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Charles Dickens > Our Mutual Friend > Book 2 - 11

Our Mutual Friend

Book 2 - 11


Little Miss Peecher, from her little official dwelling-house, with its
little windows like the eyes in needles, and its little doors like the
covers of school-books, was very observant indeed of the object
of her quiet affections. Love, though said to be afflicted with
blindness, is a vigilant watchman, and Miss Peecher kept him on
double duty over Mr Bradley Headstone. It was not that she was
naturally given to playing the spy--it was not that she was at all
secret, plotting, or mean--it was simply that she loved the
irresponsive Bradley with all the primitive and homely stock of
love that had never been examined or certificated out of her. If
her faithful slate had had the latent qualities of sympathetic paper,
and its pencil those of invisible ink, many a little treatise
calculated to astonish the pupils would have come bursting
through the dry sums in school-time under the warming influence
of Miss Peecher's bosom. For, oftentimes when school was not,
and her calm leisure and calm little house were her own, Miss
Peecher would commit to the confidential slate an imaginary
description of how, upon a balmy evening at dusk, two figures
might have been observed in the market-garden ground round the
corner, of whom one, being a manly form, bent over the other,
being a womanly form of short stature and some compactness, and
breathed in a low voice the words, 'Emma Peecher, wilt thou be
my own?' after which the womanly form's head reposed upon the
manly form's shoulder, and the nightingales tuned up. Though all
unseen, and unsuspected by the pupils, Bradley Headstone even
pervaded the school exercises. Was Geography in question? He
would come triumphantly flying out of Vesuvius and Aetna ahead
of the lava, and would boil unharmed in the hot springs of Iceland,
and would float majestically down the Ganges and the Nile. Did
History chronicle a king of men? Behold him in pepper-and-salt
pantaloons, with his watch-guard round his neck. Were copies to
be written? In capital B's and H's most of the girls under Miss
Peecher's tuition were half a year ahead of every other letter in
the alphabet. And Mental Arithmetic, administered by Miss
Peecher, often devoted itself to providing Bradley Headstone with
a wardrobe of fabulous extent: fourscore and four neck-ties at two
and ninepence-halfpenny, two gross of silver watches at four
pounds fifteen and sixpence, seventy-four black hats at eighteen
shillings; and many similar superfluities.

The vigilant watchman, using his daily opportunities of turning his
eyes in Bradley's direction, soon apprized Miss Peecher that
Bradley was more preoccupied than had been his wont, and more
given to strolling about with a downcast and reserved face, turning
something difficult in his mind that was not in the scholastic
syllabus. Putting this and that together--combining under the head
'this,' present appearances and the intimacy with Charley Hexam,
and ranging under the head 'that' the visit to his sister, the
watchman reported to Miss Peecher his strong suspicions that the
sister was at the bottom of it.

'I wonder,' said Miss Peecher, as she sat making up her weekly
report on a half-holiday afternoon, 'what they call Hexam's sister?'

Mary Anne, at her needlework, attendant and attentive, held her
arm up.

'Well, Mary Anne?'

'She is named Lizzie, ma'am.'

'She can hardly be named Lizzie, I think, Mary Anne,' returned
Miss Peecher, in a tunefully instructive voice. 'Is Lizzie a
Christian name, Mary Anne?'

Mary Anne laid down her work, rose, hooked herself behind, as
being under catechization, and replied: 'No, it is a corruption, Miss

'Who gave her that name?' Miss Peecher was going on, from the
mere force of habit, when she checked herself; on Mary Anne's
evincing theological impatience to strike in with her godfathers
and her godmothers, and said: 'I mean of what name is it a

'Elizabeth, or Eliza, Miss Peecher.'

'Right, Mary Anne. Whether there were any Lizzies in the early
Christian Church must be considered very doubtful, very
doubtful.' Miss Peecher was exceedingly sage here. 'Speaking
correctly, we say, then, that Hexam's sister is called Lizzie; not
that she is named so. Do we not, Mary Anne?'

'We do, Miss Peecher.'

'And where,' pursued Miss Peecher, complacent in her little
transparent fiction of conducting the examination in a semiofficial
manner for Mary Anne's benefit, not her own, 'where does this
young woman, who is called but not named Lizzie, live? Think,
now, before answering.'

