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Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/15

CHAPTER 14. Little Dorrit's Party

Arthur Clennam rose hastily, and saw her standing at the door. Thishistory must sometimes see with Little Dorrit's eyes, and shall beginthat course by seeing him.

Little Dorrit looked into a dim room, which seemed a spacious one toher, and grandly furnished. Courtly ideas of Covent Garden, as a placewith famous coffee-houses, where gentlemen wearing gold-laced coats andswords had quarrelled and fought duels; costly ideas of Covent Garden,as a place where there were flowers in winter at guineas a-piece,pine-apples at guineas a pound, and peas at guineas a pint; picturesqueideas of Covent Garden, as a place where there was a mighty theatre,showing wonderful and beautiful sights to richly-dressed ladies andgentlemen, and which was for ever far beyond the reach of poor Fanny orpoor uncle; desolate ideas of Covent Garden, as having all those archesin it, where the miserable children in rags among whom she had just nowpassed, like young rats, slunk and hid, fed on offal, huddled togetherfor warmth, and were hunted about (look to the rats young and old, allye Barnacles, for before God they are eating away our foundations, andwill bring the roofs on our heads!); teeming ideas of Covent Garden, asa place of past and present mystery, romance, abundance, want, beauty,ugliness, fair country gardens, and foul street gutters; all confusedtogether,--made the room dimmer than it was in Little Dorrit's eyes, asthey timidly saw it from the door.

At first in the chair before the gone-out fire, and then turned roundwondering to see her, was the gentleman whom she sought. The brown,grave gentleman, who smiled so pleasantly, who was so frank andconsiderate in his manner, and yet in whose earnestness there wassomething that reminded her of his mother, with the great differencethat she was earnest in asperity and he in gentleness. Now he regardedher with that attentive and inquiring look before which Little Dorrit'seyes had always fallen, and before which they fell still.

'My poor child! Here at midnight?'

'I said Little Dorrit, sir, on purpose to prepare you. I knew you mustbe very much surprised.'

'Are you alone?'

'No sir, I have got Maggy with me.'

Considering her entrance sufficiently prepared for by this mention ofher name, Maggy appeared from the landing outside, on the broad grin.She instantly suppressed that manifestation, however, and became fixedlysolemn.

'And I have no fire,' said Clennam. 'And you are--' He was going to sayso lightly clad, but stopped himself in what would have been a referenceto her poverty, saying instead, 'And it is so cold.'

Putting the chair from which he had risen nearer to the grate, he madeher sit down in it; and hurriedly bringing wood and coal, heaped themtogether and got a blaze.

'Your foot is like marble, my child;' he had happened to touch it, whilestooping on one knee at his work of kindling the fire; 'put it nearerthe warmth.' Little Dorrit thanked him hastily. It was quite warm, itwas very warm! It smote upon his heart to feel that she hid her thin,worn shoe.

Little Dorrit was not ashamed of her poor shoes. He knew her story, andit was not that. Little Dorrit had a misgiving that he might blame herfather, if he saw them; that he might think, 'why did he dine to-day,and leave this little creature to the mercy of the cold stones!' She hadno belief that it would have been a just reflection; she simply knew,by experience, that such delusions did sometimes present themselves topeople. It was a part of her father's misfortunes that they did.

'Before I say anything else,' Little Dorrit began, sitting beforethe pale fire, and raising her eyes again to the face which in itsharmonious look of interest, and pity, and protection, she felt to be amystery far above her in degree, and almost removed beyond her guessingat; 'may I tell you something, sir?'

'Yes, my child.'

A slight shade of distress fell upon her, at his so often calling her achild. She was surprised that he should see it, or think of such aslight thing; but he said directly:

'I wanted a tender word, and could think of no other. As you just nowgave yourself the name they give you at my mother's, and as that is thename by which I always think of you, let me call you Little Dorrit.'

'Thank you, sir, I should like it better than any name.'

'Little Dorrit.'

'Little mother,' Maggy (who had been falling asleep) put in, as acorrection.

