Our mutual friend, p.5
Our Mutual Friend,
Over against a London house, a corner house not far from CavendishSquare, a man with a wooden leg had sat for some years, with hisremaining foot in a basket in cold weather, picking up a living onthis wise:--Every morning at eight o'clock, he stumped to the corner,carrying a chair, a clothes-horse, a pair of trestles, a board, abasket, and an umbrella, all strapped together. Separating these, theboard and trestles became a counter, the basket supplied the few smalllots of fruit and sweets that he offered for sale upon it and became afoot-warmer, the unfolded clothes-horse displayed a choice collection ofhalfpenny ballads and became a screen, and the stool planted within itbecame his post for the rest of the day. All weathers saw the man at thepost. This is to be accepted in a double sense, for he contrived aback to his wooden stool, by placing it against the lamp-post. When theweather was wet, he put up his umbrella over his stock in trade, notover himself; when the weather was dry, he furled that faded article,tied it round with a piece of yarn, and laid it cross-wise under thetrestles: where it looked like an unwholesomely-forced lettuce that hadlost in colour and crispness what it had gained in size.
He had established his right to the corner, by imperceptibleprescription. He had never varied his ground an inch, but had in thebeginning diffidently taken the corner upon which the side of the housegave. A howling corner in the winter time, a dusty corner in the summertime, an undesirable corner at the best of times. Shelterless fragmentsof straw and paper got up revolving storms there, when the main streetwas at peace; and the water-cart, as if it were drunk or short-sighted,came blundering and jolting round it, making it muddy when all else wasclean.
On the front of his sale-board hung a little placard, like akettle-holder, bearing the inscription in his own small text:
Errands gone On with fi Delity By Ladies and Gentlemen I remain Your humble Servt: Silas Wegg
He had not only settled it with himself in course of time, that hewas errand-goer by appointment to the house at the corner (though hereceived such commissions not half a dozen times in a year, and thenonly as some servant's deputy), but also that he was one of the house'sretainers and owed vassalage to it and was bound to leal and loyalinterest in it. For this reason, he always spoke of it as 'Our House,'and, though his knowledge of its affairs was mostly speculative andall wrong, claimed to be in its confidence. On similar grounds he neverbeheld an inmate at any one of its windows but he touched his hat. Yet,he knew so little about the inmates that he gave them names of his owninvention: as 'Miss Elizabeth', 'Master George', 'Aunt Jane', 'UncleParker '--having no authority whatever for any such designations, butparticularly the last--to which, as a natural consequence, he stuck withgreat obstinacy.
Over the house itself, he exercised the same imaginary power as over itsinhabitants and their affairs. He had never been in it, the length ofa piece of fat black water-pipe which trailed itself over the area-doorinto a damp stone passage, and had rather the air of a leech on thehouse that had 'taken' wonderfully; but this was no impediment to hisarranging it according to a plan of his own. It was a great dingy housewith a quantity of dim side window and blank back premises, and itcost his mind a world of trouble so to lay it out as to account foreverything in its external appearance. But, this once done, was quitesatisfactory, and he rested persuaded, that he knew his way about thehouse blindfold: from the barred garrets in the high roof, to the twoiron extinguishers before the main door--which seemed to request alllively visitors to have the kindness to put themselves out, beforeentering.
Assuredly, this stall of Silas Wegg's was the hardest little stall ofall the sterile little stalls in London. It gave you the face-acheto look at his apples, the stomach-ache to look at his oranges, thetooth-ache to look at his nuts. Of the latter commodity he had alwaysa grim little heap, on which lay a little wooden measure which hadno discernible inside, and was considered to represent the penn'orthappointed by Magna Charta. Whether from too much east wind or no--it wasan easterly corner--the stall, the stock, and the keeper, were all asdry as the Desert. Wegg was a knotty man, and a close-grained, with aface carved out of very hard material, that had just as much playof expression as a watchman's rattle. When he laughed, certain jerksoccurred in it, and the rattle sprung. Sooth to say, he was so woodena man that he seemed to have taken his wooden leg naturally, and rathersuggested to the fanciful observer, that he might be expected--if hisdevelopment received no untimely check--to be completely set up with apair of wooden legs in about six months.
