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Charles Dickens > Little Dorrit > Chapter 50

Little Dorrit

Chapter 50

Taking Advice

When it became known to the Britons on the shore of the yellow
Tiber that their intelligent compatriot, Mr Sparkler, was made one
of the Lords of their Circumlocution Office, they took it as a
piece of news with which they had no nearer concern than with any
other piece of news--any other Accident or Offence--in the English
papers. Some laughed; some said, by way of complete excuse, that
the post was virtually a sinecure, and any fool who could spell his
name was good enough for it; some, and these the more solemn
political oracles, said that Decimus did wisely to strengthen
himself, and that the sole constitutional purpose of all places
within the gift of Decimus, was, that Decimus should strengthen
himself. A few bilious Britons there were who would not subscribe
to this article of faith; but their objection was purely
theoretical. In a practical point of view, they listlessly
abandoned the matter, as being the business of some other Britons
unknown, somewhere, or nowhere. In like manner, at home, great
numbers of Britons maintained, for as long as four-and-twenty
consecutive hours, that those invisible and anonymous Britons
'ought to take it up;' and that if they quietly acquiesced in it,
they deserved it. But of what class the remiss Britons were
composed, and where the unlucky creatures hid themselves, and why
they hid themselves, and how it constantly happened that they
neglected their interests, when so many other Britons were quite at
a loss to account for their not looking after those interests, was
not, either upon the shore of the yellow Tiber or the shore of the
black Thames, made apparent to men.

Mrs Merdle circulated the news, as she received congratulations on
it, with a careless grace that displayed it to advantage, as the
setting displays the jewel. Yes, she said, Edmund had taken the
place. Mr Merdle wished him to take it, and he had taken it. She
hoped Edmund might like it, but really she didn't know. It would
keep him in town a good deal, and he preferred the country. Still,
it was not a disagreeable position--and it was a position. There
was no denying that the thing was a compliment to Mr Merdle, and
was not a bad thing for Edmund if he liked it. It was just as well
that he should have something to do, and it was just as well that
he should have something for doing it. Whether it would be more
agreeable to Edmund than the army, remained to be seen.

Thus the Bosom; accomplished in the art of seeming to make things
of small account, and really enhancing them in the process. While
Henry Gowan, whom Decimus had thrown away, went through the whole
round of his acquaintance between the Gate of the People and the
town of Albano, vowing, almost (but not quite) with tears in his
eyes, that Sparkler was the sweetest-tempered, simplest-hearted,
altogether most lovable jackass that ever grazed on the public
common; and that only one circumstance could have delighted him
(Gowan) more, than his (the beloved jackass's) getting this post,
and that would have been his (Gowan's) getting it himself. He said
it was the very thing for Sparkler. There was nothing to do, and
he would do it charmingly; there was a handsome salary to draw, and
he would draw it charmingly; it was a delightful, appropriate,
capital appointment; and he almost forgave the donor his slight of
himself, in his joy that the dear donkey for whom he had so great
an affection was so admirably stabled. Nor did his benevolence
stop here. He took pains, on all social occasions, to draw Mr
Sparkler out, and make him conspicuous before the company; and,
although the considerate action always resulted in that young
gentleman's making a dreary and forlorn mental spectacle of
himself, the friendly intention was not to be doubted.

Unless, indeed, it chanced to be doubted by the object of Mr
Sparkler's affections. Miss Fanny was now in the difficult
situation of being universally known in that light, and of not
having dismissed Mr Sparkler, however capriciously she used him.
Hence, she was sufficiently identified with the gentleman to feel
compromised by his being more than usually ridiculous; and hence,
being by no means deficient in quickness, she sometimes came to his
rescue against Gowan, and did him very good service. But, while
doing this, she was ashamed of him, undetermined whether to get rid
of him or more decidedly encourage him, distracted with
apprehensions that she was every day becoming more and more
immeshed in her uncertainties, and tortured by misgivings that Mrs
Merdle triumphed in her distress. With this tumult in her mind, it
is no subject for surprise that Miss Fanny came home one night in
a state of agitation from a concert and ball at Mrs Merdle's house,
and on her sister affectionately trying to soothe her, pushed that
sister away from the toilette-table at which she sat angrily trying
to cry, and declared with a heaving bosom that she detested
everybody, and she wished she was dead.

'Dear Fanny, what is the matter? Tell me.'

