Clennam inclined his head, as a generally suitable reply to what he did not yet quite understand.
‘First,’ said Mrs Gowan, ‘now, is she really pretty?’
In nobody’s difficulties, he would have found it very difficult to answer; very difficult indeed to smile, and say ‘Who?’
‘Oh! You know!’ she returned. ‘This flame of Henry’s. This unfortunate fancy. There! If it is a point of honour that I should originate the name–Miss Mickles–Miggles.’
‘Miss Meagles,’ said Clennam, ‘is very beautiful.’
‘Men are so often mistaken on those points,’ returned Mrs Gowan, shaking her head, ‘that I candidly confess to you I feel anything but sure of it, even now; though it is something to have Henry corroborated with so much gravity and emphasis. He picked the people up at Rome, I think?’
The phrase would have given nobody mortal offence. Clennam replied, ‘Excuse me, I doubt if I understand your expression.’
‘Picked the people up,’ said Mrs Gowan, tapping the sticks of her closed fan (a large green one, which she used as a hand-screen) on her little table. ‘Came upon them. Found them out. Stumbled against them.’
‘Yes. The Miggles people.’
‘I really cannot say,’ said Clennam, ‘where my friend Mr Meagles first presented Mr Henry Gowan to his daughter.’
‘I am pretty sure he picked her up at Rome; but never mind where–somewhere. Now (this is entirely between ourselves), is she very plebeian?’
‘Really, ma’am,’ returned Clennam, ‘I am so undoubtedly plebeian myself, that I do not feel qualified to judge.’
‘Very neat!’ said Mrs Gowan, coolly unfurling her screen. ‘Very happy! From which I infer that you secretly think her manner equal to her looks?’
Clennam, after a moment’s stiffness, bowed.
‘That’s comforting, and I hope you may be right. Did Henry tell me you had travelled with them?’
‘I travelled with my friend Mr Meagles, and his wife and daughter, during some months.’ (Nobody’s heart might have been wrung by the remembrance.)
‘Really comforting, because you must have had a large experience of them. You see, Mr Clennam, this thing has been going on for a long time, and I find no improvement in it. Therefore to have the opportunity of speaking to one so well informed about it as yourself, is an immense relief to me. Quite a boon. Quite a blessing, I am sure.’
‘Pardon me,’ returned Clennam, ‘but I am not in Mr Henry Gowan’s confidence. I am far from being so well informed as you suppose me to be. Your mistake makes my position a very delicate one. No word on this topic has ever passed between Mr Henry Gowan and myself.’
Mrs Gowan glanced at the other end of the room, where her son was playing ecarte on a sofa, with the old lady who was for a charge of cavalry.
‘Not in his confidence? No,’ said Mrs Gowan. ‘No word has passed between you? No. That I can imagine. But there are unexpressed confidences, Mr Clennam; and as you have been together intimately among these people, I cannot doubt that a confidence of that sort exists in the present case. Perhaps you have heard that I have suffered the keenest distress of mind from Henry’s having taken to a pursuit which–well!’ shrugging her shoulders, ‘a very respectable pursuit, I dare say, and some artists are, as artists, quite superior persons; still, we never yet in our family have gone beyond an Amateur, and it is a pardonable weakness to feel a little–’
As Mrs Gowan broke off to heave a sigh, Clennam, however resolute to be magnanimous, could not keep down the thought that there was mighty little danger of the family’s ever going beyond an Amateur, even as it was.
‘Henry,’ the mother resumed, ‘is self-willed and resolute; and as these people naturally strain every nerve to catch him, I can entertain very little hope, Mr Clennam, that the thing will be broken off. I apprehend the girl’s fortune will be very small; Henry might have done much better; there is scarcely anything to compensate for the connection: still, he acts for himself; and if I find no improvement within a short time, I see no other course than to resign myself and make the best of these people. I am infinitely obliged to you for what you have told me.’
As she shrugged her shoulders, Clennam stiffly bowed again. With an uneasy flush upon his face, and hesitation in his manner, he then said in a still lower tone than he had adopted yet:
‘Mrs Gowan, I scarcely know how to acquit myself of what I feel to be a duty, and yet I must ask you for your kind consideration in attempting to discharge it. A misconception on your part, a very great misconception if I may venture to call it so, seems to require setting right. You have supposed Mr Meagles and his family to strain every nerve, I think you said–’
‘Every nerve,’ repeated Mrs Gowan, looking at him in calm obstinacy, with her green fan between her face and the fire.
‘To secure Mr Henry Gowan?’
The lady placidly assented.
‘Now that is so far,’ said Arthur, ‘from being the case, that I know Mr Meagles to be unhappy in this matter; and to have interposed all reasonable obstacles with the hope of putting an end to it.’
Mrs Gowan shut up her great green fan, tapped him on the arm with it, and tapped her smiling lips. ‘Why, of course,’ said she. ‘Just what I mean.’