‘Flora, is it worth troubling yourself afresh to enter into explanations? I assure you none are needed. I am satisfied–I am perfectly satisfied.’
A diversion was occasioned here, by Mr F.’s Aunt making the following inexorable and awful statement:
‘There’s mile-stones on the Dover road!’
With such mortal hostility towards the human race did she discharge this missile, that Clennam was quite at a loss how to defend himself; the rather as he had been already perplexed in his mind by the honour of a visit from this venerable lady, when it was plain she held him in the utmost abhorrence. He could not but look at her with disconcertment, as she sat breathing bitterness and scorn, and staring leagues away. Flora, however, received the remark as if it had been of a most apposite and agreeable nature; approvingly observing aloud that Mr F.’s Aunt had a great deal of spirit. Stimulated either by this compliment, or by her burning indignation, that illustrious woman then added, ‘Let him meet it if he can!’ And, with a rigid movement of her stony reticule (an appendage of great size and of a fossil appearance), indicated that Clennam was the unfortunate person at whom the challenge was hurled.
‘One last remark,’ resumed Flora, ‘I was going to say I wish to make one last explanation I wish to offer, Mr F.’s Aunt and myself would not have intruded on business hours Mr F. having been in business and though the wine trade still business is equally business call it what you will and business habits are just the same as witness Mr F. himself who had his slippers always on the mat at ten minutes before six in the afternoon and his boots inside the fender at ten minutes before eight in the morning to the moment in all weathers light or dark–would not therefore have intruded without a motive which being kindly meant it may be hoped will be kindly taken Arthur, Mr Clennam far more proper, even Doyce and Clennam probably more business-like.’
‘Pray say nothing in the way of apology,’ Arthur entreated. ‘You are always welcome.’
‘Very polite of you to say so Arthur–cannot remember Mr Clennam until the word is out, such is the habit of times for ever fled, and so true it is that oft in the stilly night ere slumber’s chain has bound people, fond memory brings the light of other days around people–very polite but more polite than true I am afraid, for to go into the machinery business without so much as sending a line or a card to papa–I don’t say me though there was a time but that is past and stern reality has now my gracious never mind–does not look like it you must confess.’
Even Flora’s commas seemed to have fled on this occasion; she was so much more disjointed and voluble than in the preceding interview.
‘Though indeed,’ she hurried on, ‘nothing else is to be expected and why should it be expected and if it’s not to be expected why should it be, and I am far from blaming you or any one, When your mama and my papa worried us to death and severed the golden bowl–I mean bond but I dare say you know what I mean and if you don’t you don’t lose much and care just as little I will venture to add–when they severed the golden bond that bound us and threw us into fits of crying on the sofa nearly choked at least myself everything was changed and in giving my hand to Mr F. I know I did so with my eyes open but he was so very unsettled and in such low spirits that he had distractedly alluded to the river if not oil of something from the chemist’s and I did it for the best.’
‘My good Flora, we settled that before. It was all quite right.’
‘It’s perfectly clear you think so,’ returned Flora, ‘for you take it very coolly, if I hadn’t known it to be China I should have guessed myself the Polar regions, dear Mr Clennam you are right however and I cannot blame you but as to Doyce and Clennam papa’s property being about here we heard it from Pancks and but for him we never should have heard one word about it I am satisfied.’
‘No, no, don’t say that.’
‘What nonsense not to say it Arthur–Doyce and Clennam–easier and less trying to me than Mr Clennam–when I know it and you know it too and can’t deny it.’
‘But I do deny it, Flora. I should soon have made you a friendly visit.’
‘Ah!’ said Flora, tossing her head. ‘I dare say!’ and she gave him another of the old looks. ‘However when Pancks told us I made up my mind that Mr F.’s Aunt and I would come and call because when papa–which was before that–happened to mention her name to me and to say that you were interested in her I said at the moment Good gracious why not have her here then when there’s anything to do instead of putting it out.’
‘When you say Her,’ observed Clennam, by this time pretty well bewildered, ‘do you mean Mr F.’s–’
‘My goodness, Arthur–Doyce and Clennam really easier to me with old remembrances–who ever heard of Mr F.’s Aunt doing needlework and going out by the day?’
‘Going out by the day! Do you speak of Little Dorrit?’
‘Why yes of course,’ returned Flora; ‘and of all the strangest names I ever heard the strangest, like a place down in the country with a turnpike, or a favourite pony or a puppy or a bird or something from a seed-shop to be put in a garden or a flower-pot and come up speckled.’
‘Then, Flora,’ said Arthur, with a sudden interest in the conversation, ‘Mr Casby was so kind as to mention Little Dorrit to you, was he? What did he say?’
‘Oh you know what papa is,’ rejoined Flora, ‘and how aggravatingly he sits looking beautiful and turning his thumbs over and over one another till he makes one giddy if one keeps one’s eyes upon him, he said when we were talking of you–I don’t know who began the subject Arthur (Doyce and Clennam) but I am sure it wasn’t me, at least I hope not but you really must excuse my confessing more on that point.’
‘Certainly,’ said Arthur. ‘By all means.’
‘You are very ready,’ pouted Flora, coming to a sudden stop in a captivating bashfulness, ‘that I must admit, Papa said you had spoken of her in an earnest way and I said what I have told you and that’s all.’
‘That’s all?’ said Arthur, a little disappointed.
‘Except that when Pancks told us of your having embarked in this business and with difficulty persuaded us that it was really you I said to Mr F.’s Aunt then we would come and ask you if it would be agreeable to all parties that she should be engaged at our house when required for I know she often goes to your mama’s and I know that your mama has a very touchy temper Arthur–Doyce and Clennam–or I never might have married Mr F. and might have been at this hour but I am running into nonsense.’
‘It was very kind of you, Flora, to think of this.’
Poor Flora rejoined with a plain sincerity which became her better than her youngest glances, that she was glad he thought so. She said it with so much heart that Clennam would have given a great deal to buy his old character of her on the spot, and throw it and the mermaid away for ever.
‘I think, Flora,’ he said, ‘that the employment you can give Little Dorrit, and the kindness you can show her–’
‘Yes and I will,’ said Flora, quickly.
‘I am sure of it–will be a great assistance and support to her. I do not feel that I have the right to tell you what I know of her, for I acquired the knowledge confidentially, and under circumstances that bind me to silence. But I have an interest in the little creature, and a respect for her that I cannot express to you. Her life has been one of such trial and devotion, and such quiet goodness, as you can scarcely imagine. I can hardly think of her, far less speak of her, without feeling moved. Let that feeling represent what I could tell you, and commit her to your friendliness with my thanks.’