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Charles Dickens > Our Mutual Friend > Book 3 - 4

Our Mutual Friend

Book 3 - 4


Mr and Mrs Wilfer had seen a full quarter of a hundred more
anniversaries of their wedding day than Mr and Mrs Lammle had
seen of theirs, but they still celebrated the occasion in the bosom of
their family. Not that these celebrations ever resulted in anything
particularly agreeable, or that the family was ever disappointed by
that circumstance on account of having looked forward to the
return of the auspicious day with sanguine anticipations of
enjoyment. It was kept morally, rather as a Fast than a Feast,
enabling Mrs Wilfer to hold a sombre darkling state, which
exhibited that impressive woman in her choicest colours.

The noble lady's condition on these delightful occasions was one
compounded of heroic endurance and heroic forgiveness. Lurid
indications of the better marriages she might have made, shone
athwart the awful gloom of her composure, and fitfully revealed the
cherub as a little monster unaccountably favoured by Heaven, who
had possessed himself of a blessing for which many of his
superiors had sued and contended in vain. So firmly had this his
position towards his treasure become established, that when the
anniversary arrived, it always found him in an apologetic state. It
is not impossible that his modest penitence may have even gone
the length of sometimes severely reproving him for that he ever
took the liberty of making so exalted a character his wife.

As for the children of the union, their experience of these festivals
had been sufficiently uncomfortable to lead them annually to wish,
when out of their tenderest years, either that Ma had married
somebody else instead of much-teased Pa, or that Pa had married
somebody else instead of Ma. When there came to be but two
sisters left at home, the daring mind of Bella on the next of these
occasions scaled the height of wondering with droll vexation 'what
on earth Pa ever could have seen in Ma, to induce him to make
such a little fool of himself as to ask her to have him.'

The revolving year now bringing the day round in its orderly
sequence, Bella arrived in the Boffin chariot to assist at the
celebration. It was the family custom when the day recurred, to
sacrifice a pair of fowls on the altar of Hymen; and Bella had sent a
note beforehand, to intimate that she would bring the votive
offering with her. So, Bella and the fowls, by the united energies
of two horses, two men, four wheels, and a plum-pudding carriage
dog with as uncomfortable a collar on as if he had been George the
Fourth, were deposited at the door of the parental dwelling. They
were there received by Mrs Wilfer in person, whose dignity on this,
as on most special occasions, was heightened by a mysterious

'I shall not require the carriage at night,' said Bella. 'I shall walk

The male domestic of Mrs Boffin touched his hat, and in the act of
departure had an awful glare bestowed upon him by Mrs Wilfer,
intended to carry deep into his audacious soul the assurance that,
whatever his private suspicions might be, male domestics in livery
were no rarity there.

'Well, dear Ma,' said Bella, 'and how do you do?'

'I am as well, Bella,' replied Mrs Wilfer, 'as can be expected.'

'Dear me, Ma,' said Bella; 'you talk as if one was just born!'

'That's exactly what Ma has been doing,' interposed Lavvy, over
the maternal shoulder, 'ever since we got up this morning. It's all
very well to laugh, Bella, but anything more exasperating it is
impossible to conceive.'

Mrs Wilfer, with a look too full of majesty to be accompanied by
any words, attended both her daughters to the kitchen, where the
sacrifice was to be prepared.

'Mr Rokesmith,' said she, resignedly, 'has been so polite as to place
his sitting-room at our disposal to-day. You will therefore, Bella,
be entertained in the humble abode of your parents, so far in
accordance with your present style of living, that there will be a
drawing-room for your reception as well as a dining-room. Your
papa invited Mr Rokesmith to partake of our lowly fare. In
excusing himself on account of a particular engagement, he offered
the use of his apartment.'

Bella happened to know that he had no engagement out of his own
room at Mr Boffin's, but she approved of his staying away. 'We
should only have put one another out of countenance,' she thought,
'and we do that quite often enough as it is.'

