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Our mutual friend, p.61
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       Our Mutual Friend, p.61

           Charles Dickens

  Chapter 11


  Mrs John Rokesmith sat at needlework in her neat little room, beside abasket of neat little articles of clothing, which presented so much ofthe appearance of being in the dolls' dressmaker's way of business, thatone might have supposed she was going to set up in opposition to MissWren. Whether the Complete British Family Housewife had imparted sagecounsel anent them, did not appear, but probably not, as that cloudyoracle was nowhere visible. For certain, however, Mrs John Rokesmithstitched at them with so dexterous a hand, that she must have takenlessons of somebody. Love is in all things a most wonderful teacher,and perhaps love (from a pictorial point of view, with nothing on buta thimble), had been teaching this branch of needlework to Mrs JohnRokesmith.

  It was near John's time for coming home, but as Mrs John was desirous tofinish a special triumph of her skill before dinner, she did not go outto meet him. Placidly, though rather consequentially smiling, she satstitching away with a regular sound, like a sort of dimpled littlecharming Dresden-china clock by the very best maker.

  A knock at the door, and a ring at the bell. Not John; or Bella wouldhave flown out to meet him. Then who, if not John? Bella was askingherself the question, when that fluttering little fool of a servantfluttered in, saying, 'Mr Lightwood!'

  Oh good gracious!

  Bella had but time to throw a handkerchief over the basket, when MrLightwood made his bow. There was something amiss with Mr Lightwood, forhe was strangely grave and looked ill.

  With a brief reference to the happy time when it had been his privilegeto know Mrs Rokesmith as Miss Wilfer, Mr Lightwood explained what wasamiss with him and why he came. He came bearing Lizzie Hexam's earnesthope that Mrs John Rokesmith would see her married.

  Bella was so fluttered by the request, and by the short narrative he hadfeelingly given her, that there never was a more timely smelling-bottlethan John's knock. 'My husband,' said Bella; 'I'll bring him in.'

  But, that turned out to be more easily said than done; for, the instantshe mentioned Mr Lightwood's name, John stopped, with his hand upon thelock of the room door.

  'Come up stairs, my darling.'

  Bella was amazed by the flush in his face, and by his sudden turningaway. 'What can it mean?' she thought, as she accompanied him up stairs.

  'Now, my life,' said John, taking her on his knee, 'tell me all aboutit.'

  All very well to say, 'Tell me all about it;' but John was very muchconfused. His attention evidently trailed off, now and then, even whileBella told him all about it. Yet she knew that he took a great interestin Lizzie and her fortunes. What could it mean?

  'You will come to this marriage with me, John dear?'

  'N--no, my love; I can't do that.'

  'You can't do that, John?'

  'No, my dear, it's quite out of the question. Not to be thought of.'

  'Am I to go alone, John?'

  'No, my dear, you will go with Mr Lightwood.'

  'Don't you think it's time we went down to Mr Lightwood, John dear?'Bella insinuated.

  'My darling, it's almost time you went, but I must ask you to excuse meto him altogether.'

  'You never mean, John dear, that you are not going to see him? Why, heknows you have come home. I told him so.'

  'That's a little unfortunate, but it can't be helped. Unfortunate orfortunate, I positively cannot see him, my love.'

  Bella cast about in her mind what could be his reason for thisunaccountable behaviour; as she sat on his knee looking at him inastonishment and pouting a little. A weak reason presented itself.

  'John dear, you never can be jealous of Mr Lightwood?'

  'Why, my precious child,' returned her husband, laughing outright: 'howcould I be jealous of him? Why should I be jealous of him?'

  'Because, you know, John,' pursued Bella, pouting a little more, 'thoughhe did rather admire me once, it was not my fault.'

  'It was your fault that I admired you,' returned her husband, with alook of pride in her, 'and why not your fault that he admired you? But,I jealous on that account? Why, I must go distracted for life, if Iturned jealous of every one who used to find my wife beautiful andwinning!'

