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Charles Dickens > Our Mutual Friend > Book 1 - 16

Our Mutual Friend

Book 1 - 16


The Secretary lost no time in getting to work, and his vigilance and
method soon set their mark on the Golden Dustman's affairs. His
earnestness in determining to understand the length and breadth
and depth of every piece of work submitted to him by his employer,
was as special as his despatch in transacting it. He accepted no
information or explanation at second hand, but made himself the
master of everything confided to him.

One part of the Secretary's conduct, underlying all the rest, might
have been mistrusted by a man with a better knowledge of men
than the Golden Dustman had. The Secretary was as far from
being inquisitive or intrusive as Secretary could be, but nothing
less than a complete understanding of the whole of the affairs
would content him. It soon became apparent (from the knowledge
with which he set out) that he must have been to the office where
the Harmon will was registered, and must have read the will. He
anticipated Mr Boffin's consideration whether he should be
advised with on this or that topic, by showing that he already knew
of it and understood it. He did this with no attempt at
concealment, seeming to be satisfied that it was part of his duty to
have prepared himself at all attainable points for its utmost

This might--let it be repeated--have awakened some little vague
mistrust in a man more worldly-wise than the Golden Dustman.
On the other hand, the Secretary was discerning, discreet, and
silent, though as zealous as if the affairs had been his own. He
showed no love of patronage or the command of money, but
distinctly preferred resigning both to Mr Boffin. If, in his limited
sphere, he sought power, it was the power of knowledge; the
power derivable from a perfect comprehension of his business.

As on the Secretary's face there was a nameless cloud, so on his
manner there was a shadow equally indefinable. It was not that he
was embarrassed, as on that first night with the Wilfer family; he
was habitually unembarrassed now, and yet the something
remained. It was not that his manner was bad, as on that occasion;
it was now very good, as being modest, gracious, and ready. Yet
the something never left it. It has been written of men who have
undergone a cruel captivity, or who have passed through a terrible
strait, or who in self-preservation have killed a defenceless fellow-
creature, that the record thereof has never faded from their
countenances until they died. Was there any such record here?

He established a temporary office for himself in the new house, and
all went well under his hand, with one singular exception. He
manifestly objected to communicate with Mr Boffin's solicitor.
Two or three times, when there was some slight occasion for his
doing so, he transferred the task to Mr Boffin; and his evasion of it
soon became so curiously apparent, that Mr Boffin spoke to him on
the subject of his reluctance.

'It is so,' the Secretary admitted. 'I would rather not.'

Had he any personal objection to Mr Lightwood?

'I don't know him.'

Had he suffered from law-suits?

'Not more than other men,' was his short answer.

Was he prejudiced against the race of lawyers?

'No. But while I am in your employment, sir, I would rather he
excused from going between the lawyer and the client. Of course if
you press it, Mr Boffin, I am ready to comply. But I should take it
as a great favour if you would not press it without urgent occasion.'

Now, it could not be said that there WAS urgent occasion, for
Lightwood retained no other affairs in his hands than such as still
lingered and languished about the undiscovered criminal, and such
as arose out of the purchase of the house. Many other matters that
might have travelled to him, now stopped short at the Secretary,
under whose administration they were far more expeditiously and
satisfactorily disposed of than they would have been if they had got
into Young Blight's domain. This the Golden Dustman quite
understood. Even the matter immediately in hand was of very little
moment as requiring personal appearance on the Secretary's part,
for it amounted to no more than this:--The death of Hexam
rendering the sweat of the honest man's brow unprofitable, the
honest man had shufflingly decided to moisten his brow for
nothing, with that severe exertion which is known in legal circles
as swearing your way through a stone wall. Consequently, that
new light had gone sputtering out. But, the airing of the old facts
had led some one concerned to suggest that it would be well before
they were reconsigned to their gloomy shelf--now probably for
ever--to induce or compel that Mr Julius Handford to reappear and
be questioned. And all traces of Mr Julius Handford being lost,
Lightwood now referred to his client for authority to seek him
through public advertisement.

