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Charles Dickens > Little Dorrit > Chapter 34

Little Dorrit

Chapter 34

A Shoal of Barnacles

Mr Henry Gowan and the dog were established frequenters of the
cottage, and the day was fixed for the wedding. There was to be a
convocation of Barnacles on the occasion, in order that that very
high and very large family might shed as much lustre on the
marriage as so dim an event was capable of receiving.

To have got the whole Barnacle family together would have been
impossible for two reasons. Firstly, because no building could
have held all the members and connections of that illustrious
house. Secondly, because wherever there was a square yard of
ground in British occupation under the sun or moon, with a public
post upon it, sticking to that post was a Barnacle. No intrepid
navigator could plant a flag-staff upon any spot of earth, and take
possession of it in the British name, but to that spot of earth, so
soon as the discovery was known, the Circumlocution Office sent out
a Barnacle and a despatch-box. Thus the Barnacles were all over
the world, in every direction--despatch-boxing the compass.

But, while the so-potent art of Prospero himself would have failed
in summoning the Barnacles from every speck of ocean and dry land
on which there was nothing (except mischief) to be done and
anything to be pocketed, it was perfectly feasible to assemble a
good many Barnacles. This Mrs Gowan applied herself to do; calling
on Mr Meagles frequently with new additions to the list, and
holding conferences with that gentleman when he was not engaged (as
he generally was at this period) in examining and paying the debts
of his future son-in-law, in the apartment of scales and scoops.

One marriage guest there was, in reference to whose presence Mr
Meagles felt a nearer interest and concern than in the attendance
of the most elevated Barnacle expected; though he was far from
insensible of the honour of having such company. This guest was
Clennam. But Clennam had made a promise he held sacred, among the
trees that summer night, and, in the chivalry of his heart,
regarded it as binding him to many implied obligations. In
forgetfulness of himself, and delicate service to her on all
occasions, he was never to fail; to begin it, he answered Mr
Meagles cheerfully, 'I shall come, of course.'

His partner, Daniel Doyce, was something of a stumbling-block in Mr
Meagles's way, the worthy gentleman being not at all clear in his
own anxious mind but that the mingling of Daniel with official
Barnacleism might produce some explosive combination, even at a
marriage breakfast. The national offender, however, lightened him
of his uneasiness by coming down to Twickenham to represent that he
begged, with the freedom of an old friend, and as a favour to one,
that he might not be invited. 'For,' said he, 'as my business with
this set of gentlemen was to do a public duty and a public service,
and as their business with me was to prevent it by wearing my soul
out, I think we had better not eat and drink together with a show
of being of one mind.' Mr Meagles was much amused by his friend's
oddity; and patronised him with a more protecting air of allowance
than usual, when he rejoined: 'Well, well, Dan, you shall have your
own crotchety way.'

To Mr Henry Gowan, as the time approached, Clennam tried to convey
by all quiet and unpretending means, that he was frankly and
disinterestedly desirous of tendering him any friendship he would
accept. Mr Gowan treated him in return with his usual ease, and
with his usual show of confidence, which was no confidence at all.

'You see, Clennam,' he happened to remark in the course of
conversation one day, when they were walking near the Cottage
within a week of the marriage, 'I am a disappointed man. That you
know already.'

'Upon my word,' said Clennam, a little embarrassed, 'I scarcely
know how.'

'Why,' returned Gowan, 'I belong to a clan, or a clique, or a
family, or a connection, or whatever you like to call it, that
might have provided for me in any one of fifty ways, and that took
it into its head not to do it at all. So here I am, a poor devil
of an artist.'

Clennam was beginning, 'But on the other hand--' when Gowan took
him up.

'Yes, yes, I know. I have the good fortune of being beloved by a
beautiful and charming girl whom I love with all my heart.'
('Is there much of it?' Clennam thought. And as he thought it,
felt ashamed of himself.)

