Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/19

CHAPTER 18. Little Dorrit's Lover

Little Dorrit had not attained her twenty-second birthday withoutfinding a lover. Even in the shallow Marshalsea, the ever young Archershot off a few featherless arrows now and then from a mouldy bow, andwinged a Collegian or two.

Little Dorrit's lover, however, was not a Collegian. He was thesentimental son of a turnkey. His father hoped, in the fulness of time,to leave him the inheritance of an unstained key; and had from hisearly youth familiarised him with the duties of his office, and with anambition to retain the prison-lock in the family. While the successionwas yet in abeyance, he assisted his mother in the conduct of a snugtobacco business round the corner of Horsemonger Lane (his father beinga non-resident turnkey), which could usually command a neat connectionwithin the College walls.

Years agone, when the object of his affections was wont to sit in herlittle arm-chair by the high Lodge-fender, Young John (family name,Chivery), a year older than herself, had eyed her with admiring wonder.When he had played with her in the yard, his favourite game had been tocounterfeit locking her up in corners, and to counterfeit lettingher out for real kisses. When he grew tall enough to peep through thekeyhole of the great lock of the main door, he had divers times set downhis father's dinner, or supper, to get on as it might on the outer sidethereof, while he stood taking cold in one eye by dint of peeping at herthrough that airy perspective.

If Young John had ever slackened in his truth in the less penetrabledays of his boyhood, when youth is prone to wear its boots unlaced andis happily unconscious of digestive organs, he had soon strung it upagain and screwed it tight. At nineteen, his hand had inscribed in chalkon that part of the wall which fronted her lodgings, on the occasion ofher birthday, 'Welcome sweet nursling of the Fairies!' At twenty-three,the same hand falteringly presented cigars on Sundays to the Father ofthe Marshalsea, and Father of the queen of his soul.

Young John was small of stature, with rather weak legs and very weaklight hair. One of his eyes (perhaps the eye that used to peep throughthe keyhole) was also weak, and looked larger than the other, as ifit couldn't collect itself. Young John was gentle likewise. But he wasgreat of soul. Poetical, expansive, faithful.

Though too humble before the ruler of his heart to be sanguine, YoungJohn had considered the object of his attachment in all its lights andshades. Following it out to blissful results, he had descried, withoutself-commendation, a fitness in it. Say things prospered, and they wereunited. She, the child of the Marshalsea; he, the lock-keeper. Therewas a fitness in that. Say he became a resident turnkey. She wouldofficially succeed to the chamber she had rented so long. There was abeautiful propriety in that. It looked over the wall, if you stood ontip-toe; and, with a trellis-work of scarlet beans and a canary or so,would become a very Arbour. There was a charming idea in that. Then,being all in all to one another, there was even an appropriate grace inthe lock. With the world shut out (except that part of it which wouldbe shut in); with its troubles and disturbances only known to them byhearsay, as they would be described by the pilgrims tarrying with themon their way to the Insolvent Shrine; with the Arbour above, and theLodge below; they would glide down the stream of time, in pastoraldomestic happiness. Young John drew tears from his eyes by finishing thepicture with a tombstone in the adjoining churchyard, close against theprison wall, bearing the following touching inscription: 'Sacred tothe Memory Of JOHN CHIVERY, Sixty years Turnkey, and fifty yearsHead Turnkey, Of the neighbouring Marshalsea, Who departed this life,universally respected, on the thirty-first of December, One thousandeight hundred and eighty-six, Aged eighty-three years. Also of his trulybeloved and truly loving wife, AMY, whose maiden name was DORRIT, Whosurvived his loss not quite forty-eight hours, And who breathed her lastin the Marshalsea aforesaid. There she was born, There she lived, Thereshe died.'