'Does your objection go to writing to Lightwood, Rokesmith?'

'Not in the least, sir.'

'Then perhaps you'll write him a line, and say he is free to do what
he likes. I don't think it promises.'

'I don't think it promises,' said the Secretary.

'Still, he may do what he likes.'

'I will write immediately. Let me thank you for so considerately
yielding to my disinclination. It may seem less unreasonable, if I
avow to you that although I don't know Mr Lightwood, I have a
disagreeable association connected with him. It is not his fault; he
is not at all to blame for it, and does not even know my name.'

Mr Boffin dismissed the matter with a nod or two. The letter was
written, and next day Mr Julius Handford was advertised for. He
was requested to place himself in communication with Mr
Mortimer Lightwood, as a possible means of furthering the ends of
justice, and a reward was offered to any one acquainted with his
whereabout who would communicate the same to the said Mr
Mortimer Lightwood at his office in the Temple. Every day for six
weeks this advertisement appeared at the head of all the
newspapers, and every day for six weeks the Secretary, when he
saw it, said to himself; in the tone in which he had said to his
employer,--'I don't think it promises!'

Among his first occupations the pursuit of that orphan wanted by
Mrs Boffin held a conspicuous place. From the earliest moment of
his engagement he showed a particular desire to please her, and,
knowing her to have this object at heart, he followed it up with
unwearying alacrity and interest.

Mr and Mrs Milvey had found their search a difficult one. Either
an eligible orphan was of the wrong sex (which almost always
happened) or was too old, or too young, or too sickly, or too dirty,
or too much accustomed to the streets, or too likely to run away; or,
it was found impossible to complete the philanthropic transaction
without buying the orphan. For, the instant it became known that
anybody wanted the orphan, up started some affectionate relative
of the orphan who put a price upon the orphan's head. The
suddenness of an orphan's rise in the market was not to be
paralleled by the maddest records of the Stock Exchange. He
would be at five thousand per cent discount out at nurse making a
mud pie at nine in the morning, and (being inquired for) would go
up to five thousand per cent premium before noon. The market
was 'rigged' in various artful ways. Counterfeit stock got into
circulation. Parents boldly represented themselves as dead, and
brought their orphans with them. Genuine orphan-stock was
surreptitiously withdrawn from the market. It being announced, by
emissaries posted for the purpose, that Mr and Mrs Milvey were
coming down the court, orphan scrip would be instantly concealed,
and production refused, save on a condition usually stated by the
brokers as 'a gallon of beer'. Likewise, fluctuations of a wild and
South-Sea nature were occasioned, by orphan-holders keeping
back, and then rushing into the market a dozen together. But, the
uniform principle at the root of all these various operations was
bargain and sale; and that principle could not be recognized by Mr
and Mrs Milvey.

At length, tidings were received by the Reverend Frank of a
charming orphan to be found at Brentford. One of the deceased
parents (late his parishioners) had a poor widowed grandmother in
that agreeable town, and she, Mrs Betty Higden, had carried off the
orphan with maternal care, but could not afford to keep him.

The Secretary proposed to Mrs Boffin, either to go down himself
and take a preliminary survey of this orphan, or to drive her down,
that she might at once form her own opinion. Mrs Boffin
preferring the latter course, they set off one morning in a hired
phaeton, conveying the hammer-headed young man behind them.

The abode of Mrs Betty Higden was not easy to find, lying in such
complicated back settlements of muddy Brentford that they left
their equipage at the sign of the Three Magpies, and went in search
of it on foot. After many inquiries and defeats, there was pointed
out to them in a lane, a very small cottage residence, with a board
across the open doorway, hooked on to which board by the armpits
was a young gentleman of tender years, angling for mud with a
headless wooden horse and line. In this young sportsman,
distinguished by a crisply curling auburn head and a bluff
countenance, the Secretary descried the orphan.