Mr Wegg was an observant person, or, as he himself said, 'took apowerful sight of notice'. He saluted all his regular passers-by everyday, as he sat on his stool backed up by the lamp-post; and on theadaptable character of these salutes he greatly plumed himself. Thus,to the rector, he addressed a bow, compounded of lay deference, anda slight touch of the shady preliminary meditation at church; to thedoctor, a confidential bow, as to a gentleman whose acquaintance withhis inside he begged respectfully to acknowledge; before the Quality hedelighted to abase himself; and for Uncle Parker, who was in the army(at least, so he had settled it), he put his open hand to the sideof his hat, in a military manner which that angry-eyed buttoned-upinflammatory-faced old gentleman appeared but imperfectly to appreciate.
The only article in which Silas dealt, that was not hard, wasgingerbread. On a certain day, some wretched infant having purchased thedamp gingerbread-horse (fearfully out of condition), and the adhesivebird-cage, which had been exposed for the day's sale, he had taken a tinbox from under his stool to produce a relay of those dreadful specimens,and was going to look in at the lid, when he said to himself, pausing:'Oh! Here you are again!'
The words referred to a broad, round-shouldered, one-sided old fellow inmourning, coming comically ambling towards the corner, dressed in a peaover-coat, and carrying a large stick. He wore thick shoes, and thickleather gaiters, and thick gloves like a hedger's. Both as to his dressand to himself, he was of an overlapping rhinoceros build, with foldsin his cheeks, and his forehead, and his eyelids, and his lips, and hisears; but with bright, eager, childishly-inquiring, grey eyes, under hisragged eyebrows, and broad-brimmed hat. A very odd-looking old fellowaltogether.
'Here you are again,' repeated Mr Wegg, musing. 'And what are you now?Are you in the Funns, or where are you? Have you lately come to settlein this neighbourhood, or do you own to another neighbourhood? Are youin independent circumstances, or is it wasting the motions of a bow onyou? Come! I'll speculate! I'll invest a bow in you.'
Which Mr Wegg, having replaced his tin box, accordingly did, as he roseto bait his gingerbread-trap for some other devoted infant. The salutewas acknowledged with:
'Morning, sir! Morning! Morning!'
('Calls me Sir!' said Mr Wegg, to himself; 'HE won't answer. A bowgone!')
'Morning, morning, morning!'
'Appears to be rather a 'arty old cock, too,' said Mr Wegg, as before;'Good morning to YOU, sir.'
'Do you remember me, then?' asked his new acquaintance, stopping inhis amble, one-sided, before the stall, and speaking in a pounding way,though with great good-humour.
'I have noticed you go past our house, sir, several times in the courseof the last week or so.'
'Our house,' repeated the other. 'Meaning--?'
'Yes,' said Mr Wegg, nodding, as the other pointed the clumsy forefingerof his right glove at the corner house.
'Oh! Now, what,' pursued the old fellow, in an inquisitive manner,carrying his knotted stick in his left arm as if it were a baby, 'whatdo they allow you now?'
'It's job work that I do for our house,' returned Silas, drily, and withreticence; 'it's not yet brought to an exact allowance.'
'Oh! It's not yet brought to an exact allowance? No! It's not yetbrought to an exact allowance. Oh!--Morning, morning, morning!'
'Appears to be rather a cracked old cock,' thought Silas, qualifying hisformer good opinion, as the other ambled off. But, in a moment he wasback again with
'How did you get your wooden leg?'
Mr Wegg replied, (tartly to this personal inquiry), 'In an accident.'
'Do you like it?'
'Well! I haven't got to keep it warm,' Mr Wegg made answer, in a sort ofdesperation occasioned by the singularity of the question.
'He hasn't,' repeated the other to his knotted stick, as he gave it ahug; 'he hasn't got--ha!--ha!--to keep it warm! Did you ever hear of thename of Boffin?'
'No,' said Mr Wegg, who was growing restive under this examination. 'Inever did hear of the name of Boffin.'
'Do you like it?'
'Why, no,' retorted Mr Wegg, again approaching desperation; 'I can't sayI do.'
'Why don't you like it?'
'I don't know why I don't,' retorted Mr Wegg, approaching frenzy, 'but Idon't at all.'
'Now, I'll tell you something that'll make you sorry for that,' said thestranger, smiling. 'My name's Boffin.'
'I can't help it!' returned Mr Wegg. Implying in his manner theoffensive addition, 'and if I could, I wouldn't.'
