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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
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CHAPTER 24. Fortune-Telling
Little Dorrit received a call that same evening from Mr Plornish, who,having intimated that he wished to speak to her privately, in a seriesof coughs so very noticeable as to favour the idea that her father, asregarded her seamstress occupation, was an illustration of the axiomthat there are no such stone-blind men as those who will not see,obtained an audience with her on the common staircase outside the door.
'There's been a lady at our place to-day, Miss Dorrit,' Plornishgrowled, 'and another one along with her as is a old wixen if ever I metwith such. The way she snapped a person's head off, dear me!'
The mild Plornish was at first quite unable to get his mind away from MrF.'s Aunt. 'For,' said he, to excuse himself, 'she is, I do assure you,the winegariest party.'
At length, by a great effort, he detached himself from the subjectsufficiently to observe:
'But she's neither here nor there just at present. The other lady, she'sMr Casby's daughter; and if Mr Casby an't well off, none better, it an'tthrough any fault of Pancks. For, as to Pancks, he does, he really does,he does indeed!'
Mr Plornish, after his usual manner, was a little obscure, butconscientiously emphatic.
'And what she come to our place for,' he pursued, 'was to leave wordthat if Miss Dorrit would step up to that card--which it's Mr Casby'shouse that is, and Pancks he has a office at the back, where he reallydoes, beyond belief--she would be glad for to engage her. She was a oldand a dear friend, she said particular, of Mr Clennam, and hoped for toprove herself a useful friend to _his_ friend. Them was her words. Wishingto know whether Miss Dorrit could come to-morrow morning, I said I wouldsee you, Miss, and inquire, and look round there to-night, to say yes,or, if you was engaged to-morrow, when?'
'I can go to-morrow, thank you,' said Little Dorrit. 'This is very kindof you, but you are always kind.'
Mr Plornish, with a modest disavowal of his merits, opened the room doorfor her readmission, and followed her in with such an exceedingly baldpretence of not having been out at all, that her father mighthave observed it without being very suspicious. In his affableunconsciousness, however, he took no heed. Plornish, after a littleconversation, in which he blended his former duty as a Collegian withhis present privilege as a humble outside friend, qualified again by hislow estate as a plasterer, took his leave; making the tour of the prisonbefore he left, and looking on at a game of skittles with the mixedfeelings of an old inhabitant who had his private reasons for believingthat it might be his destiny to come back again.
Early in the morning, Little Dorrit, leaving Maggy in high domestictrust, set off for the Patriarchal tent. She went by the Iron Bridge,though it cost her a penny, and walked more slowly in that part of herjourney than in any other. At five minutes before eight her hand was onthe Patriarchal knocker, which was quite as high as she could reach.
She gave Mrs Finching's card to the young woman who opened the door, andthe young woman told her that 'Miss Flora'--Flora having, on her returnto the parental roof, reinvested herself with the title under which shehad lived there--was not yet out of her bedroom, but she was to pleaseto walk up into Miss Flora's sitting-room. She walked up intoMiss Flora's sitting-room, as in duty bound, and there found abreakfast-table comfortably laid for two, with a supplementary trayupon it laid for one. The young woman, disappearing for a few moments,returned to say that she was to please to take a chair by the fire,and to take off her bonnet and make herself at home. But Little Dorrit,being bashful, and not used to make herself at home on such occasions,felt at a loss how to do it; so she was still sitting near the door withher bonnet on, when Flora came in in a hurry half an hour afterwards.
Flora was so sorry to have kept her waiting, and good gracious why didshe sit out there in the cold when she had expected to find her by thefire reading the paper, and hadn't that heedless girl given her themessage then, and had she really been in her bonnet all this time, andpray for goodness sake let Flora take it off! Flora taking it off in thebest-natured manner in the world, was so struck with the face disclosed,that she said, 'Why, what a good little thing you are, my dear!' andpressed her face between her hands like the gentlest of women.
