himself so often saying when his twinges came that sixpence a day and find yourself and no gout so much preferable, not that he could have lived on anything like it being the last man or that the previous little thing though far too familiar an expression now had any tendency of that sort much too slight and small but looked so fragile bless her?'
Mr F.'s Aunt, who had eaten a piece of toast down to the crust, here solemnly handed the crust to Flora, who ate it for her as a matter of business. Mr F.'s Aunt then moistened her ten fingers in slow succession at her lips, and wiped them in exactly the same order on the white handkerchief; then took the other piece of toast, and fell to work upon it. While pursuing this routine, she looked at Clennam with an expression of such intense severity that he felt obliged to look at her in return, against his personal inclinations.
'She is in Italy, with all her family, Flora,' he said, when the dreaded lady was occupied again.
'In Italy is she really?' said Flora, 'with the grapes growing everywhere and lava necklaces and bracelets too that land of poetry with burning mountains picturesque beyond belief though if the organ-boys come away from the neighbourhood not to be scorched nobody can wonder being so young and bringing their white mice with them most humane, and is she really in that favoured land with nothing but blue about her and dying gladiators and Belvederes though Mr F. himself did not believe for his objection when in spirits was that the images could not be true there being no medium between expensive quantities of linen badly got up and all in creases and none whatever, which certainly does not seem probable though perhaps in consequence of the extremes of rich and poor which may account for it.'
Arthur tried to edge a word in, but Flora hurried on again.
'Venice Preserved too,' said she, 'I think you have been there is it well or ill preserved for people differ so and Maccaroni if they really eat it like the conjurors why not cut it shorter, you are acquainted Arthur--dear Doyce and Clennam at least not dear and most assuredly not Doyce for I have not the pleasure but pray excuse me--acquainted I believe with Mantua what has it got to do with Mantua-making for I never have been able to conceive?'
'I believe there is no connection, Flora, between the two,' Arthur was beginning, when she caught him up again.
'Upon your word no isn't there I never did but that's like me I run away with an idea and having none to spare I keep it, alas there was a time dear Arthur that is to say decidedly not dear nor Arthur neither but you understand me when one bright idea gilded the what's-his-name horizon of et cetera but it is darkly clouded now and all is over.'
Arthur's increasing wish to speak of something very different was by this time so plainly written on his face, that Flora stopped in a tender look, and asked him what it was?
'I have the greatest desire, Flora, to speak to some one who is now in this house--with Mr Casby no doubt. Some one whom I saw come in, and who, in a misguided and deplorable way, has deserted the house of a friend of mine.'
'Papa sees so many and such odd people,' said Flora, rising, 'that I shouldn't venture to go down for any one but you Arthur but for you I would willingly go down in a diving-bell much more a dining- room and will come back directly if you'll mind and at the same time not mind Mr F.'s Aunt while I'm gone.'
With those words and a parting glance, Flora bustled out, leaving Clennam under dreadful apprehension of this terrible charge.
The first variation which manifested itself in Mr F.'s Aunt's demeanour when she had finished her piece of toast, was a loud and prolonged sniff. Finding it impossible to avoid construing this demonstration into a defiance of himself, its gloomy significance being unmistakable, Clennam looked plaintively at the excellent though prejudiced lady from whom it emanated, in the hope that she might be disarmed by a meek submission.