It unfortunately happened as they quickened their pace, that the
orphan, lost to considerations of personal safety in the ardour of the
moment, overbalanced himself and toppled into the street. Being
an orphan of a chubby conformation, he then took to rolling, and
had rolled into the gutter before they could come up. From the
gutter he was rescued by John Rokesmith, and thus the first
meeting with Mrs Higden was inaugurated by the awkward
circumstance of their being in possession--one would say at first
sight unlawful possession--of the orphan, upside down and purple
in the countenance. The board across the doorway too, acting as a
trap equally for the feet of Mrs Higden coming out, and the feet of
Mrs Boffin and John Rokesmith going in, greatly increased the
difficulty of the situation: to which the cries of the orphan imparted
a lugubrious and inhuman character.

At first, it was impossible to explain, on account of the orphan's
'holding his breath': a most terrific proceeding, super-inducing in
the orphan lead-colour rigidity and a deadly silence, compared
with which his cries were music yielding the height of enjoyment.
But as he gradually recovered, Mrs Boffin gradually introduced
herself; and smiling peace was gradually wooed back to Mrs Betty
Higden's home.

It was then perceived to be a small home with a large mangle in it,
at the handle of which machine stood a very long boy, with a very
little head, and an open mouth of disproportionate capacity that
seemed to assist his eyes in staring at the visitors. In a corner
below the mangle, on a couple of stools, sat two very little
children: a boy and a girl; and when the very long boy, in an
interval of staring, took a turn at the mangle, it was alarming to see
how it lunged itself at those two innocents, like a catapult designed
for their destruction, harmlessly retiring when within an inch of
their heads. The room was clean and neat. It had a brick floor,
and a window of diamond panes, and a flounce hanging below the
chimney-piece, and strings nailed from bottom to top outside the
window on which scarlet-beans were to grow in the coming season
if the Fates were propitious. However propitious they might have
been in the seasons that were gone, to Betty Higden in the matter
of beans, they had not been very favourable in the matter of coins;
for it was easy to see that she was poor.

She was one of those old women, was Mrs Betty Higden, who by
dint of an indomitable purpose and a strong constitution fight out
many years, though each year has come with its new knock-down
blows fresh to the fight against her, wearied by it; an active old
woman, with a bright dark eye and a resolute face, yet quite a
tender creature too; not a logically-reasoning woman, but God is
good, and hearts may count in Heaven as high as heads.

'Yes sure!' said she, when the business was opened, 'Mrs Milvey
had the kindness to write to me, ma'am, and I got Sloppy to read it.
It was a pretty letter. But she's an affable lady.'

The visitors glanced at the long boy, who seemed to indicate by a
broader stare of his mouth and eyes that in him Sloppy stood

'For I aint, you must know,' said Betty, 'much of a hand at reading
writing-hand, though I can read my Bible and most print. And I
do love a newspaper. You mightn't think it, but Sloppy is a
beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different

The visitors again considered it a point of politeness to look at
Sloppy, who, looking at them, suddenly threw back his head,
extended his mouth to its utmost width, and laughed loud and
long. At this the two innocents, with their brains in that apparent
danger, laughed, and Mrs Higden laughed, and the orphan
laughed, and then the visitors laughed. Which was more cheerful
than intelligible.

Then Sloppy seeming to be seized with an industrious mania or
fury, turned to at the mangle, and impelled it at the heads of the
innocents with such a creaking and rumbling, that Mrs Higden
stopped him.

'The gentlefolks can't hear themselves speak, Sloppy. Bide a bit,
bide a bit!'

'Is that the dear child in your lap?' said Mrs Boffin.

'Yes, ma'am, this is Johnny.'

'Johnny, too!' cried Mrs Boffin, turning to the Secretary; 'already
Johnny! Only one of the two names left to give him! He's a pretty

With his chin tucked down in his shy childish manner, he was
looking furtively at Mrs Boffin out of his blue eyes, and reaching
his fat dimpled hand up to the lips of the old woman, who was
kissing it by times.

'Yes, ma'am, he's a pretty boy, he's a dear darling boy, he's the
child of my own last left daughter's daughter. But she's gone the
way of all the rest.'

'Those are not his brother and sister?' said Mrs Boffin. 'Oh, dear
no, ma'am. Those are Minders.'

