Our mutual friend, p.4
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       Our Mutual Friend, p.4
 

           Charles Dickens

  Chapter 4

  THE R. WILFER FAMILY

  Reginald Wilfer is a name with rather a grand sound, suggesting onfirst acquaintance brasses in country churches, scrolls in stained-glasswindows, and generally the De Wilfers who came over with the Conqueror.For, it is a remarkable fact in genealogy that no De Any ones ever cameover with Anybody else.

  But, the Reginald Wilfer family were of such commonplace extraction andpursuits that their forefathers had for generations modestly subsistedon the Docks, the Excise Office, and the Custom House, and the existingR. Wilfer was a poor clerk. So poor a clerk, though having a limitedsalary and an unlimited family, that he had never yet attained themodest object of his ambition: which was, to wear a complete new suitof clothes, hat and boots included, at one time. His black hat was brownbefore he could afford a coat, his pantaloons were white at the seamsand knees before he could buy a pair of boots, his boots had worn outbefore he could treat himself to new pantaloons, and, by the time heworked round to the hat again, that shining modern article roofed-in anancient ruin of various periods.

  If the conventional Cherub could ever grow up and be clothed, he mightbe photographed as a portrait of Wilfer. His chubby, smooth, innocentappearance was a reason for his being always treated with condescensionwhen he was not put down. A stranger entering his own poor house atabout ten o'clock P.M. might have been surprised to find him sitting upto supper. So boyish was he in his curves and proportions, that hisold schoolmaster meeting him in Cheapside, might have been unable towithstand the temptation of caning him on the spot. In short, he wasthe conventional cherub, after the supposititious shoot just mentioned,rather grey, with signs of care on his expression, and in decidedlyinsolvent circumstances.

  He was shy, and unwilling to own to the name of Reginald, as being tooaspiring and self-assertive a name. In his signature he used only theinitial R., and imparted what it really stood for, to none but chosenfriends, under the seal of confidence. Out of this, the facetious habithad arisen in the neighbourhood surrounding Mincing Lane of makingchristian names for him of adjectives and participles beginning with R.Some of these were more or less appropriate: as Rusty, Retiring, Ruddy,Round, Ripe, Ridiculous, Ruminative; others, derived their point fromtheir want of application: as Raging, Rattling, Roaring, Raffish. But,his popular name was Rumty, which in a moment of inspiration had beenbestowed upon him by a gentleman of convivial habits connected with thedrug-markets, as the beginning of a social chorus, his leading part inthe execution of which had led this gentleman to the Temple of Fame, andof which the whole expressive burden ran:

  'Rumty iddity, row dow dow, Sing toodlely, teedlely, bow wow wow.'

  Thus he was constantly addressed, even in minor notes on business, as'Dear Rumty'; in answer to which, he sedately signed himself, 'Yourstruly, R. Wilfer.'

  He was clerk in the drug-house of Chicksey, Veneering, and Stobbles.Chicksey and Stobbles, his former masters, had both become absorbed inVeneering, once their traveller or commission agent: who had signalizedhis accession to supreme power by bringing into the business a quantityof plate-glass window and French-polished mahogany partition, and agleaming and enormous doorplate.

  R. Wilfer locked up his desk one evening, and, putting his bunch of keysin his pocket much as if it were his peg-top, made for home. His homewas in the Holloway region north of London, and then divided from it byfields and trees. Between Battle Bridge and that part of the Hollowaydistrict in which he dwelt, was a tract of suburban Sahara, where tilesand bricks were burnt, bones were boiled, carpets were beat, rubbish wasshot, dogs were fought, and dust was heaped by contractors. Skirtingthe border of this desert, by the way he took, when the light of itskiln-fires made lurid smears on the fog, R. Wilfer sighed and shook hishead.

  'Ah me!' said he, 'what might have been is not what is!'

  With which commentary on human life, indicating an experience of itnot exclusively his own, he made the best of his way to the end of hisjourney.