  'I am half angry with you, John dear,' said Bella, laughing a little,'and half pleased with you; because you are such a stupid old fellow,and yet you say nice things, as if you meant them. Don't be mysterious,sir. What harm do you know of Mr Lightwood?'

  'None, my love.'

  'What has he ever done to you, John?'

  'He has never done anything to me, my dear. I know no more againsthim than I know against Mr Wrayburn; he has never done anything to me;neither has Mr Wrayburn. And yet I have exactly the same objection toboth of them.'

  'Oh, John!' retorted Bella, as if she were giving him up for a bad job,as she used to give up herself. 'You are nothing better than a sphinx!And a married sphinx isn't a--isn't a nice confidential husband,' saidBella, in a tone of injury.

  'Bella, my life,' said John Rokesmith, touching her cheek, with a gravesmile, as she cast down her eyes and pouted again; 'look at me. I wantto speak to you.'

  'In earnest, Blue Beard of the secret chamber?' asked Bella, clearingher pretty face.

  'In earnest. And I confess to the secret chamber. Don't you rememberthat you asked me not to declare what I thought of your higher qualitiesuntil you had been tried?'

  'Yes, John dear. And I fully meant it, and I fully mean it.'

  'The time will come, my darling--I am no prophet, but I say so,--whenyou WILL be tried. The time will come, I think, when you will undergoa trial through which you will never pass quite triumphantly for me,unless you can put perfect faith in me.'

  'Then you may be sure of me, John dear, for I can put perfect faith inyou, and I do, and I always, always will. Don't judge me by a littlething like this, John. In little things, I am a little thing myself--Ialways was. But in great things, I hope not; I don't mean to boast, Johndear, but I hope not!'

  He was even better convinced of the truth of what she said than she was,as he felt her loving arms about him. If the Golden Dustman's riches hadbeen his to stake, he would have staked them to the last farthing on thefidelity through good and evil of her affectionate and trusting heart.

  'Now, I'll go down to, and go away with, Mr Lightwood,' said Bella,springing up. 'You are the most creasing and tumbling Clumsy-Boots of apacker, John, that ever was; but if you're quite good, and will promisenever to do so any more (though I don't know what you have done!) youmay pack me a little bag for a night, while I get my bonnet on.'

  He gaily complied, and she tied her dimpled chin up, and shook her headinto her bonnet, and pulled out the bows of her bonnet-strings, andgot her gloves on, finger by finger, and finally got them on herlittle plump hands, and bade him good-bye and went down. Mr Lightwood'simpatience was much relieved when he found her dressed for departure.

  'Mr Rokesmith goes with us?' he said, hesitating, with a look towardsthe door.

  'Oh, I forgot!' replied Bella. 'His best compliments. His face isswollen to the size of two faces, and he is to go to bed directly, poorfellow, to wait for the doctor, who is coming to lance him.'

  'It is curious,' observed Lightwood, 'that I have never yet seen MrRokesmith, though we have been engaged in the same affairs.'

  'Really?' said the unblushing Bella.

  'I begin to think,' observed Lightwood, 'that I never shall see him.'

  'These things happen so oddly sometimes,' said Bella with a steadycountenance, 'that there seems a kind of fatality in them. But I amquite ready, Mr Lightwood.'

  They started directly, in a little carriage that Lightwood had broughtwith him from never-to-be-forgotten Greenwich; and from Greenwich theystarted directly for London; and in London they waited at a railwaystation until such time as the Reverend Frank Milvey, and Margarettahis wife, with whom Mortimer Lightwood had been already in conference,should come and join them.