The Chivery parents were not ignorant of their son's attachment--indeedit had, on some exceptional occasions, thrown him into a state of mindthat had impelled him to conduct himself with irascibility towards thecustomers, and damage the business--but they, in their turns, had workedit out to desirable conclusions. Mrs Chivery, a prudent woman, haddesired her husband to take notice that their John's prospects of theLock would certainly be strengthened by an alliance with Miss Dorrit,who had herself a kind of claim upon the College and was much respectedthere. Mrs Chivery had desired her husband to take notice that if, onthe one hand, their John had means and a post of trust, on the otherhand, Miss Dorrit had family; and that her (Mrs Chivery's) sentimentwas, that two halves made a whole. Mrs Chivery, speaking as a mother andnot as a diplomatist, had then, from a different point of view, desiredher husband to recollect that their John had never been strong, andthat his love had fretted and worrited him enough as it was, withouthis being driven to do himself a mischief, as nobody couldn't sayhe wouldn't be if he was crossed. These arguments had so powerfullyinfluenced the mind of Mr Chivery, who was a man of few words, that hehad on sundry Sunday mornings, given his boy what he termed 'a luckytouch,' signifying that he considered such commendation of him to GoodFortune, preparatory to his that day declaring his passion andbecoming triumphant. But Young John had never taken courage to makethe declaration; and it was principally on these occasions that he hadreturned excited to the tobacco shop, and flown at the customers.

In this affair, as in every other, Little Dorrit herself was the lastperson considered. Her brother and sister were aware of it, and attaineda sort of station by making a peg of it on which to air the miserablyragged old fiction of the family gentility. Her sister asserted thefamily gentility by flouting the poor swain as he loitered about theprison for glimpses of his dear. Tip asserted the family gentility, andhis own, by coming out in the character of the aristocratic brother, andloftily swaggering in the little skittle ground respecting seizures bythe scruff of the neck, which there were looming probabilities of somegentleman unknown executing on some little puppy not mentioned. Thesewere not the only members of the Dorrit family who turned it to account.No, no. The Father of the Marshalsea was supposed to know nothing aboutthe matter, of course: his poor dignity could not see so low. But hetook the cigars, on Sundays, and was glad to get them; and sometimeseven condescended to walk up and down the yard with the donor (who wasproud and hopeful then), and benignantly to smoke one in his society.With no less readiness and condescension did he receive attentions fromChivery Senior, who always relinquished his arm-chair and newspaper tohim, when he came into the Lodge during one of his spells of duty; andwho had even mentioned to him, that, if he would like at any time afterdusk quietly to step out into the fore-court and take a look at thestreet, there was not much to prevent him. If he did not avail himselfof this latter civility, it was only because he had lost the relish forit; inasmuch as he took everything else he could get, and would say attimes, 'Extremely civil person, Chivery; very attentive man and veryrespectful. Young Chivery, too; really almost with a delicate perceptionof one's position here. A very well conducted family indeed, theChiveries. Their behaviour gratifies me.'

The devoted Young John all this time regarded the family with reverence.He never dreamed of disputing their pretensions, but did homage to themiserable Mumbo jumbo they paraded. As to resenting any affront from _her_brother, he would have felt, even if he had not naturally been of a mostpacific disposition, that to wag his tongue or lift his hand againstthat sacred gentleman would be an unhallowed act. He was sorry thathis noble mind should take offence; still, he felt the fact to be notincompatible with its nobility, and sought to propitiate and conciliatethat gallant soul. Her father, a gentleman in misfortune--a gentleman ofa fine spirit and courtly manners, who always bore with him--he deeplyhonoured. Her sister he considered somewhat vain and proud, but a younglady of infinite accomplishments, who could not forget the past. It wasan instinctive testimony to Little Dorrit's worth and difference fromall the rest, that the poor young fellow honoured and loved her forbeing simply what she was.

The tobacco business round the corner of Horsemonger Lane was carriedout in a rural establishment one story high, which had the benefit ofthe air from the yards of Horsemonger Lane jail, and the advantage of aretired walk under the wall of that pleasant establishment. The businesswas of too modest a character to support a life-size Highlander, but itmaintained a little one on a bracket on the door-post, who looked likea fallen Cherub that had found it necessary to take to a kilt.

