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Charles Dickens > Little Dorrit > Chapter 17

Little Dorrit

Chapter 17

Nobody's Rival

Before breakfast in the morning, Arthur walked out to look about
him. As the morning was fine and he had an hour on his hands, he
crossed the river by the ferry, and strolled along a footpath
through some meadows. When he came back to the towing-path, he
found the ferry-boat on the opposite side, and a gentleman hailing
it and waiting to be taken over.

This gentleman looked barely thirty. He was well dressed, of a
sprightly and gay appearance, a well-knit figure, and a rich dark
complexion. As Arthur came over the stile and down to the water's
edge, the lounger glanced at him for a moment, and then resumed his
occupation of idly tossing stones into the water with his foot.
There was something in his way of spurning them out of their places
with his heel, and getting them into the required position, that
Clennam thought had an air of cruelty in it. Most of us have more
or less frequently derived a similar impression from a man's manner
of doing some very little thing: plucking a flower, clearing away
an obstacle, or even destroying an insentient object.

The gentleman's thoughts were preoccupied, as his face showed, and
he took no notice of a fine Newfoundland dog, who watched him
attentively, and watched every stone too, in its turn, eager to
spring into the river on receiving his master's sign. The ferry-
boat came over, however, without his receiving any sign, and when
it grounded his master took him by the collar and walked him into

'Not this morning,' he said to the dog. 'You won't do for ladies'
company, dripping wet. Lie down.'

Clennam followed the man and the dog into the boat, and took his
seat. The dog did as he was ordered. The man remained standing,
with his hands in his pockets, and towered between Clennam and the
prospect. Man and dog both jumped lightly out as soon as they
touched the other side, and went away. Clennam was glad to be rid
of them.

The church clock struck the breakfast hour as he walked up the
little lane by which the garden-gate was approached. The moment he
pulled the bell a deep loud barking assailed him from within the

'I heard no dog last night,' thought Clennam. The gate was opened
by one of the rosy maids, and on the lawn were the Newfoundland dog
and the man.

'Miss Minnie is not down yet, gentlemen,' said the blushing
portress, as they all came together in the garden. Then she said
to the master of the dog, 'Mr Clennam, sir,' and tripped away.

'Odd enough, Mr Clennam, that we should have met just now,' said
the man. Upon which the dog became mute. 'Allow me to introduce
myself--Henry Gowan. A pretty place this, and looks wonderfully
well this morning!'

The manner was easy, and the voice agreeable; but still Clennam
thought, that if he had not made that decided resolution to avoid
falling in love with Pet, he would have taken a dislike to this
Henry Gowan.

'It's new to you, I believe?' said this Gowan, when Arthur had
extolled the place.
'Quite new. I made acquaintance with it only yesterday afternoon.'

'Ah! Of course this is not its best aspect. It used to look
charming in the spring, before they went away last time. I should
like you to have seen it then.'

But for that resolution so often recalled, Clennam might have
wished him in the crater of Mount Etna, in return for this

'I have had the pleasure of seeing it under many circumstances
during the last three years, and it's--a Paradise.'

It was (at least it might have been, always excepting for that wise
resolution) like his dexterous impudence to call it a Paradise. He
only called it a Paradise because he first saw her coming, and so
made her out within her hearing to be an angel, Confusion to him!
And ah! how beaming she looked, and how glad! How she caressed
the dog, and how the dog knew her! How expressive that heightened
colour in her face, that fluttered manner, her downcast eyes, her
irresolute happiness! When had Clennam seen her look like this?
Not that there was any reason why he might, could, would, or should
have ever seen her look like this, or that he had ever hoped for
himself to see her look like this; but still--when had he ever
known her do it!

He stood at a little distance from them. This Gowan when he had
talked about a Paradise, had gone up to her and taken her hand.
The dog had put his great paws on her arm and laid his head against
her dear bosom. She had laughed and welcomed them, and made far
too much of the dog, far, far, too much--that is to say, supposing
there had been any third person looking on who loved her.

She disengaged herself now, and came to Clennam, and put her hand
in his and wished him good morning, and gracefully made as if she
would take his arm and be escorted into the house. To this Gowan
had no objection. No, he knew he was too safe.

There was a passing cloud on Mr Meagles's good-humoured face when
they all three (four, counting the dog, and he was the most
objectionable but one of the party) came in to breakfast. Neither
it, nor the touch of uneasiness on Mrs Meagles as she directed her
eyes towards it, was unobserved by Clennam.

'Well, Gowan,' said Mr Meagles, even suppressing a sigh; 'how goes
the world with you this morning?'