  That worthy couple were delayed by
a portentous old parishioner of thefemale gender, who was one of the plagues of their lives, and with whomthey bore with most exemplary sweetness and good-humour, notwithstandingher having an infection of absurdity about her, that communicated itselfto everything with which, and everybody with whom, she came in contact.She was a member of the Reverend Frank's congregation, and made a pointof distinguishing herself in that body, by conspicuously weeping ateverything, however cheering, said by the Reverend Frank in his publicministration; also by applying to herself the various lamentations ofDavid, and complaining in a personally injured manner (much in arrear ofthe clerk and the rest of the respondents) that her enemies were diggingpit-falls about her, and breaking her with rods of iron. Indeed, thisold widow discharged herself of that portion of the Morning and EveningService as if she were lodging a complaint on oath and applying fora warrant before a magistrate. But this was not her most inconvenientcharacteristic, for that took the form of an impression, usuallyrecurring in inclement weather and at about daybreak, that she hadsomething on her mind and stood in immediate need of the Reverend Frankto come and take it off. Many a time had that kind creature got up, andgone out to Mrs Sprodgkin (such was the disciple's name), suppressinga strong sense of her comicality by his strong sense of duty, andperfectly knowing that nothing but a cold would come of it. However,beyond themselves, the Reverend Frank Milvey and Mrs Milvey seldomhinted that Mrs Sprodgkin was hardly worth the trouble she gave; butboth made the best of her, as they did of all their troubles.

  This very exacting member of the fold appeared to be endowed with asixth sense, in regard of knowing when the Reverend Frank Milvey leastdesired her company, and with promptitude appearing in his little hall.Consequently, when the Reverend Frank had willingly engaged that he andhis wife would accompany Lightwood back, he said, as a matter of course:'We must make haste to get out, Margaretta, my dear, or we shall bedescended on by Mrs Sprodgkin.' To which Mrs Milvey replied, in herpleasantly emphatic way, 'Oh YES, for she IS such a marplot, Frank, andDOES worry so!' Words that were scarcely uttered when their themewas announced as in faithful attendance below, desiring counsel on aspiritual matter. The points on which Mrs Sprodgkin sought elucidationbeing seldom of a pressing nature (as Who begat Whom, or someinformation concerning the Amorites), Mrs Milvey on this specialoccasion resorted to the device of buying her off with a present of teaand sugar, and a loaf and butter. These gifts Mrs Sprodgkin accepted,but still insisted on dutifully remaining in the hall, to curtsey to theReverend Frank as he came forth. Who, incautiously saying in his genialmanner, 'Well, Sally, there you are!' involved himself in a discursiveaddress from Mrs Sprodgkin, revolving around the result that sheregarded tea and sugar in the light of myrrh and frankincense, andconsidered bread and butter identical with locusts and wild honey.Having communicated this edifying piece of information, Mrs Sprodgkinwas left still unadjourned in the hall, and Mr and Mrs Milvey hurried ina heated condition to the railway station. All of which is here recordedto the honour of that good Christian pair, representatives of hundredsof other good Christian pairs as conscientious and as useful, who mergethe smallness of their work in its greatness, and feel in no danger oflosing dignity when they adapt themselves to incomprehensible humbugs.

  'Detained at the last moment by one who had a claim upon me,' was theReverend Frank's apology to Lightwood, taking no thought of himself.To which Mrs Milvey added, taking thought for him, like the championinglittle wife she was; 'Oh yes, detained at the last moment. But AS tothe claim, Frank, I MUST say that I DO think you are OVER-consideratesometimes, and allow THAT to be a LITTLE abused.'

  Bella felt conscious, in spite of her late pledge for herself, that herhusband's absence would give disagreeable occasion for surprise to theMilveys. Nor could she appear quite at her ease when Mrs Milvey asked:

  'HOW is Mr Rokesmith, and IS he gone before us, or DOES he follow us?'

  It becoming necessary, upon this, to send him to bed again and hold himin waiting to be lanced again, Bella did it. But not half as well onthe second occasion as on the first; for, a twice-told white one seemsalmost to become a black one, when you are not used to it.

  'Oh DEAR!' said Mrs Milvey, 'I am SO sorry! Mr Rokesmith took SUCH aninterest in Lizzie Hexam, when we were there before. And if we had ONLYknown of his face, we COULD have given him something that would havekept it down long enough for so SHORT a purpose.'

