On the first-floor of the house was a Bank--a surprising experience for any gentleman of commercial pursuits bringing laws for all mankind from a British city--where two spare clerks, like dried dragoons, in green velvet caps adorned with golden tassels, stood, bearded, behind a small counter in a small room, containing no other visible objects than an empty iron-safe with the door open, a jug of water, and a papering of garland of roses; but who, on lawful requisition, by merely dipping their hands out of sight, could produce exhaustless mounds of five-franc pieces. Below the Bank was a suite of three or four rooms with barred windows, which had the appearance of a jail for criminal rats. Above the Bank was Mrs Gowan's residence.
Notwithstanding that its walls were blotched, as if missionary maps were bursting out of them to impart geographical knowledge; notwithstanding that its weird furniture was forlornly faded and musty, and that the prevailing Venetian odour of bilge water and an ebb tide on a weedy shore was very strong; the place was better within, than it promised. The door was opened by a smiling man like a reformed assassin--a temporary servant--who ushered them into the room where Mrs Gowan sat, with the announcement that two beautiful English ladies were come to see the mistress.
Mrs Gowan, who was engaged in needlework, put her work aside in a covered basket, and rose, a little hurriedly. Miss Fanny was excessively courteous to her, and said the usual nothings with the skill of a veteran.
'Papa was extremely sorry,' proceeded Fanny, 'to be engaged to-day (he is so much engaged here, our acquaintance being so wretchedly large!); and particularly requested me to bring his card for Mr Gowan. That I may be sure to acquit myself of a commission which he impressed upon me at least a dozen times, allow me to relieve my conscience by placing it on the table at once.'
Which she did with veteran ease.
'We have been,' said Fanny, 'charmed to understand that you know the Merdles. We hope it may be another means of bringing us together.'
'They are friends,' said Mrs Gowan, 'of Mr Gowan's family. I have not yet had the pleasure of a personal introduction to Mrs Merdle, but I suppose I shall be presented to her at Rome.'
'Indeed?' returned Fanny, with an appearance of amiably quenching her own superiority. 'I think you'll like her.'
'You know her very well?'
'Why, you see,' said Fanny, with a frank action of her pretty shoulders, 'in London one knows every one. We met her on our way here, and, to say the truth, papa was at first rather cross with her for taking one of the rooms that our people had ordered for us.
However, of course, that soon blew over, and we were all good friends again.'
Although the visit had as yet given Little Dorrit no opportunity of conversing with Mrs Gowan, there was a silent understanding between them, which did as well. She looked at Mrs Gowan with keen and unabated interest; the sound of her voice was thrilling to her; nothing that was near her, or about her, or at all concerned her, escaped Little Dorrit. She was quicker to perceive the slightest matter here, than in any other case--but one.
'You have been quite well,' she now said, 'since that night?'
'Quite, my dear. And you?' 'Oh! I am always well,' said Little Dorrit, timidly. 'I--yes, thank you.'
There was no reason for her faltering and breaking off, other than that Mrs Gowan had touched her hand in speaking to her, and their looks had met. Something thoughtfully apprehensive in the large, soft eyes, had checked Little Dorrit in an instant.
'You don't know that you are a favourite of my husband's, and that I am almost bound to be jealous of you?' said Mrs Gowan.
Little Dorrit, blushing, shook her head.
'He will tell you, if he tells you what he tells me, that you are quieter and quicker of resource than any one he ever saw.'
'He speaks far too well of me,' said Little Dorrit.
'I doubt that; but I don't at all doubt that I must tell him you are here.