'Much as usual, sir. Lion and I being determined not to waste
anything of our weekly visit, turned out early, and came over from
Kingston, my present headquarters, where I am making a sketch or
two.' Then he told how he had met Mr Clennam at the ferry, and
they had come over together.

'Mrs Gowan is well, Henry?' said Mrs Meagles. (Clennam became

'My mother is quite well, thank you.' (Clennam became
inattentive.) 'I have taken the liberty of making an addition to
your family dinner-party to-day, which I hope will not be
inconvenient to you or to Mr Meagles. I couldn't very well get out
of it,' he explained, turning to the latter. 'The young fellow
wrote to propose himself to me; and as he is well connected, I
thought you would not object to my transferring him here.'

'Who is the young fellow?' asked Mr Meagles with peculiar

'He is one of the Barnacles. Tite Barnacle's son, Clarence
Barnacle, who is in his father's Department. I can at least
guarantee that the river shall not suffer from his visit. He won't
set it on fire.'

'Aye, aye?' said Meagles. 'A Barnacle is he? We know something of
that family, eh, Dan? By George, they are at the top of the tree,
though! Let me see. What relation will this young fellow be to
Lord Decimus now? His Lordship married, in seventeen ninety-seven,
Lady Jemima Bilberry, who was the second daughter by the third
marriage--no! There I am wrong! That was Lady Seraphina--Lady
Jemima was the first daughter by the second marriage of the
fifteenth Earl of Stiltstalking with the Honourable Clementina
Toozellem. Very well. Now this young fellow's father married a
Stiltstalking and his father married his cousin who was a Barnacle.

The father of that father who married a Barnacle, married a
Joddleby.--I am getting a little too far back, Gowan; I want to
make out what relation this young fellow is to Lord Decimus.'

'That's easily stated. His father is nephew to Lord Decimus.'

'Nephew--to--Lord--Decimus,' Mr Meagles luxuriously repeated with
his eyes shut, that he might have nothing to distract him from the
full flavour of the genealogical tree. 'By George, you are right,
Gowan. So he is.'

'Consequently, Lord Decimus is his great uncle.'

'But stop a bit!' said Mr Meagles, opening his eyes with a fresh
discovery. 'Then on the mother's side, Lady Stiltstalking is his
great aunt.'

'Of course she is.'

'Aye, aye, aye?' said Mr Meagles with much interest. 'Indeed,
indeed? We shall be glad to see him. We'll entertain him as well
as we can, in our humble way; and we shall not starve him, I hope,
at all events.'

In the beginning of this dialogue, Clennam had expected some great
harmless outburst from Mr Meagles, like that which had made him
burst out of the Circumlocution Office, holding Doyce by the
collar. But his good friend had a weakness which none of us need
go into the next street to find, and which no amount of
Circumlocution experience could long subdue in him. Clennam looked
at Doyce; but Doyce knew all about it beforehand, and looked at his
plate, and made no sign, and said no word.

'I am much obliged to you,' said Gowan, to conclude the subject.
'Clarence is a great ass, but he is one of the dearest and best
fellows that ever lived!'

It appeared, before the breakfast was over, that everybody whom
this Gowan knew was either more or less of an ass, or more or less
of a knave; but was, notwithstanding, the most lovable, the most
engaging, the simplest, truest, kindest, dearest, best fellow that
ever lived. The process by which this unvarying result was
attained, whatever the premises, might have been stated by Mr Henry
Gowan thus: 'I claim to be always book-keeping, with a peculiar
nicety, in every man's case, and posting up a careful little
account of Good and Evil with him. I do this so conscientiously,
that I am happy to tell you I find the most worthless of men to be
the dearest old fellow too: and am in a condition to make the
gratifying report, that there is much less difference than you are
inclined to suppose between an honest man and a scoundrel.' The
effect of this cheering discovery happened to be, that while he
seemed to be scrupulously finding good in most men, he did in
reality lower it where it was, and set it up where it was not; but
that was its only disagreeable or dangerous feature.

It scarcely seemed, however, to afford Mr Meagles as much
satisfaction as the Barnacle genealogy had done. The cloud that
Clennam had never seen upon his face before that morning,
frequently overcast it again; and there was the same shadow of
uneasy observation of him on the comely face of his wife. More
than once or twice when Pet caressed the dog, it appeared to
Clennam that her father was unhappy in seeing her do it; and, in
one particular instance when Gowan stood on the other side of the
dog, and bent his head at the same time, Arthur fancied that he saw
tears rise to Mr Meagles's eyes as he hurried out of the room. It
was either the fact too, or he fancied further, that Pet herself
was not insensible to these little incidents; that she tried, with
a more delicate affection than usual, to express to her good father
how much she loved him; that it was on this account that she fell
behind the rest, both as they went to church and as they returned
from it, and took his arm. He could not have sworn but that as he
walked alone in the garden afterwards, he had an instantaneous
glimpse of her in her father's room, clinging to both her parents
with the greatest tenderness, and weeping on her father's shoulder.