'It's all the same, Maggy,' returned Little Dorrit, 'all the same.'

'Is it all the same, mother?'

'Just the same.'

Maggy laughed, and immediately snored. In Little Dorrit's eyes and ears,the uncouth figure and the uncouth sound were as pleasant as could be.There was a glow of pride in her big child, overspreading her face, whenit again met the eyes of the grave brown gentleman. She wondered what hewas thinking of, as he looked at Maggy and her. She thought what agood father he would be. How, with some such look, he would counsel andcherish his daughter.

'What I was going to tell you, sir,' said Little Dorrit, 'is, that mybrother is at large.'

Arthur was rejoiced to hear it, and hoped he would do well.

'And what I was going to tell you, sir,' said Little Dorrit, tremblingin all her little figure and in her voice, 'is, that I am not to knowwhose generosity released him--am never to ask, and am never to be told,and am never to thank that gentleman with all my grateful heart!'

He would probably need no thanks, Clennam said. Very likely he would bethankful himself (and with reason), that he had had the means and chanceof doing a little service to her, who well deserved a great one.

'And what I was going to say, sir, is,' said Little Dorrit, tremblingmore and more, 'that if I knew him, and I might, I would tell him thathe can never, never know how I feel his goodness, and how my good fatherwould feel it. And what I was going to say, sir, is, that if I knew him,and I might--but I don't know him and I must not--I know that!--I wouldtell him that I shall never any more lie down to sleep without havingprayed to Heaven to bless him and reward him. And if I knew him, and Imight, I would go down on my knees to him, and take his hand and kissit and ask him not to draw it away, but to leave it--O to leave it for amoment--and let my thankful tears fall on it; for I have no other thanksto give him!'

Little Dorrit had put his hand to her lips, and would have kneeled tohim, but he gently prevented her, and replaced her in her chair. Hereyes, and the tones of her voice, had thanked him far better than shethought. He was not able to say, quite as composedly as usual, 'There,Little Dorrit, there, there, there! We will suppose that you did knowthis person, and that you might do all this, and that it was all done.And now tell me, Who am quite another person--who am nothing more thanthe friend who begged you to trust him--why you are out at midnight, andwhat it is that brings you so far through the streets at this late hour,my slight, delicate,' child was on his lips again, 'Little Dorrit!'

'Maggy and I have been to-night,' she answered, subduing herself withthe quiet effort that had long been natural to her, 'to the theatrewhere my sister is engaged.'

'And oh ain't it a Ev'nly place,' suddenly interrupted Maggy, who seemedto have the power of going to sleep and waking up whenever she chose.'Almost as good as a hospital. Only there ain't no Chicking in it.'

Here she shook herself, and fell asleep again.

'We went there,' said Little Dorrit, glancing at her charge, 'becauseI like sometimes to know, of my own knowledge, that my sister is doingwell; and like to see her there, with my own eyes, when neither she norUncle is aware. It is very seldom indeed that I can do that, becausewhen I am not out at work, I am with my father, and even when I am outat work, I hurry home to him. But I pretend to-night that I am at aparty.'

As she made the confession, timidly hesitating, she raised her eyes tothe face, and read its expression so plainly that she answered it.

'Oh no, certainly! I never was at a party in my life.'

She paused a little under his attentive look, and then said, 'I hopethere is no harm in it. I could never have been of any use, if I hadnot pretended a little.'

She feared that he was blaming her in his mind for so devising tocontrive for them, think for them, and watch over them, without theirknowledge or gratitude; perhaps even with their reproaches for supposedneglect. But what was really in his mind, was the weak figure with itsstrong purpose, the thin worn shoes, the insufficient dress, and thepretence of recreation and enjoyment. He asked where the suppositiousparty was? At a place where she worked, answered Little Dorrit,blushing. She had said very little about it; only a few words tomake her father easy. Her father did not believe it to be a grandparty--indeed he might suppose that. And she glanced for an instant atthe shawl she wore.

