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Charles Dickens > Little Dorrit > Chapter 21

Little Dorrit

Chapter 21

Mr Merdle's Complaint

Upon that establishment of state, the Merdle establishment in
Harley Street, Cavendish Square, there was the shadow of no more
common wall than the fronts of other establishments of state on the
opposite side of the street. Like unexceptionable Society, the
opposing rows of houses in Harley Street were very grim with one
another. Indeed, the mansions and their inhabitants were so much
alike in that respect, that the people were often to be found drawn
up on opposite sides of dinner-tables, in the shade of their own
loftiness, staring at the other side of the way with the dullness
of the houses.

Everybody knows how like the street the two dinner-rows of people
who take their stand by the street will be. The expressionless
uniform twenty houses, all to be knocked at and rung at in the same
form, all approachable by the same dull steps, all fended off by
the same pattern of railing, all with the same impracticable fire-
escapes, the same inconvenient fixtures in their heads, and
everything without exception to be taken at a high valuation--who
has not dined with these? The house so drearily out of repair, the
occasional bow-window, the stuccoed house, the newly-fronted house,
the corner house with nothing but angular rooms, the house with the
blinds always down, the house with the hatchment always up, the
house where the collector has called for one quarter of an Idea,
and found nobody at home--who has not dined with these? The house
that nobody will take, and is to be had a bargain--who does not
know her? The showy house that was taken for life by the
disappointed gentleman, and which does not suit him at all--who is
unacquainted with that haunted habitation?

Harley Street, Cavendish Square, was more than aware of Mr and Mrs
Merdle. Intruders there were in Harley Street, of whom it was not
aware; but Mr and Mrs Merdle it delighted to honour. Society was
aware of Mr and Mrs Merdle. Society had said 'Let us license them;
let us know them.'

Mr Merdle was immensely rich; a man of prodigious enterprise; a
Midas without the ears, who turned all he touched to gold. He was
in everything good, from banking to building. He was in
Parliament, of course. He was in the City, necessarily. He was
Chairman of this, Trustee of that, President of the other. The
weightiest of men had said to projectors, 'Now, what name have you
got? Have you got Merdle?' And, the reply being in the negative,
had said, 'Then I won't look at you.'

This great and fortunate man had provided that extensive bosom
which required so much room to be unfeeling enough in, with a nest
of crimson and gold some fifteen years before. It was not a bosom
to repose upon, but it was a capital bosom to hang jewels upon. Mr
Merdle wanted something to hang jewels upon, and he bought it for
the purpose. Storr and Mortimer might have married on the same

Like all his other speculations, it was sound and successful. The
jewels showed to the richest advantage. The bosom moving in
Society with the jewels displayed upon it, attracted general
admiration. Society approving, Mr Merdle was satisfied. He was
the most disinterested of men,--did everything for Society, and got
as little for himself out of all his gain and care, as a man might.

That is to say, it may be supposed that he got all he wanted,
otherwise with unlimited wealth he would have got it. But his
desire was to the utmost to satisfy Society (whatever that was),
and take up all its drafts upon him for tribute. He did not shine
in company; he had not very much to say for himself; he was a
reserved man, with a broad, overhanging, watchful head, that
particular kind of dull red colour in his cheeks which is rather
stale than fresh, and a somewhat uneasy expression about his coat-
cuffs, as if they were in his confidence, and had reasons for being
anxious to hide his hands. In the little he said, he was a
pleasant man enough; plain, emphatic about public and private
confidence, and tenacious of the utmost deference being shown by
every one, in all things, to Society. In this same Society (if
that were it which came to his dinners, and to Mrs Merdle's
receptions and concerts), he hardly seemed to enjoy himself much,
and was mostly to be found against walls and behind doors. Also
when he went out to it, instead of its coming home to him, he
seemed a little fatigued, and upon the whole rather more disposed
for bed; but he was always cultivating it nevertheless, and always
moving in it--and always laying out money on it with the greatest