'In Church Street, Smith Square, by Mill Bank, ma'am.'

'In Church Street, Smith Square, by Mill Bank,' repeated Miss
Peecher, as if possessed beforehand of the book in which it was
written. Exactly so. And what occupation does this young
woman pursue, Mary Anne? Take time.'

'She has a place of trust at an outfitter's in the City, ma'am.'

'Oh!' said Miss Peecher, pondering on it; but smoothly added, in a
confirmatory tone, 'At an outfitter's in the City. Ye-es?'

'And Charley--' Mary Anne was proceeding, when Miss Peecher

'I mean Hexam, Miss Peecher.'

'I should think you did, Mary Anne. I am glad to hear you do.
And Hexam--'

'Says,' Mary Anne went on, 'that he is not pleased with his sister,
and that his sister won't be guided by his advice, and persists in
being guided by somebody else's; and that--'

'Mr Headstone coming across the garden!' exclaimed Miss
Peecher, with a flushed glance at the looking-glass. 'You have
answered very well, Mary Anne. You are forming an excellent
habit of arranging your thoughts clearly. That will do.'

The discreet Mary Anne resumed her seat and her silence, and
stitched, and stitched, and was stitching when the schoolmaster's
shadow came in before him, announcing that he might be instantly

'Good evening, Miss Peecher,' he said, pursuing the shadow, and
taking its place.

'Good evening, Mr Headstone. Mary Anne, a chair.'

'Thank you,' said Bradley, seating himself in his constrained
manner. 'This is but a flying visit. I have looked in, on my way, to
ask a kindness of you as a neighbour.'

'Did you say on your way, Mr Headstone?' asked Miss Peecher.

'On my way to--where I am going.'

'Church Street, Smith Square, by Mill Bank,' repeated Miss
Peecher, in her own thoughts.

'Charley Hexam has gone to get a book or two he wants, and will
probably be back before me. As we leave my house empty, I took
the liberty of telling him I would leave the key here. Would you
kindly allow me to do so?'

'Certainly, Mr Headstone. Going for an evening walk, sir?'

'Partly for a walk, and partly for--on business.'

'Business in Church Street, Smith Square, by Mill Bank,' repeated
Miss Peecher to herself.

'Having said which,' pursued Bradley, laying his door-key on the
table, 'I must be already going. There is nothing I can do for you,
Miss Peecher?'

'Thank you, Mr Headstone. In which direction?'

'In the direction of Westminster.'

'Mill Bank,' Miss Peecher repeated in her own thoughts once
again. 'No, thank you, Mr Headstone; I'll not trouble you.'

'You couldn't trouble me,' said the schoolmaster.

'Ah!' returned Miss Peecher, though not aloud; 'but you can
trouble ME!' And for all her quiet manner, and her quiet smile,
she was full of trouble as he went his way.

She was right touching his destination. He held as straight a
course for the house of the dolls' dressmaker as the wisdom of his
ancestors, exemplified in the construction of the intervening
streets, would let him, and walked with a bent head hammering at
one fixed idea. It had been an immoveable idea since he first set
eyes upon her. It seemed to him as if all that he could suppress in
himself he had suppressed, as if all that he could restrain in
himself he had restrained, and the time had come--in a rush, in a
moment--when the power of self-command had departed from
him. Love at first sight is a trite expression quite sufficiently
discussed; enough that in certain smouldering natures like this
man's, that passion leaps into a blaze, and makes such head as fire
does in a rage of wind, when other passions, but for its mastery,
could be held in chains. As a multitude of weak, imitative natures
are always lying by, ready to go mad upon the next wrong idea
that may be broached--in these times, generally some form of
tribute to Somebody for something that never was done, or, if ever
done, that was done by Somebody Else--so these less ordinary
natures may lie by for years, ready on the touch of an instant to
burst into flame.

The schoolmaster went his way, brooding and brooding, and a
sense of being vanquished in a struggle might have been pieced
out of his worried face. Truly, in his breast there lingered a
resentful shame to find himself defeated by this passion for
Charley Hexam's sister, though in the very self-same moments he
was concentrating himself upon the object of bringing the passion
to a successful issue.