'But there's another chance for you,' said Mr Boffin, smiling still, 'Doyou like the name of Nicodemus? Think it over. Nick, or Noddy.'
'It is not, sir,' Mr Wegg rejoined, as he sat down on his stool, with anair of gentle resignation, combined with melancholy candour; 'it is nota name as I could wish any one that I had a respect for, to call MEby; but there may be persons that would not view it with the sameobjections.--I don't know why,' Mr Wegg added, anticipating anotherquestion.
'Noddy Boffin,' said that gentleman. 'Noddy. That's my name. Noddy--orNick--Boffin. What's your name?'
'Silas Wegg.--I don't,' said Mr Wegg, bestirring himself to take thesame precaution as before, 'I don't know why Silas, and I don't know whyWegg.'
'Now, Wegg,' said Mr Boffin, hugging his stick closer, 'I want to make asort of offer to you. Do you remember when you first see me?'
The wooden Wegg looked at him with a meditative eye, and also with asoftened air as descrying possibility of profit. 'Let me think. I ain'tquite sure, and yet I generally take a powerful sight of notice, too.Was it on a Monday morning, when the butcher-boy had been to our housefor orders, and bought a ballad of me, which, being unacquainted withthe tune, I run it over to him?'
'Right, Wegg, right! But he bought more than one.'
'Yes, to be sure, sir; he bought several; and wishing to lay out hismoney to the best, he took my opinion to guide his choice, and we wentover the collection together. To be sure we did. Here was him as itmight be, and here was myself as it might be, and there was you, MrBoffin, as you identically are, with your self-same stick under yourvery same arm, and your very same back towards us. To--be--sure!' addedMr Wegg, looking a little round Mr Boffin, to take him in the rear,and identify this last extraordinary coincidence, 'your wery self-sameback!'
'What do you think I was doing, Wegg?'
'I should judge, sir, that you might be glancing your eye down thestreet.'
'No, Wegg. I was a listening.'
'Was you, indeed?' said Mr Wegg, dubiously.
'Not in a dishonourable way, Wegg, because you was singing to thebutcher; and you wouldn't sing secrets to a butcher in the street, youknow.'
'It never happened that I did so yet, to the best of my remembrance,'said Mr Wegg, cautiously. 'But I might do it. A man can't say what hemight wish to do some day or another.' (This, not to release any littleadvantage he might derive from Mr Boffin's avowal.)
'Well,' repeated Boffin, 'I was a listening to you and to him. And whatdo you--you haven't got another stool, have you? I'm rather thick in mybreath.'
'I haven't got another, but you're welcome to this,' said Wegg,resigning it. 'It's a treat to me to stand.'
'Lard!' exclaimed Mr Boffin, in a tone of great enjoyment, as he settledhimself down, still nursing his stick like a baby, 'it's a pleasantplace, this! And then to be shut in on each side, with these ballads,like so many book-leaf blinkers! Why, its delightful!'
'If I am not mistaken, sir,' Mr Wegg delicately hinted, resting a handon his stall, and bending over the discursive Boffin, 'you alluded tosome offer or another that was in your mind?'
'I'm coming to it! All right. I'm coming to it! I was going to say thatwhen I listened that morning, I listened with hadmiration amounting tohaw. I thought to myself, "Here's a man with a wooden leg--a literaryman with--"'
'N--not exactly so, sir,' said Mr Wegg.
'Why, you know every one of these songs by name and by tune, and if youwant to read or to sing any one on 'em off straight, you've only to whipon your spectacles and do it!' cried Mr Boffin. 'I see you at it!'
'Well, sir,' returned Mr Wegg, with a conscious inclination of the head;'we'll say literary, then.'
'"A literary man--WITH a wooden leg--and all Print is open to him!"That's what I thought to myself, that morning,' pursued Mr Boffin,leaning forward to describe, uncramped by the clotheshorse, as large anarc as his right arm could make; '"all Print is open to him!" And it is,ain't it?'
'Why, truly, sir,' Mr Wegg admitted, with modesty; 'I believe youcouldn't show me the piece of English print, that I wouldn't be equal tocollaring and throwing.'
'On the spot?' said Mr Boffin.
'On the spot.'
'I know'd it! Then consider this. Here am I, a man without a wooden leg,and yet all print is shut to me.'
'Indeed, sir?' Mr Wegg returned with increasing self-complacency.'Education neglected?'
