Sketches by Boz, by Charles Dickens

The Contradictory Couple

One would suppose that two people who are to pass their whole lives together, and must necessarily be very often alone with each other, could find little pleasure in mutual contradiction; and yet what is more common than a contradictory couple?

The contradictory couple agree in nothing but contradiction. They return home from Mrs. Bluebottle’s dinner-party, each in an opposite corner of the coach, and do not exchange a syllable until they have been seated for at least twenty minutes by the fireside at home, when the gentleman, raising his eyes from the stove, all at once breaks silence:

‘What a very extraordinary thing it is,’ says he, ‘that you WILL contradict, Charlotte!’ ‘I contradict!’ cries the lady, ‘but that’s just like you.’ ‘What’s like me?’ says the gentleman sharply. ‘Saying that I contradict you,’ replies the lady. ‘Do you mean to say that you do NOT contradict me?’ retorts the gentleman; ‘do you mean to say that you have not been contradicting me the whole of this day?’ ‘Do you mean to tell me now, that you have not? I mean to tell you nothing of the kind,’ replies the lady quietly; ‘when you are wrong, of course I shall contradict you.’

During this dialogue the gentleman has been taking his brandy-and-water on one side of the fire, and the lady, with her dressing-case on the table, has been curling her hair on the other. She now lets down her back hair, and proceeds to brush it; preserving at the same time an air of conscious rectitude and suffering virtue, which is intended to exasperate the gentleman — and does so.

‘I do believe,’ he says, taking the spoon out of his glass, and tossing it on the table, ‘that of all the obstinate, positive, wrong-headed creatures that were ever born, you are the most so, Charlotte.’ ‘Certainly, certainly, have it your own way, pray. You see how much I contradict you,’ rejoins the lady. ‘Of course, you didn’t contradict me at dinner-time — oh no, not you!’ says the gentleman. ‘Yes, I did,’ says the lady. ‘Oh, you did,’ cries the gentleman ‘you admit that?’ ‘If you call that contradiction, I do,’ the lady answers; ‘and I say again, Edward, that when I know you are wrong, I will contradict you. I am not your slave.’ ‘Not my slave!’ repeats the gentleman bitterly; ‘and you still mean to say that in the Blackburns’ new house there are not more than fourteen doors, including the door of the wine-cellar!’ ‘I mean to say,’ retorts the lady, beating time with her hair-brush on the palm of her hand, ‘that in that house there are fourteen doors and no more.’ ‘Well then — ‘ cries the gentleman, rising in despair, and pacing the room with rapid strides. ‘By G–, this is enough to destroy a man’s intellect, and drive him mad!’

By and by the gentleman comes-to a little, and passing his hand gloomily across his forehead, reseats himself in his former chair. There is a long silence, and this time the lady begins. ‘I appealed to Mr. Jenkins, who sat next to me on the sofa in the drawing-room during tea — ‘ ‘Morgan, you mean,’ interrupts the gentleman. ‘I do not mean anything of the kind,’ answers the lady. ‘Now, by all that is aggravating and impossible to bear,’ cries the gentleman, clenching his hands and looking upwards in agony, ‘she is going to insist upon it that Morgan is Jenkins!’ ‘Do you take me for a perfect fool?’ exclaims the lady; ‘do you suppose I don’t know the one from the other? Do you suppose I don’t know that the man in the blue coat was Mr. Jenkins?’ ‘Jenkins in a blue coat!’ cries the gentleman with a groan; ‘Jenkins in a blue coat! a man who would suffer death rather than wear anything but brown!’ ‘Do you dare to charge me with telling an untruth?’ demands the lady, bursting into tears. ‘I charge you, ma’am,’ retorts the gentleman, starting up, ‘with being a monster of contradiction, a monster of aggravation, a — a — a — Jenkins in a blue coat! — what have I done that I should be doomed to hear such statements!’

Expressing himself with great scorn and anguish, the gentleman takes up his candle and stalks off to bed, where feigning to be fast asleep when the lady comes up-stairs drowned in tears, murmuring lamentations over her hard fate and indistinct intentions of consulting her brothers, he undergoes the secret torture of hearing her exclaim between whiles, ‘I know there are only fourteen doors in the house, I know it was Mr. Jenkins, I know he had a blue coat on, and I would say it as positively as I do now, if they were the last words I had to speak!’

If the contradictory couple are blessed with children, they are not the less contradictory on that account. Master James and Miss Charlotte present themselves after dinner, and being in perfect good humour, and finding their parents in the same amiable state, augur from these appearances half a glass of wine a-piece and other extraordinary indulgences. But unfortunately Master James, growing talkative upon such prospects, asks his mamma how tall Mrs. Parsons is, and whether she is not six feet high; to which his mamma replies, ‘Yes, she should think she was, for Mrs. Parsons is a very tall lady indeed; quite a giantess.’ ‘For Heaven’s sake, Charlotte,’ cries her husband, ‘do not tell the child such preposterous nonsense. Six feet high!’ ‘Well,’ replies the lady, ‘surely I may be permitted to have an opinion; my opinion is, that she is six feet high — at least six feet.’ ‘Now you know, Charlotte,’ retorts the gentleman sternly, ‘that that is NOT your opinion — that you have no such idea — and that you only say this for the sake of contradiction.’ ‘You are exceedingly polite,’ his wife replies; ‘to be wrong about such a paltry question as anybody’s height, would be no great crime; but I say again, that I believe Mrs. Parsons to be six feet — more than six feet; nay, I believe you know her to be full six feet, and only say she is not, because I say she is.’ This taunt disposes the gentleman to become violent, but he cheeks himself, and is content to mutter, in a haughty tone, ‘Six feet — ha! ha! Mrs. Parsons six feet!’ and the lady answers, ‘Yes, six feet. I am sure I am glad you are amused, and I’ll say it again — six feet.’ Thus the subject gradually drops off, and the contradiction begins to be forgotten, when Master James, with some undefined notion of making himself agreeable, and putting things to rights again, unfortunately asks his mamma what the moon’s made of; which gives her occasion to say that he had better not ask her, for she is always wrong and never can be right; that he only exposes her to contradiction by asking any question of her; and that he had better ask his papa, who is infallible, and never can be wrong. Papa, smarting under this attack, gives a terrible pull at the bell, and says, that if the conversation is to proceed in this way, the children had better be removed. Removed they are, after a few tears and many struggles; and Pa having looked at Ma sideways for a minute or two, with a baleful eye, draws his pocket-handkerchief over his face, and composes himself for his after-dinner nap.

The friends of the contradictory couple often deplore their frequent disputes, though they rather make light of them at the same time: observing, that there is no doubt they are very much attached to each other, and that they never quarrel except about trifles. But neither the friends of the contradictory couple, nor the contradictory couple themselves, reflect, that as the most stupendous objects in nature are but vast collections of minute particles, so the slightest and least considered trifles make up the sum of human happiness or misery.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/d/dickens/charles/d54sb/chapter75.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30