'And of finding a father-in-law who is a capital fellow and a
liberal good old boy. Still, I had other prospects washed and
combed into my childish head when it was washed and combed for me,
and I took them to a public school when I washed and combed it for
myself, and I am here without them, and thus I am a disappointed

Clennam thought (and as he thought it, again felt ashamed of
himself), was this notion of being disappointed in life, an
assertion of station which the bridegroom brought into the family
as his property, having already carried it detrimentally into his
pursuit? And was it a hopeful or a promising thing anywhere?

'Not bitterly disappointed, I think,' he said aloud.
'Hang it, no; not bitterly,' laughed Gowan. 'My people are not
worth that--though they are charming fellows, and I have the
greatest affection for them. Besides, it's pleasant to show them
that I can do without them, and that they may all go to the Devil.
And besides, again, most men are disappointed in life, somehow or
other, and influenced by their disappointment. But it's a dear
good world, and I love it!'

'It lies fair before you now,' said Arthur.

'Fair as this summer river,' cried the other, with enthusiasm, 'and
by Jove I glow with admiration of it, and with ardour to run a race
in it. It's the best of old worlds! And my calling! The best of
old callings, isn't it?'

'Full of interest and ambition, I conceive,' said Clennam.

'And imposition,' added Gowan, laughing; 'we won't leave out the
imposition. I hope I may not break down in that; but there, my
being a disappointed man may show itself. I may not be able to
face it out gravely enough. Between you and me, I think there is
some danger of my being just enough soured not to be able to do

'To do what?' asked Clennam.

'To keep it up. To help myself in my turn, as the man before me
helps himself in his, and pass the bottle of smoke. To keep up the
pretence as to labour, and study, and patience, and being devoted
to my art, and giving up many solitary days to it, and abandoning
many pleasures for it, and living in it, and all the rest of it--in
short, to pass the bottle of smoke according to rule.'

'But it is well for a man to respect his own vocation, whatever it
is; and to think himself bound to uphold it, and to claim for it
the respect it deserves; is it not?' Arthur reasoned. 'And your
vocation, Gowan, may really demand this suit and service. I
confess I should have thought that all Art did.'

'What a good fellow you are, Clennam!' exclaimed the other,
stopping to look at him, as if with irrepressible admiration.
'What a capital fellow! You have never been disappointed. That's
easy to see.'

It would have been so cruel if he had meant it, that Clennam firmly
resolved to believe he did not mean it. Gowan, without pausing,
laid his hand upon his shoulder, and laughingly and lightly went

'Clennam, I don't like to dispel your generous visions, and I would
give any money (if I had any), to live in such a rose-coloured
mist. But what I do in my trade, I do to sell. What all we
fellows do, we do to sell. If we didn't want to sell it for the
most we can get for it, we shouldn't do it. Being work, it has to
be done; but it's easily enough done. All the rest is hocus-pocus.

Now here's one of the advantages, or disadvantages, of knowing a
disappointed man. You hear the truth.'

Whatever he had heard, and whether it deserved that name or
another, it sank into Clennam's mind. It so took root there, that
he began to fear Henry Gowan would always be a trouble to him, and
that so far he had gained little or nothing from the dismissal of
Nobody, with all his inconsistencies, anxieties, and
contradictions. He found a contest still always going on in his
breast between his promise to keep Gowan in none but good aspects
before the mind of Mr Meagles, and his enforced observation of
Gowan in aspects that had no good in them. Nor could he quite
support his own conscientious nature against misgivings that he
distorted and discoloured himself, by reminding himself that he
never sought those discoveries, and that he would have avoided them
with willingness and great relief. For he never could forget what
he had been; and he knew that he had once disliked Gowan for no
better reason than that he had come in his way.

