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Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/23

CHAPTER 22. A Puzzle

Mr Clennam did not increase in favour with the Father of the Marshalseain the ratio of his increasing visits. His obtuseness on the greatTestimonial question was not calculated to awaken admiration in thepaternal breast, but had rather a tendency to give offence in thatsensitive quarter, and to be regarded as a positive shortcoming in pointof gentlemanly feeling. An impression of disappointment, occasionedby the discovery that Mr Clennam scarcely possessed that delicacy forwhich, in the confidence of his nature, he had been inclined to givehim credit, began to darken the fatherly mind in connection with thatgentleman. The father went so far as to say, in his private familycircle, that he feared Mr Clennam was not a man of high instincts.He was happy, he observed, in his public capacity as leader andrepresentative of the College, to receive Mr Clennam when he called topay his respects; but he didn't find that he got on with him personally.There appeared to be something (he didn't know what it was) wanting inhim. Howbeit, the father did not fail in any outward show of politeness,but, on the contrary, honoured him with much attention; perhapscherishing the hope that, although not a man of a sufficientlybrilliant and spontaneous turn of mind to repeat his former testimonialunsolicited, it might still be within the compass of his nature tobear the part of a responsive gentleman, in any correspondence that waytending.

In the threefold capacity, of the gentleman from outside who had beenaccidentally locked in on the night of his first appearance, of thegentleman from outside who had inquired into the affairs of the Fatherof the Marshalsea with the stupendous idea of getting him out, and ofthe gentleman from outside who took an interest in the child of theMarshalsea, Clennam soon became a visitor of mark. He was not surprisedby the attentions he received from Mr Chivery when that officer was onthe lock, for he made little distinction between Mr Chivery's politenessand that of the other turnkeys. It was on one particular afternoon thatMr Chivery surprised him all at once, and stood forth from hiscompanions in bold relief.

Mr Chivery, by some artful exercise of his power of clearing the Lodge,had contrived to rid it of all sauntering Collegians; so that Clennam,coming out of the prison, should find him on duty alone.

'(Private) I ask your pardon, sir,' said Mr Chivery in a secret manner;'but which way might you be going?'

'I am going over the Bridge.' He saw in Mr Chivery, with someastonishment, quite an Allegory of Silence, as he stood with his key onhis lips.

'(Private) I ask your pardon again,' said Mr Chivery, 'but could you goround by Horsemonger Lane? Could you by any means find time to look inat that address?' handing him a little card, printed for circulationamong the connection of Chivery and Co., Tobacconists, Importers of pureHavannah Cigars, Bengal Cheroots, and fine-flavoured Cubas, Dealers inFancy Snuffs, &c. &c.

'(Private) It an't tobacco business,' said Mr Chivery. 'The truth is,it's my wife. She's wishful to say a word to you, sir, upon a pointrespecting--yes,' said Mr Chivery, answering Clennam's look ofapprehension with a nod, 'respecting _her_.'

'I will make a point of seeing your wife directly.'

'Thank you, sir. Much obliged. It an't above ten minutes out of yourway. Please to ask for _Mrs_ Chivery!' These instructions, Mr Chivery, whohad already let him out, cautiously called through a little slide in theouter door, which he could draw back from within for the inspection ofvisitors when it pleased him.

Arthur Clennam, with the card in his hand, betook himself to the addressset forth upon it, and speedily arrived there. It was a very smallestablishment, wherein a decent woman sat behind the counter workingat her needle. Little jars of tobacco, little boxes of cigars, alittle assortment of pipes, a little jar or two of snuff, and a littleinstrument like a shoeing horn for serving it out, composed the retailstock in trade.

Arthur mentioned his name, and his having promised to call, on thesolicitation of Mr Chivery. About something relating to Miss Dorrit, hebelieved. Mrs Chivery at once laid aside her work, rose up from her seatbehind the counter, and deploringly shook her head.

'You may see him now,' said she, 'if you'll condescend to take a peep.'

With these mysterious words, she preceded the visitor into a littleparlour behind the shop, with a little window in it commanding a verylittle dull back-yard. In this yard a wash of sheets and table-clothstried (in vain, for want of air) to get itself dried on a line or two;and among those flapping articles was sitting in a chair, like thelast mariner left alive on the deck of a damp ship without the power offurling the sails, a little woe-begone young man.

'Our John,' said Mrs Chivery.

Not to be deficient in interest, Clennam asked what he might be doingthere?