'Neg--lected!' repeated Boffin, with emphasis. 'That ain't no word forit. I don't mean to say but what if you showed me a B, I could so fargive you change for it, as to answer Boffin.'
'Come, come, sir,' said Mr Wegg, throwing in a little encouragement,'that's something, too.'
'It's something,' answered Mr Boffin, 'but I'll take my oath it ain'tmuch.'
'Perhaps it's not as much as could be wished by an inquiring mind, sir,'Mr Wegg admitted.
'Now, look here. I'm retired from business. Me and MrsBoffin--Henerietty Boffin--which her father's name was Henery, and hermother's name was Hetty, and so you get it--we live on a compittance,under the will of a diseased governor.'
'Gentleman dead, sir?'
'Man alive, don't I tell you? A diseased governor? Now, it's too latefor me to begin shovelling and sifting at alphabeds and grammar-books.I'm getting to be a old bird, and I want to take it easy. But I wantsome reading--some fine bold reading, some splendid book in a gorgingLord-Mayor's-Show of wollumes' (probably meaning gorgeous, but misledby association of ideas); 'as'll reach right down your pint of view, andtake time to go by you. How can I get that reading, Wegg? By,' tappinghim on the breast with the head of his thick stick, 'paying a man trulyqualified to do it, so much an hour (say twopence) to come and do it.'
'Hem! Flattered, sir, I am sure,' said Wegg, beginning to regard himselfin quite a new light. 'Hew! This is the offer you mentioned, sir?'
'Yes. Do you like it?'
'I am considering of it, Mr Boffin.'
'I don't,' said Boffin, in a free-handed manner, 'want to tie a literaryman--WITH a wooden leg--down too tight. A halfpenny an hour shan't partus. The hours are your own to choose, after you've done for the daywith your house here. I live over Maiden-Lane way--out Hollowaydirection--and you've only got to go East-and-by-North when you'vefinished here, and you're there. Twopence halfpenny an hour,' saidBoffin, taking a piece of chalk from his pocket and getting off thestool to work the sum on the top of it in his own way; 'two long'uns anda short'un--twopence halfpenny; two short'uns is a long'un and two twolong'uns is four long'uns--making five long'uns; six nights a week atfive long'uns a night,' scoring them all down separately, 'and you mountup to thirty long'uns. A round'un! Half a crown!'
Pointing to this result as a large and satisfactory one, Mr Boffinsmeared it out with his moistened glove, and sat down on the remains.
'Half a crown,' said Wegg, meditating. 'Yes. (It ain't much, sir.) Halfa crown.'
'Per week, you know.'
'Would it come dearer?' Mr Boffin asked.
'It would come dearer,' Mr Wegg returned. 'For when a person comes togrind off poetry night after night, it is but right he should expect tobe paid for its weakening effect on his mind.'
'To tell you the truth Wegg,' said Boffin, 'I wasn't thinking of poetry,except in so fur as this:--If you was to happen now and then to feelyourself in the mind to tip me and Mrs Boffin one of your ballads, whythen we should drop into poetry.'
'I follow you, sir,' said Wegg. 'But not being a regular musicalprofessional, I should be loath to engage myself for that; and thereforewhen I dropped into poetry, I should ask to be considered so fur, in thelight of a friend.'
At this, Mr Boffin's eyes sparkled, and he shook Silas earnestly by thehand: protesting that it was more than he could have asked, and that hetook it very kindly indeed.
'What do you think of the terms, Wegg?' Mr Boffin then demanded, withunconcealed anxiety.
Silas, who had stimulated this anxiety by his hard reserve of manner,and who had begun to understand his man very well, replied with an air;as if he were saying something extraordinarily generous and great:
'Mr Boffin, I never bargain.'
'So I should have thought of you!' said Mr Boffin, admiringly. 'No, sir.I never did 'aggle and I never will 'aggle. Consequently I meet you atonce, free and fair, with--Done, for double the money!'
Mr Boffin seemed a little unprepared for this conclusion, but assented,with the remark, 'You know better what it ought to be than I do, Wegg,'and again shook hands with him upon it.
'Could you begin to night, Wegg?' he then demanded.
'Yes, sir,' said Mr Wegg, careful to leave all the eagerness to him.'I see no difficulty if you wish it. You are provided with the needfulimplement--a book, sir?'