Mrs Merdle's first husband had been a colonel, under whose auspices
the bosom had entered into competition with the snows of North
America, and had come off at little disadvantage in point of
whiteness, and at none in point of coldness. The colonel's son was
Mrs Merdle's only child. He was of a chuckle-headed, high-
shouldered make, with a general appearance of being, not so much a
young man as a swelled boy. He had given so few signs of reason,
that a by-word went among his companions that his brain had been
frozen up in a mighty frost which prevailed at St john's, New
Brunswick, at the period of his birth there, and had never thawed
from that hour. Another by-word represented him as having in his
infancy, through the negligence of a nurse, fallen out of a high
window on his head, which had been heard by responsible witnesses
to crack. It is probable that both these representations were of
ex post facto origin; the young gentleman (whose expressive name
was Sparkler) being monomaniacal in offering marriage to all manner
of undesirable young ladies, and in remarking of every successive
young lady to whom he tendered a matrimonial proposal that she was
'a doosed fine gal--well educated too--with no biggodd nonsense
about her.'

A son-in-law with these limited talents, might have been a clog
upon another man; but Mr Merdle did not want a son-in-law for
himself; he wanted a son-in-law for Society. Mr Sparkler having
been in the Guards, and being in the habit of frequenting all the
races, and all the lounges, and all the parties, and being well
known, Society was satisfied with its son-in-law. This happy
result Mr Merdle would have considered well attained, though Mr
Sparkler had been a more expensive article. And he did not get Mr
Sparkler by any means cheap for Society, even as it was.
There was a dinner giving in the Harley Street establishment, while
Little Dorrit was stitching at her father's new shirts by his side
that night; and there were magnates from the Court and magnates
from the City, magnates from the Commons and magnates from the
Lords, magnates from the bench and magnates from the bar, Bishop
magnates, Treasury magnates, Horse Guard magnates, Admiralty
magnates,--all the magnates that keep us going, and sometimes trip
us up.

'I am told,' said Bishop magnate to Horse Guards, 'that Mr Merdle
has made another enormous hit. They say a hundred thousand

Horse Guards had heard two.

Treasury had heard three.

Bar, handling his persuasive double eye-glass, was by no means
clear but that it might be four. It was one of those happy strokes
of calculation and combination, the result of which it was
difficult to estimate. It was one of those instances of a
comprehensive grasp, associated with habitual luck and
characteristic boldness, of which an age presented us but few. But
here was Brother Bellows, who had been in the great Bank case, and
who could probably tell us more. What did Brother Bellows put this
new success at?

Brother Bellows was on his way to make his bow to the bosom, and
could only tell them in passing that he had heard it stated, with
great appearance of truth, as being worth, from first to last,
half-a-million of money.

Admiralty said Mr Merdle was a wonderful man, Treasury said he was
a new power in the country, and would be able to buy up the whole
House of Commons. Bishop said he was glad to think that this
wealth flowed into the coffers of a gentleman who was always
disposed to maintain the best interests of Society.

Mr Merdle himself was usually late on these occasions, as a man
still detained in the clutch of giant enterprises when other men
had shaken off their dwarfs for the day. On this occasion, he was
the last arrival. Treasury said Merdle's work punished him a
little. Bishop said he was glad to think that this wealth flowed
into the coffers of a gentleman who accepted it with meekness.

Powder! There was so much Powder in waiting, that it flavoured the
dinner. Pulverous particles got into the dishes, and Society's
meats had a seasoning of first-rate footmen. Mr Merdle took down
a countess who was secluded somewhere in the core of an immense
dress, to which she was in the proportion of the heart to the
overgrown cabbage. If so low a simile may be admitted, the dress
went down the staircase like a richly brocaded Jack in the Green,
and nobody knew what sort of small person carried it.

Society had everything it could want, and could not want, for
dinner. It had everything to look at, and everything to eat, and
everything to drink. It is to be hoped it enjoyed itself; for Mr
Merdle's own share of the repast might have been paid for with
eighteenpence. Mrs Merdle was magnificent. The chief butler was
the next magnificent institution of the day. He was the stateliest
man in the company. He did nothing, but he looked on as few other
men could have done. He was Mr Merdle's last gift to Society. Mr
Merdle didn't want him, and was put out of countenance when the
great creature looked at him; but inappeasable Society would have
him--and had got him.

The invisible countess carried out the Green at the usual stage of
the entertainment, and the file of beauty was closed up by the
bosom. Treasury said, Juno. Bishop said, Judith.