The latter part of the day turning out wet, they were fain to keep
the house, look over Mr Meagles's collection, and beguile the time
with conversation. This Gowan had plenty to say for himself, and
said it in an off-hand and amusing manner. He appeared to be an
artist by profession, and to have been at Rome some time; yet he
had a slight, careless, amateur way with him--a perceptible limp,
both in his devotion to art and his attainments--which Clennam
could scarcely understand.

He applied to Daniel Doyce for help, as they stood together,
looking out of window.

'You know Mr Gowan?' he said in a low voice.

'I have seen him here. Comes here every Sunday when they are at

'An artist, I infer from what he says?'

'A sort of a one,' said Daniel Doyce, in a surly tone.

'What sort of a one?' asked Clennam, with a smile.

'Why, he has sauntered into the Arts at a leisurely Pall-Mall
pace,' said Doyce, 'and I doubt if they care to be taken quite so

Pursuing his inquiries, Clennam found that the Gowan family were a
very distant ramification of the Barnacles; and that the paternal
Gowan, originally attached to a legation abroad, had been pensioned
off as a Commissioner of nothing particular somewhere or other, and
had died at his post with his drawn salary in his hand, nobly
defending it to the last extremity. In consideration of this
eminent public service, the Barnacle then in power had recommended
the Crown to bestow a pension of two or three hundred a-year on his
widow; to which the next Barnacle in power had added certain shady
and sedate apartments in the Palaces at Hampton Court, where the
old lady still lived, deploring the degeneracy of the times in
company with several other old ladies of both sexes. Her son, Mr
Henry Gowan, inheriting from his father, the Commissioner, that
very questionable help in life, a very small independence, had been
difficult to settle; the rather, as public appointments chanced to
be scarce, and his genius, during his earlier manhood, was of that
exclusively agricultural character which applies itself to the
cultivation of wild oats. At last he had declared that he would
become a Painter; partly because he had always had an idle knack
that way, and partly to grieve the souls of the Barnacles-in-chief
who had not provided for him. So it had come to pass successively,
first, that several distinguished ladies had been frightfully
shocked; then, that portfolios of his performances had been handed
about o' nights, and declared with ecstasy to be perfect Claudes,
perfect Cuyps, perfect phaenomena; then, that Lord Decimus had
bought his picture, and had asked the President and Council to
dinner at a blow, and had said, with his own magnificent gravity,
'Do you know, there appears to me to be really immense merit in
that work?' and, in short, that people of condition had absolutely
taken pains to bring him into fashion. But, somehow, it had all
failed. The prejudiced public had stood out against it
obstinately. They had determined not to admire Lord Decimus's
picture. They had determined to believe that in every service,
except their own, a man must qualify himself, by striving early and
late, and by working heart and soul, might and main. So now Mr
Gowan, like that worn-out old coffin which never was Mahomet's nor
anybody else's, hung midway between two points: jaundiced and
jealous as to the one he had left: jaundiced and jealous as to the
other that he couldn't reach.

Such was the substance of Clennam's discoveries concerning him,
made that rainy Sunday afternoon and afterwards.

About an hour or so after dinner time, Young Barnacle appeared,
attended by his eye-glass; in honour of whose family connections,
Mr Meagles had cashiered the pretty parlour-maids for the day, and
had placed on duty in their stead two dingy men. Young Barnacle
was in the last degree amazed and disconcerted at sight of Arthur,
and had murmured involuntarily, 'Look here! upon my soul, you
know!' before his presence of mind returned.

Even then, he was obliged to embrace the earliest opportunity of
taking his friend into a window, and saying, in a nasal way that
was a part of his general debility:

'I want to speak to you, Gowan. I say. Look here. Who is that

'A friend of our host's. None of mine.'

'He's a most ferocious Radical, you know,' said Young Barnacle.

'Is he? How do you know?'

'Ecod, sir, he was Pitching into our people the other day in the
most tremendous manner. Went up to our place and Pitched into my
father to that extent that it was necessary to order him out. Came
back to our Department, and Pitched into me. Look here. You never
saw such a fellow.'

'What did he want?'

'Ecod, sir,' returned Young Barnacle, 'he said he wanted to know,
you know! Pervaded our Department--without an appointment--and
said he wanted to know!'

The stare of indignant wonder with which Young Barnacle accompanied
this disclosure, would have strained his eyes injuriously but for
the opportune relief of dinner. Mr Meagles (who had been extremely
solicitous to know how his uncle and aunt were) begged him to
conduct Mrs Meagles to the dining-room. And when he sat on Mrs
Meagles's right hand, Mr Meagles looked as gratified as if his
whole family were there.