'It is the first night,' said Little Dorrit, 'that I have ever been awayfrom home. And London looks so large, so barren, and so wild.' In LittleDorrit's eyes, its vastness under the black sky was awful; a tremorpassed over her as she said the words.

'But this is not,' she added, with the quiet effort again, 'what I havecome to trouble you with, sir. My sister's having found a friend, a ladyshe has told me of and made me rather anxious about, was the first causeof my coming away from home. And being away, and coming (on purpose)round by where you lived and seeing a light in the window--'

Not for the first time. No, not for the first time. In Little Dorrit'seyes, the outside of that window had been a distant star on other nightsthan this. She had toiled out of her way, tired and troubled, to look upat it, and wonder about the grave, brown gentleman from so far off, whohad spoken to her as a friend and protector.

'There were three things,' said Little Dorrit, 'that I thought I wouldlike to say, if you were alone and I might come up-stairs. First, what Ihave tried to say, but never can--never shall--'

'Hush, hush! That is done with, and disposed of. Let us pass to thesecond,' said Clennam, smiling her agitation away, making the blazeshine upon her, and putting wine and cake and fruit towards her on thetable.

'I think,' said Little Dorrit--'this is the second thing, sir--I thinkMrs Clennam must have found out my secret, and must know where I comefrom and where I go to. Where I live, I mean.'

'Indeed!' returned Clennam quickly. He asked her, after shortconsideration, why she supposed so.

'I think,' replied Little Dorrit, 'that Mr Flintwinch must have watchedme.'

And why, Clennam asked, as he turned his eyes upon the fire, bent hisbrows, and considered again; why did she suppose that?

'I have met him twice. Both times near home. Both times at night, whenI was going back. Both times I thought (though that may easily be mymistake), that he hardly looked as if he had met me by accident.'

'Did he say anything?'

'No; he only nodded and put his head on one side.'

'The devil take his head!' mused Clennam, still looking at the fire;'it's always on one side.'

He roused himself to persuade her to put some wine to her lips, and totouch something to eat--it was very difficult, she was so timid andshy--and then said, musing again:

'Is my mother at all changed to you?'

'Oh, not at all. She is just the same. I wondered whether I had bettertell her my history. I wondered whether I might--I mean, whether youwould like me to tell her. I wondered,' said Little Dorrit, looking athim in a suppliant way, and gradually withdrawing her eyes as he lookedat her, 'whether you would advise me what I ought to do.'

'Little Dorrit,' said Clennam; and the phrase had already begun, betweenthese two, to stand for a hundred gentle phrases, according to thevarying tone and connection in which it was used; 'do nothing. I willhave some talk with my old friend, Mrs Affery. Do nothing, LittleDorrit--except refresh yourself with such means as there are here. Ientreat you to do that.'

'Thank you, I am not hungry. Nor,' said Little Dorrit, as he softlyput her glass towards her, 'nor thirsty.--I think Maggy might likesomething, perhaps.'

'We will make her find pockets presently for all there is here,' saidClennam: 'but before we awake her, there was a third thing to say.'

'Yes. You will not be offended, sir?'

'I promise that, unreservedly.'

'It will sound strange. I hardly know how to say it. Don't think itunreasonable or ungrateful in me,' said Little Dorrit, with returningand increasing agitation.

'No, no, no. I am sure it will be natural and right. I am not afraidthat I shall put a wrong construction on it, whatever it is.'

'Thank you. You are coming back to see my father again?'

'Yes.'

'You have been so good and thoughtful as to write him a note, sayingthat you are coming to-morrow?'

'Oh, that was nothing! Yes.'

'Can you guess,' said Little Dorrit, folding her small hands tight inone another, and looking at him with all the earnestness of her soullooking steadily out of her eyes, 'what I am going to ask you not todo?'

'I think I can. But I may be wrong.'

'No, you are not wrong,' said Little Dorrit, shaking her head. 'If weshould want it so very, very badly that we cannot do without it, let meask you for it.'

'I Will,--I Will.'