'Bought him at a sale,' said Mr Boffin. 'Eight wollumes. Red and gold.Purple ribbon in every wollume, to keep the place where you leave off.Do you know him?'
'The book's name, sir?' inquired Silas.
'I thought you might have know'd him without it,' said MrBoffin slightly disappointed. 'His name isDecline-And-Fall-Off-The-Rooshan-Empire.' (Mr Boffin went over thesestones slowly and with much caution.)
'Ay indeed!' said Mr Wegg, nodding his head with an air of friendlyrecognition.
'You know him, Wegg?'
'I haven't been not to say right slap through him, very lately,' Mr Weggmade answer, 'having been otherways employed, Mr Boffin. But know him?Old familiar declining and falling off the Rooshan? Rather, sir! Eversince I was not so high as your stick. Ever since my eldest brother leftour cottage to enlist into the army. On which occasion, as the balladthat was made about it describes:
'Beside that cottage door, Mr Boffin, A girl was on her knees; She held aloft a snowy scarf, Sir, Which (my eldest brother noticed) fluttered in the breeze. She breathed a prayer for him, Mr Boffin; A prayer he coold not hear. And my eldest brother lean'd upon his sword, Mr Boffin, And wiped away a tear.'
Much impressed by this family circumstance, and also by the friendlydisposition of Mr Wegg, as exemplified in his so soon dropping intopoetry, Mr Boffin again shook hands with that ligneous sharper, andbesought him to name his hour. Mr Wegg named eight.
'Where I live,' said Mr Boffin, 'is called The Bower. Boffin's Bower isthe name Mrs Boffin christened it when we come into it as a property.If you should meet with anybody that don't know it by that name (whichhardly anybody does), when you've got nigh upon about a odd mile, orsay and a quarter if you like, up Maiden Lane, Battle Bridge, ask forHarmony Jail, and you'll be put right. I shall expect you, Wegg,' saidMr Boffin, clapping him on the shoulder with the greatest enthusiasm,'most joyfully. I shall have no peace or patience till you come. Printis now opening ahead of me. This night, a literary man--WITH a woodenleg--' he bestowed an admiring look upon that decoration, as if itgreatly enhanced the relish of Mr Wegg's attainments--'will begin tolead me a new life! My fist again, Wegg. Morning, morning, morning!'
Left alone at his stall as the other ambled off, Mr Wegg subsidedinto his screen, produced a small pocket-handkerchief of apenitentially-scrubbing character, and took himself by the nose witha thoughtful aspect. Also, while he still grasped that feature, hedirected several thoughtful looks down the street, after the retiringfigure of Mr Boffin. But, profound gravity sat enthroned on Wegg'scountenance. For, while he considered within himself that this wasan old fellow of rare simplicity, that this was an opportunity tobe improved, and that here might be money to be got beyond presentcalculation, still he compromised himself by no admission that his newengagement was at all out of his way, or involved the least element ofthe ridiculous. Mr Wegg would even have picked a handsome quarrel withany one who should have challenged his deep acquaintance with thoseaforesaid eight volumes of Decline and Fall. His gravity was unusual,portentous, and immeasurable, not because he admitted any doubt ofhimself but because he perceived it necessary to forestall any doubt ofhimself in others. And herein he ranged with that very numerous classof impostors, who are quite as determined to keep up appearances tothemselves, as to their neighbours.
A certain loftiness, likewise, took possession of Mr Wegg; acondescending sense of being in request as an official expounder ofmysteries. It did not move him to commercial greatness, but rather tolittleness, insomuch that if it had been within the possibilities ofthings for the wooden measure to hold fewer nuts than usual, it wouldhave done so that day. But, when night came, and with her veiled eyesbeheld him stumping towards Boffin's Bower, he was elated too.
The Bower was as difficult to find, as Fair Rosamond's without the clue.Mr Wegg, having reached the quarter indicated, inquired for the Bowerhalf a dozen times without the least success, until he remembered toask for Harmony Jail. This occasioned a quick change in the spirits of ahoarse gentleman and a donkey, whom he had much perplexed.
'Why, yer mean Old Harmon's, do yer?' said the hoarse gentleman, who wasdriving his donkey in a truck, with a carrot for a whip. 'Why didn't yerniver say so? Eddard and me is a goin' by HIM! Jump in.'