'It's the only change he takes,' said Mrs Chivery, shaking her headafresh. 'He won't go out, even in the back-yard, when there's no linen;but when there's linen to keep the neighbours' eyes off, he'll sitthere, hours. Hours he will. Says he feels as if it was groves!' MrsChivery shook her head again, put her apron in a motherly way to hereyes, and reconducted her visitor into the regions of the business.

'Please to take a seat, sir,' said Mrs Chivery. 'Miss Dorrit is thematter with Our John, sir; he's a breaking his heart for her, and Iwould wish to take the liberty to ask how it's to be made good to hisparents when bust?'

Mrs Chivery, who was a comfortable-looking woman much respected aboutHorsemonger Lane for her feelings and her conversation, uttered thisspeech with fell composure, and immediately afterwards began again toshake her head and dry her eyes.

'Sir,' said she in continuation, 'you are acquainted with the family,and have interested yourself with the family, and are influential withthe family. If you can promote views calculated to make two young peoplehappy, let me, for Our John's sake, and for both their sakes, imploreyou so to do!'

'I have been so habituated,' returned Arthur, at a loss, 'duringthe short time I have known her, to consider Little--I have been sohabituated to consider Miss Dorrit in a light altogether removed fromthat in which you present her to me, that you quite take me by surprise.Does she know your son?'

'Brought up together, sir,' said Mrs Chivery. 'Played together.'

'Does she know your son as her admirer?'

'Oh! bless you, sir,' said Mrs Chivery, with a sort of triumphantshiver, 'she never could have seen him on a Sunday without knowing hewas that. His cane alone would have told it long ago, if nothing elsehad. Young men like John don't take to ivory hands a pinting, fornothing. How did I first know it myself? Similarly.'

'Perhaps Miss Dorrit may not be so ready as you, you see.'

'Then she knows it, sir,' said Mrs Chivery, 'by word of mouth.'

'Are you sure?'

'Sir,' said Mrs Chivery, 'sure and certain as in this house I am. I seemy son go out with my own eyes when in this house I was, and I see myson come in with my own eyes when in this house I was, and I know hedone it!' Mrs Chivery derived a surprising force of emphasis from theforegoing circumstantiality and repetition.

'May I ask you how he came to fall into the desponding state whichcauses you so much uneasiness?'

'That,' said Mrs Chivery, 'took place on that same day when to thishouse I see that John with these eyes return. Never been himself in thishouse since. Never was like what he has been since, not from the hourwhen to this house seven year ago me and his father, as tenants by thequarter, came!' An effect in the nature of an affidavit was gained fromthis speech by Mrs Chivery's peculiar power of construction.

'May I venture to inquire what is your version of the matter?'

'You may,' said Mrs Chivery, 'and I will give it to you in honour and inword as true as in this shop I stand. Our John has every one's good wordand every one's good wish. He played with her as a child when in thatyard a child she played. He has known her ever since. He went out uponthe Sunday afternoon when in this very parlour he had dined, and mether, with appointment or without appointment; which, I do not pretend tosay. He made his offer to her. Her brother and sister is high in theirviews, and against Our John. Her father is all for himself in his viewsand against sharing her with any one. Under which circumstances shehas answered Our John, ”No, John, I cannot have you, I cannot haveany husband, it is not my intentions ever to become a wife, it is myintentions to be always a sacrifice, farewell, find another worthy ofyou, and forget me!” This is the way in which she is doomed to be aconstant slave to them that are not worthy that a constant slave sheunto them should be. This is the way in which Our John has come to findno pleasure but in taking cold among the linen, and in showing in thatyard, as in that yard I have myself shown you, a broken-down ruin thatgoes home to his mother's heart!' Here the good woman pointed to thelittle window, whence her son might be seen sitting disconsolate inthe tuneless groves; and again shook her head and wiped her eyes, andbesought him, for the united sakes of both the young people, to exercisehis influence towards the bright reversal of these dismal events.

She was so confident in her exposition of the case, and it was soundeniably founded on correct premises in so far as the relativepositions of Little Dorrit and her family were concerned, that Clennamcould not feel positive on the other side. He had come to attach toLittle Dorrit an interest so peculiar--an interest that removed herfrom, while it grew out of, the common and coarse things surroundingher--that he found it disappointing, disagreeable, almost painful, tosuppose her in love with young Mr Chivery in the back-yard, or any suchperson. On the other hand, he reasoned with himself that she was justas good and just as true in love with him, as not in love with him;and that to make a kind of domesticated fairy of her, on the penaltyof isolation at heart from the only people she knew, would be but aweakness of his own fancy, and not a kind one. Still, her youthful andethereal appearance, her timid manner, the charm of her sensitive voiceand eyes, the very many respects in which she had interested him outof her own individuality, and the strong difference between herself andthose about her, were not in unison, and were determined not to be inunison, with this newly presented idea.