  By way of making the white one whiter, Bella hastened to stipulate thathe was not in pain. Mrs Milvey was SO glad of it.

  'I don't know HOW it is,' said Mrs Milvey, 'and I am SURE you don't,Frank, but the clergy and their wives seem to CAUSE swelled faces.Whenever I take notice of a child in the school, it seems to me as ifits face swelled INSTANTLY. Frank NEVER makes acquaintance with a newold woman, but she gets the face-ache. And another thing is, we DO makethe poor children sniff so. I don't know HOW we do it, and I shouldbe so glad not to; but the MORE we take notice of them, the MORE theysniff. Just as they do when the text is given out.--Frank, that's aschoolmaster. I have seen him somewhere.'

  The reference was to a young man of reserved appearance, in a coat andwaistcoat of black, and pantaloons of pepper and salt. He had comeinto the office of the station, from its interior, in an unsettled way,immediately after Lightwood had gone out to the train; and he had beenhurriedly reading the printed bills and notices on the wall. He had hada wandering interest in what was said among the people waiting thereand passing to and fro. He had drawn nearer, at about the time whenMrs Milvey mentioned Lizzie Hexam, and had remained near, since: thoughalways glancing towards the door by which Lightwood had gone out. Hestood with his back towards them, and his gloved hands clasped behindhim. There was now so evident a faltering upon him, expressive ofindecision whether or no he should express his having heard himselfreferred to, that Mr Milvey spoke to him.

  'I cannot recall your name,' he said, 'but I remember to have seen youin your school.'

  'My name is Bradley Headstone, sir,' he replied, backing into a moreretired place.

  'I ought to have remembered it,' said Mr Milvey, giving him his hand. 'Ihope you are well? A little overworked, I am afraid?'

  'Yes, I am overworked just at present, sir.'

  'Had no play in your last holiday time?'

  'No, sir.'

  'All work and no play, Mr Headstone, will not make dulness, in yourcase, I dare say; but it will make dyspepsia, if you don't take care.'

  'I will endeavour to take care, sir. Might I beg leave to speak to you,outside, a moment?'

  'By all means.'

  It was evening, and the office was well lighted. The schoolmaster, whohad never remitted his watch on Lightwood's door, now moved by anotherdoor to a corner without, where there was more shadow than light; andsaid, plucking at his gloves:

  'One of your ladies, sir, mentioned within my hearing a name that I amacquainted with; I may say, well acquainted with. The name of the sisterof an old pupil of mine. He was my pupil for a long time, and has got onand gone upward rapidly. The name of Hexam. The name of Lizzie Hexam.'He seemed to be a shy man, struggling against nervousness, and spoke ina very constrained way. The break he set between his last two sentenceswas quite embarrassing to his hearer.

  'Yes,' replied Mr Milvey. 'We are going down to see her.'

  'I gathered as much, sir. I hope there is nothing amiss with the sisterof my old pupil? I hope no bereavement has befallen her. I hope she isin no affliction? Has lost no--relation?'

  Mr Milvey thought this a man with a very odd manner, and a dark downwardlook; but he answered in his usual open way.

  'I am glad to tell you, Mr Headstone, that the sister of your old pupilhas not sustained any such loss. You thought I might be going down tobury some one?'

  'That may have been the connexion of ideas, sir, with your clericalcharacter, but I was not conscious of it.--Then you are not, sir?'

  A man with a very odd manner indeed, and with a lurking look that wasquite oppressive.

  'No. In fact,' s
aid Mr Milvey, 'since you are so interested in thesister of your old pupil, I may as well tell you that I am going down tomarry her.'

  The schoolmaster started back.

  'Not to marry her, myself,' said Mr Milvey, with a smile, 'because Ihave a wife already. To perform the marriage service at her wedding.'

  Bradley Headstone caught hold of a pillar behind him. If Mr Milvey knewan ashy face when he saw it, he saw it then.

  'You are quite ill, Mr Headstone!'