Mr Wegg complied, and the hoarse gentleman invited his attention to thethird person in company, thus;
'Now, you look at Eddard's ears. What was it as you named, agin?Whisper.'
Mr Wegg whispered, 'Boffin's Bower.'
'Eddard! (keep yer hi on his ears) cut away to Boffin's Bower!'
Edward, with his ears lying back, remained immoveable.
'Eddard! (keep yer hi on his ears) cut away to Old Harmon's.' Edwardinstantly pricked up his ears to their utmost, and rattled off at sucha pace that Mr Wegg's conversation was jolted out of him in a mostdislocated state.
'Was-it-Ev-verajail?' asked Mr Wegg, holding on.
'Not a proper jail, wot you and me would get committed to,' returnedhis escort; 'they giv' it the name, on accounts of Old Harmon livingsolitary there.'
'And-why-did-they-callitharm-Ony?' asked Wegg.
'On accounts of his never agreeing with nobody. Like a speeches ofchaff. Harmon's Jail; Harmony Jail. Working it round like.'
'Doyouknow-Mist-Erboff-in?' asked Wegg.
'I should think so! Everybody do about here. Eddard knows him. (Keep yerhi on his ears.) Noddy Boffin, Eddard!'
The effect of the name was so very alarming, in respect of causing atemporary disappearance of Edward's head, casting his hind hoofs in theair, greatly accelerating the pace and increasing the jolting, that MrWegg was fain to devote his attention exclusively to holding on, and torelinquish his desire of ascertaining whether this homage to Boffin wasto be considered complimentary or the reverse.
Presently, Edward stopped at a gateway, and Wegg discreetly lost no timein slipping out at the back of the truck. The moment he was landed, hislate driver with a wave of the carrot, said 'Supper, Eddard!' and he,the hind hoofs, the truck, and Edward, all seeme
Pushing the gate, which stood ajar, Wegg looked into an enclosed spacewhere certain tall dark mounds rose high against the sky, and where thepathway to the Bower was indicated, as the moonlight showed, between twolines of broken crockery set in ashes. A white figure advancing alongthis path, proved to be nothing more ghostly than Mr Boffin, easilyattired for the pursuit of knowledge, in an undress garment of shortwhite smock-frock. Having received his literary friend with greatcordiality, he conducted him to the interior of the Bower and therepresented him to Mrs Boffin:--a stout lady of a rubicund and cheerfulaspect, dressed (to Mr Wegg's consternation) in a low evening-dress ofsable satin, and a large black velvet hat and feathers.
'Mrs Boffin, Wegg,' said Boffin, 'is a highflyer at Fashion. And hermake is such, that she does it credit. As to myself I ain't yet asFash'nable as I may come to be. Henerietty, old lady, this is thegentleman that's a going to decline and fall off the Rooshan Empire.'
'And I am sure I hope it'll do you both good,' said Mrs Boffin.
It was the queerest of rooms, fitted and furnished more like a luxuriousamateur tap-room than anything else within the ken of Silas Wegg. Therewere two wooden settles by the fire, one on either side of it, witha corresponding table before each. On one of these tables, the eightvolumes were ranged flat, in a row, like a galvanic battery; on theother, certain squat case-bottles of inviting appearance seemed to standon tiptoe to exchange glances with Mr Wegg over a front row of tumblersand a basin of white sugar. On the hob, a kettle steamed; on the hearth,a cat reposed. Facing the fire between the settles, a sofa, a footstool,and a little table, formed a centrepiece devoted to Mrs Boffin.They were garish in taste and colour, but were expensive articles ofdrawing-room furniture that had a very odd look beside the settlesand the flaring gaslight pendent from the ceiling. There was a flowerycarpet on the floor; but, instead of reaching to the fireside, itsglowing vegetation stopped short at Mrs Boffin's footstool, and gaveplace to a region of sand and sawdust. Mr Wegg also noticed, withadmiring eyes, that, while the flowery land displayed such hollowornamentation as stuffed birds and waxen fruits under glass-shades,there were, in the territory where vegetation ceased, compensatoryshelves on which the best part of a large pie and likewise of a coldjoint were plainly discernible among other solids. The room itself waslarge, though low; and the heavy frames of its old-fashioned windows,and the heavy beams in its crooked ceiling, seemed to indicate that ithad once been a house of some mark standing alone in the country.
'Do you like it, Wegg?' asked Mr Boffin, in his pouncing manner.