He told the worthy Mrs Chivery, after turning these things over in hismind--he did that, indeed, while she was yet speaking--that he might berelied upon to do his utmost at all times to promote the happiness ofMiss Dorrit, and to further the wishes of her heart if it were in hispower to do so, and if he could discover what they were. At the sametime he cautioned her against assumptions and appearances; enjoinedstrict silence and secrecy, lest Miss Dorrit should be made unhappy; andparticularly advised her to endeavour to win her son's confidence and soto make quite sure of the state of the case. Mrs Chivery considered thelatter precaution superfluous, but said she would try. She shook herhead as if she had not derived all the comfort she had fondly expectedfrom this interview, but thanked him nevertheless for the trouble he hadkindly taken. They then parted good friends, and Arthur walked away.

The crowd in the street jostling the crowd in his mind, and the twocrowds making a confusion, he avoided London Bridge, and turned off inthe quieter direction of the Iron Bridge. He had scarcely set foot uponit, when he saw Little Dorrit walking on before him. It was a pleasantday, with a light breeze blowing, and she seemed to have that minutecome there for air. He had left her in her father's room within an hour.

It was a timely chance, favourable to his wish of observing her faceand manner when no one else was by. He quickened his pace; but before hereached her, she turned her head.

'Have I startled you?' he asked.

'I thought I knew the step,' she answered, hesitating.

'And did you know it, Little Dorrit? You could hardly have expectedmine.'

'I did not expect any. But when I heard a step, I thought it--soundedlike yours.'

'Are you going further?'

'No, sir, I am only walking here for a little change.'

They walked together, and she recovered her confiding manner with him,and looked up in his face as she said, after glancing around:

'It is so strange. Perhaps you can hardly understand it. I sometimeshave a sensation as if it was almost unfeeling to walk here.'

'Unfeeling?'

'To see the river, and so much sky, and so many objects, and such changeand motion. Then to go back, you know, and find him in the same crampedplace.'

'Ah yes! But going back, you must remember that you take with you thespirit and influence of such things to cheer him.'

'Do I? I hope I may! I am afraid you fancy too much, sir, and make meout too powerful. If you were in prison, could I bring such comfort toyou?'

'Yes, Little Dorrit, I am sure of it.'

He gathered from a tremor on her lip, and a passing shadow of greatagitation on her face, that her mind was with her father. He remainedsilent for a few moments, that she might regain her composure. TheLittle Dorrit, trembling on his arm, was less in unison than ever withMrs Chivery's theory, and yet was not irreconcilable with a new fancywhich sprung up within him, that there might be some one else in thehopeless--newer fancy still--in the hopeless unattainable distance.

They turned, and Clennam said, Here was Maggy coming! Little Dorritlooked up, surprised, and they confronted Maggy, who brought herselfat sight of them to a dead stop. She had been trotting along, sopreoccupied and busy that she had not recognised them until they turnedupon her. She was now in a moment so conscience-stricken that her verybasket partook of the change.

'Maggy, you promised me to stop near father.'

'So I would, Little Mother, only he wouldn't let me. If he takes andsends me out I must go. If he takes and says, ”Maggy, you hurry away andback with that letter, and you shall have a sixpence if the answer's agood 'un,” I must take it. Lor, Little Mother, what's a poor thing often year old to do? And if Mr Tip--if he happens to be a coming in asI come out, and if he says ”Where are you going, Maggy?” and if I says,”I'm a going So and So,” and if he says, ”I'll have a Try too,” and ifhe goes into the George and writes a letter and if he gives it me andsays, ”Take that one to the same place, and if the answer's a good 'unI'll give you a shilling,” it ain't my fault, mother!'

Arthur read, in Little Dorrit's downcast eyes, to whom she foresaw thatthe letters were addressed.

'I'm a going So and So. There! That's where I am a going to,' saidMaggy. 'I'm a going So and So. It ain't you, Little Mother, that's gotanything to do with it--it's you, you know,' said Maggy, addressingArthur. 'You'd better come, So and So, and let me take and give 'em toyou.'

