Our mutual friend, p.58
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       Our Mutual Friend, p.58

           Charles Dickens
 

  Chapter 8

  A FEW GRAINS OF PEPPER

  The dolls' dressmaker went no more to the business-premises of Pubseyand Co. in St Mary Axe, after chance had disclosed to her (as shesupposed) the flinty and hypocritical character of Mr Riah. She oftenmoralized over her work on the tricks and the manners of that venerablecheat, but made her little purchases elsewhere, and lived a secludedlife. After much consultation with herself, she decided not to putLizzie Hexam on her guard against the old man, arguing that thedisappointment of finding him out would come upon her quite soon enough.Therefore, in her communication with her friend by letter, she wassilent on this theme, and principally dilated on the backslidings of herbad child, who every day grew worse and worse.

  'You wicked old boy,' Miss Wren would say to him, with a menacingforefinger, 'you'll force me to run away from you, after all, you will;and then you'll shake to bits, and there'll be nobody to pick up thepieces!'

  At this foreshadowing of a desolate decease, the wicked old boy wouldwhine and whimper, and would sit shaking himself into the lowest of lowspirits, until such time as he could shake himself out of the house andshake another threepennyworth into himself. But dead drunk or deadsober (he had come to such a pass that he was least alive in the latterstate), it was always on the conscience of the paralytic scarecrow thathe had betrayed his sharp parent for sixty threepennyworths of rum,which were all gone, and that her sharpness would infallibly detect hishaving done it, sooner or later. All things considered therefore, andaddition made of the state of his body to the state of his mind, the bedon which Mr Dolls reposed was a bed of roses from which the flowersand leaves had entirely faded, leaving him to lie upon the thorns andstalks.

  On a certain day, Miss Wren was alone at her work, with the house-doorset open for coolness, and was trolling in a small sweet voice amournful little song which might have been the song of the doll she wasdressing, bemoaning the brittleness and meltability of wax, when whomshould she descry standing on the pavement, looking in at her, but MrFledgeby.

  'I thought it was you?' said Fledgeby, coming up the two steps.

  'Did you?' Miss Wren retorted. 'And I thought it was you, young man.Quite a coincidence. You're not mistaken, and I'm not mistaken. Howclever we are!'

  'Well, and how are you?' said Fledgeby.

  'I am pretty much as usual, sir,' replied Miss Wren. 'A very unfortunateparent, worried out of my life and senses by a very bad child.'

  Fledgeby's small eyes opened so wide that they might have passed forordinary-sized eyes, as he stared about him for the very young personwhom he supposed to be in question.

  'But you're not a parent,' said Miss Wren, 'and consequently it's of nouse talking to you upon a family subject.--To what am I to attribute thehonour and favour?'

  'To a wish to improve your acquaintance,' Mr Fledgeby replied.

  Miss Wren, stopping to bite her thread, looked at him very knowingly.

  'We never meet now,' said Fledgeby; 'do we?'

  'No,' said Miss Wren, chopping off the word.

  'So I had a mind,' pursued Fledgeby, 'to come and have a talk with youabout our dodging friend, the child of Israel.'

  'So HE gave you my address; did he?' asked Miss Wren.

  'I got it out of him,' said Fledgeby, with a stammer.

  'You seem to see a good deal of him,' remarked Miss Wren, with shrewddistrust. 'A good deal of him you seem to see, considering.'

  'Yes, I do,' said Fledgeby. 'Considering.'

  'Haven't you,' inquired the dressmaker, bending over the doll on whichher art was being exercised, 'done interceding with him yet?'

  'No,' said Fledgeby, shaking his head.

  'La! Been interceding with him all this time, and sticking to himstill?' said Miss Wren, busy with her work.

  'Sticking to him is the word,' said Fledgeby.

  Miss Wren pursued her occupation with a concentrated air, and asked,after an interval of silent industry:

  'Are you in the army?'

  'Not exactly,' said Fledgeby, rather flattered by the question.