  'It is not much, sir. It will pass over very soon. I am accustomed to beseized with giddiness. Don't let me detain you, sir; I stand in needof no assistance, I thank you. Much obliged by your sparing me theseminutes of your time.'

  As Mr Milvey, who had no more minutes to spare, made a suitable replyand turned back into the office, he observed the schoolmaster tolean against the pillar with his hat in his hand, and to pull at hisneckcloth as if he were trying to tear it off. The Reverend Frankaccordingly directed the notice of one of the attendants to him, bysaying: 'There is a person outside who seems to be really ill, and torequire some help, though he says he does not.'

  Lightwood had by this time secured their places, and the departure-bellwas about to be rung. They took their seats, and were beginning tomove out of the station, when the same attendant came running along theplatform, looking into all the carriages.

  'Oh! You are here, sir!' he said, springing on the step, and holdingthe window-frame by his elbow, as the carriage moved. 'That person youpointed out to me is in a fit.'

  'I infer from what he told me that he is subject to such attacks. Hewill come to, in the air, in a little while.'

  He was took very bad to be sure, and was biting and knocking about him(the man said) furiously. Would the gentleman give him his card, as hehad seen him first? The gentleman did so, with the explanation thathe knew no more of the man attacked than that he was a man of a veryrespectable occupation, who had said he was out of health, as hisappearance would of itself have indicated. The attendant received thecard, watched his opportunity for sliding down, slid down, and so itended.

  Then, the train rattled among the house-tops, and among the ragged sidesof houses torn down to make way for it, and over the swarming streets,and under the fruitful earth, until it shot across the river: burstingover the quiet surface like a bomb-shell, and gone again as if it hadexploded in the rush of smoke and steam and glare. A little more, andagain it roared across the river, a great rocket: spurning the wateryturnings and doublings with ineffable contempt, and going straight toits end, as Father Time goes to his. To whom it is no matter what livingwaters run high or low, reflect the heavenly lights and darknesses,produce their little growth of weeds and flowers, turn here, turn there,are noisy or still, are troubled or at rest, for their course has onesure termination, though their sources and devices are many.

  Then, a carriage ride succeeded, near the solemn river, stealing awayby night, as all things steal away, by night and by day, so quietlyyielding to the attraction of the loadstone rock of Eternity; and thenearer they drew to the chamber where Eugene lay, the more they fearedthat they might find his wanderings done. At last they saw its dim lightshining out, and it gave them hope: though Lightwood faltered as hethought: 'If he were gone, she would still be sitting by him.'

  But he lay quiet, half in stupor, half in sleep. Bella, entering witha raised admonitory finger, kissed Lizzie softly, but said not a word.Neither did any of them speak, but all sat down at the foot of the bed,silently waiting. And now, in this night-watch, mingling with the flowof the river and with the rush of the train, came the questions intoBella's mind again: What could be in the depths of that mystery ofJohn's? Why was it that he had never been seen by Mr Lightwood, whom hestill avoided? When would that trial come, through which her faithin, and her duty to, her dear husband, was to carry her, rendering himtriumphant? For, that had been his term. Her passing through the trialwas to make the man she loved with all her heart, triumphant. Term notto sink out of sight in Bella's breast.

  Far on in the night, Eugene opened his eyes. He was sensible, and saidat once: 'How does the time go? Has our Mortimer come back?'

  Lightwood was there immediately, to answer for himself. 'Yes, Eugene,and all is ready.'

  'Dear boy!' returned Eugene with a smile, 'we both thank you heartily.Lizzie, tell them how welcome they are, and that I would be eloquent ifI could.'

  'There is no need,' said Mr Milvey. 'We know it. Are you better, MrWrayburn?'

  'I am much happier,' said Eugene.

  'Much better too, I hope?'

  Eugene turned his eyes towards Lizzie, as if to spare her, and answerednothing.

