Arthur watched her face for some explanation of what she did mean.
‘Are you really serious, Mr Clennam? Don’t you see?’
Arthur did not see; and said so.
‘Why, don’t I know my son, and don’t I know that this is exactly the way to hold him?’ said Mrs Gowan, contemptuously; ‘and do not these Miggles people know it, at least as well as I? Oh, shrewd people, Mr Clennam: evidently people of business! I believe Miggles belonged to a Bank. It ought to have been a very profitable Bank, if he had much to do with its management. This is very well done, indeed.’
‘I beg and entreat you, ma’am–’ Arthur interposed.
‘Oh, Mr Clennam, can you really be so credulous?’
It made such a painful impression upon him to hear her talking in this haughty tone, and to see her patting her contemptuous lips with her fan, that he said very earnestly, ‘Believe me, ma’am, this is unjust, a perfectly groundless suspicion.’
‘Suspicion?’ repeated Mrs Gowan. ‘Not suspicion, Mr Clennam, Certainty. It is very knowingly done indeed, and seems to have taken _you_ in completely.’ She laughed; and again sat tapping her lips with her fan, and tossing her head, as if she added, ‘Don’t tell me. I know such people will do anything for the honour of such an alliance.’
At this opportune moment, the cards were thrown up, and Mr Henry Gowan came across the room saying, ‘Mother, if you can spare Mr Clennam for this time, we have a long way to go, and it’s getting late.’ Mr Clennam thereupon rose, as he had no choice but to do; and Mrs Gowan showed him, to the last, the same look and the same tapped contemptuous lips.
‘You have had a portentously long audience of my mother,’ said Gowan, as the door closed upon them. ‘I fervently hope she has not bored you?’
‘Not at all,’ said Clennam.
They had a little open phaeton for the journey, and were soon in it on the road home. Gowan, driving, lighted a cigar; Clennam declined one. Do what he would, he fell into such a mood of abstraction that Gowan said again, ‘I am very much afraid my mother has bored you?’ To which he roused himself to answer, ‘Not at all!’ and soon relapsed again.
In that state of mind which rendered nobody uneasy, his thoughtfulness would have turned principally on the man at his side. He would have thought of the morning when he first saw him rooting out the stones with his heel, and would have asked himself, ‘Does he jerk me out of the path in the same careless, cruel way?’ He would have thought, had this introduction to his mother been brought about by him because he knew what she would say, and that he could thus place his position before a rival and loftily warn him off, without himself reposing a word of confidence in him? He would have thought, even if there were no such design as that, had he brought him there to play with his repressed emotions, and torment him? The current of these meditations would have been stayed sometimes by a rush of shame, bearing a remonstrance to himself from his own open nature, representing that to shelter such suspicions, even for the passing moment, was not to hold the high, unenvious course he had resolved to keep. At those times, the striving within him would have been hardest; and looking up and catching Gowan’s eyes, he would have started as if he had done him an injury.
Then, looking at the dark road and its uncertain objects, he would have gradually trailed off again into thinking, ‘Where are we driving, he and I, I wonder, on the darker road of life? How will it be with us, and with her, in the obscure distance?’ Thinking of her, he would have been troubled anew with a reproachful misgiving that it was not even loyal to her to dislike him, and that in being so easily prejudiced against him he was less deserving of her than at first.
‘You are evidently out of spirits,’ said Gowan; ‘I am very much afraid my mother must have bored you dreadfully.’
‘Believe me, not at all,’ said Clennam. ‘It’s nothing–nothing!’
CHAPTER 27. Five-and-Twenty
A frequently recurring doubt, whether Mr Pancks’s desire to collect information relative to the Dorrit family could have any possible bearing on the misgivings he had imparted to his mother on his return from his long exile, caused Arthur Clennam much uneasiness at this period. What Mr Pancks already knew about the Dorrit family, what more he really wanted to find out, and why he should trouble his busy head about them at all, were questions that often perplexed him. Mr Pancks was not a man to waste his time and trouble in researches prompted by idle curiosity. That he had a specific object Clennam could not doubt. And whether the attainment of that object by Mr Pancks’s industry might bring to light, in some untimely way, secret reasons which had induced his mother to take Little Dorrit by the hand, was a serious speculation.
Not that he ever wavered either in his desire or his determination to repair a wrong that had been done in his father’s time, should a wrong come to light, and be reparable. The shadow of a supposed act of injustice, which had hung over him since his father’s death, was so vague and formless that it might be the result of a reality widely remote from his idea of it. But, if his apprehensions should prove to be well founded, he was ready at any moment to lay down all he had, and begin the world anew. As the fierce dark teaching of his childhood had never sunk into his heart, so that first article in his code of morals was, that he must begin, in practical humility, with looking well to his feet on Earth, and that he could never mount on wings of words to Heaven. Duty on earth, restitution on earth, action on earth; these first, as the first steep steps upward. Strait was the gate and narrow was the way; far straiter and narrower than the broad high road paved with vain professions and vain repetitions, motes from other men’s eyes and liberal delivery of others to the judgment–all cheap materials costing absolutely nothing.
No. It was not a selfish fear or hesitation that rendered him uneasy, but a mistrust lest Pancks might not observe his part of the understanding between them, and, making any discovery, might take some course upon it without imparting it to him. On the other hand, when he recalled his conversation with Pancks, and the little reason he had to suppose that there was any likelihood of that strange personage being on that track at all, there were times when he wondered that he made so much of it. Labouring in this sea, as all barks labour in cross seas, he tossed about and came to no haven.
The removal of Little Dorrit herself from their customary association, did not mend the matter. She was so much out, and so much in her own room, that he began to miss her and to find a blank in her place. He had written to her to inquire if she were better, and she had written back, very gratefully and earnestly telling him not to be uneasy on her behalf, for she was quite well; but he had not seen her, for what, in their intercourse, was a long time.
He returned home one evening from an interview with her father, who had mentioned that she was out visiting–which was what he always said when she was hard at work to buy his supper–and found Mr Meagles in an excited state walking up and down his room. On his opening the door, Mr Meagles stopped, faced round, and said:
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Why, bless my heart alive!’ cried Clennam in amazement. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Wouldn’t count five-and-twenty, sir; couldn’t be got to do it; stopped at eight, and took herself off.’
‘Left your house?’
‘Never to come back,’ said Mr Meagles, shaking his head. ‘You don’t know that girl’s passionate and proud character. A team of horses couldn’t draw her back now; the bolts and bars of the old Bastille couldn’t keep her.’
‘How did it happen? Pray sit down and tell me.’