It was the word and the action of a moment. Little Dorrit had hardlytime to think how kind it was, when Flora dashed at the breakfast-tablefull of business, and plunged over head and ears into loquacity.
'Really so sorry that I should happen to be late on this morning of allmornings because my intention and my wish was to be ready to meet youwhen you came in and to say that any one that interested Arthur Clennamhalf so much must interest me and that I gave you the heartiest welcomeand was so glad, instead of which they never called me and there Istill am snoring I dare say if the truth was known and if you don't likeeither cold fowl or hot boiled ham which many people don't I dare saybesides Jews and theirs are scruples of conscience which we must allrespect though I must say I wish they had them equally strong when theysell us false articles for real that certainly ain't worth the money Ishall be quite vexed,' said Flora.
Little Dorrit thanked her, and said, shyly, bread-and-butter and tea wasall she usually--
'Oh nonsense my dear child I can never hear of that,' said Flora,turning on the urn in the most reckless manner, and making herself winkby splashing hot water into her eyes as she bent down to look into theteapot. 'You are coming here on the footing of a friend and companionyou know if you will let me take that liberty and I should be ashamedof myself indeed if you could come here upon any other, besides whichArthur Clennam spoke in such terms--you are tired my dear.'
'You turn so pale you have walked too far before breakfast and I daresay live a great way off and ought to have had a ride,' said Flora,'dear dear is there anything that would do you good?'
'Indeed I am quite well, ma'am. I thank you again and again, but I amquite well.'
'Then take your tea at once I beg,' said Flora, 'and this wing of fowland bit of ham, don't mind me or wait for me, because I always carry inthis tray myself to Mr F.'s Aunt who breakfasts in bed and a charmingold lady too and very clever, Portrait of Mr F. behind the door and verylike though too much forehead and as to a pillar with a marble pavementand balustrades and a mountain, I never saw him near it nor not likelyin the wine trade, excellent man but not at all in that way.'
Little Dorrit glanced at the portrait, very imperfectly following thereferences to that work of art.
'Mr F. was so devoted to me that he never could bear me out of hissight,' said Flora, 'though of course I am unable to say how long thatmight have lasted if he hadn't been cut short while I was a new broom,worthy man but not poetical manly prose but not romance.'
Little Dorrit glanced at the portrait again. The artist had given it ahead that would have been, in an intellectual point of view, top-heavyfor Shakespeare.
'Romance, however,' Flora went on, busily arranging Mr F.'s Aunt'stoast, 'as I openly said to Mr F. when he proposed to me and you will besurprised to hear that he proposed seven times once in a hackney-coachonce in a boat once in a pew once on a donkey at Tunbridge Wells and therest on his knees, Romance was fled with the early days of ArthurClennam, our parents tore us asunder we became marble and stern realityusurped the throne, Mr F. said very much to his credit that he wasperfectly aware of it and even preferred that state of thingsaccordingly the word was spoken the fiat went forth and such is life yousee my dear and yet we do not break but bend, pray make a good breakfastwhile I go in with the tray.'
She disappeared, leaving Little Dorrit to ponder over the meaning of herscattered words. She soon came back again; and at last began to take herown breakfast, talking all the while.
'You see, my dear,' said Flora, measuring out a spoonful or two of somebrown liquid that smelt like brandy, and putting it into her tea, 'I amobliged to be careful to follow the directions of my medical man thoughthe flavour is anything but agreeable being a poor creature and it maybe have never recovered the shock received in youth from too much givingway to crying in the next room when separated from Arthur, have youknown him long?'
As soon as Little Dorrit comprehended that she had been asked thisquestion--for which time was necessary, the galloping pace of her newpatroness having left her far behind--she answered that she had known MrClennam ever since his return.