He appeared before the dolls' dressmaker, sitting alone at her
work. 'Oho!' thought that sharp young personage, 'it's you, is it? I
know your tricks and your manners, my friend!'

'Hexam's sister,' said Bradley Headstone, 'is not come home yet?'

'You are quite a conjuror,' returned Miss Wren.

'I will wait, if you please, for I want to speak to her.'

'Do you?' returned Miss Wren. 'Sit down. I hope it's mutual.'
Bradley glanced distrustfully at the shrewd face again bending
over the work, and said, trying to conquer doubt and hesitation:

'I hope you don't imply that my visit will be unacceptable to
Hexam's sister?'

'There! Don't call her that. I can't bear you to call her that,'
returned Miss Wren, snapping her fingers in a volley of impatient
snaps, 'for I don't like Hexam.'


'No.' Miss Wren wrinkled her nose, to express dislike. 'Selfish.
Thinks only of himself. The way with all of you.'

'The way with all of us? Then you don't like ME?'

'So-so,' replied Miss Wren, with a shrug and a laugh. 'Don't know
much about you.'

'But I was not aware it was the way with all of us,' said Bradley,
returning to the accusation, a little injured. 'Won't you say, some
of us?'

'Meaning,' returned the little creature, 'every one of you, but you.
Hah! Now look this lady in the face. This is Mrs Truth. The
Honourable. Full-dressed.'

Bradley glanced at the doll she held up for his observation--which
had been lying on its face on her bench, while with a needle and
thread she fastened the dress on at the back--and looked from it to

'I stand the Honourable Mrs T. on my bench in this corner against
the wall, where her blue eyes can shine upon you,' pursued Miss
Wren, doing so, and making two little dabs at him in the air with
her needle, as if she pricked him with it in his own eyes; 'and I
defy you to tell me, with Mrs T. for a witness, what you have
come here for.'

'To see Hexam's sister.'

'You don't say so!' retorted Miss Wren, hitching her chin. 'But on
whose account?'

'Her own.'

'O Mrs T.!' exclaimed Miss Wren. 'You hear him!'

'To reason with her,' pursued Bradley, half humouring what was
present, and half angry with what was not present; 'for her own

'Oh Mrs T.!' exclaimed the dressmaker.

'For her own sake,' repeated Bradley, warming, 'and for her
brother's, and as a perfectly disinterested person.'

'Really, Mrs T.,' remarked the dressmaker, 'since it comes to this,
we must positively turn you with your face to the wall.' She had
hardly done so, when Lizzie Hexam arrived, and showed some
surprise on seeing Bradley Headstone there, and Jenny shaking
her little fist at him close before her eyes, and the Honourable Mrs
T. with her face to the wall.

'Here's a perfectly disinterested person, Lizzie dear,' said the
knowing Miss Wren, 'come to talk with you, for your own sake
and your brother's. Think of that. I am sure there ought to be no
third party present at anything so very kind and so very serious;
and so, if you'll remove the third party upstairs, my dear, the third
party will retire.'

Lizzie took the hand which the dolls' dressmaker held out to her
for the purpose of being supported away, but only looked at her
with an inquiring smile, and made no other movement.

'The third party hobbles awfully, you know, when she's left to
herself;' said Miss Wren, 'her back being so bad, and her legs so
queer; so she can't retire gracefully unless you help her, Lizzie.'

'She can do no better than stay where she is,' returned Lizzie,
releasing the hand, and laying her own lightly on Miss Jenny's
curls. And then to Bradley: 'From Charley, sir?'

In an irresolute way, and stealing a clumsy look at her, Bradley
rose to place a chair for her, and then returned to his own.

'Strictly speaking,' said he, 'I come from Charley, because I left
him only a little while ago; but I am not commissioned by Charley.
I come of my own spontaneous act.'

With her elbows on her bench, and her chin upon her hands, Miss
Jenny Wren sat looking at him with a watchful sidelong look.
Lizzie, in her different way, sat looking at him too.