Yet she had sufficient curiosity about his room, to run up to it with
the least possible delay, and make a close inspection of its
contents. It was tastefully though economically furnished, and
very neatly arranged. There were shelves and stands of books,
English, French, and Italian; and in a portfolio on the writing-table
there were sheets upon sheets of memoranda and calculations in
figures, evidently referring to the Boffin property. On that table
also, carefully backed with canvas, varnished, mounted, and rolled
like a map, was the placard descriptive of the murdered man who
had come from afar to be her husband. She shrank from this
ghostly surprise, and felt quite frightened as she rolled and tied it
up again. Peeping about here and there, she came upon a print, a
graceful head of a pretty woman, elegantly framed, hanging in the
corner by the easy chair. 'Oh, indeed, sir!' said Bella, after
stopping to ruminate before it. 'Oh, indeed, sir! I fancy I can guess
whom you think THAT'S like. But I'll tell you what it's much
more like--your impudence!' Having said which she decamped:
not solely because she was offended, but because there was
nothing else to look at.

'Now, Ma,' said Bella, reappearing in the kitchen with some
remains of a blush, 'you and Lavvy think magnificent me fit for
nothing, but I intend to prove the contrary. I mean to be Cook

'Hold!' rejoined her majestic mother. 'I cannot permit it. Cook, in
that dress!'

'As for my dress, Ma,' returned Bella, merrily searching in a
dresser-drawer, 'I mean to apron it and towel it all over the front;
and as to permission, I mean to do without.'

'YOU cook?' said Mrs Wilfer. 'YOU, who never cooked when you
were at home?'

'Yes, Ma,' returned Bella; 'that is precisely the state of the case.'

She girded herself with a white apron, and busily with knots and
pins contrived a bib to it, coming close and tight under her chin, as
if it had caught her round the neck to kiss her. Over this bib her
dimples looked delightful, and under it her pretty figure not less so.
'Now, Ma,' said Bella, pushing back her hair from her temples
with both hands, 'what's first?'

'First,' returned Mrs Wilfer solemnly, 'if you persist in what I
cannot but regard as conduct utterly incompatible with the
equipage in which you arrived--'

('Which I do, Ma.')

'First, then, you put the fowls down to the fire.'

'To--be--sure!' cried Bella; 'and flour them, and twirl them round,
and there they go!' sending them spinning at a great rate. 'What's
next, Ma?'

'Next,' said Mrs Wilfer with a wave of her gloves, expressive of
abdication under protest from the culinary throne, 'I would
recommend examination of the bacon in the saucepan on the fire,
and also of the potatoes by the application of a fork. Preparation of
the greens will further become necessary if you persist in this
unseemly demeanour.'

'As of course I do, Ma.'

Persisting, Bella gave her attention to one thing and forgot the
other, and gave her attention to the other and forgot the third, and
remembering the third was distracted by the fourth, and made
amends whenever she went wrong by giving the unfortunate fowls
an extra spin, which made their chance of ever getting cooked
exceedingly doubtful. But it was pleasant cookery too. Meantime
Miss Lavinia, oscillating between the kitchen and the opposite
room, prepared the dining-table in the latter chamber. This office
she (always doing her household spiriting with unwillingness)
performed in a startling series of whisks and bumps; laying the
table-cloth as if she were raising the wind, putting down the
glasses and salt-cellars as if she were knocking at the door, and
clashing the knives and forks in a skirmishing manner suggestive
of hand-to-hand conflict.

'Look at Ma,' whispered Lavinia to Bella when this was done, and
they stood over the roasting fowls. 'If one was the most dutiful
child in existence (of course on the whole one hopes one is), isn't
she enough to make one want to poke her with something wooden,
sitting there bolt upright in a corner?'

'Only suppose,' returned Bella, 'that poor Pa was to sit bolt upright
in another corner.'

'My dear, he couldn't do it,' said Lavvy. 'Pa would loll directly.
But indeed I do not believe there ever was any human creature who
could keep so bolt upright as Ma, 'or put such an amount of
aggravation into one back! What's the matter, Ma? Ain't you well,

'Doubtless I am very well,' returned Mrs Wilfer, turning her eyes
upon her youngest born, with scornful fortitude. 'What should be
the matter with Me?'

'You don't seem very brisk, Ma,' retorted Lavvy the bold.

'Brisk?' repeated her parent, 'Brisk? Whence the low expression,
Lavinia? If I am uncomplaining, if I am silently contented with my
lot, let that suffice for my family.'