  Mrs Wilfer was, of course, a tall woman and an angular. Her lord beingcherubic, she was necessarily majestic, according to the principle whichmatrimonially unites contrasts. She was much given to tying up her headin a pocket-handkerchief, knotted under the chin. This head-gear, inconjunction with a pair of gloves worn within doors, she seemed toconsider as at once a kind of armour against misfortune (invariablyassuming it when in low spirits or difficulties), and as a species offull dress. It was therefore with some sinking of the spirit that herhusband beheld her thus heroically attired, putting down her candle inthe little hall, and coming down the doorsteps through the little frontcourt to open the gate for him.

  Something had gone wrong with the house-door, for R. Wilfer stopped onthe steps, staring at it, and cried:

  'Hal-loa?'

  'Yes,' said Mrs Wilfer, 'the man came himself with a pair of pincers,and took it off, and took it away. He said that as he had no expectationof ever being paid for it, and as he had an order for another LADIES'SCHOOL door-plate, it was better (burnished up) for the interests of allparties.'

  'Perhaps it was, my dear; what do you think?'

  'You are master here, R. W.,' returned his wife. 'It is as you think;not as I do. Perhaps it might have been better if the man had taken thedoor too?'

  'My dear, we couldn't have done without the door.'

  'Couldn't we?'

  'Why, my dear! Could we?'

  'It is as you think, R. W.; not as I do.' With those submissive words,the dutiful wife preceded him down a few stairs to a little basementfront room, half kitchen, half parlour, where a girl of about nineteen,with an exceedingly pretty figure and face, but with an impatient andpetulant expression both in her face and in her shoulders (which inher sex and at her age are very expressive of discontent), sat playingdraughts with a younger girl, who was the youngest of the House ofWilfer. Not to encumber this page by telling off the Wilfers in detailand casting them up in the gross, it is enough for the present that therest were what is called 'out in the world,' in various ways, and thatthey were Many. So many, that when one of his dutiful children called into see him, R. Wilfer generally seemed to say to himself, after a littlemental arithmetic, 'Oh! here's another of 'em!' before adding aloud,'How de do, John,' or Susan, as the case might be.

  'Well Piggywiggies,' said R. W., 'how de do to-night? What I wasthinking of, my dear,' to Mrs Wilfer already seated in a corner withfolded gloves, 'was, that as we have let our first floor so well, and aswe have now no place in which you could teach pupils even if pupils--'

  'The milkman said he knew of two young ladies of the highestrespectability who were in search of a suitable establishment, and hetook a card,' interposed Mrs Wilfer, with severe monotony, as if shewere reading an Act of Parliament aloud. 'Tell your father whether itwas last Monday, Bella.'

  'But we never heard any more of it, ma,' said Bella, the elder girl.

  'In addition to which, my dear,' her husband urged, 'if you have noplace to put two young persons into--'

  'Pardon me,' Mrs Wilfer again interposed; 'they were not young persons.Two young ladies of the highest respectability. Tell your father, Bella,whether the milkman said so.'

  'My dear, it is the same thing.'

  'No it is not,' said Mrs Wilfer, with the same impressive monotony.'Pardon me!'

  'I mean, my dear, it is the same thing as to space. As to space. If youhave no space in which to put two youthful fellow-creatures, howevereminently respectable, which I do not doubt, where are those youthfulfellow-creatures to be accommodated? I carry it no further than that.And solely looking at it,' said her husband, making the stipulation atonce in a conciliatory, complimentary, and argumentative tone--'as I amsure you will agree, my love--from a fellow-creature point of view, mydear.'

  'I have nothing more to say,' returned Mrs Wilfer, with a meekrenunciatory action of her gloves. 'It is as you think, R. W.; not as Ido.'

  Here, the huffing of Miss Bella and the loss of three of her men at aswoop, aggravated by the coronation
of an opponent, led to that younglady's jerking the draught-board and pieces off the table: which hersister went down on her knees to pick up.

  'Poor Bella!' said Mrs Wilfer.

  'And poor Lavinia, perhaps, my dear?' suggested R. W.