'To be sure you couldn't have known him before unless you had been inChina or had corresponded neither of which is likely,' returned Flora,'for travelling-people usually get more or less mahogany and you are notat all so and as to corresponding what about? that's very true unlesstea, so it was at his mother's was it really that you knew him first,highly sensible and firm but dreadfully severe--ought to be the motherof the man in the iron mask.'
'Mrs Clennam has been kind to me,' said Little Dorrit.
'Really? I am sure I am glad to hear it because as Arthur's mother it'snaturally pleasant to my feelings to have a better opinion of her thanI had before, though what she thinks of me when I run on as I am certainto do and she sits glowering at me like Fate in a go-cart--shockingcomparison really--invalid and not her fault--I never know or canimagine.'
'Shall I find my work anywhere, ma'am?' asked Little Dorrit, lookingtimidly about; 'can I get it?'
'You industrious little fairy,' returned Flora, taking, in another cupof tea, another of the doses prescribed by her medical man, 'there'snot the slightest hurry and it's better that we should begin by beingconfidential about our mutual friend--too cold a word for me at leastI don't mean that, very proper expression mutual friend--than becomethrough mere formalities not you but me like the Spartan boy with thefox biting him, which I hope you'll excuse my bringing up for of allthe tiresome boys that will go tumbling into every sort of company thatboy's the tiresomest.'
Little Dorrit, her face very pale, sat down again to listen. 'Hadn't Ibetter work the while?' she asked. 'I can work and attend too. I wouldrather, if I may.'
Her earnestness was so expressive of her being uneasy without her work,that Flora answered, 'Well my dear whatever you like best,' and produceda basket of white handkerchiefs. Little Dorrit gladly put it by herside, took out her little pocket-housewife, threaded the needle, andbegan to hem.
'What nimble fingers you have,' said Flora, 'but are you sure you arewell?'
'Oh yes, indeed!'
Flora put her feet upon the fender, and settled herself for a thoroughgood romantic disclosure. She started off at score, tossing her head,sighing in the most demonstrative manner, making a great deal of useof her eyebrows, and occasionally, but not often, glancing at the quietface that bent over the work.
'You must know my dear,' said Flora, 'but that I have no doubt you knowalready not only because I have already thrown it out in a general waybut because I feel I carry it stamped in burning what's his namesupon my brow that before I was introduced to the late Mr F. I hadbeen engaged to Arthur Clennam--Mr Clennam in public where reserve isnecessary Arthur here--we were all in all to one another it was themorning of life it was bliss it was frenzy it was everything else ofthat sort in the highest degree, when rent asunder we turned to stone inwhich capacity Arthur went to China and I became the statue bride of thelate Mr F.'
Flora, uttering these words in a deep voice, enjoyed herself immensely.
'To paint,' said she, 'the emotions of that morning when all was marblewithin and Mr F.'s Aunt followed in a glass-coach which it stands toreason must have been in shameful repair or it never could have brokendown two streets from the house and Mr F.'s Aunt brought home like thefifth of November in a rush-bottomed chair I will not attempt,suffice it to say that the hollow form of breakfast took place in thedining-room downstairs that papa partaking too freely of pickled salmonwas ill for weeks and that Mr F. and myself went upon a continentaltour to Calais where the people fought for us on the pier until theyseparated us though not for ever that was not yet to be.'
The statue bride, hardly pausing for breath, went on, with the greatestcomplacency, in a rambling manner sometimes incidental to flesh andblood.
'I will draw a veil over that dreamy life, Mr F. was in good spirits hisappetite was good he liked the cookery he considered the wine weak butpalatable and all was well, we returned to the immediate neighbourhoodof Number Thirty Little Gosling Street London Docks and settled down,ere we had yet fully detected the housemaid in selling the feathersout of the spare bed Gout flying upwards soared with Mr F. to anothersphere.'
His relict, with a glance at his portrait, shook her head and wiped hereyes.