  'Navy?' asked Miss Wren.

  'N--no,' said Fledgeby. He qualified these two negatives, as if he werenot absolutely in either service, but was almost in both.

  'What are you then?' demanded Miss Wren.

  'I am a gentleman, I am,' said Fledgeby.

  'Oh!' assented Jenny, screwing up her mouth with an appearance ofconviction. 'Yes, to be sure! That accounts for your having so muchtime to give to interceding. But only to think how kind and friendly agentleman you must be!'

  Mr Fledgeby found that he was skating round a board marked Dangerous,and had better cut out a fresh track. 'Let's get back to the dodgerestof the dodgers,' said he. 'What's he up to in the case of your friendthe handsome gal? He must have some object. What's his object?'

  'Cannot undertake to say, sir, I am sure!' returned Miss Wren,composedly.

  'He won't acknowledge where she's gone,' said Fledgeby; 'and I havea fancy that I should like to have another look at her. Now I know heknows where she is gone.'

  'Cannot undertake to say, sir, I am sure!' Miss Wren again rejoined.

  'And you know where she is gone,' hazarded Fledgeby.

  'Cannot undertake to say, sir, really,' replied Miss Wren.

  The quaint little chin met Mr Fledgeby's gaze with such a bafflinghitch, that that agreeable gentleman was for some time at a loss how toresume his fascinating part in the dialogue. At length he said:

  'Miss Jenny!--That's your name, if I don't mistake?'

  'Probably you don't mistake, sir,' was Miss Wren's cool answer; 'becauseyou had it on the best authority. Mine, you know.'

  'Miss Jenny! Instead of coming up and being dead, let's come out andlook alive. It'll pay better, I assure you,' said Fledgeby, bestowingan inveigling twinkle or two upon the dressmaker. 'You'll find it paybetter.'

  'Perhaps,' said Miss Jenny, holding out her doll at arm's length, andcritically contemplating the effect of her art with her scissors on herlips and her head thrown back, as if her interest lay there, and not inthe conversation; 'perhaps you'll explain your meaning, young man, whichis Greek to me.--You must have another touch of blue in your trimming,my dear.' Having addressed the last remark to her fair client, MissWren proceeded to snip at some blue fragments that lay before her, amongfragments of all colours, and to thread a needle from a skein of bluesilk.

  'Look here,' said Fledgeby.--'Are you attending?'

  'I am attending, sir,' replied Miss Wren, without the slightestappearance of so doing. 'Another touch of blue in your trimming, mydear.'

  'Well, look here,' said Fledgeby, rather discouraged by thecircumstances under which he found himself pursuing the conversation.'If you're attending--'

  ('Light blue, my sweet young lady,' remarked Miss Wren, in a sprightlytone, 'being best suited to your fair complexion and your flaxencurls.')

  'I say, if you're attending,' proceeded Fledgeby, 'it'll pay better inthis way. It'll lead in a roundabout manner to your buying damage andwaste of Pubsey and Co. at a nominal price, or even getting it fornothing.'

  'Aha!' thought the dressmaker. 'But you are not so roundabout, LittleEyes, that I don't notice your answering for Pubsey and Co. after all!Little Eyes, Little Eyes, you're too cunning by half.'

  'And I take it for granted,' pursued Fledgeby, 'that to get the most ofyour materials for nothing would be well worth your while, Miss Jenny?'

  'You may take it for granted,' returned the dressmaker with many knowingnods, 'that it's always well worth my while to make money.'

  'Now,' said Fledgeby approvingly, 'you're answering to a sensiblepurpose. Now, you're coming out and looking alive! So I make so free,Miss Jenny, as to offer the remark, that you and Judah were too thicktogether to last. You can't come to be intimate with such a deep fileas Judah without beginning to see a little way into him, you know,' saidFledgeby with a wink.

  'I must own,' returned the dressmaker, with her eyes upon her work,'that we are not good frien
ds at present.'