Bar fell into discussion with Horse Guards concerning courts-
martial. Brothers Bellows and Bench struck in. Other magnates
paired off. Mr Merdle sat silent, and looked at the table-cloth.
Sometimes a magnate addressed him, to turn the stream of his own
particular discussion towards him; but Mr Merdle seldom gave much
attention to it, or did more than rouse himself from his
calculations and pass the wine.

When they rose, so many of the magnates had something to say to Mr
Merdle individually that he held little levees by the sideboard,
and checked them off as they went out at the door.

Treasury hoped he might venture to congratulate one of England's
world-famed capitalists and merchant-princes (he had turned that
original sentiment in the house a few times, and it came easy to
him) on a new achievement. To extend the triumphs of such men was
to extend the triumphs and resources of the nation; and Treasury
felt--he gave Mr Merdle to understand--patriotic on the subject.

'Thank you, my lord,' said Mr Merdle; 'thank you. I accept your
congratulations with pride, and I am glad you approve.'

'Why, I don't unreservedly approve, my dear Mr Merdle. Because,'
smiling Treasury turned him by the arm towards the sideboard and
spoke banteringly, 'it never can be worth your while to come among
us and help us.'

Mr Merdle felt honoured by the--

'No, no,' said Treasury, 'that is not the light in which one so
distinguished for practical knowledge and great foresight, can be
expected to regard it. If we should ever be happily enabled, by
accidentally possessing the control over circumstances, to propose
to one so eminent to--to come among us, and give us the weight of
his influence, knowledge, and character, we could only propose it
to him as a duty. In fact, as a duty that he owed to Society.'

Mr Merdle intimated that Society was the apple of his eye, and that
its claims were paramount to every other consideration. Treasury
moved on, and Bar came up.
Bar, with his little insinuating jury droop, and fingering his
persuasive double eye-glass, hoped he might be excused if he
mentioned to one of the greatest converters of the root of all evil
into the root of all good, who had for a long time reflected a
shining lustre on the annals even of our commercial country--if he
mentioned, disinterestedly, and as, what we lawyers called in our
pedantic way, amicus curiae, a fact that had come by accident
within his knowledge. He had been required to look over the title
of a very considerable estate in one of the eastern counties--
lying, in fact, for Mr Merdle knew we lawyers loved to be
particular, on the borders of two of the eastern counties. Now,
the title was perfectly sound, and the estate was to be purchased
by one who had the command of--Money (jury droop and persuasive
eye-glass), on remarkably advantageous terms. This had come to
Bar's knowledge only that day, and it had occurred to him, 'I shall
have the honour of dining with my esteemed friend Mr Merdle this
evening, and, strictly between ourselves, I will mention the
opportunity.' Such a purchase would involve not only a great
legitimate political influence, but some half-dozen church
presentations of considerable annual value. Now, that Mr Merdle
was already at no loss to discover means of occupying even his
capital, and of fully employing even his active and vigorous
intellect, Bar well knew: but he would venture to suggest that the
question arose in his mind, whether one who had deservedly gained
so high a position and so European a reputation did not owe it--we
would not say to himself, but we would say to Society, to possess
himself of such influences as these; and to exercise them--we would
not say for his own, or for his party's, but we would say for

Mr Merdle again expressed himself as wholly devoted to that object
of his constant consideration, and Bar took his persuasive eye-
glass up the grand staircase. Bishop then came undesignedly
sidling in the direction of the sideboard.

Surely the goods of this world, it occurred in an accidental way to
Bishop to remark, could scarcely be directed into happier channels
than when they accumulated under the magic touch of the wise and
sagacious, who, while they knew the just value of riches (Bishop
tried here to look as if he were rather poor himself), were aware
of their importance, judiciously governed and rightly distributed,
to the welfare of our brethren at large.

Mr Merdle with humility expressed his conviction that Bishop
couldn't mean him, and with inconsistency expressed his high
gratification in Bishop's good opinion.

Bishop then--jauntily stepping out a little with his well-shaped
right leg, as though he said to Mr Merdle 'don't mind the apron; a
mere form!' put this case to his good friend:

Whether it had occurred to his good friend, that Society might not
unreasonably hope that one so blest in his undertakings, and whose
example on his pedestal was so influential with it, would shed a
little money in the direction of a mission or so to Africa?