'I revere the memory of Mr F. as an estimable man and most indulgenthusband, only necessary to mention Asparagus and it appeared or to hintat any little delicate thing to drink and it came like magic in a pintbottle it was not ecstasy but it was comfort, I returned to papa's roofand lived secluded if not happy during some years until one day papacame smoothly blundering in and said that Arthur Clennam awaited mebelow, I went below and found him ask me not what I found him exceptthat he was still unmarried still unchanged!'
The dark mystery with which Flora now enshrouded herself might havestopped other fingers than the nimble fingers that worked near her.They worked on without pause, and the busy head bent over them watchingthe stitches.
'Ask me not,' said Flora, 'if I love him still or if he still loves meor what the end is to be or when, we are surrounded by watchful eyes andit may be that we are destined to pine asunder it may be never more tobe reunited not a word not a breath not a look to betray us all mustbe secret as the tomb wonder not therefore that even if I should seemcomparatively cold to Arthur or Arthur should seem comparatively cold tome we have fatal reasons it is enough if we understand them hush!'
All of which Flora said with so much headlong vehemence as if she reallybelieved it. There is not much doubt that when she worked herself intofull mermaid condition, she did actually believe whatever she said init.
'Hush!' repeated Flora, 'I have now told you all, confidence isestablished between us hush, for Arthur's sake I will always be a friendto you my dear girl and in Arthur's name you may always rely upon me.'
The nimble fingers laid aside the work, and the little figure rose andkissed her hand. 'You are very cold,' said Flora, changing to her ownnatural kind-hearted manner, and gaining greatly by the change. 'Don'twork to-day. I am sure you are not well I am sure you are not strong.'
'It is only that I feel a little overcome by your kindness, and by MrClennam's kindness in confiding me to one he has known and loved solong.'
'Well really my dear,' said Flora, who had a decided tendency to bealways honest when she gave herself time to think about it, 'it's aswell to leave that alone now, for I couldn't undertake to say after all,but it doesn't signify lie down a little!'
'I have always been strong enough to do what I want to do, and I shallbe quite well directly,' returned Little Dorrit, with a faint smile.'You have overpowered me with gratitude, that's all. If I keep near thewindow for a moment I shall be quite myself.'
Flora opened a window, sat her in a chair by it, and consideratelyretired to her former place. It was a windy day, and the air stirringon Little Dorrit's face soon brightened it. In a very few minutes shereturned to her basket of work, and her nimble fingers were as nimble asever.
Quietly pursuing her task, she asked Flora if Mr Clennam had told herwhere she lived? When Flora replied in the negative, Little Dorrit saidthat she understood why he had been so delicate, but that she felt surehe would approve of her confiding her secret to Flora, and thatshe would therefore do so now with Flora's permission. Receiving anencouraging answer, she condensed the narrative of her life into a fewscanty words about herself and a glowing eulogy upon her father; andFlora took it all in with a natural tenderness that quite understood it,and in which there was no incoherence.
When dinner-time came, Flora drew the arm of her new charge throughhers, and led her down-stairs, and presented her to the Patriarch and MrPancks, who were already in the dining-room waiting to begin. (Mr F.'sAunt was, for the time, laid up in ordinary in her chamber.) By thosegentlemen she was received according to their characters; the Patriarchappearing to do her some inestimable service in saying that he was gladto see her, glad to see her; and Mr Pancks blowing off his favouritesound as a salute.
In that new presence she would have been bashful enough under anycircumstances, and particularly under Flora's insisting on herdrinking a glass of wine and eating of the best that was there; but herconstraint was greatly increased by Mr Pancks. The demeanour of thatgentleman at first suggested to her mind that he might be a taker oflikenesses, so intently did he look at her, and so frequently did heglance at the little note-book by his side. Observing that he made nosketch, however, and that he talked about business only, she began tohave suspicions that he represented some creditor of her father's, thebalance due to whom was noted in that pocket volume. Regarded from thispoint of view Mr Pancks's puffings expressed injury and impatience, andeach of his louder snorts became a demand for payment.
