Grow your tree of falsehood from a small grain of truth.—Czeslaw Milosz, 1946
Mr. and Mrs. Lammle have walked for some time on the Shanklin sands, and one may see by their footprints that they have not walked arm in arm, and that they have not walked in a straight track, and that they have walked in a moody humor; for, the lady has prodded little spurting holes in the damp sand before her with her parasol, and the gentleman has trailed his stick after him. As if he were of the Mephistopheles family indeed, and had walked with a drooping tail.
“Do you mean to tell me, then, Sophronia”—
Thus he begins after a long silence, when Sophronia flashes fiercely, and turns upon him.
“Don’t put it upon me, sir. I ask you, do you mean to tell me?”
Mr. Lammle falls silent again, and they walk as before. Mrs. Lammle opens her nostrils and bites her underlip; Mr. Lammle takes his gingerous whiskers in his left hand, and, bringing them together, frowns furtively at his beloved, out of a thick gingerous bush.
After a little more walking and a little more silence, Mr. Lammle breaks the latter.
“You shall proceed in your own way. You claim a right to ask me do I mean to tell you. Do I mean to tell you what?”
“That you are a man of property?”
“Then you married me on false pretenses?”
“So be it. Next comes what you mean to say. Do you mean to say you are a woman of property?”
“Then you married me on false pretenses.”
“If you were so dull a fortune hunter that you deceived yourself, or if you were so greedy and grasping that you were overwilling to be deceived by appearances, is it my fault, you adventurer?” the lady demands, with great asperity.
“I asked Veneering, and he told me you were rich.”
“Veneering!” with great contempt. “And what does Veneering know about me!”
“Was he not your trustee?”
“No. I have no trustee, but the one you saw on the day when you fraudulently married me. And his trust is not a very difficult one, for it is only an annuity of a hundred and fifteen pounds. I think there are some odd shillings or pence, if you are very particular.”
Mr. Lammle bestows a by no means loving look upon the partner of his joys and sorrows, and he mutters something; but checks himself.
Double-exposed photograph of French illusionist Henri Robin with a ghost, by Eugène Thiébault, 1863. © The Granger Collection, NYC
“Question for question. It is my turn again, Mrs. Lammle. What made you suppose me a man of property?”
“You made me suppose you so. Perhaps you will deny that you always presented yourself to me in that character?”
“But you asked somebody, too. Come, Mrs. Lammle, admission for admission. You asked somebody?”
“I asked Veneering.”
“And Veneering knew as much of me as he knew of you, or as anybody knows of him.”
After more silent walking, the bride stops short, to say in a passionate manner, “I never will forgive the Veneerings for this!
“Neither will I,” returns the bridegroom.
With that, they walk again; she, making those angry spurts in the sand; he, dragging that dejected tail. The tide is low, and seems to have thrown them together high on the bare shore. A gull comes sweeping by their heads, and flouts them. There was a golden surface on the brown cliffs but now, and behold they are only damp earth. A taunting roar comes from the sea, and the far-out rollers mount upon one another, to look at the entrapped impostors, and to join in impish and exultant gambols.
“Do you pretend to believe,” Mrs. Lammle resumes, sternly, “when you talk of my marrying you for worldly advantages, that it was within the bounds of reasonable probability that I would have married you for yourself?”
“Again there are two sides to the question, Mrs. Lammle. What do you pretend to believe?”
“So you first deceive me and then insult me!” cries the lady, with a heaving bosom.
“Not at all. I have originated nothing. The double-edged question was yours.”
“Was mine!” the bride repeats, and her parasol breaks in her angry hand.
His color has turned to a livid white, and ominous marks have come to light about his nose, as if the finger of the very devil himself had, within the last few moments, touched it here and there. But he has repressive power, and she has none.
“Throw it away,” he coolly recommends as to the parasol; “you have made it useless; you look ridiculous with it.”