Harassed by these thoughts, he now began to wish the marriage over,
Gowan and his young wife gone, and himself left to fulfil his
promise, and discharge the generous function he had accepted. This
last week was, in truth, an uneasy interval for the whole house.
Before Pet, or before Gowan, Mr Meagles was radiant; but Clennam
had more than once found him alone, with his view of the scales and
scoop much blurred, and had often seen him look after the lovers,
in the garden or elsewhere when he was not seen by them, with the
old clouded face on which Gowan had fallen like a shadow. In the
arrangement of the house for the great occasion, many little
reminders of the old travels of the father and mother and daughter
had to be disturbed and passed from hand to hand; and sometimes, in
the midst of these mute witnesses, to the life they had had
together, even Pet herself would yield to lamenting and weeping.
Mrs Meagles, the blithest and busiest of mothers, went about
singing and cheering everybody; but she, honest soul, had her
flights into store rooms, where she would cry until her eyes were
red, and would then come out, attributing that appearance to
pickled onions and pepper, and singing clearer than ever. Mrs
Tickit, finding no balsam for a wounded mind in Buchan's Domestic
Medicine, suffered greatly from low spirits, and from moving
recollections of Minnie's infancy. When the latter was powerful
with her, she usually sent up secret messages importing that she
was not in parlour condition as to her attire, and that she
solicited a sight of 'her child' in the kitchen; there, she would
bless her child's face, and bless her child's heart, and hug her
child, in a medley of tears and congratulations, chopping-boards,
rolling-pins, and pie-crust, with the tenderness of an old attached
servant, which is a very pretty tenderness indeed.

But all days come that are to be; and the marriage-day was to be,
and it came; and with it came all the Barnacles who were bidden to
the feast.
There was Mr Tite Barnacle, from the Circumlocution Office, and
Mews Street, Grosvenor Square, with the expensive Mrs Tite Barnacle
NEE Stiltstalking, who made the Quarter Days so long in coming, and
the three expensive Miss Tite Barnacles, double-loaded with
accomplishments and ready to go off, and yet not going off with the
sharpness of flash and bang that might have been expected, but
rather hanging fire. There was Barnacle junior, also from the
Circumlocution Office, leaving the Tonnage of the country, which he
was somehow supposed to take under his protection, to look after
itself, and, sooth to say, not at all impairing the efficiency of
its protection by leaving it alone. There was the engaging Young
Barnacle, deriving from the sprightly side of the family, also from
the Circumlocution Office, gaily and agreeably helping the occasion
along, and treating it, in his sparkling way, as one of the
official forms and fees of the Church Department of How not to do
it. There were three other Young Barnacles from three other
offices, insipid to all the senses, and terribly in want of
seasoning, doing the marriage as they would have 'done' the Nile,
Old Rome, the new singer, or Jerusalem.

But there was greater game than this. There was Lord Decimus Tite
Barnacle himself, in the odour of Circumlocution--with the very
smell of Despatch-Boxes upon him. Yes, there was Lord Decimus Tite
Barnacle, who had risen to official heights on the wings of one
indignant idea, and that was, My Lords, that I am yet to be told
that it behoves a Minister of this free country to set bounds to
the philanthropy, to cramp the charity, to fetter the public
spirit, to contract the enterprise, to damp the independent self-
reliance, of its people. That was, in other words, that this great
statesman was always yet to be told that it behoved the Pilot of
the ship to do anything but prosper in the private loaf and fish
trade ashore, the crew being able, by dint of hard pumping, to keep
the ship above water without him. On this sublime discovery in the
great art How not to do it, Lord Decimus had long sustained the
highest glory of the Barnacle family; and let any ill-advised
member of either House but try How to do it by bringing in a Bill
to do it, that Bill was as good as dead and buried when Lord
Decimus Tite Barnacle rose up in his place and solemnly said,
soaring into indignant majesty as the Circumlocution cheering
soared around him, that he was yet to be told, My Lords, that it
behoved him as the Minister of this free country, to set bounds to
the philanthropy, to cramp the charity, to fetter the public
spirit, to contract the enterprise, to damp the independent self-
reliance, of its people. The discovery of this Behoving Machine
was the discovery of the political perpetual motion. It never wore
out, though it was always going round and round in all the State

