Our mutual friend, p.52
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       Our Mutual Friend, p.52

           Charles Dickens
 

  Chapter 2

  THE GOLDEN DUSTMAN RISES A LITTLE

  Mr and Mrs Lammle had come to breakfast with Mr and Mrs Boffin. Theywere not absolutely uninvited, but had pressed themselves with so muchurgency on the golden couple, that evasion of the honour and pleasureof their company would have been difficult, if desired. They were in acharming state of mind, were Mr and Mrs Lammle, and almost as fond of Mrand Mrs Boffin as of one another.

  'My dear Mrs Boffin,' said Mrs Lammle, 'it imparts new life to me, tosee my Alfred in confidential communication with Mr Boffin. The twowere formed to become intimate. So much simplicity combined with so muchforce of character, such natural sagacity united to such amiability andgentleness--these are the distinguishing characteristics of both.'

  This being said aloud, gave Mr Lammle an opportunity, as he came with MrBoffin from the window to the breakfast table, of taking up his dear andhonoured wife.

  'My Sophronia,' said that gentleman, 'your too partial estimate of yourhusband's character--'

  'No! Not too partial, Alfred,' urged the lady, tenderly moved; 'neversay that.'

  'My child, your favourable opinion, then, of your husband--you don'tobject to that phrase, darling?'

  'How can I, Alfred?'

  'Your favourable opinion then, my Precious, does less than justice to MrBoffin, and more than justice to me.'

  'To the first charge, Alfred, I plead guilty. But to the second, oh no,no!'

  'Less than justice to Mr Boffin, Sophronia,' said Mr Lammle, soaringinto a tone of moral grandeur, 'because it represents Mr Boffin as on mylower level; more than justice to me, Sophronia, because it representsme as on Mr Boffin's higher level. Mr Boffin bears and forbears far morethan I could.'

  'Far more than you could for yourself, Alfred?'

  'My love, that is not the question.'

  'Not the question, Lawyer?' said Mrs Lammle, archly.

  'No, dear Sophronia. From my lower level, I regard Mr Boffin as toogenerous, as possessed of too much clemency, as being too good topersons who are unworthy of him and ungrateful to him. To those noblequalities I can lay no claim. On the contrary, they rouse my indignationwhen I see them in action.'

  'Alfred!'

  'They rouse my indignation, my dear, against the unworthy persons,and give me a combative desire to stand between Mr Boffin and all suchpersons. Why? Because, in my lower nature I am more worldly and lessdelicate. Not being so magnanimous as Mr Boffin, I feel his injuriesmore than he does himself, and feel more capable of opposing hisinjurers.'

  It struck Mrs Lammle that it appeared rather difficult this morningto bring Mr and Mrs Boffin into agreeable conversation. Here had beenseveral lures thrown out, and neither of them had uttered a word. Herewere she, Mrs Lammle, and her husband discoursing at once affectinglyand effectively, but discoursing alone. Assuming that the dear oldcreatures were impressed by what they heard, still one would like to besure of it, the more so, as at least one of the dear old creatureswas somewhat pointedly referred to. If the dear old creatures were toobashful or too dull to assume their required places in the discussion,why then it would seem desirable that the dear old creatures should betaken by their heads and shoulders and brought into it.

  'But is not my husband saying in effect,' asked Mrs Lammle, therefore,with an innocent air, of Mr and Mrs Boffin, 'that he becomes unmindfulof his own temporary misfortunes in his admiration of another whom he isburning to serve? And is not that making an admission that his nature isa generous one? I am wretched in argument, but surely this is so, dearMr and Mrs Boffin?'

  Still, neither Mr and Mrs Boffin said a word. He sat with his eyes onhis plate, eating his muffins and ham, and she sat shyly looking at theteapot. Mrs Lammle's innocent appeal was merely thrown into the air, tomingle with the steam of the urn. Glancing towards Mr and Mrs Boffin,she very slightly raised her eyebrows, as though inquiring of herhusband: 'Do I notice anything wrong here?'