  'I know you're not good friends at present,' said Fledgeby. 'I know allabout it. I should like to pay off Judah, by not letting him have hisown deep way in everything. In most things he'll get it by hook orby crook, but--hang it all!--don't let him have his own deep way ineverything. That's too much.' Mr Fledgeby said this with some display ofindignant warmth, as if he was counsel in the cause for Virtue.

  'How can I prevent his having his own way?' began the dressmaker.

  'Deep way, I called it,' said Fledgeby.

  '--His own deep way, in anything?'

  'I'll tell you,' said Fledgeby. 'I like to hear you ask it, becauseit's looking alive. It's what I should expect to find in one of yoursagacious understanding. Now, candidly.'

  'Eh?' cried Miss Jenny.

  'I said, now candidly,' Mr Fledgeby explained, a little put out.

  'Oh-h!'

  'I should be glad to countermine him, respecting the handsome gal, yourfriend. He means something there. You may depend upon it, Judah meanssomething there. He has a motive, and of course his motive is a darkmotive. Now, whatever his motive is, it's necessary to his motive'--MrFledgeby's constructive powers were not equal to the avoidance of sometautology here--'that it should be kept from me, what he has done withher. So I put it to you, who know: What HAS he done with her? I ask nomore. And is that asking much, when you understand that it will pay?'

  Miss Jenny Wren, who had cast her eyes upon the bench again after herlast interruption, sat looking at it, needle in hand but not working,for some moments. She then briskly resumed her work, and said with asidelong glance of her eyes and chin at Mr Fledgeby:

  'Where d'ye live?'

  'Albany, Piccadilly,' replied Fledgeby.

  'When are you at home?'

  'When you like.'

  'Breakfast-time?' said Jenny, in her abruptest and shortest manner.

  'No better time in the day,' said Fledgeby.

  'I'll look in upon you to-morrow, young man. Those two ladies,' pointingto dolls, 'have an appointment in Bond Street at ten precisely. WhenI've dropped 'em there, I'll drive round to you.' With a weird littlelaugh, Miss Jenny pointed to her crutch-stick as her equipage.

  'This is looking alive indeed!' cried Fledgeby, rising.

  'Mark you! I promise you nothing,' said the dolls' dressmaker, dabbingtwo dabs at him with her needle, as if she put out both his eyes.

  'No no. I understand,' returned Fledgeby. 'The damage and waste questionshall be settled first. It shall be made to pay; don't you be afraid.Good-day, Miss Jenny.'

  'Good-day, young man.'

  Mr Fledgeby's prepossessing form withdrew itself; and the littledressmaker, clipping and snipping and stitching, and stitching andsnipping and clipping, fell to work at a great rate; musing andmuttering all the time.

  'Misty, misty, misty. Can't make it out. Little Eyes and the wolf in aconspiracy? Or Little Eyes and the wolf against one another? Can't makeit out. My poor Lizzie, have they both designs against you, either way?Can't make it out. Is Little Eyes Pubsey, and the wolf Co? Can't make itout. Pubsey true to Co, and Co to Pubsey? Pubsey false to Co, and Co toPubsey? Can't make it out. What said Little Eyes? "Now, candidly?"Ah! However the cat jumps, HE'S a liar. That's all I can make out atpresent; but you may go to bed in the Albany, Piccadilly, with THAT foryour pillow, young man!' Thereupon, the little dressmaker again dabbedout his eyes separately, and making a loop in the air of her thread anddeftly catching it into a knot with her needle, seemed to bowstring himinto the bargain.

  For the terrors undergone by Mr Dolls that evening when his littleparent sat profoundly meditating over her work, and when he imaginedhimself found out, as often as she changed her attitude, or turned hereyes towards him, there is no adequate name. Moreover it was her habitto shake her head at that wretched old boy whenever she caught his eyeas he shivered and shook. What are popularly called 'the trembles' beingin full force upon him that evening, and likewise what are popularlycalled 'the horrors,' he had a very bad time of it; which was notmade better by his being so remorseful as frequently to moan 'Sixtythreepennorths.' This imperfect sentence not being at all intelligibleas a confession, but sounding like a Gargantuan order for a dram,brought him into new difficulties by occasioning his parent to pounceat him in a more than usually snappish manner, and to overwhelm him withbitter reproaches.