  'Pardon me,' said Mrs Wilfer, 'no!'

  It was one of the worthy woman's specialities that she had an amazingpower of gratifying her splenetic or worldly-minded humours by extollingher own family: which she thus proceeded, in the present case, to do.

  'No, R. W. Lavinia has not known the trial that Bella has known. Thetrial that your daughter Bella has undergone, is, perhaps, withouta parallel, and has been borne, I will say, Nobly. When you see yourdaughter Bella in her black dress, which she alone of all the familywears, and when you remember the circumstances which have led toher wearing it, and when you know how those circumstances have beensustained, then, R. W., lay your head upon your pillow and say, "PoorLavinia!"'

  Here, Miss Lavinia, from her kneeling situation under the table, put inthat she didn't want to be 'poored by pa', or anybody else.

  'I am sure you do not, my dear,' returned her mother, 'for you have afine brave spirit. And your sister Cecilia has a fine brave spiritof another kind, a spirit of pure devotion, a beau-ti-ful spirit! Theself-sacrifice of Cecilia reveals a pure and womanly character, veryseldom equalled, never surpassed. I have now in my pocket a letter fromyour sister Cecilia, received this morning--received three months afterher marriage, poor child!--in which she tells me that her husband mustunexpectedly shelter under their roof his reduced aunt. "But I will betrue to him, mamma," she touchingly writes, "I will not leave him, Imust not forget that he is my husband. Let his aunt come!" If this isnot pathetic, if this is not woman's devotion--!' The good lady wavedher gloves in a sense of the impossibility of saying more, and tied thepocket-handkerchief over her head in a tighter knot under her chin.

  Bella, who was now seated on the rug to warm herself, with her browneyes on the fire and a handful of her brown curls in her mouth, laughedat this, and then pouted and half cried.

  'I am sure,' said she, 'though you have no feeling for me, pa, I am oneof the most unfortunate girls that ever lived. You know how poor we are'(it is probable he did, having some reason to know it!), 'and what aglimpse of wealth I had, and how it melted away, and how I am here inthis ridiculous mourning--which I hate!--a kind of a widow who never wasmarried. And yet you don't feel for me.--Yes you do, yes you do.'

  This abrupt change was occasioned by her father's face. She stoppedto pull him down from his chair in an attitude highly favourable tostrangulation, and to give him a kiss and a pat or two on the cheek.

  'But you ought to feel for me, you know, pa.'

  'My dear, I do.'

  'Yes, and I say you ought to. If they had only left me alone and toldme nothing about it, it would have mattered much less. But that nasty MrLightwood feels it his duty, as he says, to write and tell me what is inreserve for me, and then I am obliged to get rid of George Sampson.'

  Here, Lavinia, rising to the surface with the last draughtman rescued,interposed, 'You never cared for George Sampson, Bella.'

  'And did I say I did, miss?' Then, pouting again, with the curls in hermouth; 'George Sampson was very fond of me, and admired me very much,and put up with everything I did to him.'

  'You were rude enough to him,' Lavinia again interposed.

  'And did I say I wasn't, miss? I am not setting up to be sentimentalabout George Sampson. I only say George Sampson was better thannothing.'

  'You didn't show him that you thought even that,' Lavinia againinterposed.