  Mr Lammle, who had found his chest effective on a variety of occasions,manoeuvred his capacious shirt front into the largest demonstrationpossible, and then smiling retorted on his wife, thus:

  'Sophronia, darling, Mr and Mrs Boffin will remind you of the old adage,that self-praise is no recommendation.'

  'Self-praise, Alfred? Do you mean because we are one and the same?'

  'No, my dear child. I mean that you cannot fail to remember, if youreflect for a single moment, that what you are pleased to compliment meupon feeling in the case of Mr Boffin, you have yourself confided to meas your own feeling in the case of Mrs Boffin.'

  ('I shall be beaten by this Lawyer,' Mrs Lammle gaily whispered toMrs Boffin. 'I am afraid I must admit it, if he presses me, for it'sdamagingly true.')

  Several white dints began to come and go about Mr Lammle's nose, as heobserved that Mrs Boffin merely looked up from the teapot for a momentwith an embarrassed smile, which was no smile, and then looked downagain.

  'Do you admit the charge, Sophronia?' inquired Alfred, in a rallyingtone.

  'Really, I think,' said Mrs Lammle, still gaily, 'I must throw myselfon the protection of the Court. Am I bound to answer that question, myLord?' To Mr Boffin.

  'You needn't, if you don't like, ma'am,' was his answer. 'It's not ofthe least consequence.'

  Both husband and wife glanced at him, very doubtfully. His manner wasgrave, but not coarse, and derived some dignity from a certain represseddislike of the tone of the conversation.

  Again Mrs Lammle raised her eyebrows for instruction from her husband.He replied in a slight nod, 'Try 'em again.'

  'To protect myself against the suspicion of covert self-laudation, mydear Mrs Boffin,' said the airy Mrs Lammle therefore, 'I must tell youhow it was.'

  'No. Pray don't,' Mr Boffin interposed.

  Mrs Lammle turned to him laughingly. 'The Court objects?'

  'Ma'am,' said Mr Boffin, 'the Court (if I am the Court) does object. TheCourt objects for two reasons. First, because the Court don't think itfair. Secondly, because the dear old lady, Mrs Court (if I am Mr) getsdistressed by it.'

  A very remarkable wavering between two bearings--between herpropitiatory bearing there, and her defiant bearing at Mr Twemlow's--wasobservable on the part of Mrs Lammle as she said:

  'What does the Court not consider fair?'

  'Letting you go on,' replied Mr Boffin, nodding his head soothingly, aswho should say, We won't be harder on you than we can help; we'll makethe best of it. 'It's not above-board and it's not fair. When the oldlady is uncomfortable, there's sure to be good reason for it. I see sheis uncomfortable, and I plainly see this is the good reason wherefore.HAVE you breakfasted, ma'am.'

  Mrs Lammle, settling into her defiant manner, pushed her plate away,looked at her husband, and laughed; but by no means gaily.

  'Have YOU breakfasted, sir?' inquired Mr Boffin.

  'Thank you,' replied Alfred, showing all his teeth. 'If Mrs Boffin willoblige me, I'll take another cup of tea.'

  He spilled a little of it over the chest which ought to have been soeffective, and which had done so little; but on the whole drank it withsomething of an air, though the coming and going dints got almost aslarge, the while, as if they had been made by pressure of the teaspoon.'A thousand thanks,' he then observed. 'I have breakfasted.'

  'Now, which,' said Mr Boffin softly, taking out a pocket-book, 'which ofyou two is Cashier?'

  'Sophronia, my dear,' remarked her husband, as he leaned back in hischair, waving his right hand towards her, while he hung his left handby the thumb in the arm-hole of his waistcoat: 'it shall be yourdepartment.'

  'I would rather,' said Mr Boffin, 'that it was your husband's, ma'am,because--but never mind, because, I would rather have to do with him.However, what I have to say, I will say with as little offence aspossible; if I can say it without any, I shall be heartily glad. You twohave done me a service, a very great service, in doing what you did (myold lady knows what it was), and I have put into this envelope a banknote for a hundred pound. I consider the service well w
orth a hundredpound, and I am well pleased to pay the money. Would you do me thefavour to take it, and likewise to accept my thanks?'