'Minders?' the Secretary repeated.

'Left to he Minded, sir. I keep a Minding-School. I can take only
three, on account of the Mangle. But I love children, and Four-
pence a week is Four-pence. Come here, Toddles and Poddles.'

Toddles was the pet-name of the boy; Poddles of the girl. At their
little unsteady pace, they came across the floor, hand-in-hand, as if
they were traversing an extremely difficult road intersected by
brooks, and, when they had had their heads patted by Mrs Betty
Higden, made lunges at the orphan, dramatically representing an
attempt to bear him, crowing, into captivity and slavery. All the
three children enjoyed this to a delightful extent, and the
sympathetic Sloppy again laughed long and loud. When it was
discreet to stop the play, Betty Higden said 'Go to your seats
Toddles and Poddles,' and they returned hand-in-hand across
country, seeming to find the brooks rather swollen by late rains.

'And Master--or Mister--Sloppy?' said the Secretary, in doubt
whether he was man, boy, or what.

'A love-child,' returned Betty Higden, dropping her voice; 'parents
never known; found in the street. He was brought up in the--' with
a shiver of repugnance, '--the House.'

'The Poor-house?' said the Secretary.

Mrs Higden set that resolute old face of hers, and darkly nodded

'You dislike the mention of it.'

'Dislike the mention of it?' answered the old woman. 'Kill me
sooner than take me there. Throw this pretty child under cart-
horses feet and a loaded waggon, sooner than take him there.
Come to us and find us all a-dying, and set a light to us all where
we lie and let us all blaze away with the house into a heap of
cinders sooner than move a corpse of us there!'

A surprising spirit in this lonely woman after so many years of
hard working, and hard living, my Lords and Gentlemen and
Honourable Boards! What is it that we call it in our grandiose
speeches? British independence, rather perverted? Is that, or
something like it, the ring of the cant?

'Do I never read in the newspapers,' said the dame, fondling the
child--'God help me and the like of me!--how the worn-out people
that do come down to that, get driven from post to pillar and pillar
to post, a-purpose to tire them out! Do I never read how they are
put off, put off, put off--how they are grudged, grudged, grudged,
the shelter, or the doctor, or the drop of physic, or the bit of bread?
Do I never read how they grow heartsick of it and give it up, after
having let themsleves drop so low, and how they after all die out
for want of help? Then I say, I hope I can die as well as another,
and I'll die without that disgrace.'

Absolutely impossible my Lords and Gentlemen and Honourable
Boards, by any stretch of legislative wisdom to set these perverse
people right in their logic?

'Johnny, my pretty,' continued old Betty, caressing the child, and
rather mourning over it than speaking to it, 'your old Granny Betty
is nigher fourscore year than threescore and ten. She never begged
nor had a penny of the Union money in all her life. She paid scot
and she paid lot when she had money to pay; she worked when she
could, and she starved when she must. You pray that your Granny
may have strength enough left her at the last (she's strong for an
old one, Johnny), to get up from her bed and run and hide herself
and swown to death in a hole, sooner than fall into the hands of
those Cruel Jacks we read of that dodge and drive, and worry and
weary, and scorn and shame, the decent poor.'

A brilliant success, my Lords and Gentlemen and Honourable
Boards to have brought it to this in the minds of the best of the
poor! Under submission, might it be worth thinking of at any odd

The fright and abhorrence that Mrs Betty Higden smoothed out of
her strong face as she ended this diversion, showed how seriously
she had meant it.

'And does he work for you?' asked the Secretary, gently bringing
the discourse back to Master or Mister Sloppy.

'Yes,' said Betty with a good-humoured smile and nod of the head.
'And well too.'

'Does he live here?'

'He lives more here than anywhere. He was thought to be no
better than a Natural, and first come to me as a Minder. I made
interest with Mr Blogg the Beadle to have him as a Minder, seeing
him by chance up at church, and thinking I might do something
with him. For he was a weak ricketty creetur then.'

'Is he called by his right name?'