  What was a bad time for Mr Dolls, could not fail to be a bad time forthe dolls' dressmaker. However, she was on the alert next morning, anddrove to Bond Street, and set down the two ladies punctually, and thendirected her equipage to conduct her to the Albany. Arrived at thedoorway of the house in which Mr Fledgeby's chambers were, she found alady standing there in a travelling dress, holding in her hand--of allthings in the world--a gentleman's hat.

  'You want some one?' said the lady in a stern manner.

  'I am going up stairs to Mr Fledgeby's.'

  'You cannot do that at this moment. There is a gentleman with him. I amwaiting for the gentleman. His business with Mr Fledgeby will very soonbe transacted, and then you can go up. Until the gentleman comes down,you must wait here.'

  While speaking, and afterwards, the lady kept watchfully between her andthe staircase, as if prepared to oppose her going up, by force. Thelady being of a stature to stop her with a hand, and looking mightilydetermined, the dressmaker stood still.

  'Well? Why do you listen?' asked the lady.

  'I am not listening,' said the dressmaker.

  'What do you hear?' asked the lady, altering her phrase.

  'Is it a kind of a spluttering somewhere?' said the dressmaker, with aninquiring look.

  'Mr Fledgeby in his shower-bath, perhaps,' remarked the lady, smiling.

  'And somebody's beating a carpet, I think?'

  'Mr Fledgeby's carpet, I dare say,' replied the smiling lady.

  Miss Wren had a reasonably good eye for smiles, being well accustomedto them on the part of her young friends, though their smiles mostly ransmaller than in nature. But she had never seen so singular a smileas that upon this lady's face. It twitched her nostrils open in aremarkable manner, and contracted her lips and eyebrows. It was a smileof enjoyment too, though of such a fierce kind that Miss Wren thoughtshe would rather not enjoy herself than do it in that way.

  'Well!' said the lady, watching her. 'What now?'

  'I hope there's nothing the matter!' said the dressmaker.

  'Where?' inquired the lady.

  'I don't know where,' said Miss Wren, staring about her. 'But I neverheard such odd noises. Don't you think I had better call somebody?'

  'I think you had better not,' returned the lady with a significantfrown, and drawing closer.

  On this hint, the dressmaker relinquished the idea, and stood lookingat the lady as hard as the lady looked at her. Meanwhile the dressmakerlistened with amazement to the odd noises which still continued, and thelady listened too, but with a coolness in which there was no trace ofamazement.

  Soon afterwards, came a slamming and banging of doors; and then camerunning down stairs, a gentleman with whiskers, and out of breath, whoseemed to be red-hot.

  'Is your business done, Alfred?' inquired the lady.

  'Very thoroughly done,' replied the gentleman, as he took his hat fromher.

  'You can go up to Mr Fledgeby as soon as you like,' said the lady,moving haughtily away.

  'Oh! And you can take these three pieces of stick with you,' added thegentleman politely, 'and say, if you please, that they come from MrAlfred Lammle, with his compliments on leaving England. Mr AlfredLammle. Be so good as not to forget the name.'

  The three pieces of stick were three broken and frayed fragments of astout lithe cane. Miss Jenny taking them wonderingly, and the gentlemanrepeating with a grin, 'Mr Alfred Lammle, if you'll be so good.Compliments, on leaving England,' the lady and gentleman walked awayquite deliberately, and Miss Jenny and her crutch-stick went up stairs.'Lammle, Lammle, Lammle?' Miss Jenny repeated as she panted from stairto stair, 'where have I heard
that name? Lammle, Lammle? I know! SaintMary Axe!'

