‘You never mean anything, I think,’ returned Mrs Merdle (not displeased).

‘Oh, cruelly unjust!’ said Bar. ‘But, the bird.’

‘I am the last person in the world to hear news,’ observed Mrs Merdle, carelessly arranging her stronghold. ‘Who is it?’

‘What an admirable witness you would make!’ said Bar. ‘No jury (unless we could empanel one of blind men) could resist you, if you were ever so bad a one; but you would be such a good one!’

‘Why, you ridiculous man?’ asked Mrs Merdle, laughing.

Bar waved his double eye-glass three or four times between himself and the Bosom, as a rallying answer, and inquired in his most insinuating accents:

‘What am I to call the most elegant, accomplished and charming of women, a few weeks, or it may be a few days, hence?’

‘Didn’t your bird tell you what to call her?’ answered Mrs Merdle. ‘Do ask it to-morrow, and tell me the next time you see me what it says.’

This led to further passages of similar pleasantry between the two; but Bar, with all his sharpness, got nothing out of them. Physician, on the other hand, taking Mrs Merdle down to her carriage and attending on her as she put on her cloak, inquired into the symptoms with his usual calm directness.

‘May I ask,’ he said, ‘is this true about Merdle?’

‘My dear doctor,’ she returned, ‘you ask me the very question that I was half disposed to ask you.’ ‘To ask me! Why me?’

‘Upon my honour, I think Mr Merdle reposes greater confidence in you than in any one.’

‘On the contrary, he tells me absolutely nothing, even professionally. You have heard the talk, of course?’

‘ Of course I have. But you know what Mr Merdle is; you know how taciturn and reserved he is. I assure you I have no idea what foundation for it there may be. I should like it to be true; why should I deny that to you? You would know better, if I did!’

‘Just so,’ said Physician.

‘But whether it is all true, or partly true, or entirely false, I am wholly unable to say. It is a most provoking situation, a most absurd situation; but you know Mr Merdle, and are not surprised.’

Physician was not surprised, handed her into her carriage, and bade her Good Night. He stood for a moment at his own hall door, looking sedately at the elegant equipage as it rattled away. On his return up-stairs, the rest of the guests soon dispersed, and he was left alone. Being a great reader of all kinds of literature (and never at all apologetic for that weakness), he sat down comfortably to read.

The clock upon his study table pointed to a few minutes short of twelve, when his attention was called to it by a ringing at the door bell. A man of plain habits, he had sent his servants to bed and must needs go down to open the door. He went down, and there found a man without hat or coat, whose shirt sleeves were rolled up tight to his shoulders. For a moment, he thought the man had been fighting: the rather, as he was much agitated and out of breath. A second look, however, showed him that the man was particularly clean, and not otherwise discomposed as to his dress than as it answered this description.

‘I come from the warm-baths, sir, round in the neighbouring street.’

  By PanEris using Melati.

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