Everybody was walking about St Peter's and the Vatican on somebody else's cork legs, and straining every visible object through somebody else's sieve. Nobody said what anything was, but everybody said what the Mrs Generals, Mr Eustace, or somebody else said it was. The whole body of travellers seemed to be a collection of voluntary human sacrifices, bound hand and foot, and delivered over to Mr Eustace and his attendants, to have the entrails of their intellects arranged according to the taste of that sacred priesthood. Through the rugged remains of temples and tombs and palaces and senate halls and theatres and amphitheatres of ancient days, hosts of tongue-tied and blindfolded moderns were carefully feeling their way, incessantly repeating Prunes and Prism in the endeavour to set their lips according to the received form. Mrs General was in her pure element. Nobody had an opinion. There was a formation of surface going on around her on an amazing scale, and it had not a flaw of courage or honest free speech in it.
Another modification of Prunes and Prism insinuated itself on Little Dorrit's notice very shortly after their arrival. They received an early visit from Mrs Merdle, who led that extensive department of life in the Eternal City that winter; and the skilful manner in which she and Fanny fenced with one another on the occasion, almost made her quiet sister wink, like the glittering of small-swords.
'So delighted,' said Mrs Merdle, 'to resume an acquaintance so inauspiciously begun at Martigny.'
'At Martigny, of course,' said Fanny. 'Charmed, I am sure!'
'I understand,' said Mrs Merdle, 'from my son Edmund Sparkler, that he has already improved that chance occasion. He has returned quite transported with Venice.'
'Indeed?' returned the careless Fanny. 'Was he there long?'
'I might refer that question to Mr Dorrit,' said Mrs Merdle, turning the bosom towards that gentleman; 'Edmund having been so much indebted to him for rendering his stay agreeable.'
'Oh, pray don't speak of it,' returned Fanny. 'I believe Papa had the pleasure of inviting Mr Sparkler twice or thrice,--but it was nothing. We had so many people about us, and kept such open house, that if he had that pleasure, it was less than nothing.'
'Except, my dear,' said Mr Dorrit, 'except--ha--as it afforded me unusual gratification to--hum--show by any means, however slight and worthless, the--ha, hum--high estimation in which, in--ha-- common with the rest of the world, I hold so distinguished and princely a character as Mr Merdle's.'
The bosom received this tribute in its most engaging manner. 'Mr Merdle,' observed Fanny, as a means of dismissing Mr Sparkler into the background, 'is quite a theme of Papa's, you must know, Mrs Merdle.'
'I have been--ha--disappointed, madam,' said Mr Dorrit, 'to understand from Mr Sparkler that there is no great--hum-- probability of Mr Merdle's coming abroad.'
'Why, indeed,' said Mrs Merdle, 'he is so much engaged and in such request, that I fear not. He has not been able to get abroad for years. You, Miss Dorrit, I believe have been almost continually abroad for a long time.'
'Oh dear yes,' drawled Fanny, with the greatest hardihood. 'An immense number of years.'
'So I should have inferred,' said Mrs Merdle.
'Exactly,' said Fanny.
'I trust, however,' resumed Mr Dorrit, 'that if I have not the-- hum--great advantage of becoming known to Mr Merdle on this side of the Alps or Mediterranean, I shall have that honour on returning to England. It is an honour I particularly desire and shall particularly esteem.' 'Mr Merdle,' said Mrs Merdle, who had been looking admiringly at Fanny through her eye-glass, 'will esteem it, I am sure, no less.'
Little Dorrit, still habitually thoughtful and solitary though no longer alone, at first supposed this to be mere Prunes and Prism. But as her father when they had been to a brilliant reception at Mrs Merdle's, harped at their own family breakfast-table on his wish to know Mr Merdle, with the contingent view of benefiting by the advice of that wonderful man in the disposal of his fortune, she began to think it had a real meaning, and to entertain a curiosity on her own part to see the shining light of the time.