'The fact is,' began Bradley, with a mouth so dry that he had some
difficulty in articulating his words: the consciousness of which
rendered his manner still more ungainly and undecided; 'the truth
is, that Charley, having no secrets from me (to the best of my
belief), has confided the whole of this matter to me.'

He came to a stop, and Lizzie asked: 'what matter, sir?'

'I thought,' returned the schoolmaster, stealing another look at her,
and seeming to try in vain to sustain it; for the look dropped as it
lighted on her eyes, 'that it might be so superfluous as to be almost
impertinent, to enter upon a definition of it. My allusion was to
this matter of your having put aside your brother's plans for you,
and given the preference to those of Mr--I believe the name is Mr
Eugene Wrayburn.'

He made this point of not being certain of the name, with another
uneasy look at her, which dropped like the last.

Nothing being said on the other side, he had to begin again, and
began with new embarrassment.

'Your brother's plans were communicated to me when he first had
them in his thoughts. In point of fact he spoke to me about them
when I was last here--when we were walking back together, and
when I--when the impression was fresh upon me of having seen
his sister.'

There might have been no meaning in it, but the little dressmaker
here removed one of her supporting hands from her chin, and
musingly turned the Honourable Mrs T. with her face to the
company. That done, she fell into her former attitude.

'I approved of his idea,' said Bradley, with his uneasy look
wandering to the doll, and unconsciously resting there longer than
it had rested on Lizzie, 'both because your brother ought naturally
to be the originator of any such scheme, and because I hoped to
be able to promote it. I should have had inexpressible pleasure, I
should have taken inexpressible interest, in promoting it.
Therefore I must acknowledge that when your brother was
disappointed, I too was disappointed. I wish to avoid reservation
or concealment, and I fully acknowledge that.'

He appeared to have encouraged himself by having got so far. At
all events he went on with much greater firmness and force of
emphasis: though with a curious disposition to set his teeth, and
with a curious tight-screwing movement of his right hand in the
clenching palm of his left, like the action of one who was being
physically hurt, and was unwilling to cry out.

'I am a man of strong feelings, and I have strongly felt this
disappointment. I do strongly feel it. I don't show what I feel;
some of us are obliged habitually to keep it down. To keep it
down. But to return to your brother. He has taken the matter so
much to heart that he has remonstrated (in my presence he
remonstrated) with Mr Eugene Wrayburn, if that be the name. He
did so, quite ineffectually. As any one not blinded to the real
character of Mr--Mr Eugene Wrayburn--would readily suppose.'

He looked at Lizzie again, and held the look. And his face turned
from burning red to white, and from white back to burning red,
and so for the time to lasting deadly white.

'Finally, I resolved to come here alone, and appeal to you. I
resolved to come here alone, and entreat you to retract the course
you have chosen, and instead of confiding in a mere stranger--a
person of most insolent behaviour to your brother and others--to
prefer your brother and your brother's friend.'

Lizzie Hexam had changed colour when those changes came over
him, and her face now expressed some anger, more dislike, and
even a touch of fear. But she answered him very steadily.

'I cannot doubt, Mr Headstone, that your visit is well meant. You
have been so good a friend to Charley that I have no right to
doubt it. I have nothing to tell Charley, but that I accepted the
help to which he so much objects before he made any plans for
me; or certainly before I knew of any. It was considerately and
delicately offered, and there were reasons that had weight with me
which should be as dear to Charley as to me. I have no more to
say to Charley on this subject.'

His lips trembled and stood apart, as he followed this repudiation
of himself; and limitation of her words to her brother.

'I should have told Charley, if he had come to me,' she resumed, as
though it were an after-thought, 'that Jenny and I find our teacher
very able and very patient, and that she takes great pains with us.
So much so, that we have said to her we hope in a very little while
to be able to go on by ourselves. Charley knows about teachers,
and I should also have told him, for his satisfaction, that ours
comes from an institution where teachers are regularly brought

'I should like to ask you,' said Bradley Headstone, grinding his
words slowly out, as though they came from a rusty mill; 'I should
like to ask you, if I may without offence, whether you would have
objected--no; rather, I should like to say, if I may without offence,
that I wish I had had the opportunity of coming here with your
brother and devoting my poor abilities and experience to your

'Thank you, Mr Headstone.'