  With a gleam of new intelligence in her sharp face, the dolls'dressmaker pulled at Fledgeby's bell. No one answered; but, from withinthe chambers, there proceeded a continuous spluttering sound of a highlysingular and unintelligible nature.

  'Good gracious! Is Little Eyes choking?' cried Miss Jenny.

  Pulling at the bell again and getting no reply, she pushed the outerdoor, and found it standing ajar. No one being visible on her opening itwider, and the spluttering continuing, she took the liberty of openingan inner door, and then beheld the extraordinary spectacle of MrFledgeby in a shirt, a pair of Turkish trousers, and a Turkish cap,rolling over and over on his own carpet, and spluttering wonderfully.

  'Oh Lord!' gasped Mr Fledgeby. 'Oh my eye! Stop thief! I am strangling.Fire! Oh my eye! A glass of water. Give me a glass of water. Shut thedoor. Murder! Oh Lord!' And then rolled and spluttered more than ever.

  Hurrying into another room, Miss Jenny got a glass of water, and broughtit for Fledgeby's relief: who, gasping, spluttering, and rattling in histhroat betweenwhiles, drank some water, and laid his head faintly on herarm.

  'Oh my eye!' cried Fledgeby, struggling anew. 'It's salt and snuff. It'sup my nose, and down my throat, and in my wind-pipe. Ugh! Ow! Ow! Ow!Ah--h--h--h!' And here, crowing fearfully, with his eyes starting out ofhis head, appeared to be contending with every mortal disease incidentalto poultry.

  'And Oh my Eye, I'm so sore!' cried Fledgeby, starting, over on hisback, in a spasmodic way that caused the dressmaker to retreat to thewall. 'Oh I smart so! Do put something to my back and arms, and legs andshoulders. Ugh! It's down my throat again and can't come up. Ow! Ow! Ow!Ah--h--h--h! Oh I smart so!' Here Mr Fledgeby bounded up, and boundeddown, and went rolling over and over again.

  The dolls' dressmaker looked on until he rolled himself into a cornerwith his Turkish slippers uppermost, and then, resolving in the firstplace to address her ministration to the salt and snuff, gave him morewater and slapped his back. But, the latter application was by no meansa success, causing Mr Fledgeby to scream, and to cry out, 'Oh my eye!don't slap me! I'm covered with weales and I smart so!'

  However, he gradually ceased to choke and crow, saving at intervals,and Miss Jenny got him into an easy-chair: where, with his eyes red andwatery, with his features swollen, and with some half-dozen livid barsacross his face, he presented a most rueful sight.

  'What ever possessed you to take salt and snuff, young man?' inquiredMiss Jenny.

  'I didn't take it,' the dismal youth replied. 'It was crammed into mymouth.'

  'Who crammed it?' asked Miss Jenny.

  'He did,' answered Fledgeby. 'The assassin. Lammle. He rubbed it intomy mouth and up my nose and down my throat--Ow! Ow! Ow! Ah--h--h--h!Ugh!--to prevent my crying out, and then cruelly assaulted me.'

  'With this?' asked Miss Jenny, showing the pieces of cane.

  'That's the weapon,' said Fledgeby, eyeing it with the air of anacquaintance. 'He broke it over me. Oh I smart so! How did you come byit?'

  'When he ran down stairs and joined the lady he had left in the hallwith his hat'--Miss Jenny began.

  'Oh!' groaned Mr Fledgeby, writhing, 'she was holding his hat, was she?I might have known she was in it.'

  'When he came down stairs and joined the lady who wouldn't let me comeup, he gave me the pieces for you, and I was to say, "With Mr AlfredLammle's compliments on his leaving England."' Miss Jenny said it withsuch spiteful satisfaction, and such a hitch of her chin and eyes asmight have added to Mr Fledgeby's miseries, if he could have noticedeither, in his bodily pain with his hand to his head.