'I admire it greatly, sir,' said Wegg. 'Peculiar comfort at thisfireside, sir.'
'Do you understand it, Wegg?'
'Why, in a general way, sir,' Mr Wegg was beginning slowly andknowingly, with his head stuck on one side, as evasive people do begin,when the other cut him short:
'You DON'T understand it, Wegg, and I'll explain it. These arrangementsis made by mutual consent between Mrs Boffin and me. Mrs Boffin, as I'vementioned, is a highflyer at Fashion; at present I'm not. I don't gohigher than comfort, and comfort of the sort that I'm equal to theenjoyment of. Well then. Where would be the good of Mrs Boffin and mequarrelling over it? We never did quarrel, before we come into Boffin'sBower as a property; why quarrel when we HAVE come into Boffin's Boweras a property? So Mrs Boffin, she keeps up her part of the room, in herway; I keep up my part of the room in mine. In consequence of whichwe have at once, Sociability (I should go melancholy mad without MrsBoffin), Fashion, and Comfort. If I get by degrees to be a higher-flyerat Fashion, then Mrs Boffin will by degrees come for'arder. If MrsBoffin should ever be less of a dab at Fashion than she is at thepresent time, then Mrs Boffin's carpet would go back'arder. If we shouldboth continny as we are, why then HERE we are, and give us a kiss, oldlady.'
Mrs Boffin who, perpetually smiling, had approached and drawn her plumparm through her lord's, most willingly complied. Fashion, in the formof her black velvet hat and feathers, tried to prevent it; but gotdeservedly crushed in the endeavour.
'So now, Wegg,' said Mr Boffin, wiping his mouth with an air of muchrefreshment, 'you begin to know us as we are. This is a charming spot,is the Bower, but you must get to apprechiate it by degrees. It's a spotto find out the merits of; little by little, and a new'un every day.There's a serpentining walk up each of the mounds, that gives you theyard and neighbourhood changing every moment. When you get to the top,there's a view of the neighbouring premises, not to be surpassed. Thepremises of Mrs Boffin's late father (Canine Provision Trade), you lookdown into, as if they was your own. And the top of the High Mound iscrowned with a lattice-work Arbour, in which, if you don't read out loudmany a book in the summer, ay, and as a friend, drop many a time intopoetry too, it shan't be my fault. Now, what'll you read on?'
'Thank you, sir,' returned Wegg, as if there were nothing new in hisreading at all. 'I generally do it on gin and water.'
'Keeps the organ moist, does it, Wegg?' asked Mr Boffin, with innocenteagerness.
'N-no, sir,' replied Wegg, coolly, 'I should hardly describe it so, sir.I should say, mellers it. Mellers it, is the word I should employ, MrBoffin.'
His wooden conceit and craft kept exact pace with the delightedexpectation of his victim. The visions rising before his mercenary mind,of the many ways in which this connexion was to be turned to account,never obscured the foremost idea natural to a dull overreaching man,that he must not make himself too cheap.
Mrs Boffin's Fashion, as a less inexorable deity than the idol usuallyworshipped under that name, did not forbid her mixing for her literaryguest, or asking if he found the result to his liking. On his returninga gracious answer and taking his place at the literary settle, Mr Boffinbegan to compose himself as a listener, at the opposite settle, withexultant eyes.
'Sorry to deprive you of a pipe, Wegg,' he said, filling his own, 'butyou can't do both together. Oh! and another thing I forgot to name! Whenyou come in here of an evening, and look round you, and notice anythingon a shelf that happens to catch your fancy, mention it.'
Wegg, who had been going to put on his spectacles, immediately laid themdown, with the sprightly observation:
'You read my thoughts, sir. DO my eyes deceive me, or is that object upthere a--a pie? It can't be a pie.'
'Yes, it's a pie, Wegg,' replied Mr Boffin, with a glance of some littlediscomfiture at the Decline and Fall.
'HAVE I lost my smell for fruits, or is it a apple pie, sir?' askedWegg.
'It's a veal and ham pie,' said Mr Boffin.
'Is it indeed, sir? And it would be hard, sir, to name the pie that isa better pie than a weal and hammer,' said Mr Wegg, nodding his heademotionally.
'Have some, Wegg?'