'We will not be so particular as that, Maggy. Give them me here,' saidClennam in a low voice.

'Well, then, come across the road,' answered Maggy in a very loudwhisper. 'Little Mother wasn't to know nothing of it, and she wouldnever have known nothing of it if you had only gone So and So, insteadof bothering and loitering about. It ain't my fault. I must do what I amtold. They ought to be ashamed of themselves for telling me.'

Clennam crossed to the other side, and hurriedly opened the letters.That from the father mentioned that most unexpectedly finding himself inthe novel position of having been disappointed of a remittance fromthe City on which he had confidently counted, he took up his pen, beingrestrained by the unhappy circumstance of his incarceration duringthree-and-twenty years (doubly underlined), from coming himself, ashe would otherwise certainly have done--took up his pen to entreat MrClennam to advance him the sum of Three Pounds Ten Shillings upon hisI.O.U., which he begged to enclose. That from the son set forth thatMr Clennam would, he knew, be gratified to hear that he had atlength obtained permanent employment of a highly satisfactory nature,accompanied with every prospect of complete success in life; but thatthe temporary inability of his employer to pay him his arrears of salaryto that date (in which condition said employer had appealed to thatgenerous forbearance in which he trusted he should never be wantingtowards a fellow-creature), combined with the fraudulent conduct of afalse friend and the present high price of provisions, had reducedhim to the verge of ruin, unless he could by a quarter before six thatevening raise the sum of eight pounds. This sum, Mr Clennam would behappy to learn, he had, through the promptitude of several friendswho had a lively confidence in his probity, already raised, with theexception of a trifling balance of one pound seventeen and fourpence;the loan of which balance, for the period of one month, would be fraughtwith the usual beneficent consequences.

These letters Clennam answered with the aid of his pencil andpocket-book, on the spot; sending the father what he asked for, andexcusing himself from compliance with the demand of the son. He thencommissioned Maggy to return with his replies, and gave her theshilling of which the failure of her supplemental enterprise would havedisappointed her otherwise.

When he rejoined Little Dorrit, and they had begun walking as before,she said all at once:

'I think I had better go. I had better go home.'

'Don't be distressed,' said Clennam, 'I have answered the letters. Theywere nothing. You know what they were. They were nothing.'

'But I am afraid,' she returned, 'to leave him, I am afraid to leaveany of them. When I am gone, they pervert--but they don't mean it--evenMaggy.'

'It was a very innocent commission that she undertook, poor thing. Andin keeping it secret from you, she supposed, no doubt, that she was onlysaving you uneasiness.'

'Yes, I hope so, I hope so. But I had better go home! It was but theother day that my sister told me I had become so used to the prison thatI had its tone and character. It must be so. I am sure it must be when Isee these things. My place is there. I am better there, it is unfeelingin me to be here, when I can do the least thing there. Good-bye. I hadfar better stay at home!'

The agonised way in which she poured this out, as if it burst of itselffrom her suppressed heart, made it difficult for Clennam to keep thetears from his eyes as he saw and heard her.

'Don't call it home, my child!' he entreated. 'It is always painful tome to hear you call it home.'

'But it is home! What else can I call home? Why should I ever forget itfor a single moment?'

'You never do, dear Little Dorrit, in any good and true service.'

'I hope not, O I hope not! But it is better for me to stay there; muchbetter, much more dutiful, much happier. Please don't go with me, let mego by myself. Good-bye, God bless you. Thank you, thank you.'

He felt that it was better to respect her entreaty, and did not movewhile her slight form went quickly away from him. When it had flutteredout of sight, he turned his face towards the water and stood thinking.

She would have been distressed at any time by this discovery of theletters; but so much so, and in that unrestrainable way?

No.

When she had seen her father begging with his threadbare disguise on,when she had entreated him not to give her father money, she hadbeen distressed, but not like this. Something had made her keenly andadditionally sensitive just now. Now, was there some one in the hopelessunattainable distance? Or had the suspicion been brought into his mind,by his own associations of the troubled river running beneath the bridgewith the same river higher up, its changeless tune upon the prow of theferry-boat, so many miles an hour the peaceful flowing of the stream,here the rushes, there the lilies, nothing uncertain or unquiet?

He thought of his poor child, Little Dorrit, for a long time there; hethought of her going home; he thought of her in the night; he thoughtof her when the day came round again. And the poor child Little Dorritthought of him--too faithfully, ah, too faithfully!--in the shadow ofthe Marshalsea wall.