'Matter, you little Mole,' said Fanny. 'If you were not the
blindest of the blind, you would have no occasion to ask me. The
idea of daring to pretend to assert that you have eyes in your
head, and yet ask me what's the matter!'

'Is it Mr Sparkler, dear?'
'Mis-ter Spark-ler!' repeated Fanny, with unbounded scorn, as if he
were the last subject in the Solar system that could possibly be
near her mind. 'No, Miss Bat, it is not.'

Immediately afterwards, she became remorseful for having called her
sister names; declaring with sobs that she knew she made herself
hateful, but that everybody drove her to it.

'I don't think you are well to-night, dear Fanny.'

'Stuff and nonsense!' replied the young lady, turning angry again;
'I am as well as you are. Perhaps I might say better, and yet make
no boast of it.'

Poor Little Dorrit, not seeing her way to the offering of any
soothing words that would escape repudiation, deemed it best to
remain quiet. At first, Fanny took this ill, too; protesting to
her looking-glass, that of all the trying sisters a girl could
have, she did think the most trying sister was a flat sister. That
she knew she was at times a wretched temper; that she knew she made
herself hateful; that when she made herself hateful, nothing would
do her half the good as being told so; but that, being afflicted
with a flat sister, she never WAS told so, and the consequence
resulted that she was absolutely tempted and goaded into making
herself disagreeable. Besides (she angrily told her looking-
glass), she didn't want to be forgiven. It was not a right
example, that she should be constantly stooping to be forgiven by
a younger sister. And this was the Art of it--that she was always
being placed in the position of being forgiven, whether she liked
it or not. Finally she burst into violent weeping, and, when her
sister came and sat close at her side to comfort her, said, 'Amy,
you're an Angel!'

'But, I tell you what, my Pet,' said Fanny, when her sister's
gentleness had calmed her, 'it now comes to this; that things
cannot and shall not go on as they are at present going on, and
that there must be an end of this, one way or another.'

As the announcement was vague, though very peremptory, Little
Dorrit returned, 'Let us talk about it.'

'Quite so, my dear,' assented Fanny, as she dried her eyes. 'Let
us talk about it. I am rational again now, and you shall advise
me. Will you advise me, my sweet child?'

Even Amy smiled at this notion, but she said, 'I will, Fanny, as
well as I can.'

'Thank you, dearest Amy,' returned Fanny, kissing her. 'You are my

Having embraced her Anchor with great affection, Fanny took a
bottle of sweet toilette water from the table, and called to her
maid for a fine handkerchief. She then dismissed that attendant
for the night, and went on to be advised; dabbing her eyes and
forehead from time to time to cool them.

'My love,' Fanny began, 'our characters and points of view are
sufficiently different (kiss me again, my darling), to make it very
probable that I shall surprise you by what I am going to say. What
I am going to say, my dear, is, that notwithstanding our property,
we labour, socially speaking, under disadvantages. You don't quite
understand what I mean, Amy?'

'I have no doubt I shall,' said Amy, mildly, 'after a few words

'Well, my dear, what I mean is, that we are, after all, newcomers
into fashionable life.'

'I am sure, Fanny,' Little Dorrit interposed in her zealous
admiration, 'no one need find that out in you.'

'Well, my dear child, perhaps not,' said Fanny, 'though it's most
kind and most affectionate in you, you precious girl, to say so.'
Here she dabbed her sister's forehead, and blew upon it a little.
'But you are,' resumed Fanny, 'as is well known, the dearest little
thing that ever was! To resume, my child. Pa is extremely
gentlemanly and extremely well informed, but he is, in some
trifling respects, a little different from other gentlemen of his
fortune: partly on account of what he has gone through, poor dear:
partly, I fancy, on account of its often running in his mind that
other people are thinking about that, while he is talking to them.
Uncle, my love, is altogether unpresentable. Though a dear
creature to whom I am tenderly attached, he is, socially speaking,
shocking. Edward is frightfully expensive and dissipated. I don't
mean that there is anything ungenteel in that itself--far from it--
but I do mean that he doesn't do it well, and that he doesn't, if
I may so express myself, get the money's-worth in the sort of
dissipated reputation that attaches to him.'

'Poor Edward!' sighed Little Dorrit, with the whole family history
in the sigh.

'Yes. And poor you and me, too,' returned Fanny, rather sharply.

'Very true! Then, my dear, we have no mother, and we have a Mrs
General. And I tell you again, darling, that Mrs General, if I may
reverse a common proverb and adapt it to her, is a cat in gloves
who WILL catch mice. That woman, I am quite sure and confident,
will be our mother-in-law.'