From the portal thus decorated, one Sunday after an early dinner ofbaked viands, Young John issued forth on his usual Sunday errand; notempty-handed, but with his offering of cigars. He was neatly attired ina plum-coloured coat, with as large a collar of black velvet as hisfigure could carry; a silken waistcoat, bedecked with golden sprigs; achaste neckerchief much in vogue at that day, representing a preserve oflilac pheasants on a buff ground; pantaloons so highly decorated withside-stripes that each leg was a three-stringed lute; and a hat ofstate very high and hard. When the prudent Mrs Chivery perceived thatin addition to these adornments her John carried a pair of white kidgloves, and a cane like a little finger-post, surmounted by an ivoryhand marshalling him the way that he should go; and when she saw him, inthis heavy marching order, turn the corner to the right; she remarked toMr Chivery, who was at home at the time, that she thought she knew whichway the wind blew.

The Collegians were entertaining a considerable number of visitors thatSunday afternoon, and their Father kept his room for the purpose ofreceiving presentations. After making the tour of the yard, LittleDorrit's lover with a hurried heart went up-stairs, and knocked with hisknuckles at the Father's door.

'Come in, come in!' said a gracious voice. The Father's voice, herfather's, the Marshalsea's father's. He was seated in his black velvetcap, with his newspaper, three-and-sixpence accidentally left on thetable, and two chairs arranged. Everything prepared for holding hisCourt.

'Ah, Young John! How do you do, how do you do!'

'Pretty well, I thank you, sir. I hope you are the same.'

'Yes, John Chivery; yes. Nothing to complain of.'

'I have taken the liberty, sir, of--'

'Eh?' The Father of the Marshalsea always lifted up his eyebrows at thispoint, and became amiably distraught and smilingly absent in mind.

'--A few cigars, sir.'

'Oh!' (For the moment, excessively surprised.) 'Thank you, Young John,thank you. But really, I am afraid I am too--No? Well then, I will sayno more about it. Put them on the mantelshelf, if you please, YoungJohn. And sit down, sit down. You are not a stranger, John.'

'Thank you, sir, I am sure--Miss;' here Young John turned the great hatround and round upon his left-hand, like a slowly twirling mouse-cage;'Miss Amy quite well, sir?'

'Yes, John, yes; very well. She is out.'

'Indeed, sir?'

'Yes, John. Miss Amy is gone for an airing. My young people all go out agood deal. But at their time of life, it's natural, John.'

'Very much so, I am sure, sir.'

'An airing. An airing. Yes.' He was blandly tapping his fingers onthe table, and casting his eyes up at the window. 'Amy has gone foran airing on the Iron Bridge. She has become quite partial to the IronBridge of late, and seems to like to walk there better than anywhere.'He returned to conversation. 'Your father is not on duty at present, Ithink, John?'

'No, sir, he comes on later in the afternoon.' Another twirl of thegreat hat, and then Young John said, rising, 'I am afraid I must wishyou good day, sir.'

'So soon? Good day, Young John. Nay, nay,' with the utmostcondescension, 'never mind your glove, John. Shake hands with it on. Youare no stranger here, you know.'

Highly gratified by the kindness of his reception, Young John descendedthe staircase. On his way down he met some Collegians bringing upvisitors to be presented, and at that moment Mr Dorrit happened to callover the banisters with particular distinctness, 'Much obliged to youfor your little testimonial, John!'

Little Dorrit's lover very soon laid down his penny on the tollplate ofthe Iron Bridge, and came upon it looking about him for the well-knownand well-beloved figure. At first he feared she was not there; but as hewalked on towards the Middlesex side, he saw her standing still, lookingat the water. She was absorbed in thought, and he wondered whatshe might be thinking about. There were the piles of city roofs andchimneys, more free from smoke than on week-days; and there were thedistant masts and steeples. Perhaps she was thinking about them.