'Why, you see, speaking quite correctly, he has no right name. I
always understood he took his name from being found on a Sloppy

'He seems an amiable fellow.'

'Bless you, sir, there's not a bit of him,' returned Betty, 'that's not
amiable. So you may judge how amiable he is, by running your
eye along his heighth.'

Of an ungainly make was Sloppy. Too much of him longwise, too
little of him broadwise, and too many sharp angles of him angle-
wise. One of those shambling male human creatures, born to be
indiscreetly candid in the revelation of buttons; every button he had
about him glaring at the public to a quite preternatural extent. A
considerable capital of knee and elbow and wrist and ankle, had
Sloppy, and he didn't know how to dispose of it to the best
advantage, but was always investing it in wrong securities, and so
getting himself into embarrassed circumstances. Full-Private
Number One in the Awkward Squad of the rank and file of life,
was Sloppy, and yet had his glimmering notions of standing true to
the Colours.

'And now,' said Mrs Boffin, 'concerning Johnny.'

As Johnny, with his chin tucked in and lips pouting, reclined in
Betty's lap, concentrating his blue eyes on the visitors and shading
them from observation with a dimpled arm, old Betty took one of
his fresh fat hands in her withered right, and fell to gently beating
it on her withered left.

'Yes, ma'am. Concerning Johnny.'

'If you trust the dear child to me,' said Mrs Boffin, with a face
inviting trust, 'he shall have the best of homes, the best of care, the
best of education, the best of friends. Please God I will be a true
good mother to him!'

'I am thankful to you, ma'am, and the dear child would be thankful
if he was old enough to understand.' Still lightly beating the little
hand upon her own. 'I wouldn't stand in the dear child's light, not
if I had all my life before me instead of a very little of it. But I
hope you won't take it ill that I cleave to the child closer than
words can tell, for he's the last living thing left me.'

'Take it ill, my dear soul? Is it likely? And you so tender of him as
to bring him home here!'

'I have seen,' said Betty, still with that light beat upon her hard
rough hand, 'so many of them on my lap. And they are all gone
but this one! I am ashamed to seem so selfish, but I don't really
mean it. It'll be the making of his fortune, and he'll be a gentleman
when I am dead. I--I--don't know what comes over me. I--try
against it. Don't notice me!' The light beat stopped, the resolute
mouth gave way, and the fine strong old face broke up into
weakness and tears.

Now, greatly to the relief of the visitors, the emotional Sloppy no
sooner beheld his patroness in this condition, than, throwing back
his head and throwing open his mouth, he lifted up his voice and
bellowed. This alarming note of something wrong instantly
terrified Toddles and Poddles, who were no sooner heard to roar
surprisingly, than Johnny, curving himself the wrong way and
striking out at Mrs Boffin with a pair of indifferent shoes, became
a prey to despair. The absurdity of the situation put its pathos to
the rout. Mrs Betty Higden was herself in a moment, and brought
them all to order with that speed, that Sloppy, stopping short in a
polysyllabic bellow, transferred his energy to the mangle, and had
taken several penitential turns before he could be stopped.

'There, there, there!' said Mrs Boffin, almost regarding her kind
self as the most ruthless of women. 'Nothing is going to be done.
Nobody need be frightened. We're all comfortable; ain't we, Mrs

'Sure and certain we are,' returned Betty.

'And there really is no hurry, you know,' said Mrs Boffin in a lower
voice. 'Take time to think of it, my good creature!'

'Don't you fear ME no more, ma'am,' said Betty; 'I thought of it for
good yesterday. I don't know what come over me just now, but it'll
never come again.'

'Well, then, Johnny shall have more time to think of it,' returned
Mrs Boffin; 'the pretty child shall have time to get used to it. And
you'll get him more used to it, if you think well of it; won't you?'

Betty undertook that, cheerfully and readily.

'Lor,' cried Mrs Boffin, looking radiantly about her, 'we want to
make everybody happy, not dismal!--And perhaps you wouldn't
mind letting me know how used to it you begin to get, and how it
all goes on?'

'I'll send Sloppy,' said Mrs Higden.