'But I fear,' he pursued, after a pause, furtively wrenching at the
seat of his chair with one hand, as if he would have wrenched the
chair to pieces, and gloomily observing her while her eyes were
cast down, 'that my humble services would not have found much
favour with you?'

She made no reply, and the poor stricken wretch sat contending
with himself in a heat of passion and torment. After a while he
took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead and hands.

'There is only one thing more I had to say, but it is the most
important. There is a reason against this matter, there is a
personal relation concerned in this matter, not yet explained to
you. It might--I don't say it would--it might--induce you to think
differently. To proceed under the present circumstances is out of
the question. Will you please come to the understanding that
there shall be another interview on the subject?'

'With Charley, Mr Headstone?'

'With--well,' he answered, breaking off, 'yes! Say with him too.
Will you please come to the understanding that there must be
another interview under more favourable circumstances, before
the whole case can be submitted?'

'I don't,' said Lizzie, shaking her head, 'understand your meaning,
Mr Headstone.'

'Limit my meaning for the present,' he interrupted, 'to the whole
case being submitted to you in another interview.'

'What case, Mr Headstone? What is wanting to it?'

'You--you shall be informed in the other interview.' Then he said,
as if in a burst of irrepressible despair, 'I--I leave it all incomplete!
There is a spell upon me, I think!' And then added, almost as if he
asked for pity, 'Good-night!'

He held out his hand. As she, with manifest hesitation, not to say
reluctance, touched it, a strange tremble passed over him, and his
face, so deadly white, was moved as by a stroke of pain. Then he
was gone.

The dolls' dressmaker sat with her attitude unchanged, eyeing the
door by which he had departed, until Lizzie pushed her bench
aside and sat down near her. Then, eyeing Lizzie as she had
previously eyed Bradley and the door, Miss Wren chopped that
very sudden and keen chop in which her jaws sometimes indulged,
leaned back in her chair with folded arms, and thus expressed

'Humph! If he--I mean, of course, my dear, the party who is
coming to court me when the time comes--should be THAT sort of
man, he may spare himself the trouble. HE wouldn't do to be
trotted about and made useful. He'd take fire and blow up while
he was about it.

'And so you would be rid of him,' said Lizzie, humouring her.

'Not so easily,' returned Miss Wren. 'He wouldn't blow up alone.
He'd carry me up with him. I know his tricks and his manners.'

'Would he want to hurt you, do you mean?' asked Lizzie.

'Mightn't exactly want to do it, my dear,' returned Miss Wren; 'but
a lot of gunpowder among lighted lucifer-matches in the next
room might almost as well be here.'

'He is a very strange man,' said Lizzie, thoughtfully.

'I wish he was so very strange a man as to be a total stranger,'
answered the sharp little thing.

It being Lizzie's regular occupation when they were alone of an
evening to brush out and smooth the long fair hair of the dolls'
dressmaker, she unfastened a ribbon that kept it back while the
little creature was at her work, and it fell in a beautiful shower
over the poor shoulders that were much in need of such adorning
rain. 'Not now, Lizzie, dear,' said Jenny; 'let us have a talk by the
fire.' With those words, she in her turn loosened her friend's dark
hair, and it dropped of its own weight over her bosom, in two rich
masses. Pretending to compare the colours and admire the
contrast, Jenny so managed a mere touch or two of her nimble
hands, as that she herself laying a cheek on one of the dark folds,
seemed blinded by her own clustering curls to all but the fire,
while the fine handsome face and brow of Lizzie were revealed
without obstruction in the sombre light.

'Let us have a talk,' said Jenny, 'about Mr Eugene Wrayburn.'

Something sparkled down among the fair hair resting on the dark
hair; and if it were not a star--which it couldn't be--it was an eye;
and if it were an eye, it was Jenny Wren's eye, bright and watchful
as the bird's whose name she had taken.

'Why about Mr Wrayburn?' Lizzie asked.

'For no better reason than because I'm in the humour. I wonder
whether he's rich!'

'No, not rich.'


'I think so, for a gentleman.'