'Thank you, Mr Boffin, I think I will, at your invitation. I wouldn'tat any other party's, at the present juncture; but at yours, sir!--Andmeaty jelly too, especially when a little salt, which is the case wherethere's ham, is mellering to the organ, is very mellering to the organ.'Mr Wegg did not say what organ, but spoke with a cheerful generality.
So, the pie was brought down, and the worthy Mr Boffin exercised hispatience until Wegg, in the exercise of his knife and fork, had finishedthe dish: only profiting by the opportunity to inform Wegg that althoughit was not strictly Fashionable to keep the contents of a larder thusexposed to view, he (Mr Boffin) considered it hospitable; for thereason, that instead of saying, in a comparatively unmeaning manner, toa visitor, 'There are such and such edibles down stairs; will you haveanything up?' you took the bold practical course of saying, 'Cast youreye along the shelves, and, if you see anything you like there, have itdown.'
And now, Mr Wegg at length pushed away his plate and put on hisspectacles, and Mr Boffin lighted his pipe and looked with beamingeyes into the opening world before him, and Mrs Boffin reclined in afashionable manner on her sofa: as one who would be part of the audienceif she found she could, and would go to sleep if she found she couldn't.
'What's the matter, Wegg?'
'Why, it comes into my mind, do you know, sir,' said Wegg with an airof insinuating frankness (having first again looked hard at the book),'that you made a little mistake this morning, which I had meant to setyou right in, only something put it out of my head. I think you saidRooshan Empire, sir?'
'It is Rooshan; ain't it, Wegg?'
'No, sir. Roman. Roman.'
'What's the difference, Wegg?'
'The difference, sir?' Mr Wegg was faltering and in danger of breakingdown, when a bright thought flashed upon him. 'The difference, sir?There you place me in a difficulty, Mr Boffin. Suffice it to observe,that the difference is best postponed to some other occasion when MrsBoffin does not honour us with her company. In Mrs Boffin's presence,sir, we had better drop it.'
Mr Wegg thus came out of his disadvantage with quite a chivalrous air,and not only that, but by dint of repeating with a manly delicacy,'In Mrs Boffin's presence, sir, we had better drop it!' turned thedisadvantage on Boffin, who felt that he had committed himself in a verypainful manner.
Then, Mr Wegg, in a dry unflinching way, entered on his task; goingstraight across country at everything that came before him; taking allthe hard words, biographical and geographical; getting rather shaken byHadrian, Trajan, and the Antonines; stumbling at Polybius (pronouncedPolly Beeious, and supposed by Mr Boffin to be a Roman virgin, and byMrs Boffin to be responsible for that necessity of dropping it); heavilyunseated by Titus Antoninus Pius; up again and galloping smoothly withAugustus; finally, getting over the ground well with Commodus: who,under the appellation of Commodious, was held by Mr Boffin to have beenquite unworthy of his English origin, and 'not to have acted up to hisname' in his government of the Roman people. With the death of thispersonage, Mr Wegg terminated his first reading; long before whichconsummation several total eclipses of Mrs Boffin's candle behindher black velvet disc, would have been very alarming, but for beingregularly accompanied by a potent smell of burnt pens when her featherstook fire, which acted as a restorative and woke her. Mr Wegg, havingread on by rote and attached as few ideas as possible to the text, cameout of the encounter fresh; but, Mr Boffin, who had soon laid down hisunfinished pipe, and had ever since sat intently staring with his eyesand mind at the confounding enormities of the Romans, was so severelypunished that he could hardly wish his literary friend Good-night, andarticulate 'Tomorrow.'
'Commodious,' gasped Mr Boffin, staring at the moon, after lettingWegg out at the gate and fastening it: 'Commodious fights in thatwild-beast-show, seven hundred and thirty-five times, in one characteronly! As if that wasn't stunning enough, a hundred lions is turned intothe same wild-beast-show all at once! As if that wasn't stunning enough,Commodious, in another character, kills 'em all off in a hundred goes!As if that wasn't stunning enough, Vittle-us (and well named too) eatssix millions' worth, English money, in seven months! Wegg takes it easy,but upon-my-soul to a old bird like myself these are scarers. And evennow that Commodious is strangled, I don't see a way to our betteringourselves.' Mr Boffin added as he turned his pensive steps towards theBower and shook his head, 'I didn't think this morning there was half somany Scarers in Print. But I'm in for it now!'
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens / Romance & Love have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on135 votes