That affair of Henry's that I told you of, is to take place. Now, how does it strike you? I am dying to know, because you represent and express Society so well.'
Mrs Merdle reviewed the bosom which Society was accustomed to review; and having ascertained that show-window of Mr Merdle's and the London jewellers' to be in good order, replied:
'As to marriage on the part of a man, my dear, Society requires that he should retrieve his fortunes by marriage. Society requires that he should gain by marriage. Society requires that he should found a handsome establishment by marriage. Society does not see, otherwise, what he has to do with marriage. Bird, be quiet!'
For the parrot on his cage above them, presiding over the conference as if he were a judge (and indeed he looked rather like one), had wound up the exposition with a shriek.
'Cases there are,' said Mrs Merdle, delicately crooking the little finger of her favourite hand, and making her remarks neater by that neat action; 'cases there are where a man is not young or elegant, and is rich, and has a handsome establishment already. Those are of a different kind. In such cases--'
Mrs Merdle shrugged her snowy shoulders and put her hand upon the jewel-stand, checking a little cough, as though to add, 'why, a man looks out for this sort of thing, my dear.' Then the parrot shrieked again, and she put up her glass to look at him, and said, 'Bird! Do be quiet!' 'But, young men,' resumed Mrs Merdle, 'and by young men you know what I mean, my love--I mean people's sons who have the world before them--they must place themselves in a better position towards Society by marriage, or Society really will not have any patience with their making fools of themselves. Dreadfully worldly all this sounds,' said Mrs Merdle, leaning back in her nest and putting up her glass again, 'does it not?'
'But it is true,' said Mrs Gowan, with a highly moral air.
'My dear, it is not to be disputed for a moment,' returned Mrs Merdle; 'because Society has made up its mind on the subject, and there is nothing more to be said. If we were in a more primitive state, if we lived under roofs of leaves, and kept cows and sheep and creatures instead of banker's accounts (which would be delicious; my dear, I am pastoral to a degree, by nature), well and good. But we don't live under leaves, and keep cows and sheep and creatures. I perfectly exhaust myself sometimes, in pointing out the distinction to Edmund Sparkler.'
Mrs Gowan, looking over her green fan when this young gentleman's name was mentioned, replied as follows:
'My love, you know the wretched state of the country--those unfortunate concessions of John Barnacle's!--and you therefore know the reasons for my being as poor as Thingummy.'
'A church mouse?' Mrs Merdle suggested with a smile.
'I was thinking of the other proverbial church person--Job,' said Mrs Gowan. 'Either will do. It would be idle to disguise, consequently, that there is a wide difference between the position of your son and mine. I may add, too, that Henry has talent--'
'Which Edmund certainly has not,' said Mrs Merdle, with the greatest suavity.
'--and that his talent, combined with disappointment,' Mrs Gowan went on, 'has led him into a pursuit which--ah dear me! You know, my dear. Such being Henry's different position, the question is what is the most inferior class of marriage to which I can reconcile myself.'
Mrs Merdle was so much engaged with the contemplation of her arms (beautiful-formed arms, and the very thing for bracelets), that she omitted to reply for a while. Roused at length by the silence, she folded the arms, and with admirable presence of mind looked her friend full in the face, and said interrogatively, 'Ye-es? And then?'
'And then, my dear,' said Mrs Gowan not quite so sweetly as before, 'I should be glad to hear what you have to say to it.'
Here the parrot, who had been standing on one leg since he screamed last, burst into a fit of laughter, bobbed himself derisively up and down on both legs, and finished by standing on one leg again, and pausing for a reply, with his head as much awry as he could possibly twist it.