  With a haughty action, and without looking towards him, Mrs Lammle heldout her left hand, and into it Mr Boffin put the little packet. When shehad conveyed it to her bosom, Mr Lammle had the appearance of feelingrelieved, and breathing more freely, as not having been quite certainthat the hundred pounds were his, until the note had been safelytransferred out of Mr Boffin's keeping into his own Sophronia's.

  'It is not impossible,' said Mr Boffin, addressing Alfred, 'that youhave had some general idea, sir, of replacing Rokesmith, in course oftime?'

  'It is not,' assented Alfred, with a glittering smile and a great dealof nose, 'not impossible.'

  'And perhaps, ma'am,' pursued Mr Boffin, addressing Sophronia, 'you havebeen so kind as to take up my old lady in your own mind, and to do herthe honour of turning the question over whether you mightn't one ofthese days have her in charge, like? Whether you mightn't be a sort ofMiss Bella Wilfer to her, and something more?'

  'I should hope,' returned Mrs Lammle, with a scornful look and in a loudvoice, 'that if I were anything to your wife, sir, I could hardly failto be something more than Miss Bella Wilfer, as you call her.'

  'What do YOU call her, ma'am?' asked Mr Boffin.

  Mrs Lammle disdained to reply, and sat defiantly beating one foot on theground.

  'Again I think I may say, that's not impossible. Is it, sir?' asked MrBoffin, turning to Alfred.

  'It is not,' said Alfred, smiling assent as before, 'not impossible.'

  'Now,' said Mr Boffin, gently, 'it won't do. I don't wish to say asingle word that might be afterwards remembered as unpleasant; but itwon't do.'

  'Sophronia, my love,' her husband repeated in a bantering manner, 'youhear? It won't do.'

  'No,' said Mr Boffin, with his voice still dropped, 'it really won't.You positively must excuse us. If you'll go your way, we'll go ours, andso I hope this affair ends to the satisfaction of all parties.'

  Mrs Lammle gave him the look of a decidedly dissatisfied party demandingexemption from the category; but said nothing.

  'The best thing we can make of the affair,' said Mr Boffin, 'is a matterof business, and as a matter of business it's brought to a conclusion.You have done me a great service, a very great service, and I have paidfor it. Is there any objection to the price?'

  Mr and Mrs Lammle looked at one another across the table, but neithercould say that there was. Mr Lammle shrugged his shoulders, and MrsLammle sat rigid.

  'Very good,' said Mr Boffin. 'We hope (my old lady and me) that you'llgive us credit for taking the plainest and honestest short-cut thatcould be taken under the circumstances. We have talked it over with adeal of care (my old lady and me), and we have felt that at all to leadyou on, or even at all to let you go on of your own selves, wouldn't bethe right thing. So, I have openly given you to understand that--'Mr Boffin sought for a new turn of speech, but could find none soexpressive as his former one, repeated in a confidential tone, '--thatit won't do. If I could have put the case more pleasantly I would; butI hope I haven't put it very unpleasantly; at all events I haven't meantto. So,' said Mr Boffin, by way of peroration, 'wishing you well in theway you go, we now conclude with the observation that perhaps you'll goit.'

  Mr Lammle rose with an impudent laugh on his side of the table, and MrsLammle rose with a disdainful frown on hers. At this moment a hasty footwas heard on the staircase, and Georgiana Podsnap broke into the room,unannounced and in tears.

  'Oh, my dear Sophronia,' cried Georgiana, wringing her hands as she ranup to embrace her, 'to think that you and Alfred should be ruined! Oh,my poor dear Sophronia, to think that you should have had a Sale at yourhouse after all your kindness to me! Oh, Mr and Mrs Boffin, pray forgiveme for this intrusion, but you don't know how fond I was of Sophroniawhen Pa wouldn't let me go there any more, or what I have felt forSophronia since I heard from Ma of her having been brought low in theworld. You don't, you can't, you never can, think, how I have lain awakeat night and cried for my good Sophronia, my first and only friend!'

  Mrs Lammle's manner changed under the poor silly girl's embraces, andshe turned extremely pale: directing one appealing look, first to MrsBoffin, and then to Mr Boffin. Both understood her instantly, witha more delicate subtlety than much better educated people, whoseperception came less directly from the heart, could have brought to bearupon the case.