'And this gentleman who has come with me will pay him for his
trouble,' said Mrs Boffin. 'And Mr Sloppy, whenever you come to
my house, be sure you never go away without having had a good
dinner of meat, beer, vegetables, and pudding.'

This still further brightened the face of affairs; for, the highly
sympathetic Sloppy, first broadly staring and grinning, and then
roaring with laughter, Toddles and Poddles followed suit, and
Johnny trumped the trick. T and P considering these favourable
circumstances for the resumption of that dramatic descent upon
Johnny, again came across-country hand-in-hand upon a
buccaneermg expedition; and this having been fought out in the
chimney corner behind Mrs Higden's chair, with great valour on
both sides, those desperate pirates returned hand-in-hand to their
stools, across the dry bed of a mountain torrent.

'You must tell me what I can do for you, Betty my friend,' said Mrs
Boffin confidentially, 'if not to-day, next time.'

'Thank you all the same, ma'am, but I want nothing for myself. I
can work. I'm strong. I can walk twenty mile if I'm put to it.' Old
Betty was proud, and said it with a sparkle in her bright eyes.

'Yes, but there are some little comforts that you wouldn't be the
worse for,' returned Mrs Boffin. 'Bless ye, I wasn't born a lady any
more than you.'

'It seems to me,' said Betty, smiling, 'that you were born a lady,
and a true one, or there never was a lady born. But I couldn't take
anything from you, my dear. I never did take anything from any
one. It ain't that I'm not grateful, but I love to earn it better.'

'Well, well!' returned Mrs Boffin. 'I only spoke of little things, or I
wouldn't have taken the liberty.'

Betty put her visitor's hand to her lips, in acknowledgment of the
delicate answer. Wonderfully upright her figure was, and
wonderfully self-reliant her look, as, standing facing her visitor,
she explained herself further.

'If I could have kept the dear child, without the dread that's always
upon me of his coming to that fate I have spoken of, I could never
have parted with him, even to you. For I love him, I love him, I
love him! I love my husband long dead and gone, in him; I love
my children dead and gone, in him; I love my young and hopeful
days dead and gone, in him. I couldn't sell that love, and look you
in your bright kind face. It's a free gift. I am in want of nothing.
When my strength fails me, if I can but die out quick and quiet, I
shall be quite content. I have stood between my dead and that
shame I have spoken of; and it has been kept off from every one of
them. Sewed into my gown,' with her hand upon her breast, 'is just
enough to lay me in the grave. Only see that it's rightly spent, so
as I may rest free to the last from that cruelty and disgrace, and
you'll have done much more than a little thing for me, and all that
in this present world my heart is set upon.'

Mrs Betty Higden's visitor pressed her hand. There was no more
breaking up of the strong old face into weakness. My Lords and
Gentlemen and Honourable Boards, it really was as composed as
our own faces, and almost as dignified.

And now, Johnny was to be inveigled into occupying a temporary
position on Mrs Boffin's lap. It was not until he had been piqued
into competition with the two diminutive Minders, by seeing them
successively raised to that post and retire from it without injury,
that he could be by any means induced to leave Mrs Betty Higden's
skirts; towards which he exhibited, even when in Mrs Boffin's
embrace, strong yearnings, spiritual and bodily; the former
expressed in a very gloomy visage, the latter in extended arms.
However, a general description of the toy-wonders lurking in Mr
Boffin's house, so far conciliated this worldly-minded orphan as to
induce him to stare at her frowningly, with a fist in his mouth, and
even at length to chuckle when a richly-caparisoned horse on
wheels, with a miraculous gift of cantering to cake-shops, was
mentioned. This sound being taken up by the Minders, swelled
into a rapturous trio which gave general satisfaction.

So, the interview was considered very successful, and Mrs Boffin
was pleased, and all were satisfied. Not least of all, Sloppy, who
undertook to conduct the visitors back by the best way to the Three
Magpies, and whom the hammer-headed young man much

This piece of business thus put in train, the Secretary drove Mrs
Boffin back to the Bower, and found employment for himself at the
new house until evening. Whether, when evening came, he took a
way to his lodgings that led through fields, with any design of
finding Miss Bella Wilfer in those fields, is not so certain as that
she regularly walked there at that hour.