Mr Merdle signifying that the idea should have his best attention,
Bishop put another case:

Whether his good friend had at all interested himself in the
proceedings of our Combined Additional Endowed Dignitaries
Committee, and whether it had occurred to him that to shed a little
money in that direction might be a great conception finely

Mr Merdle made a similar reply, and Bishop explained his reason for

Society looked to such men as his good friend to do such things.
It was not that HE looked to them, but that Society looked to them.

just as it was not Our Committee who wanted the Additional Endowed
Dignitaries, but it was Society that was in a state of the most
agonising uneasiness of mind until it got them. He begged to
assure his good friend that he was extremely sensible of his good
friend's regard on all occasions for the best interests of Society;
and he considered that he was at once consulting those interests
and expressing the feeling of Society, when he wished him continued
prosperity, continued increase of riches, and continued things in

Bishop then betook himself up-stairs, and the other magnates
gradually floated up after him until there was no one left below
but Mr Merdle. That gentleman, after looking at the table-cloth
until the soul of the chief butler glowed with a noble resentment,
went slowly up after the rest, and became of no account in the
stream of people on the grand staircase. Mrs Merdle was at home,
the best of the jewels were hung out to be seen, Society got what
it came for, Mr Merdle drank twopennyworth of tea in a corner and
got more than he wanted.

Among the evening magnates was a famous physician, who knew
everybody, and whom everybody knew. On entering at the door, he
came upon Mr Merdle drinking his tea in a corner, and touched him
on the arm.

Mr Merdle started. 'Oh! It's you!'

'Any better to-day?'

'No,' said Mr Merdle, 'I am no better.'

'A pity I didn't see you this morning. Pray come to me to-morrow,
or let me come to you. '

'Well!' he replied. 'I will come to-morrow as I drive by.'
Bar and Bishop had both been bystanders during this short dialogue,
and as Mr Merdle was swept away by the crowd, they made their
remarks upon it to the Physician. Bar said, there was a certain
point of mental strain beyond which no man could go; that the point
varied with various textures of brain and peculiarities of
constitution, as he had had occasion to notice in several of his
learned brothers; but the point of endurance passed by a line's
breadth, depression and dyspepsia ensued. Not to intrude on the
sacred mysteries of medicine, he took it, now (with the jury droop
and persuasive eye-glass), that this was Merdle's case? Bishop
said that when he was a young man, and had fallen for a brief space
into the habit of writing sermons on Saturdays, a habit which all
young sons of the church should sedulously avoid, he had frequently
been sensible of a depression, arising as he supposed from an over-
taxed intellect, upon which the yolk of a new-laid egg, beaten up
by the good woman in whose house he at that time lodged, with a
glass of sound sherry, nutmeg, and powdered sugar acted like a
charm. Without presuming to offer so simple a remedy to the
consideration of so profound a professor of the great healing art,
he would venture to inquire whether the strain, being by way of
intricate calculations, the spirits might not (humanly speaking) be
restored to their tone by a gentle and yet generous stimulant?

'Yes,' said the physician, 'yes, you are both right. But I may as
well tell you that I can find nothing the matter with Mr Merdle.
He has the constitution of a rhinoceros, the digestion of an
ostrich, and the concentration of an oyster. As to nerves, Mr
Merdle is of a cool temperament, and not a sensitive man: is about
as invulnerable, I should say, as Achilles. How such a man should
suppose himself unwell without reason, you may think strange. But
I have found nothing the matter with him. He may have some deep-
seated recondite complaint. I can't say. I only say, that at
present I have not found it out.'

There was no shadow of Mr Merdle's complaint on the bosom now
displaying precious stones in rivalry with many similar superb
jewel-stands; there was no shadow of Mr Merdle's complaint on young
Sparkler hovering about the rooms, monomaniacally seeking any
sufficiently ineligible young lady with no nonsense about her;
there was no shadow of Mr Merdle's complaint on the Barnacles and
Stiltstalkings, of whom whole colonies were present; or on any of
the company. Even on himself, its shadow was faint enough as he
moved about among the throng, receiving homage.

Mr Merdle's complaint. Society and he had so much to do with one
another in all things else, that it is hard to imagine his
complaint, if he had one, being solely his own affair. Had he that
deep-seated recondite complaint, and did any doctor find it out?
Patience. in the meantime, the shadow of the Marshalsea wall was
a real darkening influence, and could be seen on the Dorrit Family
at any stage of the sun's course.

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