‘You turn so pale you have walked too far before breakfast and I dare say live a great way off and ought to have had a ride,’ said Flora, ‘dear dear is there anything that would do you good?’
‘Indeed I am quite well, ma’am. I thank you again and again, but I am quite well.’
‘Then take your tea at once I beg,’ said Flora, ‘and this wing of fowl and bit of ham, don’t mind me or wait for me, because I always carry in this tray myself to Mr F.’s Aunt who breakfasts in bed and a charming old lady too and very clever, Portrait of Mr F. behind the door and very like though too much forehead and as to a pillar with a marble pavement and balustrades and a mountain, I never saw him near it nor not likely in the wine trade, excellent man but not at all in that way.’
Little Dorrit glanced at the portrait, very imperfectly following the references to that work of art.
‘Mr F. was so devoted to me that he never could bear me out of his sight,’ said Flora, ‘though of course I am unable to say how long that might have lasted if he hadn’t been cut short while I was a new broom, worthy man but not poetical manly prose but not romance.’
Little Dorrit glanced at the portrait again. The artist had given it a head that would have been, in an intellectual point of view, top-heavy for Shakespeare.
‘Romance, however,’ Flora went on, busily arranging Mr F.’s Aunt’s toast, ‘as I openly said to Mr F. when he proposed to me and you will be surprised to hear that he proposed seven times once in a hackney-coach once in a boat once in a pew once on a donkey at Tunbridge Wells and the rest on his knees, Romance was fled with the early days of Arthur Clennam, our parents tore us asunder we became marble and stern reality usurped the throne, Mr F. said very much to his credit that he was perfectly aware of it and even preferred that state of things accordingly the word was spoken the fiat went forth and such is life you see my dear and yet we do not break but bend, pray make a good breakfast while I go in with the tray.’
She disappeared, leaving Little Dorrit to ponder over the meaning of her scattered words. She soon came back again; and at last began to take her own breakfast, talking all the while.
‘You see, my dear,’ said Flora, measuring out a spoonful or two of some brown liquid that smelt like brandy, and putting it into her tea, ‘I am obliged to be careful to follow the directions of my medical man though the flavour is anything but agreeable being a poor creature and it may be have never recovered the shock received in youth from too much giving way to crying in the next room when separated from Arthur, have you known him long?’
As soon as Little Dorrit comprehended that she had been asked this question–for which time was necessary, the galloping pace of her new patroness having left her far behind–she answered that she had known Mr Clennam ever since his return.
‘To be sure you couldn’t have known him before unless you had been in China or had corresponded neither of which is likely,’ returned Flora, ‘for travelling-people usually get more or less mahogany and you are not at all so and as to corresponding what about? that’s very true unless tea, so it was at his mother’s was it really that you knew him first, highly sensible and firm but dreadfully severe–ought to be the mother of the man in the iron mask.’
‘Mrs Clennam has been kind to me,’ said Little Dorrit.
‘Really? I am sure I am glad to hear it because as Arthur’s mother it’s naturally pleasant to my feelings to have a better opinion of her than I had before, though what she thinks of me when I run on as I am certain to do and she sits glowering at me like Fate in a go-cart–shocking comparison really–invalid and not her fault–I never know or can imagine.’
‘Shall I find my work anywhere, ma’am?’ asked Little Dorrit, looking timidly about; ‘can I get it?’
‘You industrious little fairy,’ returned Flora, taking, in another cup of tea, another of the doses prescribed by her medical man, ‘there’s not the slightest hurry and it’s better that we should begin by being confidential about our mutual friend–too cold a word for me at least I don’t mean that, very proper expression mutual friend–than become through mere formalities not you but me like the Spartan boy with the fox biting him, which I hope you’ll excuse my bringing up for of all the tiresome boys that will go tumbling into every sort of company that boy’s the tiresomest.’
Little Dorrit, her face very pale, sat down again to listen. ‘Hadn’t I better work the while?’ she asked. ‘I can work and attend too. I would rather, if I may.’
Her earnestness was so expressive of her being uneasy without her work, that Flora answered, ‘Well my dear whatever you like best,’ and produced a basket of white handkerchiefs. Little Dorrit gladly put it by her side, took out her little pocket-housewife, threaded the needle, and began to hem.
‘What nimble fingers you have,’ said Flora, ‘but are you sure you are well?’
‘Oh yes, indeed!’
Flora put her feet upon the fender, and settled herself for a thorough good romantic disclosure. She started off at score, tossing her head, sighing in the most demonstrative manner, making a great deal of use of her eyebrows, and occasionally, but not often, glancing at the quiet face that bent over the work.
‘You must know my dear,’ said Flora, ‘but that I have no doubt you know already not only because I have already thrown it out in a general way but because I feel I carry it stamped in burning what’s his names upon my brow that before I was introduced to the late Mr F. I had been engaged to Arthur Clennam–Mr Clennam in public where reserve is necessary Arthur here–we were all in all to one another it was the morning of life it was bliss it was frenzy it was everything else of that sort in the highest degree, when rent asunder we turned to stone in which capacity Arthur went to China and I became the statue bride of the late Mr F.’
Flora, uttering these words in a deep voice, enjoyed herself immensely.
‘To paint,’ said she, ‘the emotions of that morning when all was marble within and Mr F.’s Aunt followed in a glass-coach which it stands to reason must have been in shameful repair or it never could have broken down two streets from the house and Mr F.’s Aunt brought home like the fifth of November in a rush-bottomed chair I will not attempt, suffice it to say that the hollow form of breakfast took place in the dining-room downstairs that papa partaking too freely of pickled salmon was ill for weeks and that Mr F. and myself went upon a continental tour to Calais where the people fought for us on the pier until they separated us though not for ever that was not yet to be.’
The statue bride, hardly pausing for breath, went on, with the greatest complacency, in a rambling manner sometimes incidental to flesh and blood.
‘I will draw a veil over that dreamy life, Mr F. was in good spirits his appetite was good he liked the cookery he considered the wine weak but palatable and all was well, we returned to the immediate neighbourhood of Number Thirty Little Gosling Street London Docks and settled down, ere we had yet fully detected the housemaid in selling the feathers out of the spare bed Gout flying upwards soared with Mr F. to another sphere.’
His relict, with a glance at his portrait, shook her head and wiped her eyes.
‘I revere the memory of Mr F. as an estimable man and most indulgent husband, only necessary to mention Asparagus and it appeared or to hint at any little delicate thing to drink and it came like magic in a pint bottle it was not ecstasy but it was comfort, I returned to papa’s roof and lived secluded if not happy during some years until one day papa came smoothly blundering in and said that Arthur Clennam awaited me below, I went below and found him ask me not what I found him except that he was still unmarried still unchanged!’
The dark mystery with which Flora now enshrouded herself might have stopped other fingers than the nimble fingers that worked near her. They worked on without pause, and the busy head bent over them watching the stitches.
‘Ask me not,’ said Flora, ‘if I love him still or if he still loves me or what the end is to be or when, we are surrounded by watchful eyes and it may be that we are destined to pine asunder it may be never more to be reunited not a word not a breath not a look to betray us all must be secret as the tomb wonder not therefore that even if I should seem comparatively cold to Arthur or Arthur should seem comparatively cold to me we have fatal reasons it is enough if we understand them hush!’
All of which Flora said with so much headlong vehemence as if she really believed it. There is not much doubt that when she worked herself into full mermaid condition, she did actually believe whatever she said in it.