  'You are a chit and a little idiot,' returned Bella, 'or you wouldn'tmake such a dolly speech. What did you expect me to do? Wait till youare a woman, and don't talk about what you don't understand. You onlyshow your ignorance!' Then, whimpering again, and at intervals bitingthe curls, and stopping to look how much was bitten off, 'It's a shame!There never was such a hard case! I shouldn't care so much if it wasn'tso ridiculous. It was ridiculous enough to have a stranger coming overto marry me, whether he liked it or not. It was ridiculous enough toknow what an embarrassing meeting it would be, and how we nevercould pretend to have an inclination of our own, either of us. It wasridiculous enough to know I shouldn't like him--how COULD I like him,left to him in a will, like a dozen of spoons, with everything cut anddried beforehand, like orange chips. Talk of orange flowers indeed!I declare again it's a shame! Those ridiculous points would have beensmoothed away by the money, for I love money, and want money--want itdreadfully. I hate to be poor, and we are degradingly poor, offensivelypoor, miserably poor, beastly poor. But here I am, left with all theridiculous parts of the situation remaining, and, added to them all,this ridiculous dress! And if the truth was known, when the Harmonmurder was all over the town, and people were speculating on its beingsuicide, I dare say those impudent wretches at the clubs and places madejokes about the miserable creature's having preferred a watery grave tome. It's likely enough they took such liberties; I shouldn't wonder! Ideclare it's a very hard case indeed, and I am a most unfortunate girl.The idea of being a kind of a widow, and never having been married!And the idea of being as poor as ever after all, and going into black,besides, for a man I never saw, and should have hated--as far as HE wasconcerned--if I had seen!'

  The young lady's lamentations were checked at this point by a knuckle,knocking at the half-open door of the room. The knuckle had knocked twoor three times already, but had not been heard.

  'Who is it?' said Mrs Wilfer, in her Act-of-Parliament manner. 'Enter!'

  A gentleman coming in, Miss Bella, with a short and sharp exclamation,scrambled off the hearth-rug and massed the bitten curls together intheir right place on her neck.

  'The servant girl had her key in the door as I came up, and directed meto this room, telling me I was expected. I am afraid I should have askedher to announce me.'

  'Pardon me,' returned Mrs Wilfer. 'Not at all. Two of my daughters. R.W., this is the gentleman who has taken your first-floor. He was so goodas to make an appointment for to-night, when you would be at home.'

  A dark gentleman. Thirty at the utmost. An expressive, one might sayhandsome, face. A very bad manner. In the last degree constrained,reserved, diffident, troubled. His eyes were on Miss Bella for aninstant, and then looked at the ground as he addressed the master of thehouse.

  'Seeing that I am quite satisfied, Mr Wilfer, with the rooms, and withtheir situation, and with their price, I suppose a memorandum between usof two or three lines, and a payment down, will bind the bargain? I wishto send in furniture without delay.'

  Two or three times during this short address, the cherub addressed hadmade chubby motions towards a chair. The gentleman now took it, layinga hesitating hand on a corner of the table, and with another hesitatinghand lifting the crown of his hat to his lips, and drawing it before hismouth.

  'The gentleman, R. W.,' said Mrs Wilfer, 'proposes to take yourapartments by the quarter. A quarter's notice on either side.'

  'Shall I mention, sir,' insinuated the landlord, expecting it to bereceived as a matter of course, 'the form of a reference?'

  'I think,' returned the gentleman, after a pause, 'that a reference isnot necessary; neither, to say the truth, is it convenient, for I ama stranger in London. I require no reference from you, and perhaps,therefore, you will require none from me. That will be fair on bothsides. Indeed, I show the greater confidence of the two, for I will payin advance whatever you please, and I am going to trust my furniturehere. Whereas, if you were in embarrassed circumstances--this is merelysupposititious--'

  Conscience causing R. Wilfer to colour, Mrs Wilfer, from a corner (shealways got into stately corners) came to the rescue with a deep-toned'Per-fectly.'

  '--Why then I--might lose it.'

  'Well!' observed R. Wilfer, cheerfully, 'money and goods are certainlythe best of references.'

  'Do you think they ARE the best, pa?' asked Miss Bella, in a low voice,and without looking
over her shoulder as she warmed her foot on thefender.

  'Among the best, my dear.'

  'I should have thought, myself, it was so easy to add the usual kind ofone,' said Bella, with a toss of her curls.

  The gentleman listened to her, with a face of marked attention, thoughhe neither looked up nor changed his attitude. He sat, still and silent,until his future landlord accepted his proposals, and brought writingmaterials to complete the business. He sat, still and silent, while thelandlord wrote.