  Then, they all stood around the bed, and Mr Milvey, opening his book,began the service; so rarely associated with the shadow of death; soinseparable in the mind from a flush of life and gaiety and hope andhealth and joy. Bella thought how different from her own sunny littlewedding, and wept. Mrs Milvey overflowed with pity, and wept too. Thedolls' dressmaker, with her hands before her face, wept in her goldenbower. Reading in a low clear voice, and bending over Eugene, who kepthis eyes upon him, Mr Milvey did his office with suitable simplicity.As the bridegroom could not move his hand, they touched his fingers withthe ring, and so put it on the bride. When the two plighted their troth,she laid her hand on his and kept it there. When the ceremony was done,and all the rest departed from the room, she drew her arm under hishead, and laid her own head down upon the pillow by his side.

  'Undraw the curtains, my dear girl,' said Eugene, after a while, 'andlet us see our wedding-day.'

  The sun was rising, and his first rays struck into the room, as she cameback, and put her lips to his. 'I bless the day!' said Eugene. 'I blessthe day!' said Lizzie.

  'You have made a poor marriage of it, my sweet wife,' said Eugene. 'Ashattered graceless fellow, stretched at his length here, and next tonothing for you when you are a young widow.'

  'I have made the marriage that I would have given all the world to dareto hope for,' she replied.

  'You have thrown yourself away,' said Eugene, shaking his head. 'But youhave followed the treasure of your heart. My justification is, that youhad thrown that away first, dear girl!'

  'No. I had given it to you.'

  'The same thing, my poor Lizzie!'

  'Hush! hush! A very different thing.'

  There were tears in his eyes, and she besought him to close them. 'No,'said Eugene, again shaking his head; 'let me look at you, Lizzie, whileI can. You brave devoted girl! You heroine!'

  Her own eyes filled under his praises. And when he mustered strength tomove his wounded head a very little way, and lay it on her bosom, thetears of both fell.

  'Lizzie,' said Eugene, after a silence: 'when you see me wandering awayfrom this refuge that I have so ill deserved, speak to me by my name,and I think I shall come back.'

  'Yes, dear Eugene.'

  'There!' he exclaimed, smiling. 'I should have gone then, but for that!'

  A little while afterwards, when he appeared to be sinking intoinsensibility, she said, in a calm loving voice: 'Eugene, my dearhusband!' He immediately answered: 'There again! You see how you canrecall me!' And afterwards, when he could not speak, he still answeredby a slight movement of his head upon her bosom.

  The sun was high in the sky, when she gently disengaged herself to givehim the stimulants and nourishment he required. The utter helplessnessof the wreck of him that lay cast ashore there, now alarmed her, but hehimself appeared a little more hopeful.

  'Ah, my beloved Lizzie!' he said, faintly. 'How shall I ever pay all Iowe you, if I recover!'

  'Don't be ashamed of me,' she replied, 'and you will have more than paidall.'

  'It would require a life, Lizzie, to pay all; more than a life.'

  'Live for that, then; live for me, Eugene; live to see how hard I willtry to improve myself, and never to discredit you.'

  'My darling girl,' he replied, rallying more of his old manner thanhe had ever yet got together. 'On the contra
ry, I have been thinkingwhether it is not the best thing I can do, to die.'

  'The best thing you can do, to leave me with a broken heart?'

  'I don't mean that, my dear girl. I was not thinking of that. What I wasthinking of was this. Out of your compassion for me, in this maimed andbroken state, you make so much of me--you think so well of me--you loveme so dearly.'

  'Heaven knows I love you dearly!'

  'And Heaven knows I prize it! Well. If I live, you'll find me out.'

  'I shall find out that my husband has a mine of purpose and energy, andwill turn it to the best account?'

  'I hope so, dearest Lizzie,' said Eugene, wistfully, and yet somewhatwhimsically. 'I hope so. But I can't summon the vanity to think so. Howcan I think so, looking back on such a trifling wasted youth as mine! Ihumbly hope it; but I daren't believe it. There is a sharp misgivingin my conscience that if I were to live, I should disappoint your goodopinion and my own--and that I ought to die, my dear!'

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