Fanny walked in, taking her sister with her; and they went up- stairs with powder going before and powder stopping behind, and were left in a spacious semicircular drawing-room, one of several drawing-rooms, where there was a parrot on the outside of a golden cage holding on by its beak, with its scaly legs in the air, and putting itself into many strange upside-down postures. This peculiarity has been observed in birds of quite another feather, climbing upon golden wires.
The room was far more splendid than anything Little Dorrit had ever imagined, and would have been splendid and costly in any eyes. She looked in amazement at her sister and would have asked a question, but that Fanny with a warning frown pointed to a curtained doorway of communication with another room. The curtain shook next moment, and a lady, raising it with a heavily ringed hand, dropped it behind her again as she entered.
The lady was not young and fresh from the hand of Nature, but was young and fresh from the hand of her maid. She had large unfeeling handsome eyes, and dark unfeeling handsome hair, and a broad unfeeling handsome bosom, and was made the most of in every particular. Either because she had a cold, or because it suited her face, she wore a rich white fillet tied over her head and under her chin. And if ever there were an unfeeling handsome chin that looked as if, for certain, it had never been, in familiar parlance, 'chucked' by the hand of man, it was the chin curbed up so tight and close by that laced bridle.
'Mrs Merdle,' said Fanny. 'My sister, ma'am.'
'I am glad to see your sister, Miss Dorrit. I did not remember that you had a sister.'
'I did not mention that I had,' said Fanny.
'Ah!' Mrs Merdle curled the little finger of her left hand as who should say, 'I have caught you. I know you didn't!' All her action was usually with her left hand because her hands were not a pair; and left being much the whiter and plumper of the two. Then she added: 'Sit down,' and composed herself voluptuously, in a nest of crimson and gold cushions, on an ottoman near the parrot.
'Also professional?' said Mrs Merdle, looking at Little Dorrit through an eye-glass.
Fanny answered No. 'No,' said Mrs Merdle, dropping her glass. 'Has not a professional air. Very pleasant; but not professional.'
'My sister, ma'am,' said Fanny, in whom there was a singular mixture of deference and hardihood, 'has been asking me to tell her, as between sisters, how I came to have the honour of knowing you. And as I had engaged to call upon you once more, I thought I might take the liberty of bringing her with me, when perhaps you would tell her. I wish her to know, and perhaps you will tell her?' 'Do you think, at your sister's age--' hinted Mrs Merdle.
'She is much older than she looks,' said Fanny; 'almost as old as I am.'
'Society,' said Mrs Merdle, with another curve of her little finger, 'is so difficult to explain to young persons (indeed is so difficult to explain to most persons), that I am glad to hear that.
I wish Society was not so arbitrary, I wish it was not so exacting -- Bird, be quiet!'
The parrot had given a most piercing shriek, as if its name were Society and it asserted its right to its exactions.
'But,' resumed Mrs Merdle, 'we must take it as we find it. We know it is hollow and conventional and worldly and very shocking, but unless we are Savages in the Tropical seas (I should have been charmed to be one myself--most delightful life and perfect climate, I am told), we must consult it. It is the common lot. Mr Merdle is a most extensive merchant, his transactions are on the vastest scale, his wealth and influence are very great, but even he-- Bird, be quiet!'
The parrot had shrieked another shriek; and it filled up the sentence so expressively that Mrs Merdle was under no necessity to end it.
'Since your sister begs that I would terminate our personal acquaintance,' she began again, addressing Little Dorrit, 'by relating the circumstances that are much to her credit, I cannot object to comply with her request, I am sure.