I have a son (I was first married extremely young) of two or three-and-twenty.'
Fanny set her lips, and her eyes looked half triumphantly at her sister.
'A son of two or three-and-twenty. He is a little gay, a thing Society is accustomed to in young men, and he is very impressible. Perhaps he inherits that misfortune. I am very impressible myself, by nature. The weakest of creatures--my feelings are touched in a moment.'
She said all this, and everything else, as coldly as a woman of snow; quite forgetting the sisters except at odd times, and apparently addressing some abstraction of Society; for whose behoof, too, she occasionally arranged her dress, or the composition of her figure upon the ottoman.
'So he is very impressible. Not a misfortune in our natural state I dare say, but we are not in a natural state. Much to be lamented, no doubt, particularly by myself, who am a child of nature if I could but show it; but so it is. Society suppresses us and dominates us-- Bird, be quiet!' The parrot had broken into a violent fit of laughter, after twisting divers bars of his cage with his crooked bill, and licking them with his black tongue.
'It is quite unnecessary to say to a person of your good sense, wide range of experience, and cultivated feeling,' said Mrs Merdle from her nest of crimson and gold--and there put up her glass to refresh her memory as to whom she was addressing,--'that the stage sometimes has a fascination for young men of that class of character. In saying the stage, I mean the people on it of the female sex. Therefore, when I heard that my son was supposed to be fascinated by a dancer, I knew what that usually meant in Society, and confided in her being a dancer at the Opera, where young men moving in Society are usually fascinated.'
She passed her white hands over one another, observant of the sisters now; and the rings upon her fingers grated against each other with a hard sound.
'As your sister will tell you, when I found what the theatre was I was much surprised and much distressed. But when I found that your sister, by rejecting my son's advances (I must add, in an unexpected manner), had brought him to the point of proposing marriage, my feelings were of the profoundest anguish--acute.' She traced the outline of her left eyebrow, and put it right.
'In a distracted condition, which only a mother--moving in Society--can be susceptible of, I determined to go myself to the theatre, and represent my state of mind to the dancer. I made myself known to your sister. I found her, to my surprise, in many respects different from my expectations; and certainly in none more so, than in meeting me with--what shall I say--a sort of family assertion on her own part?' Mrs Merdle smiled.
'I told you, ma'am,' said Fanny, with a heightening colour, 'that although you found me in that situation, I was so far above the rest, that I considered my family as good as your son's; and that I had a brother who, knowing the circumstances, would be of the same opinion, and would not consider such a connection any honour.'
'Miss Dorrit,' said Mrs Merdle, after frostily looking at her through her glass, 'precisely what I was on the point of telling your sister, in pursuance of your request. Much obliged to you for recalling it so accurately and anticipating me. I immediately,' addressing Little Dorrit, '(for I am the creature of impulse), took a bracelet from my arm, and begged your sister to let me clasp it on hers, in token of the delight I had in our being able to approach the subject so far on a common footing.' (This was perfectly true, the lady having bought a cheap and showy article on her way to the interview, with a general eye to bribery.)
'And I told you, Mrs Merdle,' said Fanny, 'that we might be unfortunate, but we are not common.'
'I think, the very words, Miss Dorrit,' assented Mrs Merdle.
'And I told you, Mrs Merdle,' said Fanny, 'that if you spoke to me of the superiority of your son's standing in Society, it was barely possible that you rather deceived yourself in your suppositions about my origin; and that my father's standing, even in the Society in which he now moved (what that was, was best known to myself), was eminently superior, and was acknowledged by every one.'
'Quite accurate,' rejoined Mrs Merdle.