  'Shall I go for the police?' inquired Miss Jenny, with a nimble starttowards the door.

  'Stop! No, don't!' cried Fledgeby. 'Don't, please. We had better keep itquiet. Will you be so good as shut the door? Oh I do smart so!'

  In testimony of the extent to which he smarted, Mr Fledgeby camewallowing out of the easy-chair, and took another roll on the carpet.

  'Now the door's shut,' said Mr Fledgeby, sitting up in anguish, withhis Turkish cap half on and half off, and the bars on his face gettingbluer, 'do me the kindness to look at my back and shoulders. They mustbe in an awful state, for I hadn't got my dressing-gown on, when thebrute came rushing in. Cut my shirt away from the collar; there's a pairof scissors on that table. Oh!' groaned Mr Fledgeby, with his hand tohis head again. 'How I do smart, to be sure!'

  'There?' inquired Miss Jenny, alluding to the back and shoulders.

  'Oh Lord, yes!' moaned Fledgeby, rocking himself. 'And all over!Everywhere!'

  The busy little dressmaker quickly snipped the shirt away, and laidbare the results of as furious and sound a thrashing as even Mr Fledgebymerited. 'You may well smart, young man!' exclaimed Miss Jenny. Andstealthily rubbed her little hands behind him, and poked a few exultantpokes with her two forefingers over the crown of his head.

  'What do you think of vinegar and brown paper?' inquired the sufferingFledgeby, still rocking and moaning. 'Does it look as if vinegar andbrown paper was the sort of application?'

  'Yes,' said Miss Jenny, with a silent chuckle. 'It looks as if it oughtto be Pickled.'

  Mr Fledgeby collapsed under the word 'Pickled,' and groaned again.'My kitchen is on this floor,' he said; 'you'll find brown paper in adresser-drawer there, and a bottle of vinegar on a shelf. Would you havethe kindness to make a few plasters and put 'em on? It can't be kept tooquiet.'

  'One, two--hum--five, six. You'll want six,' said the dress-maker.

  'There's smart enough,' whimpered Mr Fledgeby, groaning and writhingagain, 'for sixty.'

  Miss Jenny repaired to the kitchen, scissors in hand, found the brownpaper and found the vinegar, and skilfully cut out and steeped sixlarge plasters. When they were all lying ready on the dresser, an ideaoccurred to her as she was about to gather them up.

  'I think,' said Miss Jenny with a silent laugh, 'he ought to have alittle pepper? Just a few grains? I think the young man's tricks andmanners make a claim upon his friends for a little pepper?'

  Mr Fledgeby's evil star showing her the pepper-box on the chimneypiece,she climbed upon a chair, and got it down, and sprinkled all theplasters with a judicious hand. She then went back to Mr Fledgeby, andstuck them all on him: Mr Fledgeby uttering a sharp howl as each was putin its place.

  'There, young man!' said the dolls' dressmaker. 'Now I hope you feelpretty comfortable?'

  Apparently, Mr Fledgeby did not, for he cried by way of answer, 'Oh--hhow I do smart!'

  Miss Jenny got his Persian gown upon him, extinguished his eyescrookedly with his Persian cap, and helped him to his bed: upon which heclimbed groaning. 'Business between you and me being out of the questionto-day, young man, and my time being precious,' said Miss Jenny then,'I'll make myself scarce. Are you comfortable now?'

  'Oh my eye!' cried Mr Fledgeby. 'No, I ain't. Oh--h--h! how I do smart!'

  The last thing Miss Jenny saw, as she looked back before closing theroom door, was Mr Fledgeby in the act of plunging and gambolling allover his bed, like a porpoise or dolphin in its native element. She thenshut the bedroom door, and all the other doors, and going down stairsand emerging from the Albany into the busy streets, took omnibus forSaint Mary Axe: pressing on the road all the gaily-dressed ladies whomshe could see from the window, and making them unconscious lay-figuresfor dolls, while she mentally cut them out and basted them.

 
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