  When the agreement was ready in duplicate (the landlord having workedat it like some cherubic scribe, in what is conventionally called adoubtful, which means a not at all doubtful, Old Master), it was signedby the contracting parties, Bella looking on as scornful witness. Thecontracting parties were R. Wilfer, and John Rokesmith Esquire.

  When it came to Bella's turn to sign her name, Mr Rokesmith, who wasstanding, as he had sat, with a hesitating hand upon the table, lookedat her stealthily, but narrowly. He looked at the pretty figure bendingdown over the paper and saying, 'Where am I to go, pa? Here, in thiscorner?' He looked at the beautiful brown hair, shading the coquettishface; he looked at the free dash of the signature, which was a bold onefor a woman's; and then they looked at one another.

  'Much obliged to you, Miss Wilfer.'

  'Obliged?'

  'I have given you so much trouble.'

  'Signing my name? Yes, certainly. But I am your landlord's daughter,sir.'

  As there was nothing more to do but pay eight sovereigns in earnest ofthe bargain, pocket the agreement, appoint a time for the arrival of hisfurniture and himself, and go, Mr Rokesmith did that as awkwardly as itmight be done, and was escorted by his landlord to the outer air. WhenR. Wilfer returned, candlestick in hand, to the bosom of his family, hefound the bosom agitated.

  'Pa,' said Bella, 'we have got a Murderer for a tenant.'

  'Pa,' said Lavinia, 'we have got a Robber.'

  'To see him unable for his life to look anybody in the face!' saidBella. 'There never was such an exhibition.'

  'My dears,' said their father, 'he is a diffident gentleman, and Ishould say particularly so in the society of girls of your age.'

  'Nonsense, our age!' cried Bella, impatiently. 'What's that got to dowith him?'

  'Besides, we are not of the same age:--which age?' demanded Lavinia.

  'Never YOU mind, Lavvy,' retorted Bella; 'you wait till you are of anage to ask such questions. Pa, mark my words! Between Mr Rokesmith andme, there is a natural antipathy and a deep distrust; and something willcome of it!'

  'My dear, and girls,' said the cherub-patriarch, 'between Mr Rokesmithand me, there is a matter of eight sovereigns, and something for suppershall come of it, if you'll agree upon the article.'

  This was a neat and happy turn to give the subject, treats being rare inthe Wilfer household, where a monotonous appearance of Dutch-cheese atten o'clock in the evening had been rather frequently commented on bythe dimpled shoulders of Miss Bella. Indeed, the modest Dutchman himselfseemed conscious of his want of variety, and generally came before thefamily in a state of apologetic perspiration. After some discussion onthe relative merits of veal-cutlet, sweetbread, and lobster, a decisionwas pronounced in favour of veal-cutlet. Mrs Wilfer then solemnlydivested herself of her handkerchief and gloves, as a preliminarysacrifice to preparing the frying-pan, and R. W. himself went outto purchase the viand. He soon returned, bearing the same in a freshcabbage-leaf, where it coyly embraced a rasher of ham. Melodious soundswere not long in rising from the frying-pan on the fire, or in seeming,as the firelight danced in the mellow halls of a couple of full bottleson the table, to play appropriate dance-music.

  The cloth was laid by Lavvy. Bella, as the acknowledged ornament of thefamily, employed both her hands in giving her hair an additionalwave while sitting in the easiest chair, and occasionally threw in adirection touching the supper: as, 'Very brown, ma;' or, to her sister,'Put the saltcellar straight, miss, and don't be a dowdy little puss.'

  Meantime her father, chinking Mr Rokesmith's gold as he sat expectantbetween his knife and fork, remarked that six of those sovereigns camejust in time for their landlord, and stood them in a little pile on thewhite tablecloth to look at.

  'I hate our landlord!' said Bella.

  But, observing a fall in her father's face, she went and sat down by himat the table, and began touching up his hair with the handle of a fork.It was one of the girl's spoilt ways to be always arranging the family'shair--perhaps because her own was so pretty, and occupied so much of herattention.

  'You deserve to have a house of your own; don't you, poor pa?'