'Don't encourage him to ask. Don't understand him if he does ask. Don'tgive it to him. Save him and spare him that, and you will be able tothink better of him!'

Clennam said--not very plainly, seeing those tears glistening in heranxious eyes--that her wish should be sacred with him.

'You don't know what he is,' she said; 'you don't know what he reallyis. How can you, seeing him there all at once, dear love, and notgradually, as I have done! You have been so good to us, so delicatelyand truly good, that I want him to be better in your eyes than inanybody's. And I cannot bear to think,' cried Little Dorrit, coveringher tears with her hands, 'I cannot bear to think that you of all theworld should see him in his only moments of degradation.'

'Pray,' said Clennam, 'do not be so distressed. Pray, pray, LittleDorrit! This is quite understood now.'

'Thank you, sir. Thank you! I have tried very much to keep myself fromsaying this; I have thought about it, days and nights; but when I knewfor certain you were coming again, I made up my mind to speak to you.Not because I am ashamed of him,' she dried her tears quickly, 'butbecause I know him better than any one does, and love him, and am proudof him.'

Relieved of this weight, Little Dorrit was nervously anxious to be gone.Maggy being broad awake, and in the act of distantly gloating over thefruit and cakes with chuckles of anticipation, Clennam made the bestdiversion in his power by pouring her out a glass of wine, which shedrank in a series of loud smacks; putting her hand upon her windpipeafter every one, and saying, breathless, with her eyes in a prominentstate, 'Oh, ain't it d'licious! Ain't it hospitally!' When she hadfinished the wine and these encomiums, he charged her to load her basket(she was never without her basket) with every eatable thing upon thetable, and to take especial care to leave no scrap behind. Maggy'spleasure in doing this and her little mother's pleasure in seeing Maggypleased, was as good a turn as circumstances could have given to thelate conversation.

'But the gates will have been locked long ago,' said Clennam, suddenlyremembering it. 'Where are you going?'

'I am going to Maggy's lodging,' answered Little Dorrit. 'I shall bequite safe, quite well taken care of.'

'I must accompany you there,' said Clennam, 'I cannot let you go alone.'

'Yes, pray leave us to go there by ourselves. Pray do!' begged LittleDorrit.

She was so earnest in the petition, that Clennam felt a delicacy inobtruding himself upon her: the rather, because he could well understandthat Maggy's lodging was of the obscurest sort. 'Come, Maggy,' saidLittle Dorrit cheerily, 'we shall do very well; we know the way by thistime, Maggy?'

'Yes, yes, little mother; we know the way,' chuckled Maggy. And awaythey went. Little Dorrit turned at the door to say, 'God bless you!' Shesaid it very softly, but perhaps she may have been as audible above--whoknows!--as a whole cathedral choir.

Arthur Clennam suffered them to pass the corner of the street before hefollowed at a distance; not with any idea of encroaching a second timeon Little Dorrit's privacy, but to satisfy his mind by seeing her securein the neighbourhood to which she was accustomed. So diminutive shelooked, so fragile and defenceless against the bleak damp weather,flitting along in the shuffling shadow of her charge, that he felt, inhis compassion, and in his habit of considering her a child apart fromthe rest of the rough world, as if he would have been glad to take herup in his arms and carry her to her journey's end.

In course of time she came into the leading thoroughfare where theMarshalsea was, and then he saw them slacken their pace, and soon turndown a by-street. He stopped, felt that he had no right to go further,and slowly left them. He had no suspicion that they ran any risk ofbeing houseless until morning; had no idea of the truth until long, longafterwards.

But, said Little Dorrit, when they stopped at a poor dwelling all indarkness, and heard no sound on listening at the door, 'Now, this is agood lodging for you, Maggy, and we must not give offence. Consequently,we will only knock twice, and not very loud; and if we cannot wake themso, we must walk about till day.'

Once, Little Dorrit knocked with a careful hand, and listened. Twice,Little Dorrit knocked with a careful hand, and listened. All was closeand still. 'Maggy, we must do the best we can, my dear. We must bepatient, and wait for day.'