'I can hardly think, Fanny-' Fanny stopped her.

'Now, don't argue with me about it, Amy,' said she, 'because I know
better.' Feeling that she had been sharp again, she dabbed her
sister's forehead again, and blew upon it again. 'To resume once
more, my dear. It then becomes a question with me (I am proud and
spirited, Amy, as you very well know: too much so, I dare say)
whether I shall make up my mind to take it upon myself to carry the
family through.'
'How?' asked her sister, anxiously.

'I will not,' said Fanny, without answering the question, 'submit
to be mother-in-lawed by Mrs General; and I will not submit to be,
in any respect whatever, either patronised or tormented by Mrs

Little Dorrit laid her hand upon the hand that held the bottle of
sweet water, with a still more anxious look. Fanny, quite
punishing her own forehead with the vehement dabs she now began to
give it, fitfully went on.

'That he has somehow or other, and how is of no consequence,
attained a very good position, no one can deny. That it is a very
good connection, no one can deny. And as to the question of clever
or not clever, I doubt very much whether a clever husband would be
suitable to me. I cannot submit. I should not be able to defer to
him enough.'

'O, my dear Fanny!' expostulated Little Dorrit, upon whom a kind of
terror had been stealing as she perceived what her sister meant.
'If you loved any one, all this feeling would change. If you loved
any one, you would no more be yourself, but you would quite lose
and forget yourself in your devotion to him. If you loved him,
Fanny--' Fanny had stopped the dabbing hand, and was looking at her

'O, indeed!' cried Fanny. 'Really? Bless me, how much some people
know of some subjects! They say every one has a subject, and I
certainly seem to have hit upon yours, Amy. There, you little
thing, I was only in fun,' dabbing her sister's forehead; 'but
don't you be a silly puss, and don't you think flightily and
eloquently about degenerate impossibilities. There! Now, I'll go
back to myself.'

'Dear Fanny, let me say first, that I would far rather we worked
for a scanty living again than I would see you rich and married to
Mr Sparkler.'

'Let you say, my dear?' retorted Fanny. 'Why, of course, I will
let you say anything. There is no constraint upon you, I hope. We
are together to talk it over. And as to marrying Mr Sparkler, I
have not the slightest intention of doing so to-night, my dear, or
to-morrow morning either.'

'But at some time?'

'At no time, for anything I know at present,' answered Fanny, with
indifference. Then, suddenly changing her indifference into a
burning restlessness, she added, 'You talk about the clever men,
you little thing! It's all very fine and easy to talk about the
clever men; but where are they? I don't see them anywhere near

'My dear Fanny, so short a time--'

'Short time or long time,' interrupted Fanny. 'I am impatient of
our situation. I don't like our situation, and very little would
induce me to change it. Other girls, differently reared and
differently circumstanced altogether, might wonder at what I say or
may do. Let them. They are driven by their lives and characters;
I am driven by mine.'

'Fanny, my dear Fanny, you know that you have qualities to make you
the wife of one very superior to Mr Sparkler.'

'Amy, my dear Amy,' retorted Fanny, parodying her words, 'I know
that I wish to have a more defined and distinct position, in which
I can assert myself with greater effect against that insolent

'Would you therefore--forgive my asking, Fanny--therefore marry her

'Why, perhaps,' said Fanny, with a triumphant smile. 'There may be
many less promising ways of arriving at an end than that, MY dear.
That piece of insolence may think, now, that it would be a great
success to get her son off upon me, and shelve me. But, perhaps,
she little thinks how I would retort upon her if I married her son.

I would oppose her in everything, and compete with her. I would
make it the business of my life.'

Fanny set down the bottle when she came to this, and walked about
the room; always stopping and standing still while she spoke.

'One thing I could certainly do, my child: I could make her older.
And I would!'

This was followed by another walk.

'I would talk of her as an old woman. I would pretend to know --if
I didn't, but I should from her son--all about her age. And she
should hear me say, Amy: affectionately, quite dutifully and
affectionately: how well she looked, considering her time of life.
I could make her seem older at once, by being myself so much
younger. I may not be as handsome as she is; I am not a fair judge
of that question, I suppose; but I know I am handsome enough to be
a thorn in her side. And I would be!'

