'Sounds mercenary to ask what the gentleman is to get with the lady,' said Mrs Merdle; 'but Society is perhaps a little mercenary, you know, my dear.'
'From what I can make out,' said Mrs Gowan, 'I believe I may say that Henry will be relieved from debt--'
'Much in debt?' asked Mrs Merdle through her eyeglass.
'Why tolerably, I should think,' said Mrs Gowan.
'Meaning the usual thing; I understand; just so,' Mrs Merdle observed in a comfortable sort of way.
'And that the father will make them an allowance of three hundred a-year, or perhaps altogether something more, which, in Italy-'
'Oh! Going to Italy?' said Mrs Merdle.
'For Henry to study. You need be at no loss to guess why, my dear.
That dreadful Art--'
True. Mrs Merdle hastened to spare the feelings of her afflicted friend. She understood. Say no more!
'And that,' said Mrs Gowan, shaking her despondent head, 'that's all. That,' repeated Mrs Gowan, furling her green fan for the moment, and tapping her chin with it (it was on the way to being a double chin; might be called a chin and a half at present), 'that's all! On the death of the old people, I suppose there will be more to come; but how it may be restricted or locked up, I don't know. And as to that, they may live for ever. My dear, they are just the kind of people to do it.'
Now, Mrs Merdle, who really knew her friend Society pretty well, and who knew what Society's mothers were, and what Society's daughters were, and what Society's matrimonial market was, and how prices ruled in it, and what scheming and counter-scheming took place for the high buyers, and what bargaining and huckstering went on, thought in the depths of her capacious bosom that this was a sufficiently good catch. Knowing, however, what was expected of her, and perceiving the exact nature of the fiction to be nursed, she took it delicately in her arms, and put her required contribution of gloss upon it.
'And that is all, my dear?' said she, heaving a friendly sigh. 'Well, well! The fault is not yours. You have nothing to reproach yourself with. You must exercise the strength of mind for which you are renowned, and make the best of it.' 'The girl's family have made,' said Mrs Gowan, 'of course, the most strenuous endeavours to--as the lawyers say--to have and to hold Henry.'
'Of course they have, my dear,' said Mrs Merdle.
'I have persisted in every possible objection, and have worried myself morning, noon, and night, for means to detach Henry from the connection.'
'No doubt you have, my dear,' said Mrs Merdle.
'And all of no use. All has broken down beneath me. Now tell me, my love. Am I justified in at last yielding my most reluctant consent to Henry's marrying among people not in Society; or, have I acted with inexcusable weakness?'
In answer to this direct appeal, Mrs Merdle assured Mrs Gowan (speaking as a Priestess of Society) that she was highly to be commended, that she was much to be sympathised with, that she had taken the highest of parts, and had come out of the furnace refined. And Mrs Gowan, who of course saw through her own threadbare blind perfectly, and who knew that Mrs Merdle saw through it perfectly, and who knew that Society would see through it perfectly, came out of this form, notwithstanding, as she had gone into it, with immense complacency and gravity.
The conference was held at four or five o'clock in the afternoon, when all the region of Harley Street, Cavendish Square, was resonant of carriage-wheels and double-knocks. It had reached this point when Mr Merdle came home from his daily occupation of causing the British name to be more and more respected in all parts of the civilised globe capable of the appreciation of world-wide commercial enterprise and gigantic combinations of skill and capital. For, though nobody knew with the least precision what Mr Merdle's business was, except that it was to coin money, these were the terms in which everybody defined it on all ceremonious occasions, and which it was the last new polite reading of the parable of the camel and the needle's eye to accept without inquiry.