All the natural charm of the previous day was gone. The eaters of
the dinner, like the dinner itself, were lukewarm, insipid,
overdone--and all owing to this poor little dull Young Barnacle.
Conversationless at any time, he was now the victim of a weakness
special to the occasion, and solely referable to Clennam. He was
under a pressing and continual necessity of looking at that
gentleman, which occasioned his eye-glass to get into his soup,
into his wine-glass, into Mrs Meagles's plate, to hang down his
back like a bell-rope, and be several times disgracefully restored
to his bosom by one of the dingy men. Weakened in mind by his
frequent losses of this instrument, and its determination not to
stick in his eye, and more and more enfeebled in intellect every
time he looked at the mysterious Clennam, he applied spoons to his
eyes, forks, and other foreign matters connected with the furniture
of the dinner-table. His discovery of these mistakes greatly
increased his difficulties, but never released him from the
necessity of looking at Clennam. And whenever Clennam spoke, this
ill-starred young man was clearly seized with a dread that he was
coming, by some artful device, round to that point of wanting to
know, you know.

It may be questioned, therefore, whether any one but Mr Meagles had
much enjoyment of the time. Mr Meagles, however, thoroughly
enjoyed Young Barnacle. As a mere flask of the golden water in the
tale became a full fountain when it was poured out, so Mr Meagles
seemed to feel that this small spice of Barnacle imparted to his
table the flavour of the whole family-tree. In its presence, his
frank, fine, genuine qualities paled; he was not so easy, he was
not so natural, he was striving after something that did not belong
to him, he was not himself. What a strange peculiarity on the part
of Mr Meagles, and where should we find another such case!

At last the wet Sunday wore itself out in a wet night; and Young
Barnacle went home in a cab, feebly smoking; and the objectionable
Gowan went away on foot, accompanied by the objectionable dog. Pet
had taken the most amiable pains all day to be friendly with
Clennam, but Clennam had been a little reserved since breakfast--
that is to say, would have been, if he had loved her.

When he had gone to his own room, and had again thrown himself into
the chair by the fire, Mr Doyce knocked at the door, candle in
hand, to ask him how and at what hour he proposed returning on the
morrow? After settling this question, he said a word to Mr Doyce
about this Gowan--who would have run in his head a good deal, if he
had been his rival.

'Those are not good prospects for a painter,' said Clennam.

'No,' returned Doyce.

Mr Doyce stood, chamber-candlestick in hand, the other hand in his
pocket, looking hard at the flame of his candle, with a certain
quiet perception in his face that they were going to say something
'I thought our good friend a little changed, and out of spirits,
after he came this morning?' said Clennam.

'Yes,' returned Doyce.

'But not his daughter?' said Clennam.

'No,' said Doyce.

There was a pause on both sides. Mr Doyce, still looking at the
flame of his candle, slowly resumed:

'The truth is, he has twice taken his daughter abroad in the hope
of separating her from Mr Gowan. He rather thinks she is disposed
to like him, and he has painful doubts (I quite agree with him, as
I dare say you do) of the hopefulness of such a marriage.'

'There--' Clennam choked, and coughed, and stopped.

'Yes, you have taken cold,' said Daniel Doyce. But without looking
at him.

'There is an engagement between them, of course?' said Clennam

'No. As I am told, certainly not. It has been solicited on the
gentleman's part, but none has been made. Since their recent
return, our friend has yielded to a weekly visit, but that is the
utmost. Minnie would not deceive her father and mother. You have
travelled with them, and I believe you know what a bond there is
among them, extending even beyond this present life. All that
there is between Miss Minnie and Mr Gowan, I have no doubt we see.'

'Ah! We see enough!' cried Arthur.

Mr Doyce wished him Good Night in the tone of a man who had heard
a mournful, not to say despairing, exclamation, and who sought to
infuse some encouragement and hope into the mind of the person by
whom it had been uttered. Such tone was probably a part of his
oddity, as one of a crotchety band; for how could he have heard
anything of that kind, without Clennam's hearing it too?

The rain fell heavily on the roof, and pattered on the ground, and
dripped among the evergreens and the leafless branches of the
trees. The rain fell heavily, drearily. It was a night of tears.

If Clennam had not decided against falling in love with Pet; if he
had had the weakness to do it; if he had, little by little,
persuaded himself to set all the earnestness of his nature, all the
might of his hope, and all the wealth of his matured character, on
that cast; if he had done this and found that all was lost; he
would have been, that night, unutterably miserable. As it was-- As
it was, the rain fell heavily, drearily.

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