Little Dorrit 076


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Once more he put out his hand frankly to poor Flora; once more poor Flora couldn’t accept it frankly, found it worth nothing openly, must make the old intrigue and mystery of it. As much to her own enjoyment as to his dismay, she covered it with a corner of her shawl as she took it. Then, looking towards the glass front of the counting-house, and seeing two figures approaching, she cried with infinite relish, ‘Papa! Hush, Arthur, for Mercy’s sake!’ and tottered back to her chair with an amazing imitation of being in danger of swooning, in the dread surprise and maidenly flutter of her spirits.

The Patriarch, meanwhile, came inanely beaming towards the counting-house in the wake of Pancks. Pancks opened the door for him, towed him in, and retired to his own moorings in a corner.

‘I heard from Flora,’ said the Patriarch with his benevolent smile, ‘that she was coming to call, coming to call. And being out, I thought I’d come also, thought I’d come also.’

The benign wisdom he infused into this declaration (not of itself profound), by means of his blue eyes, his shining head, and his long white hair, was most impressive. It seemed worth putting down among the noblest sentiments enunciated by the best of men. Also, when he said to Clennam, seating himself in the proffered chair, ‘And you are in a new business, Mr Clennam? I wish you well, sir, I wish you well!’ he seemed to have done benevolent wonders.

‘Mrs Finching has been telling me, sir,’ said Arthur, after making his acknowledgments; the relict of the late Mr F. meanwhile protesting, with a gesture, against his use of that respectable name; ‘that she hopes occasionally to employ the young needlewoman you recommended to my mother. For which I have been thanking her.’

The Patriarch turning his head in a lumbering way towards Pancks, that assistant put up the note-book in which he had been absorbed, and took him in tow.

‘You didn’t recommend her, you know,’ said Pancks; ‘how could you? You knew nothing about her, you didn’t. The name was mentioned to you, and you passed it on. That’s what _you_ did.’

‘Well!’ said Clennam. ‘As she justifies any recommendation, it is much the same thing.’

‘You are glad she turns out well,’ said Pancks, ‘but it wouldn’t have been your fault if she had turned out ill. The credit’s not yours as it is, and the blame wouldn’t have been yours as it might have been. You gave no guarantee. You knew nothing about her.’

‘You are not acquainted, then,’ said Arthur, hazarding a random question, ‘with any of her family?’

‘Acquainted with any of her family?’ returned Pancks. ‘How should you be acquainted with any of her family? You never heard of ‘em. You can’t be acquainted with people you never heard of, can you? You should think not!’

All this time the Patriarch sat serenely smiling; nodding or shaking his head benevolently, as the case required.

‘As to being a reference,’ said Pancks, ‘you know, in a general way, what being a reference means. It’s all your eye, that is! Look at your tenants down the Yard here. They’d all be references for one another, if you’d let ‘em. What would be the good of letting ‘em? It’s no satisfaction to be done by two men instead of one. One’s enough. A person who can’t pay, gets another person who can’t pay, to guarantee that he can pay. Like a person with two wooden legs getting another person with two wooden legs, to guarantee that he has got two natural legs. It don’t make either of them able to do a walking match. And four wooden legs are more troublesome to you than two, when you don’t want any.’ Mr Pancks concluded by blowing off that steam of his.

A momentary silence that ensued was broken by Mr F.’s Aunt, who had been sitting upright in a cataleptic state since her last public remark. She now underwent a violent twitch, calculated to produce a startling effect on the nerves of the uninitiated, and with the deadliest animosity observed:

‘You can’t make a head and brains out of a brass knob with nothing in it. You couldn’t do it when your Uncle George was living; much less when he’s dead.’

Mr Pancks was not slow to reply, with his usual calmness, ‘Indeed, ma’am! Bless my soul! I’m surprised to hear it.’ Despite his presence of mind, however, the speech of Mr F.’s Aunt produced a depressing effect on the little assembly; firstly, because it was impossible to disguise that Clennam’s unoffending head was the particular temple of reason depreciated; and secondly, because nobody ever knew on these occasions whose Uncle George was referred to, or what spectral presence might be invoked under that appellation.

Therefore Flora said, though still not without a certain boastfulness and triumph in her legacy, that Mr F.’s Aunt was ‘very lively to-day, and she thought they had better go.’ But Mr F.’s Aunt proved so lively as to take the suggestion in unexpected dudgeon and declare that she would not go; adding, with several injurious expressions, that if ‘He’–too evidently meaning Clennam–wanted to get rid of her, ‘let him chuck her out of winder;’ and urgently expressing her desire to see ‘Him’ perform that ceremony.

In this dilemma, Mr Pancks, whose resources appeared equal to any emergency in the Patriarchal waters, slipped on his hat, slipped out at the counting-house door, and slipped in again a moment afterwards with an artificial freshness upon him, as if he had been in the country for some weeks. ‘Why, bless my heart, ma’am!’ said Mr Pancks, rubbing up his hair in great astonishment, ‘is that you? How do you _do_, ma’am? You are looking charming to-day! I am delighted to see you. Favour me with your arm, ma’am; we’ll have a little walk together, you and me, if you’ll honour me with your company.’ And so escorted Mr F.’s Aunt down the private staircase of the counting-house with great gallantry and success. The patriarchal Mr Casby then rose with the air of having done it himself, and blandly followed: leaving his daughter, as she followed in her turn, to remark to her former lover in a distracted whisper (which she very much enjoyed), that they had drained the cup of life to the dregs; and further to hint mysteriously that the late Mr F. was at the bottom of it.

Alone again, Clennam became a prey to his old doubts in reference to his mother and Little Dorrit, and revolved the old thoughts and suspicions. They were all in his mind, blending themselves with the duties he was mechanically discharging, when a shadow on his papers caused him to look up for the cause. The cause was Mr Pancks. With his hat thrown back upon his ears as if his wiry prongs of hair had darted up like springs and cast it off, with his jet-black beads of eyes inquisitively sharp, with the fingers of his right hand in his mouth that he might bite the nails, and with the fingers of his left hand in reserve in his pocket for another course, Mr Pancks cast his shadow through the glass upon the books and papers.

Mr Pancks asked, with a little inquiring twist of his head, if he might come in again? Clennam replied with a nod of his head in the affirmative. Mr Pancks worked his way in, came alongside the desk, made himself fast by leaning his arms upon it, and started conversation with a puff and a snort.

‘Mr F.’s Aunt is appeased, I hope?’ said Clennam.

‘All right, sir,’ said Pancks.

‘I am so unfortunate as to have awakened a strong animosity in the breast of that lady,’ said Clennam. ‘Do you know why?’

‘Does _she_ know why?’ said Pancks.

‘I suppose not.’

‘_I_ suppose not,’ said Pancks.

He took out his note-book, opened it, shut it, dropped it into his hat, which was beside him on the desk, and looked in at it as it lay at the bottom of the hat: all with a great appearance of consideration.

‘Mr Clennam,’ he then began, ‘I am in want of information, sir.’

‘Connected with this firm?’ asked Clennam.

‘No,’ said Pancks.


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