'My dear sister, would you condemn yourself to an unhappy life for

'It wouldn't be an unhappy life, Amy. It would be the life I am
fitted for. Whether by disposition, or whether by circumstances,
is no matter; I am better fitted for such a life than for almost
any other.'

There was something of a desolate tone in those words; but, with a
short proud laugh she took another walk, and after passing a great
looking-glass came to another stop.

'Figure! Figure, Amy! Well. The woman has a good figure. I will
give her her due, and not deny it. But is it so far beyond all
others that it is altogether unapproachable? Upon my word, I am
not so sure of it. Give some much younger woman the latitude as to
dress that she has, being married; and we would see about that, my

Something in the thought that was agreeable and flattering, brought
her back to her seat in a gayer temper. She took her sister's
hands in hers, and clapped all four hands above her head as she
looked in her sister's face laughing:

'And the dancer, Amy, that she has quite forgotten--the dancer who
bore no sort of resemblance to me, and of whom I never remind her,
oh dear no!--should dance through her life, and dance in her way,
to such a tune as would disturb her insolent placidity a little.
just a little, my dear Amy, just a little!'

Meeting an earnest and imploring look in Amy's face, she brought
the four hands down, and laid only one on Amy's lips.

'Now, don't argue with me, child,' she said in a sterner way,
'because it is of no use. I understand these subjects much better
than you do. I have not nearly made up my mind, but it may be.
Now we have talked this over comfortably, and may go to bed. You
best and dearest little mouse, Good night!' With those words Fanny
weighed her Anchor, and--having taken so much advice--left off
being advised for that occasion.

Thenceforward, Amy observed Mr Sparkler's treatment by his
enslaver, with new reasons for attaching importance to all that
passed between them. There were times when Fanny appeared quite
unable to endure his mental feebleness, and when she became so
sharply impatient of it that she would all but dismiss him for
good. There were other times when she got on much better with him;
when he amused her, and when her sense of superiority seemed to
counterbalance that opposite side of the scale. If Mr Sparkler had
been other than the faithfullest and most submissive of swains, he
was sufficiently hard pressed to have fled from the scene of his
trials, and have set at least the whole distance from Rome to
London between himself and his enchantress. But he had no greater
will of his own than a boat has when it is towed by a steam-ship;
and he followed his cruel mistress through rough and smooth, on
equally strong compulsion.

Mrs Merdle, during these passages, said little to Fanny, but said
more about her. She was, as it were, forced to look at her through
her eye-glass, and in general conversation to allow commendations
of her beauty to be wrung from her by its irresistible demands.
The defiant character it assumed when Fanny heard these extollings
(as it generally happened that she did), was not expressive of
concessions to the impartial bosom; but the utmost revenge the
bosom took was, to say audibly, 'A spoilt beauty--but with that
face and shape, who could wonder?'

It might have been about a month or six weeks after the night of
the new advice, when Little Dorrit began to think she detected some
new understanding between Mr Sparkler and Fanny. Mr Sparkler, as
if in attendance to some compact, scarcely ever spoke without first
looking towards Fanny for leave. That young lady was too discreet
ever to look back again; but, if Mr Sparkler had permission to
speak, she remained silent; if he had not, she herself spoke.
Moreover, it became plain whenever Henry Gowan attempted to perform
the friendly office of drawing him out, that he was not to be
drawn. And not only that, but Fanny would presently, without any
pointed application in the world, chance to say something with such
a sting in it that Gowan would draw back as if he had put his hand
into a bee-hive.

There was yet another circumstance which went a long way to confirm
Little Dorrit in her fears, though it was not a great circumstance
in itself. Mr Sparkler's demeanour towards herself changed. It
became fraternal. Sometimes, when she was in the outer circle of
assemblies--at their own residence, at Mrs Merdle's, or elsewhere--
she would find herself stealthily supported round the waist by Mr
Sparkler's arm. Mr Sparkler never offered the slightest
explanation of this attention; but merely smiled with an air of
blundering, contented, good-natured proprietorship, which, in so
heavy a gentleman, was ominously expressive.

Little Dorrit was at home one day, thinking about Fanny with a
heavy heart. They had a room at one end of their drawing-room
suite, nearly all irregular bay-window, projecting over the street,
and commanding all the picturesque life and variety of the Corso,
both up and down. At three or four o'clock in the afternoon,
English time, the view from this window was very bright and
peculiar; and Little Dorrit used to sit and muse here, much as she
had been used to while away the time in her balcony at Venice.
Seated thus one day, she was softly touched on the shoulder, and
Fanny said, 'Well, Amy dear,' and took her seat at her side. Their
seat was a part of the window; when there was anything in the way
of a procession going on, they used to have bright draperies hung
out of the window, and used to kneel or sit on this seat, and look
out at it, leaning on the brilliant colour. But there was no
procession that day, and Little Dorrit was rather surprised by
Fanny's being at home at that hour, as she was generally out on
horseback then.