Whereupon she calls him in her rage, “A deliberate villain,” and so casts the broken thing from her as that it strikes him in falling. The finger marks are something whiter for the instant, but he walks on at her side.
She bursts into tears, declaring herself the wretchedest, the most deceived, the worst used of women. Then she says that if she had the courage to kill herself, she would do it. Then she calls him vile impostor. Then she asks him, why, in the disappointment of his base speculation, he does not take her life with his own hand, under the present favorable circumstances. Then she cries again. Then she is enraged again, and makes some mention of swindlers. Finally, she sits down crying on a block of stone, and is in all the known and unknown humors of her sex at once. Pending her changes, those aforesaid marks in his face have come and gone, now here now there, like white stops of a pipe on which the diabolical performer has played a tune. Also his livid lips are parted at last, as if he were breathless with running. Yet he is not.
“Now, get up, Mrs. Lammle, and let us speak reasonably.”
She sits upon her stone, and takes no heed of him.
“Get up, I tell you.”
Raising her head, she looks contemptuously in his face, and repeats, “You tell me! Tell me, forsooth!”
She affects not to know that his eyes are fastened on her as she droops her head again; but her whole figure reveals that she knows it uneasily.
“Enough of this. Come! Do you hear? Get up.”
Yielding to his hand, she rises, and they walk again; but this time with their faces turned toward their place of residence.
“Mrs. Lammle, we have both been deceiving, and we have both been deceived. We have both been biting and we have both been bitten. In a nutshell, there’s the state of the case. A mutual understanding follows, and I think it may carry us through. Here I split my discourse (give me your arm, Sophronia) into three heads to make it shorter and plainer. Firstly, it’s enough to have been done, without the mortification of being known to have been done. So we agree to keep the fact to ourselves. You agree?”
“If it is possible, I do.”
“Possible! We have pretended well enough to one another. Can’t we, united, pretend to the world? Agreed. Secondly, we owe the Veneerings a grudge, and we owe all other people the grudge of wishing them to be taken in, as we ourselves have been taken in. Agreed?’
The Dice Players, by Georges de La Tour, c. 1650.
“We come smoothly to thirdly. You have called me an adventurer, Sophronia. So I am. In plain uncomplimentary English, so I am. So are you, my dear. So are many people. We agree to keep our own secret, and to work together in furtherance of our own schemes.”
“Any scheme that will bring us money. By our own schemes, I mean our joint interest. Agreed?”
She answers, after a little hesitation, “I suppose so. Agreed.”
“Carried at once, you see! Now, Sophronia, only half a dozen words more. We know one another perfectly. Don’t be tempted into twitting me with the past knowledge that you have of me, because it is identical with the past knowledge that I have of you, and in twitting me, you twit yourself, and I don’t want to hear you do it. With this good understanding established between us, it is better never done. To wind up all: you have shown temper today, Sophronia. Don’t be betrayed into doing so again, because I have a devil of a temper myself.”
So, the happy pair, with this hopeful marriage contract thus signed, sealed, and delivered, repair homeward. If, when those infernal finger marks were on the white and breathless countenance of Alfred Lammle, Esquire, they denoted that he conceived the purpose of subduing his dear wife Mrs. Alfred Lammle, by at once divesting her of any lingering reality or pretense of self-respect, the purpose would seem to have been presently executed. The mature young lady has mighty little need of powder, now, for her downcast face, as he escorts her in the light of the setting sun to their abode of bliss.
From Our Mutual Friend. This book was Dickens’ last complete novel, published serially during 1864 and 1865. Henry James attacked it in The Nation, claiming, “It is poor with the poverty not of momentary embarrassment, but of permanent exhaustion.” An aging and ill Dickens embarked on a lucrative American reading tour in 1867, and one of his stops was reported on by the thirty-two-year-old Mark Twain, who noted, “How the great do tumble from their high pedestals when we see them in common human flesh, and know that they eat pork and cabbage and act like other men.” Dickens died at the age of fifty-eight in 1870.