'Well, Ma,' returned Lavvy, 'since you will force it out of me, I
must respectfully take leave to say that your family are no doubt
under the greatest obligations to you for having an annual
toothache on your wedding day, and that it's very disinterested in
you, and an immense blessing to them. Still, on the whole, it is
possible to be too boastful even of that boon.'

'You incarnation of sauciness,' said Mrs Wilfer, 'do you speak like
that to me? On this day, of all days in the year? Pray do you know
what would have become of you, if I had not bestowed my hand
upon R. W., your father, on this day?'

'No, Ma,' replied Lavvy, 'I really do not; and, with the greatest
respect for your abilities and information, I very much doubt if you
do either.'

Whether or no the sharp vigour of this sally on a weak point of Mrs
Wilfer's entrenchments might have routed that heroine for the time,
is rendered uncertain by the arrival of a flag of truce in the person
of Mr George Sampson: bidden to the feast as a friend of the
family, whose affections were now understood to be in course of
transference from Bella to Lavinia, and whom Lavinia kept--
possibly in remembrance of his bad taste in having overlooked her
in the first instance--under a course of stinging discipline.

'I congratulate you, Mrs Wilfer,' said Mr George Sampson, who
had meditated this neat address while coming along, 'on the day.'
Mrs Wilfer thanked him with a magnanimous sigh, and again
became an unresisting prey to that inscrutable toothache.

'I am surprised,' said Mr Sampson feebly, 'that Miss Bella
condescends to cook.'

Here Miss Lavinia descended on the ill-starred young gentleman
with a crushing supposition that at all events it was no business of
his. This disposed of Mr Sampson in a melancholy retirement of
spirit, until the cherub arrived, whose amazement at the lovely
woman's occupation was great.

However, she persisted in dishing the dinner as well as cooking it,
and then sat down, bibless and apronless, to partake of it as an
illustrious guest: Mrs Wilfer first responding to her husband's
cheerful 'For what we are about to receive--'with a sepulchral
Amen, calculated to cast a damp upon the stoutest appetite.

'But what,' said Bella, as she watched the carving of the fowls,
'makes them pink inside, I wonder, Pa! Is it the breed?'

'No, I don't think it's the breed, my dear,' returned Pa. 'I rather
think it is because they are not done.'

'They ought to be,' said Bella.

'Yes, I am aware they ought to be, my dear,' rejoined her father,
'but they--ain't.'

So, the gridiron was put in requisition, and the good-tempered
cherub, who was often as un-cherubically employed in his own
family as if he had been in the employment of some of the Old
Masters, undertook to grill the fowls. Indeed, except in respect of
staring about him (a branch of the public service to which the
pictorial cherub is much addicted), this domestic cherub
discharged as many odd functions as his prototype; with the
difference, say, that he performed with a blacking-brush on the
family's boots, instead of performing on enormous wind
instruments and double-basses, and that he conducted himself with
cheerful alacrity to much useful purpose, instead of foreshortening
himself in the air with the vaguest intentions.

Bella helped him with his supplemental cookery, and made him
very happy, but put him in mortal terror too by asking him when
they sat down at table again, how he supposed they cooked fowls
at the Greenwich dinners, and whether he believed they really were
such pleasant dinners as people said? His secret winks and nods
of remonstrance, in reply, made the mischievous Bella laugh until
she choked, and then Lavinia was obliged to slap her on the back,
and then she laughed the more.

But her mother was a fine corrective at the other end of the table; to
whom her father, in the innocence of his good-fellowship, at
intervals appealed with: 'My dear, I am afraid you are not enjoying

'Why so, R. W.?' she would sonorously reply.

'Because, my dear, you seem a little out of sorts.'

'Not at all,' would be the rejoinder, in exactly the same tone.

'Would you take a merry-thought, my dear?'

'Thank you. I will take whatever you please, R. W.'

'Well, but my dear, do you like it?'

'I like it as well as I like anything, R. W.' The stately woman
would then, with a meritorious appearance of devoting herself to
the general good, pursue her dinner as if she were feeding
somebody else on high public grounds.