'Well, Amy,' said Fanny, 'what are you thinking of, little one?'
'I was thinking of you, Fanny.'

'No? What a coincidence! I declare here's some one else. You
were not thinking of this some one else too; were you, Amy?'

Amy HAD been thinking of this some one else too; for it was Mr
Sparkler. She did not say so, however, as she gave him her hand.
Mr Sparkler came and sat down on the other side of her, and she
felt the fraternal railing come behind her, and apparently stretch
on to include Fanny.

'Well, my little sister,' said Fanny with a sigh, 'I suppose you
know what this means?'

'She's as beautiful as she's doated on,' stammered Mr Sparkler--
'and there's no nonsense about her--it's arranged--'

'You needn't explain, Edmund,' said Fanny.

'No, my love,' said Mr Sparkler.

'In short, pet,' proceeded Fanny, 'on the whole, we are engaged.
We must tell papa about it either to-night or to-morrow, according
to the opportunities. Then it's done, and very little more need be

'My dear Fanny,' said Mr Sparkler, with deference, 'I should like
to say a word to Amy.'

'Well, well! Say it for goodness' sake,' returned the young lady.

'I am convinced, my dear Amy,' said Mr Sparkler, 'that if ever
there was a girl, next to your highly endowed and beautiful sister,
who had no nonsense about her--'

'We know all about that, Edmund,' interposed Miss Fanny. 'Never
mind that. Pray go on to something else besides our having no
nonsense about us.'

'Yes, my love,' said Mr Sparkler. 'And I assure you, Amy, that
nothing can be a greater happiness to myself, myself--next to the
happiness of being so highly honoured with the choice of a glorious
girl who hasn't an atom of--'

'Pray, Edmund, pray!' interrupted Fanny, with a slight pat of her
pretty foot upon the floor.

'My love, you're quite right,' said Mr Sparkler, 'and I know I have
a habit of it. What I wished to declare was, that nothing can be
a greater happiness to myself, myself-next to the happiness of
being united to pre-eminently the most glorious of girls--than to
have the happiness of cultivating the affectionate acquaintance of
Amy. I may not myself,' said Mr Sparkler manfully, 'be up to the
mark on some other subjects at a short notice, and I am aware that
if you were to poll Society the general opinion would be that I am
not; but on the subject of Amy I am up to the mark!'

Mr Sparkler kissed her, in witness thereof.

'A knife and fork and an apartment,' proceeded Mr Sparkler,
growing, in comparison with his oratorical antecedents, quite
diffuse, 'will ever be at Amy's disposal. My Governor, I am sure,
will always be proud to entertain one whom I so much esteem. And
regarding my mother,' said Mr Sparkler, 'who is a remarkably fine
woman, with--'

'Edmund, Edmund!' cried Miss Fanny, as before.

'With submission, my soul,' pleaded Mr Sparkler. 'I know I have a
habit of it, and I thank you very much, my adorable girl, for
taking the trouble to correct it; but my mother is admitted on all
sides to be a remarkably fine woman, and she really hasn't any.'

'That may be, or may not be,' returned Fanny, 'but pray don't
mention it any more.'

'I will not, my love,' said Mr Sparkler.

'Then, in fact, you have nothing more to say, Edmund; have you?'
inquired Fanny.

'So far from it, my adorable girl,' answered Mr Sparkler, 'I
apologise for having said so much.'

Mr Sparkler perceived, by a kind of inspiration, that the question
implied had he not better go? He therefore withdrew the fraternal
railing, and neatly said that he thought he would, with submission,
take his leave. He did not go without being congratulated by Amy,
as well as she could discharge that office in the flutter and
distress of her spirits.

When he was gone, she said, 'O Fanny, Fanny!' and turned to her
sister in the bright window, and fell upon her bosom and cried
there. Fanny laughed at first; but soon laid her face against her
sister's and cried too--a little. It was the last time Fanny ever
showed that there was any hidden, suppressed, or conquered feeling
in her on the matter. From that hour the way she had chosen lay
before her, and she trod it with her own imperious self-willed

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