  'I haven't a minute,' said poor little Georgiana, 'to stay. I am outshopping early with Ma, and I said I had a headache and got Ma to leaveme outside in the phaeton, in Piccadilly, and ran round to SackvilleStreet, and heard that Sophronia was here, and then Ma came to see, ohsuch a dreadful old stony woman from the country in a turban in PortlandPlace, and I said I wouldn't go up with Ma but would drive round andleave cards for the Boffins, which is taking a liberty with the name;but oh my goodness I am distracted, and the phaeton's at the door, andwhat would Pa say if he knew it!'

  'Don't ye be timid, my dear,' said Mrs Boffin. 'You came in to see us.'

  'Oh, no, I didn't,' cried Georgiana. 'It's very impolite, I know, butI came to see my poor Sophronia, my only friend. Oh! how I felt theseparation, my dear Sophronia, before I knew you were brought low in theworld, and how much more I feel it now!'

  There were actually tears in the bold woman's eyes, as the soft-headedand soft-hearted girl twined her arms about her neck.

  'But I've come on business,' said Georgiana, sobbing and drying herface, and then searching in a little reticule, 'and if I don't despatchit I shall have come for nothing, and oh good gracious! what would Pasay if he knew of Sackville Street, and what would Ma say if she waskept waiting on the doorsteps of that dreadful turban, and there neverwere such pawing horses as ours unsettling my mind every moment moreand more when I want more mind than I have got, by pawing up Mr Boffin'sstreet where they have no business to be. Oh! where is, where is it?Oh! I can't find it!' All this time sobbing, and searching in the littlereticule.

  'What do you miss, my dear?' asked Mr Boffin, stepping forward.

  'Oh! it's little enough,' replied Georgiana, 'because Ma always treatsme as if I was in the nursery (I am sure I wish I was!), but I hardlyever spend it and it has mounted up to fifteen pounds, Sophronia, and Ihope three five-pound notes are better than nothing, though so little,so little! And now I have found that--oh, my goodness! there's the othergone next! Oh no, it isn't, here it is!'

  With that, always sobbing and searching in the reticule, Georgianaproduced a necklace.

  'Ma says chits and jewels have no business together,' pursued Georgiana,'and that's the reason why I have no trinkets except this, but I supposemy aunt Hawkinson was of a different opinion, because she left me this,though I used to think she might just as well have buried it, for it'salways kept in jewellers' cotton. However, here it is, I am thankfulto say, and of use at last, and you'll sell it, dear Sophronia, and buythings with it.'

  'Give it to me,' said Mr Boffin, gently taking it. 'I'll see that it'sproperly disposed of.'

  'Oh! are you such a friend of Sophronia's, Mr Boffin?' cried Georgiana.'Oh, how good of you! Oh, my gracious! there was something else, andit's gone out of my head! Oh no, it isn't, I remember what it was. Mygrandmamma's property, that'll come to me when I am of age, Mr Boffin,will be all my own, and neither Pa nor Ma nor anybody else will haveany control over it, and what I wish to do it so make some of it oversomehow to Sophronia and Alfred, by signing something somewhere that'llprevail on somebody to advance them something. I want them to havesomething handsome to bring them up in the world again. Oh, my goodnessme! Being such a friend of my dear Sophronia's, you won't refuse me,will you?'

  'No, no,' said Mr Boffin, 'it shall be seen to.'

  'Oh, thank you, thank you!' cried Georgiana. 'If my maid had a littlenote and half a crown, I could run round to the pastrycook's to signsomething, or I could sign something in the Square if somebody wouldcome and cough for me to let 'em in with t
he key, and would bring a penand ink with 'em and a bit of blotting-paper. Oh, my gracious! I musttear myself away, or Pa and Ma will both find out! Dear, dear Sophronia,good, good-bye!'

  The credulous little creature again embraced Mrs Lammle mostaffectionately, and then held out her hand to Mr Lammle.