Bella had brought dessert and two bottles of wine, thus shedding
unprecedented splendour on the occasion. Mrs Wilfer did the
honours of the first glass by proclaiming: 'R. W. I drink to you.

'Thank you, my dear. And I to you.'

'Pa and Ma!' said Bella.

'Permit me,' Mrs Wilfer interposed, with outstretched glove. 'No. I
think not. I drank to your papa. If, however, you insist on
including me, I can in gratitude offer no objection.'

'Why, Lor, Ma,' interposed Lavvy the bold, 'isn't it the day that
made you and Pa one and the same? I have no patience!'

'By whatever other circumstance the day may be marked, it is not
the day, Lavinia, on which I will allow a child of mine to pounce
upon me. I beg--nay, command!--that you will not pounce. R. W.,
it is appropriate to recall that it is for you to command and for me
to obey. It is your house, and you are master at your own table.
Both our healths!' Drinking the toast with tremendous stiffness.

'I really am a little afraid, my dear,' hinted the cherub meekly, 'that
you are not enjoying yourself?'

'On the contrary,' returned Mrs Wilfer, 'quite so. Why should I

'I thought, my dear, that perhaps your face might--'

'My face might be a martyrdom, but what would that import, or
who should know it, if I smiled?'

And she did smile; manifestly freezing the blood of Mr George
Sampson by so doing. For that young gentleman, catching her
smiling eye, was so very much appalled by its expression as to cast
about in his thoughts concerning what he had done to bring it
down upon himself.

'The mind naturally falls,' said Mrs Wilfer, 'shall I say into a
reverie, or shall I say into a retrospect? on a day like this.'

Lavvy, sitting with defiantly folded arms, replied (but not audibly),
'For goodness' sake say whichever of the two you like best, Ma,
and get it over.'

'The mind,' pursued Mrs Wilfer in an oratorical manner, 'naturally
reverts to Papa and Mamma--I here allude to my parents--at a
period before the earliest dawn of this day. I was considered tall;
perhaps I was. Papa and Mamma were unquestionably tall. I have
rarely seen a finer women than my mother; never than my father.'

The irrepressible Lavvy remarked aloud, 'Whatever grandpapa
was, he wasn't a female.'

'Your grandpapa,' retorted Mrs Wilfer, with an awful look, and in
an awful tone, 'was what I describe him to have been, and would
have struck any of his grandchildren to the earth who presumed to
question it. It was one of mamma's cherished hopes that I should
become united to a tall member of society. It may have been a
weakness, but if so, it was equally the weakness, I believe, of King
Frederick of Prussia.' These remarks being offered to Mr George
Sampson, who had not the courage to come out for single combat,
but lurked with his chest under the table and his eyes cast down,
Mrs Wilfer proceeded, in a voice of increasing sternness and
impressiveness, until she should force that skulker to give himself
up. 'Mamma would appear to have had an indefinable foreboding
of what afterwards happened, for she would frequently urge upon
me, "Not a little man. Promise me, my child, not a little man.
Never, never, never, marry a little man!" Papa also would remark
to me (he possessed extraordinary humour),"that a family of
whales must not ally themselves with sprats." His company was
eagerly sought, as may be supposed, by the wits of the day, and our
house was their continual resort. I have known as many as three
copper-plate engravers exchanging the most exquisite sallies and
retorts there, at one time.' (Here Mr Sampson delivered himself
captive, and said, with an uneasy movement on his chair, that three
was a large number, and it must have been highly entertaining.)
'Among the most prominent members of that distinguished circle,
was a gentleman measuring six feet four in height. HE was NOT
an engraver.' (Here Mr Sampson said, with no reason whatever,
Of course not.) 'This gentleman was so obliging as to honour me
with attentions which I could not fail to understand.' (Here Mr
Sampson murmured that when it came to that, you could always
tell.) 'I immediately announced to both my parents that those
attentions were misplaced, and that I could not favour his suit.
They inquired was he too tall? I replied it was not the stature, but
the intellect was too lofty. At our house, I said, the tone was too
brilliant, the pressure was too high, to be maintained by me, a mere
woman, in every-day domestic life. I well remember mamma's
clasping her hands, and exclaiming "This will end in a little man!"'
(Here Mr Sampson glanced at his host and shook his head with
despondency.) 'She afterwards went so far as to predict that it
would end in a little man whose mind would be below the average,
but that was in what I may denominate a paroxysm of maternal
disappointment. Within a month,' said Mrs Wilfer, deepening her
voice, as if she were relating a terrible ghost story, 'within a-month,
I first saw R. W. my husband. Within a year, I married him. It is
natural for the mind to recall these dark coincidences on the
present day.'