Little Dorrit mused so long, and was so entirely preoccupied, thatalthough her lover stood quiet for what he thought was a long time, andtwice or thrice retired and came back again to the former spot, stillshe did not move. So, in the end, he made up his mind to go on, and seemto come upon her casually in passing, and speak to her. The place wasquiet, and now or never was the time to speak to her.

He walked on, and she did not appear to hear his steps until he wasclose upon her. When he said 'Miss Dorrit!' she started and fell backfrom him, with an expression in her face of fright and something likedislike that caused him unutterable dismay. She had often avoided himbefore--always, indeed, for a long, long while. She had turned away andglided off so often when she had seen him coming toward her, that theunfortunate Young John could not think it accidental. But he had hopedthat it might be shyness, her retiring character, her foreknowledge ofthe state of his heart, anything short of aversion. Now, that momentarylook had said, 'You, of all people! I would rather have seen any one onearth than you!'

It was but a momentary look, inasmuch as she checked it, and said in hersoft little voice, 'Oh, Mr John! Is it you?' But she felt what it hadbeen, as he felt what it had been; and they stood looking at one anotherequally confused.

'Miss Amy, I am afraid I disturbed you by speaking to you.'

'Yes, rather. I--I came here to be alone, and I thought I was.'

'Miss Amy, I took the liberty of walking this way, because Mr Dorritchanced to mention, when I called upon him just now, that you--'

She caused him more dismay than before by suddenly murmuring, 'O father,father!' in a heartrending tone, and turning her face away.

'Miss Amy, I hope I don't give you any uneasiness by naming Mr Dorrit.I assure you I found him very well and in the best of Spirits, and heshowed me even more than his usual kindness; being so very kind as tosay that I was not a stranger there, and in all ways gratifying me verymuch.'

To the inexpressible consternation of her lover, Little Dorrit, with herhands to her averted face, and rocking herself where she stood as if shewere in pain, murmured, 'O father, how can you! O dear, dear father, howcan you, can you, do it!'

The poor fellow stood gazing at her, overflowing with sympathy, but notknowing what to make of this, until, having taken out her handkerchiefand put it to her still averted face, she hurried away. At first heremained stock still; then hurried after her.

'Miss Amy, pray! Will you have the goodness to stop a moment? Miss Amy,if it comes to that, let _me_ go. I shall go out of my senses, if I haveto think that I have driven you away like this.'

His trembling voice and unfeigned earnestness brought Little Dorrit toa stop. 'Oh, I don't know what to do,' she cried, 'I don't know what todo!'

To Young John, who had never seen her bereft of her quiet self-command,who had seen her from her infancy ever so reliable and self-suppressed,there was a shock in her distress, and in having to associate himselfwith it as its cause, that shook him from his great hat to thepavement. He felt it necessary to explain himself. He might bemisunderstood--supposed to mean something, or to have done something,that had never entered into his imagination. He begged her to hear himexplain himself, as the greatest favour she could show him.

'Miss Amy, I know very well that your family is far above mine. It werevain to conceal it. There never was a Chivery a gentleman that everI heard of, and I will not commit the meanness of making a falserepresentation on a subject so momentous. Miss Amy, I know very wellthat your high-souled brother, and likewise your spirited sister, spurnme from a height. What I have to do is to respect them, to wish to beadmitted to their friendship, to look up at the eminence on which theyare placed from my lowlier station--for, whether viewed as tobacco orviewed as the lock, I well know it is lowly--and ever wish them well andhappy.'

There really was a genuineness in the poor fellow, and a contrastbetween the hardness of his hat and the softness of his heart (albeit,perhaps, of his head, too), that was moving. Little Dorrit entreated himto disparage neither himself nor his station, and, above all things, todivest himself of any idea that she supposed hers to be superior. Thisgave him a little comfort.

'Miss Amy,' he then stammered, 'I have had for a long time--ages theyseem to me--Revolving ages--a heart-cherished wish to say something toyou. May I say it?'