And there, with his noble friend and relative Lord Decimus, was
William Barnacle, who had made the ever-famous coalition with Tudor
Stiltstalking, and who always kept ready his own particular recipe
for How not to do it; sometimes tapping the Speaker, and drawing it
fresh out of him, with a 'First, I will beg you, sir, to inform the
House what Precedent we have for the course into which the
honourable gentleman would precipitate us;' sometimes asking the
honourable gentleman to favour him with his own version of the
Precedent; sometimes telling the honourable gentleman that he
(William Barnacle) would search for a Precedent; and oftentimes
crushing the honourable gentleman flat on the spot by telling him
there was no Precedent. But Precedent and Precipitate were, under
all circumstances, the well-matched pair of battle-horses of this
able Circumlocutionist. No matter that the unhappy honourable
gentleman had been trying in vain, for twenty-five years, to
precipitate William Barnacle into this--William Barnacle still put
it to the House, and (at second-hand or so) to the country, whether
he was to be precipitated into this. No matter that it was utterly
irreconcilable with the nature of things and course of events that
the wretched honourable gentleman could possibly produce a
Precedent for this--William Barnacle would nevertheless thank the
honourable gentleman for that ironical cheer, and would close with
him upon that issue, and would tell him to his teeth that there Was
NO Precedent for this. It might perhaps have been objected that
the William Barnacle wisdom was not high wisdom or the earth it
bamboozled would never have been made, or, if made in a rash
mistake, would have remained blank mud. But Precedent and
Precipitate together frightened all objection out of most people.

And there, too, was another Barnacle, a lively one, who had leaped
through twenty places in quick succession, and was always in two or
three at once, and who was the much-respected inventor of an art
which he practised with great success and admiration in all
Barnacle Governments. This was, when he was asked a Parliamentary
question on any one topic, to return an answer on any other. It
had done immense service, and brought him into high esteem with the
Circumlocution Office.

And there, too, was a sprinkling of less distinguished
Parliamentary Barnacles, who had not as yet got anything snug, and
were going through their probation to prove their worthiness.
These Barnacles perched upon staircases and hid in passages,
waiting their orders to make houses or not to make houses; and they
did all their hearing, and ohing, and cheering, and barking, under
directions from the heads of the family; and they put dummy motions
on the paper in the way of other men's motions; and they stalled
disagreeable subjects off until late in the night and late in the
session, and then with virtuous patriotism cried out that it was
too late; and they went down into the country, whenever they were
sent, and swore that Lord Decimus had revived trade from a swoon,
and commerce from a fit, and had doubled the harvest of corn,
quadrupled the harvest of hay, and prevented no end of gold from
flying out of the Bank. Also these Barnacles were dealt, by the
heads of the family, like so many cards below the court-cards, to
public meetings and dinners; where they bore testimony to all sorts
of services on the part of their noble and honourable relatives,
and buttered the Barnacles on all sorts of toasts. And they stood,
under similar orders, at all sorts of elections; and they turned
out of their own seats, on the shortest notice and the most
unreasonable terms, to let in other men; and they fetched and
carried, and toadied and jobbed, and corrupted, and ate heaps of
dirt, and were indefatigable in the public service. And there was
not a list, in all the Circumlocution Office, of places that might
fall vacant anywhere within half a century, from a lord of the
Treasury to a Chinese consul, and up again to a governor-general of
India, but as applicants for such places, the names of some or of
every one of these hungry and adhesive Barnacles were down.