'Ah! To be sure! Yes, he's a gentleman. Not of our sort; is he?'
A shake of the head, a thoughtful shake of the head, and the
answer, softly spoken, 'Oh no, oh no!'

The dolls' dressmaker had an arm round her friend's waist.
Adjusting the arm, she slyly took the opportunity of blowing at her
own hair where it fell over her face; then the eye down there,
under lighter shadows sparkled more brightly and appeared more

'When He turns up, he shan't be a gentleman; I'll very soon send
him packing, if he is. However, he's not Mr Wrayburn; I haven't
captivated HIM. I wonder whether anybody has, Lizzie!'

'It is very likely.'

'Is it very likely? I wonder who!'

'Is it not very likely that some lady has been taken by him, and
that he may love her dearly?'

'Perhaps. I don't know. What would you think of him, Lizzie, if
you were a lady?'

'I a lady!' she repeated, laughing. 'Such a fancy!'

'Yes. But say: just as a fancy, and for instance.'

'I a lady! I, a poor girl who used to row poor father on the river.
I, who had rowed poor father out and home on the very night
when I saw him for the first time. I, who was made so timid by his
looking at me, that I got up and went out!'

('He did look at you, even that night, though you were not a lady!'
thought Miss Wren.)

'I a lady!' Lizzie went on in a low voice, with her eyes upon the
fire. 'I, with poor father's grave not even cleared of undeserved
stain and shame, and he trying to clear it for me! I a lady!'

'Only as a fancy, and for instance,' urged Miss Wren.

'Too much, Jenny, dear, too much! My fancy is not able to get
that far.' As the low fire gleamed upon her, it showed her smiling,
mournfully and abstractedly.

'But I am in the humour, and I must be humoured, Lizzie, because
after all I am a poor little thing, and have had a hard day with my
bad child. Look in the fire, as I like to hear you tell how you used
to do when you lived in that dreary old house that had once been
a windmill. Look in the--what was its name when you told
fortunes with your brother that I DON'T like?'

'The hollow down by the flare?'

'Ah! That's the name! You can find a lady there, I know.'

'More easily than I can make one of such material as myself,

The sparkling eye looked steadfastly up, as the musing face
looked thoughtfully down. 'Well?' said the dolls' dressmaker, 'We
have found our lady?'

Lizzie nodded, and asked, 'Shall she be rich?'

'She had better be, as he's poor.'

'She is very rich. Shall she be handsome?'

'Even you can be that, Lizzie, so she ought to be.'

'She is very handsome.'

'What does she say about him?' asked Miss Jenny, in a low voice:
watchful, through an intervening silence, of the face looking down
at the fire.

'She is glad, glad, to be rich, that he may have the money. She is
glad, glad, to be beautiful, that he may be proud of her. Her poor

'Eh? Her poor hear?' said Miss Wren.

'Her heart--is given him, with all its love and truth. She would
joyfully die with him, or, better than that, die for him. She knows
he has failings, but she thinks they have grown up through his
being like one cast away, for the want of something to trust in, and
care for, and think well of. And she says, that lady rich and
beautiful that I can never come near, "Only put me in that empty
place, only try how little I mind myself, only prove what a world
of things I will do and bear for you, and I hope that you might
even come to be much better than you are, through me who am so
much worse, and hardly worth the thinking of beside you."'

As the face looking at the fire had become exalted and forgetful in
the rapture of these words, the little creature, openly clearing
away her fair hair with her disengaged hand, had gazed at it with
earnest attention and something like alarm. Now that the speaker
ceased, the little creature laid down her head again, and moaned,
'O me, O me, O me!'

'In pain, dear Jenny?' asked Lizzie, as if awakened.

'Yes, but not the old pain. Lay me down, lay me down. Don't go
out of my sight to-night. Lock the door and keep close to me.
Then turning away her face, she said in a whisper to herself, 'My
Lizzie, my poor Lizzie! O my blessed children, come back in the
long bright slanting rows, and come for her, not me. She wants
help more than I, my blessed children!'

She had stretched her hands up with that higher and better look,
and now she turned again, and folded them round Lizzie's neck,
and rocked herself on Lizzie's breast.

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