It was a chill dark night, with a damp wind blowing, when they came outinto the leading street again, and heard the clocks strike half-pastone. 'In only five hours and a half,' said Little Dorrit, 'we shall beable to go home.' To speak of home, and to go and look at it, it beingso near, was a natural sequence. They went to the closed gate, andpeeped through into the court-yard. 'I hope he is sound asleep,' saidLittle Dorrit, kissing one of the bars, 'and does not miss me.'

The gate was so familiar, and so like a companion, that they put downMaggy's basket in a corner to serve for a seat, and keeping closetogether, rested there for some time. While the street was empty andsilent, Little Dorrit was not afraid; but when she heard a footstep ata distance, or saw a moving shadow among the street lamps, she wasstartled, and whispered, 'Maggy, I see some one. Come away!' Maggywould then wake up more or less fretfully, and they would wander about alittle, and come back again.

As long as eating was a novelty and an amusement, Maggy kept up prettywell. But that period going by, she became querulous about the cold, andshivered and whimpered. 'It will soon be over, dear,' said Little Dorritpatiently. 'Oh it's all very fine for you, little mother,' returnedMaggy, 'but I'm a poor thing, only ten years old.' At last, in the deadof the night, when the street was very still indeed, Little Dorrit laidthe heavy head upon her bosom, and soothed her to sleep. And thus shesat at the gate, as it were alone; looking up at the stars, and seeingthe clouds pass over them in their wild flight--which was the dance atLittle Dorrit's party.

'If it really was a party!' she thought once, as she sat there. 'If itwas light and warm and beautiful, and it was our house, and my poor dearwas its master, and had never been inside these walls. And if MrClennam was one of our visitors, and we were dancing to delightfulmusic, and were all as gay and light-hearted as ever we could be! Iwonder--' Such a vista of wonder opened out before her, that she satlooking up at the stars, quite lost, until Maggy was querulous again,and wanted to get up and walk.

Three o'clock, and half-past three, and they had passed over LondonBridge. They had heard the rush of the tide against obstacles; andlooked down, awed, through the dark vapour on the river; had seen littlespots of lighted water where the bridge lamps were reflected, shininglike demon eyes, with a terrible fascination in them for guilt andmisery. They had shrunk past homeless people, lying coiled up innooks. They had run from drunkards. They had started from slinking men,whistling and signing to one another at bye corners, or running away atfull speed. Though everywhere the leader and the guide, Little Dorrit,happy for once in her youthful appearance, feigned to cling to and relyupon Maggy. And more than once some voice, from among a knot of brawlingor prowling figures in their path, had called out to the rest to 'letthe woman and the child go by!'

So, the woman and the child had gone by, and gone on, and five hadsounded from the steeples. They were walking slowly towards the east,already looking for the first pale streak of day, when a woman cameafter them.

'What are you doing with the child?' she said to Maggy.

She was young--far too young to be there, Heaven knows!--and neitherugly nor wicked-looking. She spoke coarsely, but with no naturallycoarse voice; there was even something musical in its sound.

'What are you doing with yourself?' retorted Maggy, for want of a betteranswer.

'Can't you see, without my telling you?'

'I don't know as I can,' said Maggy.

'Killing myself! Now I have answered you, answer me. What are you doingwith the child?'

The supposed child kept her head drooped down, and kept her form closeat Maggy's side.

'Poor thing!' said the woman. 'Have you no feeling, that you keep herout in the cruel streets at such a time as this? Have you no eyes, thatyou don't see how delicate and slender she is? Have you no sense (youdon't look as if you had much) that you don't take more pity on thiscold and trembling little hand?'

She had stepped across to that side, and held the hand between her owntwo, chafing it. 'Kiss a poor lost creature, dear,' she said, bendingher face, 'and tell me where's she taking you.'

Little Dorrit turned towards her.

'Why, my God!' she said, recoiling, 'you're a woman!'