And, moreover, it is certain that there she was.

No longer in mourning, Miss Bella was dressed in as pretty
colours as she could muster. There is no denying that she was as
pretty as they, and that she and the colours went very prettily
together. She was reading as she walked, and of course it is to be
inferred, from her showing no knowledge of Mr Rokesmith's
approach, that she did not know he was approaching.

'Eh?' said Miss Bella, raising her eyes from her book, when he
stopped before her. 'Oh! It's you.'

'Only I. A fine evening!'

'Is it?' said Bella, looking coldly round. 'I suppose it is, now you
mention it. I have not been thinking of the evening.'

'So intent upon your book?'

'Ye-e-es,' replied Bella, with a drawl of indifference.

'A love story, Miss Wilfer?'

'Oh dear no, or I shouldn't be reading it. It's more about money
than anything else.'

'And does it say that money is better than anything?'

'Upon my word,' returned Bella, 'I forget what it says, but you can
find out for yourself if you like, Mr Rokesmith. I don't want it any

The Secretary took the book--she had fluttered the leaves as if it
were a fan--and walked beside her.

'I am charged with a message for you, Miss Wilfer.'

'Impossible, I think!' said Bella, with another drawl.

'From Mrs Boffin. She desired me to assure you of the pleasure
she has in finding that she will be ready to receive you in another
week or two at furthest.'

Bella turned her head towards him, with her prettily-insolent
eyebrows raised, and her eyelids drooping. As much as to say,
'How did YOU come by the message, pray?'

'I have been waiting for an opportunity of telling you that I am Mr
Boffin's Secretary.'

'I am as wise as ever,' said Miss Bella, loftily, 'for I don't know
what a Secretary is. Not that it signifies.'

'Not at all.'

A covert glance at her face, as he walked beside her, showed him
that she had not expected his ready assent to that proposition.

'Then are you going to be always there, Mr Rokesmith?' she
inquired, as if that would be a drawback.

'Always? No. Very much there? Yes.'

'Dear me!' drawled Bella, in a tone of mortification.

'But my position there as Secretary, will be very different from
yours as guest. You will know little or nothing about me. I shall
transact the business: you will transact the pleasure. I shall have
my salary to earn; you will have nothing to do but to enjoy and

'Attract, sir?' said Bella, again with her eyebrows raised, and her
eyelids drooping. 'I don't understand you.'

Without replying on this point, Mr Rokesmith went on.

'Excuse me; when I first saw you in your black dress--'

('There!' was Miss Bella's mental exclamation. 'What did I say to
them at home? Everybody noticed that ridiculous mourning.')

'When I first saw you in your black dress, I was at a loss to account
for that distinction between yourself and your family. I hope it was
not impertinent to speculate upon it?'

'I hope not, I am sure,' said Miss Bella, haughtily. 'But you ought
to know best how you speculated upon it.'

Mr Rokesmith inclined his head in a deprecatory manner, and
went on.

'Since I have been entrusted with Mr Boffin's affairs, I have
necessarily come to understand the little mystery. I venture to
remark that I feel persuaded that much of your loss may be
repaired. I speak, of course, merely of wealth, Miss Wilfer. The
loss of a perfect stranger, whose worth, or worthlessness, I cannot
estimate--nor you either--is beside the question. But this excellent
gentleman and lady are so full of simplicity, so full of generosity,
so inclined towards you, and so desirous to--how shall I express
it?--to make amends for their good fortune, that you have only to

As he watched her with another covert look, he saw a certain
ambitious triumph in her face which no assumed coldness could

'As we have been brought under one roof by an accidental
combination of circumstances, which oddly extends itself to the
new relations before us, I have taken the liberty of saying these few
words. You don't consider them intrusive I hope?' said the
Secretary with deference.

'Really, Mr Rokesmith, I can't say what I consider them,' returned
the young lady. 'They are perfectly new to me, and may be founded
altogether on your own imagination.'