Mr Sampson at length released from the custody of Mrs Wilfer's
eye, now drew a long breath, and made the original and striking
remark that there was no accounting for these sort of
presentiments. R. W. scratched his head and looked apologetically
all round the table until he came to his wife, when observing her as
it were shrouded in a more sombre veil than before, he once more
hinted, 'My dear, I am really afraid you are not altogether enjoying
yourself?' To which she once more replied, 'On the contrary, R. W.
Quite so.'

The wretched Mr Sampson's position at this agreeable entertainment
was truly pitiable. For, not only was he exposed defenceless
to the harangues of Mrs Wilfer, but he received the utmost
contumely at the hands of Lavinia; who, partly to show Bella that
she (Lavinia) could do what she liked with him, and partly to pay
him off for still obviously admiring Bella's beauty, led him
the life of a dog. Illuminated on the one hand by the stately
graces of Mrs Wilfer's oratory, and shadowed on the other by the
checks and frowns of the young lady to whom he had devoted
himself in his destitution, the sufferings of this young gentleman
were distressing to witness. If his mind for the moment reeled
under them, it may be urged, in extenuation of its weakness, that it
was constitutionally a knock-knee'd mind and never very strong
upon its legs.

The rosy hours were thus beguiled until it was time for Bella to
have Pa's escort back. The dimples duly tied up in the bonnet-
strings and the leave-taking done, they got out into the air, and the
cherub drew a long breath as if he found it refreshing.

'Well, dear Pa,' said Bella, 'the anniversary may be considered

'Yes, my dear,' returned the cherub, 'there's another of 'em gone.'

Bella drew his arm closer through hers as they walked along, and
gave it a number of consolatory pats. 'Thank you, my dear,' he
said, as if she had spoken; 'I am all right, my dear. Well, and how
do you get on, Bella?'

'I am not at all improved, Pa.'

'Ain't you really though?'

'No, Pa. On the contrary, I am worse.'

'Lor!' said the cherub.

'I am worse, Pa. I make so many calculations how much a year I
must have when I marry, and what is the least I can manage to do
with, that I am beginning to get wrinkles over my nose. Did you
notice any wrinkles over my nose this evening, Pa?'

Pa laughing at this, Bella gave him two or three shakes.

'You won't laugh, sir, when you see your lovely woman turning
haggard. You had better be prepared in time, I can tell you. I shall
not be able to keep my greediness for money out of my eyes long,
and when you see it there you'll be sorry, and serve you right for
not being warned in time. Now, sir, we entered into a bond of
confidence. Have you anything to impart?'

'I thought it was you who was to impart, my love.'

'Oh! did you indeed, sir? Then why didn't you ask me, the moment
we came out? The confidences of lovely women are not to be
slighted. However, I forgive you this once, and look here, Pa;
that's'--Bella laid the little forefinger of her right glove on her lip,
and then laid it on her father's lip--'that's a kiss for you. And now I
am going seriously to tell you--let me see how many--four secrets.
Mind! Serious, grave, weighty secrets. Strictly between

'Number one, my dear?' said her father, settling her arm
comfortably and confidentially.

'Number one,' said Bella, 'will electrify you, Pa. Who do you think
has'--she was confused here in spite of her merry way of beginning
'has made an offer to me?'

Pa looked in her face, and looked at the ground, and looked in her
face again, and declared he could never guess.

'Mr Rokesmith.'

'You don't tell me so, my dear!'

'Mis--ter Roke--smith, Pa,' said Bella separating the syllables for
emphasis. 'What do you say to THAT?'

Pa answered quietly with the counter-question, 'What did YOU say
to that, my love?'

'I said No,' returned Bella sharply. 'Of course.'

'Yes. Of course,' said her father, meditating.