'Don't mind that!' said Little Dorrit, clasping one of her hands thathad suddenly released hers. 'I am not afraid of you.'

'Then you had better be,' she answered. 'Have you no mother?'

'No.'

'No father?'

'Yes, a very dear one.'

'Go home to him, and be afraid of me. Let me go. Good night!'

'I must thank you first; let me speak to you as if I really were achild.'

'You can't do it,' said the woman. 'You are kind and innocent; but youcan't look at me out of a child's eyes. I never should have touched you,but I thought that you were a child.' And with a strange, wild cry, shewent away.

No day yet in the sky, but there was day in the resounding stones ofthe streets; in the waggons, carts, and coaches; in the workers goingto various occupations; in the opening of early shops; in the trafficat markets; in the stir of the riverside. There was coming day in theflaring lights, with a feebler colour in them than they would have hadat another time; coming day in the increased sharpness of the air, andthe ghastly dying of the night.

They went back again to the gate, intending to wait there now until itshould be opened; but the air was so raw and cold that Little Dorrit,leading Maggy about in her sleep, kept in motion. Going round by theChurch, she saw lights there, and the door open; and went up the stepsand looked in.

'Who's that?' cried a stout old man, who was putting on a nightcap as ifhe were going to bed in a vault.

'It's no one particular, sir,' said Little Dorrit.

'Stop!' cried the man. 'Let's have a look at you!'

This caused her to turn back again in the act of going out, and topresent herself and her charge before him.

'I thought so!' said he. 'I know _you_.'

'We have often seen each other,' said Little Dorrit, recognising thesexton, or the beadle, or the verger, or whatever he was, 'when I havebeen at church here.'

'More than that, we've got your birth in our Register, you know; you'reone of our curiosities.'

'Indeed!' said Little Dorrit.

'To be sure. As the child of the--by-the-bye, how did you get out soearly?'

'We were shut out last night, and are waiting to get in.'

'You don't mean it? And there's another hour good yet! Come into thevestry. You'll find a fire in the vestry, on account of the painters.I'm waiting for the painters, or I shouldn't be here, you may dependupon it. One of our curiosities mustn't be cold when we have it in ourpower to warm her up comfortable. Come along.'

He was a very good old fellow, in his familiar way; and having stirredthe vestry fire, he looked round the shelves of registers for aparticular volume. 'Here you are, you see,' he said, taking it down andturning the leaves. 'Here you'll find yourself, as large as life. Amy,daughter of William and Fanny Dorrit. Born, Marshalsea Prison, Parish ofSt George. And we tell people that you have lived there, without so muchas a day's or a night's absence, ever since. Is it true?'

'Quite true, till last night.'

'Lord!' But his surveying her with an admiring gaze suggested Somethingelse to him, to wit: 'I am sorry to see, though, that you are faint andtired. Stay a bit. I'll get some cushions out of the church, and you andyour friend shall lie down before the fire. Don't be afraid of notgoing in to join your father when the gate opens. _I'll_ call you.'

He soon brought in the cushions, and strewed them on the ground.

'There you are, you see. Again as large as life. Oh, never mindthanking. I've daughters of my own. And though they weren't born in theMarshalsea Prison, they might have been, if I had been, in my ways ofcarrying on, of your father's breed. Stop a bit. I must put somethingunder the cushion for your head. Here's a burial volume, just thething! We have got Mrs Bangham in this book. But what makes these booksinteresting to most people is--not who's in 'em, but who isn't--who'scoming, you know, and when. That's the interesting question.'

Commendingly looking back at the pillow he had improvised, he left themto their hour's repose. Maggy was snoring already, and Little Dorritwas soon fast asleep with her head resting on that sealed book of Fate,untroubled by its mysterious blank leaves.

This was Little Dorrit's party. The shame, desertion, wretchedness, andexposure of the great capital; the wet, the cold, the slow hours, andthe swift clouds of the dismal night. This was the party from whichLittle Dorrit went home, jaded, in the first grey mist of a rainymorning.