  'I don't deserve it better than another, my dear.'

  'At any rate I, for one, want it more than another,' said Bella, holdinghim by the chin, as she stuck his flaxen hair on end, 'and I grudgethis money going to the Monster that swallows up so much, when we allwant--Everything. And if you say (as you want to say; I know you wantto say so, pa) "that's neither reasonable nor honest, Bella," then Ianswer, "Maybe not, pa--very likely--but it's one of the consequencesof being poor, and of thoroughly hating and detesting to be poor, andthat's my case." Now, you look lovely, pa; why don't you always wearyour hair like that? And here's the cutlet! If it isn't very brown, ma,I can't eat it, and must have a bit put back to be done expressly.'

  However, as it was brown, even to Bella's taste, the young ladygraciously partook of it without reconsignment to the frying-pan, andalso, in due course, of the contents of the two bottles: whereofone held Scotch ale and the other rum. The latter perfume, withthe fostering aid of boiling water and lemon-peel, diffused itselfthroughout the room, and became so highly concentrated around the warmfireside, that the wind passing over the house roof must have rushed offcharged with a delicious whiff of it, after buzzing like a great bee atthat particular chimneypot.

  'Pa,' said Bella, sipping the fragrant mixture and warming her favouriteankle; 'when old Mr Harmon made such a fool of me (not to mentionhimself, as he is dead), what do you suppose he did it for?'

  'Impossible to say, my dear. As I have told you time out of number sincehis will was brought to light, I doubt if I ever exchanged a hundredwords with the old gentleman. If it was his whim to surprise us, hiswhim succeeded. For he certainly did it.'

  'And I was stamping my foot and screaming, when he first took notice ofme; was I?' said Bella, contemplating the ankle before mentioned.

  'You were stamping your little foot, my dear, and screaming with yourlittle voice, and laying into me with your little bonnet, which youhad snatched off for the purpose,' returned her father, as if theremembrance gave a relish to the rum; 'you were doing this one Sundaymorning when I took you out, because I didn't go the exact way youwanted, when the old gentleman, sitting on a seat near, said, "That's anice girl; that's a VERY nice girl; a promising girl!" And so you were,my dear.'

  'And then he asked my name, did he, pa?'

  'Then he asked your name, my dear, and mine; and on other Sundaymornings, when we walked his way, we saw him again, and--and reallythat's all.'

  As that was all the rum and water too, or, in other words, as R. W.delicately signified that his glass was empty, by throwing back his headand standing the glass upside down on his nose and upper lip, it mighthave been charitable in Mrs Wilfer to suggest replenishment. But thatheroine briefly suggesting 'Bedtime' instead, the bottles were put away,and the family retired; she cherubically escorted, like some severesaint in a painting, or merely human matron allegorically treated.

  'And by this time to-morrow,' said Lavinia when the two girls were alonein their room, 'we shall have Mr Rokesmith here, and shall be expectingto have our throats cut.'

  'You needn't stand between me and the candle for all that,' retortedBella. 'This is another of the consequences of being poor! The idea of agirl with a really fine head of hair, having to do it by one flat candleand a few inches of looking-glass!'

  'You caught George Sampson with it, Bella, bad as your means of dressingit are.'
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  'You low little thing. Caught George Sampson with it! Don't talk aboutcatching people, miss, till your own time for catching--as you callit--comes.'

  'Perhaps it has come,' muttered Lavvy, with a toss of her head.

  'What did you say?' asked Bella, very sharply. 'What did you say, miss?'

  Lavvy declining equally to repeat or to explain, Bella gradually lapsedover her hair-dressing into a soliloquy on the miseries of being poor,as exemplified in having nothing to put on, nothing to go out in,nothing to dress by, only a nasty box to dress at instead of acommodious dressing-table, and being obliged to take in suspiciouslodgers. On the last grievance as her climax, she laid great stress--andmight have laid greater, had she known that if Mr Julius Handford had atwin brother upon earth, Mr John Rokesmith was the man.

 
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