fanny and her uncle lived. When they arrived there, they found the old man practising his clarionet in the dolefullest manner in a corner of the room. Fanny had a composite meal to make, of chops, and porter, and tea; and indignantly pretended to prepare it for herself, though her sister did all that in quiet reality. When at last Fanny sat down to eat and drink, she threw the table implements about and was angry with her bread, much as her father had been last night.
‘If you despise me,’ she said, bursting into vehement tears, ‘because I am a dancer, why did you put me in the way of being one? It was your doing. You would have me stoop as low as the ground before this Mrs Merdle, and let her say what she liked and do what she liked, and hold us all in contempt, and tell me so to my face. Because I am a dancer!’