It was necessarily but a sprinkling of any class of Barnacles that
attended the marriage, for there were not two score in all, and
what is that subtracted from Legion! But the sprinkling was a
swarm in the Twickenham cottage, and filled it. A Barnacle
(assisted by a Barnacle) married the happy pair, and it behoved
Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle himself to conduct Mrs Meagles to

The entertainment was not as agreeable and natural as it might have
been. Mr Meagles, hove down by his good company while he highly
appreciated it, was not himself. Mrs Gowan was herself, and that
did not improve him. The fiction that it was not Mr Meagles who
had stood in the way, but that it was the Family greatness, and
that the Family greatness had made a concession, and there was now
a soothing unanimity, pervaded the affair, though it was never
openly expressed. Then the Barnacles felt that they for their
parts would have done with the Meagleses when the present
patronising occasion was over; and the Meagleses felt the same for
their parts. Then Gowan asserting his rights as a disappointed man
who had his grudge against the family, and who, perhaps, had
allowed his mother to have them there, as much in the hope it might
give them some annoyance as with any other benevolent object, aired
his pencil and his poverty ostentatiously before them, and told
them he hoped in time to settle a crust of bread and cheese on his
wife, and that he begged such of them as (more fortunate than
himself) came in for any good thing, and could buy a picture, to
please to remember the poor painter. Then Lord Decimus, who was a
wonder on his own Parliamentary pedestal, turned out to be the
windiest creature here: proposing happiness to the bride and
bridegroom in a series of platitudes that would have made the hair
of any sincere disciple and believer stand on end; and trotting,
with the complacency of an idiotic elephant, among howling
labyrinths of sentences which he seemed to take for high roads, and
never so much as wanted to get out of. Then Mr Tite Barnacle could
not but feel that there was a person in company, who would have
disturbed his life-long sitting to Sir Thomas Lawrence in full
official character, if such disturbance had been possible: while
Barnacle junior did, with indignation, communicate to two vapid
gentlemen, his relatives, that there was a feller here, look here,
who had come to our Department without an appointment and said he
wanted to know, you know; and that, look here, if he was to break
out now, as he might you know (for you never could tell what an
ungentlemanly Radical of that sort would be up to next), and was to
say, look here, that he wanted to know this moment, you know, that
would be jolly; wouldn't it?

The pleasantest part of the occasion by far, to Clennam, was the
painfullest. When Mr and Mrs Meagles at last hung about Pet in the
room with the two pictures (where the company were not), before
going with her to the threshold which she could never recross to be
the old Pet and the old delight, nothing could be more natural and
simple than the three were. Gowan himself was touched, and
answered Mr Meagles's 'O Gowan, take care of her, take care of
her!' with an earnest 'Don't be so broken-hearted, sir. By Heaven
I will!'

And so, with the last sobs and last loving words, and a last look
to Clennam of confidence in his promise, Pet fell back in the
carriage, and her husband waved his hand, and they were away for
Dover; though not until the faithful Mrs Tickit, in her silk gown
and jet black curls, had rushed out from some hiding-place, and
thrown both her shoes after the carriage: an apparition which
occasioned great surprise to the distinguished company at the

The said company being now relieved from further attendance, and
the chief Barnacles being rather hurried (for they had it in hand
just then to send a mail or two which was in danger of going
straight to its destination, beating about the seas like the Flying
Dutchman, and to arrange with complexity for the stoppage of a good
deal of important business otherwise in peril of being done), went
their several ways; with all affability conveying to Mr and Mrs
Meagles that general assurance that what they had been doing there,
they had been doing at a sacrifice for Mr and Mrs Meagles's good,
which they always conveyed to Mr John Bull in their official
condescension to that most unfortunate creature.

A miserable blank remained in the house and in the hearts of the
father and mother and Clennam. Mr Meagles called only one
remembrance to his aid, that really did him good.

'It's very gratifying, Arthur,' he said, 'after all, to look back

'The past?' said Clennam.

'Yes--but I mean the company.'

It had made him much more low and unhappy at the time, but now it
really did him good. 'It's very gratifying,' he said, often
repeating the remark in the course of the evening. 'Such high

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