'You will see.'

These same fields were opposite the Wilfer premises. The discreet
Mrs Wilfer now looking out of window and beholding her
daughter in conference with her lodger, instantly tied up her head
and came out for a casual walk.

'I have been telling Miss Wilfer,' said John Rokesmith, as the
majestic lady came stalking up, 'that I have become, by a curious
chance, Mr Boffin's Secretary or man of business.'

'I have not,' returned Mrs Wilfer, waving her gloves in her chronic
state of dignity, and vague ill-usage, 'the honour of any intimate
acquaintance with Mr Boffin, and it is not for me to congratulate
that gentleman on the acquisition he has made.'

'A poor one enough,' said Rokesmith.

'Pardon me,' returned Mrs Wilfer, 'the merits of Mr Boffin may be
highly distinguished--may be more distinguished than the
countenance of Mrs Boffin would imply--but it were the insanity of
humility to deem him worthy of a better assistant.'

'You are very good. I have also been telling Miss Wilfer that she is
expected very shortly at the new residence in town.'

'Having tacitly consented,' said Mrs Wilfer, with a grand shrug of
her shoulders, and another wave of her gloves, 'to my child's
acceptance of the proffered attentions of Mrs Boffin, I interpose no

Here Miss Bella offered the remonstrance: 'Don't talk nonsense,
ma, please.'

'Peace!' said Mrs Wilfer.

'No, ma, I am not going to be made so absurd. Interposing

'I say,' repeated Mrs Wilfer, with a vast access of grandeur, 'that I
am NOT going to interpose objections. If Mrs Boffin (to whose
countenance no disciple of Lavater could possibly for a single
moment subscribe),' with a shiver, 'seeks to illuminate her new
residence in town with the attractions of a child of mine, I am
content that she should be favoured by the company of a child of

'You use the word, ma'am, I have myself used,' said Rokesmith,
with a glance at Bella, 'when you speak of Miss Wilfer's attractions

'Pardon me,' returned Mrs Wilfer, with dreadful solemnity, 'but I
had not finished.'

'Pray excuse me.'

'I was about to say,' pursued Mrs Wilfer, who clearly had not had
the faintest idea of saying anything more: 'that when I use the term
attractions, I do so with the qualification that I do not mean it in
any way whatever.'

The excellent lady delivered this luminous elucidation of her views
with an air of greatly obliging her hearers, and greatly
distinguishing herself. Whereat Miss Bella laughed a scornful
little laugh and said:

'Quite enough about this, I am sure, on all sides. Have the
goodness, Mr Rokesmith, to give my love to Mrs Boffin--'

'Pardon me!' cried Mrs Wilfer. 'Compliments.'

'Love!' repeated Bella, with a little stamp of her foot.

'No!' said Mrs Wilfer, monotonously. 'Compliments.'

('Say Miss Wilfer's love, and Mrs Wilfer's compliments,' the
Secretary proposed, as a compromise.)

'And I shall be very glad to come when she is ready for me. The
sooner, the better.'

'One last word, Bella,' said Mrs Wilfer, 'before descending to the
family apartment. I trust that as a child of mine you will ever be
sensible that it will be graceful in you, when associating with Mr
and Mrs Boffin upon equal terms, to remember that the Secretary,
Mr Rokesmith, as your father's lodger, has a claim on your good

The condescension with which Mrs Wilfer delivered this
proclamation of patronage, was as wonderful as the swiftness with
which the lodger had lost caste in the Secretary. He smiled as the
mother retired down stairs; but his face fell, as the daughter

'So insolent, so trivial, so capricious, so mercenary, so careless, so
hard to touch, so hard to turn!' he said, bitterly.

And added as he went upstairs. 'And yet so pretty, so pretty!'

And added presently, as he walked to and fro in his room. 'And if
she knew!'

She knew that he was shaking the house by his walking to and fro;
and she declared it another of the miseries of being poor, that you
couldn't get rid of a haunting Secretary, stump--stump--stumping
overhead in the dark, like a Ghost.

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