Little Dorrit involuntarily started from his side again, with thefaintest shadow of her former look; conquering that, she went on atgreat speed half across the Bridge without replying!

'May I--Miss Amy, I but ask the question humbly--may I say it? I havebeen so unlucky already in giving you pain without having any suchintentions, before the holy Heavens! that there is no fear of my sayingit unless I have your leave. I can be miserable alone, I can be cut upby myself, why should I also make miserable and cut up one that I wouldfling myself off that parapet to give half a moment's joy to! Not thatthat's much to do, for I'd do it for twopence.'

The mournfulness of his spirits, and the gorgeousness of his appearance,might have made him ridiculous, but that his delicacy made himrespectable. Little Dorrit learnt from it what to do.

'If you please, John Chivery,' she returned, trembling, but in a quietway, 'since you are so considerate as to ask me whether you shall sayany more--if you please, no.'

'Never, Miss Amy?'

'No, if you please. Never.'

'O Lord!' gasped Young John.

'But perhaps you will let me, instead, say something to you. I wantto say it earnestly, and with as plain a meaning as it is possible toexpress. When you think of us, John--I mean my brother, and sister,and me--don't think of us as being any different from the rest; for,whatever we once were (which I hardly know) we ceased to be long ago,and never can be any more. It will be much better for you, and muchbetter for others, if you will do that instead of what you are doingnow.'

Young John dolefully protested that he would try to bear it in mind, andwould be heartily glad to do anything she wished.

'As to me,' said Little Dorrit, 'think as little of me as you can; theless, the better. When you think of me at all, John, let it only be asthe child you have seen grow up in the prison with one set of dutiesalways occupying her; as a weak, retired, contented, unprotected girl. Iparticularly want you to remember, that when I come outside the gate, Iam unprotected and solitary.'

He would try to do anything she wished. But why did Miss Amy so muchwant him to remember that?

'Because,' returned Little Dorrit, 'I know I can then quite trust younot to forget to-day, and not to say any more to me. You are so generousthat I know I can trust to you for that; and I do and I always will. Iam going to show you, at once, that I fully trust you. I like this placewhere we are speaking better than any place I know;' her slight colourhad faded, but her lover thought he saw it coming back just then; 'and Imay be often here. I know it is only necessary for me to tell you so, tobe quite sure that you will never come here again in search of me. And Iam--quite sure!'

She might rely upon it, said Young John. He was a miserable wretch, buther word was more than a law for him.

'And good-bye, John,' said Little Dorrit. 'And I hope you will have agood wife one day, and be a happy man. I am sure you will deserve to behappy, and you will be, John.'

As she held out her hand to him with these words, the heart that wasunder the waistcoat of sprigs--mere slop-work, if the truth must beknown--swelled to the size of the heart of a gentleman; and the poorcommon little fellow, having no room to hold it, burst into tears.

'Oh, don't cry,' said Little Dorrit piteously. 'Don't, don't! Good-bye,John. God bless you!'

'Good-bye, Miss Amy. Good-bye!'

And so he left her: first observing that she sat down on the corner of aseat, and not only rested her little hand upon the rough wall, but laidher face against it too, as if her head were heavy, and her mind weresad.

It was an affecting illustration of the fallacy of human projects,to behold her lover, with the great hat pulled over his eyes, the velvetcollar turned up as if it rained, the plum-coloured coat buttonedto conceal the silken waistcoat of golden sprigs, and the littledirection-post pointing inexorably home, creeping along by the worstback-streets, and composing, as he went, the following new inscriptionfor a tombstone in St George's Churchyard:

'Here lie the mortal remains Of JOHN CHIVERY, Never anything worthmentioning, Who died about the end of the year one thousand eighthundred and twenty-six, Of a broken heart, Requesting with his lastbreath that the word AMY might be inscribed over his ashes, which wasaccordingly directed to be done, By his afflicted Parents.'