  'Good-bye, dear Mr Lammle--I mean Alfred. You won't think after to-daythat I have deserted you and Sophronia because you have been brought lowin the world, will you? Oh me! oh me! I have been crying my eyes out ofmy head, and Ma will be sure to ask me what's the matter. Oh, take medown, somebody, please, please, please!'

  Mr Boffin took her down, and saw her driven away, with her poorlittle red eyes and weak chin peering over the great apron of thecustard-coloured phaeton, as if she had been ordered to expiate somechildish misdemeanour by going to bed in the daylight, and were peepingover the counterpane in a miserable flutter of repentance and lowspirits. Returning to the breakfast-room, he found Mrs Lammle stillstanding on her side of the table, and Mr Lammle on his.

  'I'll take care,' said Mr Boffin, showing the money and the necklace,'that these are soon given back.'

  Mrs Lammle had taken up her parasol from a side table, and stoodsketching with it on the pattern of the damask cloth, as she hadsketched on the pattern of Mr Twemlow's papered wall.

  'You will not undeceive her I hope, Mr Boffin?' she said, turning herhead towards him, but not her eyes.

  'No,' said Mr Boffin.

  'I mean, as to the worth and value of her friend,' Mrs Lammle explained,in a measured voice, and with an emphasis on her last word.

  'No,' he returned. 'I may try to give a hint at her home that she is inwant of kind and careful protection, but I shall say no more than thatto her parents, and I shall say nothing to the young lady herself.'

  'Mr and Mrs Boffin,' said Mrs Lammle, still sketching, and seeming tobestow great pains upon it, 'there are not many people, I think, who,under the circumstances, would have been so considerate and sparing asyou have been to me just now. Do you care to be thanked?'

  'Thanks are always worth having,' said Mrs Boffin, in her ready goodnature.

  'Then thank you both.'

  'Sophronia,' asked her husband, mockingly, 'are you sentimental?'

  'Well, well, my good sir,' Mr Boffin interposed, 'it's a very goodthing to think well of another person, and it's a very good thing to bethought well of BY another person. Mrs Lammle will be none the worse forit, if she is.'

  'Much obliged. But I asked Mrs Lammle if she was.'

  She stood sketching on the table-cloth, with her face clouded and set,and was silent.

  'Because,' said Alfred, 'I am disposed to be sentimental myself, onyour appropriation of the jewels and the money, Mr Boffin. As our littleGeorgiana said, three five-pound notes are better than nothing, and ifyou sell a necklace you can buy things with the produce.'

  'IF you sell it,' was Mr Boffin's comment, as he put it in his pocket.

  Alfred followed it with his looks, and also greedily pursued the notesuntil they vanished into Mr Boffin's waistcoat pocket. Then he directeda look, half exasperated and half jeering, at his wife. She still stoodsketching; but, as she sketched, there was a struggle within her, whichfound expression in the depth of the few last lines the parasol pointindented into the table-cloth, and then some tears fell from her eyes.

  'Why, confound the woman,' exclaimed Lammle, 'she IS sentimental!

  She walked to the window, flinching under his angry stare, looked outfor a moment, and turned round quite coldly.

  'You have had no former cause of complaint on the sentimental score,Alfred, and you will have none in future. It is not worth your noticing.We go abroad soon, with the money we have earned here?'

  'You know we do; you know we must.'

  'There is no fear of my taking any sentiment with me. I should soon beeased of it, if I did. But it will be all left behind. It IS all leftbehind. Are you ready, Alfred?'

  'What the deuce have I been waiting for but you, Sophronia?'

  'Let us go then. I am sorry I have delayed our dignified departure.'

  She passed out and he followed her. Mr and Mrs Boffin had the curiositysoftly to raise a window and look after them as they went down the longstreet. They walked arm-in-arm, showily enough, but without appearingto interchange a syllable. It might have been fanciful to suppose thatunder their outer bearing there was something of the shamed air of twocheats who were linked together by concealed handcuffs; but, not so, tosuppose that they were haggardly weary of one another, of themselves,and of all this world. In turning the street corner they might haveturned out of this world, for anything Mr and Mrs Boffin ever saw ofthem to the contrary; for, they set eyes on the Lammles never more.

 
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