'And I told him why I thought it a betrayal of trust on his part, and
an affront to me,' said Bella.

'Yes. To be sure. I am astonished indeed. I wonder he committed
himself without seeing more of his way first. Now I think of it, I
suspect he always has admired you though, my dear.'

'A hackney coachman may admire me,' remarked Bella, with a
touch of her mother's loftiness.

'It's highly probable, my love. Number two, my dear?'

'Number two, Pa, is much to the same purpose, though not so
preposterous. Mr Lightwood would propose to me, if I would let

'Then I understand, my dear, that you don't intend to let him?'

Bella again saying, with her former emphasis, 'Why, of course not!'
her father felt himself bound to echo, 'Of course not.'

'I don't care for him,' said Bella.

'That's enough,' her father interposed.

'No, Pa, it's NOT enough,' rejoined Bella, giving him another
shake or two. 'Haven't I told you what a mercenary little wretch I
am? It only becomes enough when he has no money, and no
clients, and no expectations, and no anything but debts.'

'Hah!' said the cherub, a little depressed. 'Number three, my dear?'

'Number three, Pa, is a better thing. A generous thing, a noble
thing, a delightful thing. Mrs Boffin has herself told me, as a
secret, with her own kind lips--and truer lips never opened or
closed in this life, I am sure--that they wish to see me well
married; and that when I marry with their consent they will portion
me most handsomely.' Here the grateful girl burst out crying very

'Don't cry, my darling,' said her father, with his hand to his eyes;
'it's excusable in me to be a little overcome when I find that my
dear favourite child is, after all disappointments, to be so provided
for and so raised in the world; but don't YOU cry, don't YOU cry.
I am very thankful. I congratulate you with all my heart, my dear.'
The good soft little fellow, drying his eyes, here, Bella put her arms
round his neck and tenderly kissed him on the high road,
passionately telling him he was the best of fathers and the best of
friends, and that on her wedding-morning she would go down on
her knees to him and beg his pardon for having ever teased him or
seemed insensible to the worth of such a patient, sympathetic,
genial, fresh young heart. At every one of her adjectives she
redoubled her kisses, and finally kissed his hat off, and then
laughed immoderately when the wind took it and he ran after it.

When he had recovered his hat and his breath, and they were going
on again once more, said her father then: 'Number four, my dear?'

Bella's countenance fell in the midst of her mirth. 'After all,
perhaps I had better put off number four, Pa. Let me try once
more, if for never so short a time, to hope that it may not really be

The change in her, strengthened the cherub's interest in number
four, and he said quietly: 'May not be so, my dear? May not be
how, my dear?'

Bella looked at him pensively, and shook her head.

'And yet I know right well it is so, Pa. I know it only too well.'

'My love,' returned her father, 'you make me quite uncomfortable.
Have you said No to anybody else, my dear?'

'No, Pa.'

'Yes to anybody?' he suggested, lifting up his eyebrows.

'No, Pa.'

'Is there anybody else who would take his chance between Yes and
No, if you would let him, my dear?'

'Not that I know of, Pa.'

'There can't be somebody who won't take his chance when you
want him to?' said the cherub, as a last resource.

'Why, of course not, Pa, said Bella, giving him another shake or

'No, of course not,' he assented. 'Bella, my dear, I am afraid I must
either have no sleep to-night, or I must press for number four.'

'Oh, Pa, there is no good in number four! I am so sorry for it, I am
so unwilling to believe it, I have tried so earnestly not to see it, that
it is very hard to tell, even to you. But Mr Boffin is being spoilt by
prosperity, and is changing every day.'

'My dear Bella, I hope and trust not.'

'I have hoped and trusted not too, Pa; but every day he changes for
the worse, and for the worse. Not to me--he is always much the
same to me--but to others about him. Before my eyes he grows
suspicious, capricious, hard, tyrannical, unjust. If ever a good man
were ruined by good fortune, it is my benefactor. And yet, Pa,
think how terrible the fascination of money is! I see this, and hate
this, and dread this, and don't know but that money might make a
much worse change in me. And yet I have money always in my
thoughts and my desires; and the whole life I place before myself is
money, money, money, and what money can make of life!'

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