‘Mr Merdle, this is—ha—indeed an honour. Permit me to express the—hum—sense, the high sense, I entertain of this—ha hum— highly gratifying act of attention. I am well aware, sir, of the many demands upon your time, and its—ha—enormous value,’ Mr Dorrit could not say enormous roundly enough for his own satisfaction. ‘That you should—ha—at this early hour, bestow any of your priceless time upon me, is—ha—a compliment that I acknowledge with the greatest esteem.’ Mr Dorrit positively trembled in addressing the great man.

Mr Merdle uttered, in his subdued, inward, hesitating voice, a few sounds that were to no purpose whatever; and finally said, ‘I am glad to see you, sir.’

‘You are very kind,’ said Mr Dorrit. ‘Truly kind.’ By this time the visitor was seated, and was passing his great hand over his exhausted forehead. ‘You are well, I hope, Mr Merdle?’

‘I am as well as I—yes, I am as well as I usually am,’ said Mr Merdle.

‘Your occupations must be immense.’

‘Tolerably so. But—Oh dear no, there’s not much the matter with me,’ said Mr Merdle, looking round the room.

‘A little dyspeptic?’ Mr Dorrit hinted.

‘Very likely. But I—Oh, I am well enough,’ said Mr Merdle.

There were black traces on his lips where they met, as if a little train of gunpowder had been fired there; and he looked like a man who, if his natural temperament had been quicker, would have been very feverish that morning. This, and his heavy way of passing his hand over his forehead, had prompted Mr Dorrit’s solicitous inquiries.

‘Mrs Merdle,’ Mr Dorrit insinuatingly pursued, ‘I left, as you will be prepared to hear, the—ha—observed of all observers, the—hum— admired of all admirers, the leading fascination and charm of Society in Rome. She was looking wonderfully well when I quitted it.’

‘Mrs Merdle,’ said Mr Merdle, ‘is generally considered a very attractive woman. And she is, no doubt. I am sensible of her being SO.’

‘Who can be otherwise?’ responded Mr Dorrit.

Mr Merdle turned his tongue in his closed mouth—it seemed rather a stiff and unmanageable tongue—moistened his lips, passed his hand over his forehead again, and looked all round the room again, principally under the chairs.

‘But,’ he said, looking Mr Dorrit in the face for the first time, and immediately afterwards dropping his eyes to the buttons of Mr Dorrit’s waistcoat; ‘if we speak of attractions, your daughter ought to be the subject of our conversation. She is extremely beautiful. Both in face and figure, she is quite uncommon. When the young people arrived last night, I was really surprised to see such charms.’

Mr Dorrit’s gratification was such that he said—ha—he could not refrain from telling Mr Merdle verbally, as he had already done by letter, what honour and happiness he felt in this union of their families. And he offered his hand. Mr Merdle looked at the hand for a little while, took it on his for a moment as if his were a yellow salver or fish-slice, and then returned it to Mr Dorrit.

‘I thought I would drive round the first thing,’ said Mr Merdle, ‘to offer my services, in case I can do anything for you; and to say that I hope you will at least do me the honour of dining with me to-day, and every day when you are not better engaged during your stay in town.’

  By PanEris using Melati.

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