This remark being received with a shrill titter by the two sisters of the speaker, Miss Charity Pecksniff begged with much politeness to be informed whether any of those very low observations were levelled at her; and receiving no more explanatory answer than was conveyed in the adage 'Those the cap fits, let them wear it,' immediately commenced a somewhat acrimonious and personal retort, wherein she was much comforted and abetted by her sister Mercy, who laughed at the same with great heartiness; indeed far more naturally than life. And it being quite impossible that any difference of opinion can take place among women without every woman who is within hearing taking active part in it, the strong-minded lady and her two daughters, and Mrs Spottletoe, and the deaf cousin (who was not at all disqualified from joining in the dispute by reason of being perfectly unacquainted with its merits), one and all plunged into the quarrel directly.
The two Miss Pecksniffs being a pretty good match for the three Miss Chuzzlewits, and all five young ladies having, in the figurative language of the day, a great amount of steam to dispose of, the altercation would no doubt have been a long one but for the high valour and prowess of the strong-minded woman, who, in right of her reputation for powers of sarcasm, did so belabour and pummel Mrs Spottletoe with taunting words that the poor lady, before the engagement was two minutes old, had no refuge but in tears. These she shed so plentifully, and so much to the agitation and grief of Mr Spottletoe, that that gentleman, after holding his clenched fist close to Mr Pecksniff's eyes, as if it were some natural curiosity from the near inspection whereof he was likely to derive high gratification and improvement, and after offering (for no particular reason that anybody could discover) to kick Mr George Chuzzlewit for, and in consideration of, the trifling sum of sixpence, took his wife under his arm and indignantly withdrew. This diversion, by distracting the attention of the combatants, put an end to the strife, which, after breaking out afresh some twice or thrice in certain inconsiderable spurts and dashes, died away in silence.
It was then that Mr Pecksniff once more rose from his chair. It was then that the two Miss Pecksniffs composed themselves to look as if there were no such beings--not to say present, but in the whole compass of the world--as the three Miss Chuzzlewits; while the three Miss Chuzzlewits became equally unconscious of the existence of the two Miss Pecksniffs.
'It is to be lamented,' said Mr Pecksniff, with a forgiving recollection of Mr Spottletoe's fist, 'that our friend should have withdrawn himself so very hastily, though we have cause for mutual congratulation even in that, since we are assured that he is not distrustful of us in regard to anything we may say or do while he is absent. Now, that is very soothing, is it not?'
'Pecksniff,' said Anthony, who had been watching the whole party with peculiar keenness from the first--'don't you be a hypocrite.'
'A what, my good sir?' demanded Mr Pecksniff.
'Charity, my dear,' said Mr Pecksniff, 'when I take my chamber candlestick to-night, remind me to be more than usually particular in praying for Mr Anthony Chuzzlewit; who has done me an injustice.'
This was said in a very bland voice, and aside, as being addressed to his daughter's private ear. With a cheerfulness of conscience, prompting almost a sprightly demeanour, he then resumed:
'All our thoughts centring in our very dear but unkind relative, and he being as it were beyond our reach, we are met to-day, really as if we were a funeral party, except--a blessed exception--that there is no body in the house.'
The strong-minded lady was not at all sure that this was a blessed exception. Quite the contrary.
'Well, my dear madam!' said Mr Pecksniff. 'Be that as it may, here we are; and being here, we are to consider whether it is possible by any justifiable means--'
'Why, you know as well as I,' said the strong-minded lady, 'that any means are justifiable in such a case, don't you?'
'Very good, my dear madam, very good; whether it is possible by ANY means, we will say by ANY means, to open the eyes of our valued relative to his present infatuation.