But here again she was undeceived by anomalous and incongruous conducton the part of Mr Pancks himself. She had left the table half an hour,and was at work alone. Flora had 'gone to lie down' in the next room,concurrently with which retirement a smell of something to drinkhad broken out in the house. The Patriarch was fast asleep, with hisphilanthropic mouth open under a yellow pocket-handkerchief in thedining-room. At this quiet time, Mr Pancks softly appeared before her,urbanely nodding.
'Find it a little dull, Miss Dorrit?' inquired Pancks in a low voice.
'No, thank you, sir,' said Little Dorrit.
'Busy, I see,' observed Mr Pancks, stealing into the room by inches.'What are those now, Miss Dorrit?'
'Are they, though!' said Pancks. 'I shouldn't have thought it.' Not inthe least looking at them, but looking at Little Dorrit. 'Perhaps youwonder who I am. Shall I tell you? I am a fortune-teller.'
Little Dorrit now began to think he was mad.
'I belong body and soul to my proprietor,' said Pancks; 'you saw myproprietor having his dinner below. But I do a little in the other way,sometimes; privately, very privately, Miss Dorrit.'
Little Dorrit looked at him doubtfully, and not without alarm. 'I wishyou'd show me the palm of your hand,' said Pancks. 'I should like tohave a look at it. Don't let me be troublesome.'
He was so far troublesome that he was not at all wanted there, but shelaid her work in her lap for a moment, and held out her left hand withher thimble on it.
'Years of toil, eh?' said Pancks, softly, touching it with his bluntforefinger. 'But what else are we made for? Nothing. Hallo!' lookinginto the lines. 'What's this with bars? It's a College! And what's thiswith a grey gown and a black velvet cap? it's a father! And what's thiswith a clarionet? It's an uncle! And what's this in dancing-shoes? It'sa sister! And what's this straggling about in an idle sort of a way?It's a brother! And what's this thinking for 'em all? Why, this is you,Miss Dorrit!'
Her eyes met his as she looked up wonderingly into his face, and shethought that although his were sharp eyes, he was a brighter andgentler-looking man than she had supposed at dinner. His eyes were onher hand again directly, and her opportunity of confirming or correctingthe impression was gone.
'Now, the deuce is in it,' muttered Pancks, tracing out a line in herhand with his clumsy finger, 'if this isn't me in the corner here! Whatdo I want here? What's behind me?'
He carried his finger slowly down to the wrist, and round the wrist, andaffected to look at the back of the hand for what was behind him.
'Is it any harm?' asked Little Dorrit, smiling.
'Deuce a bit!' said Pancks. 'What do you think it's worth?'
'I ought to ask you that. I am not the fortune-teller.'
'True,' said Pancks. 'What's it worth? You shall live to see, MissDorrit.'
Releasing the hand by slow degrees, he drew all his fingers through hisprongs of hair, so that they stood up in their most portentous manner;and repeated slowly, 'Remember what I say, Miss Dorrit. You shall liveto see.'
She could not help showing that she was much surprised, if it were onlyby his knowing so much about her.
'Ah! That's it!' said Pancks, pointing at her. 'Miss Dorrit, not that,ever!'
More surprised than before, and a little more frightened, she looked tohim for an explanation of his last words.
'Not that,' said Pancks, making, with great seriousness, an imitationof a surprised look and manner that appeared to be unintentionallygrotesque. 'Don't do that. Never on seeing me, no matter when, no matterwhere. I am nobody. Don't take on to mind me. Don't mention me. Take nonotice. Will you agree, Miss Dorrit?'
'I hardly know what to say,' returned Little Dorrit, quite astounded.'Why?'
'Because I am a fortune-teller. Pancks the gipsy. I haven't told you somuch of your fortune yet, Miss Dorrit, as to tell you what's behindme on that little hand. I have told you you shall live to see. Is itagreed, Miss Dorrit?'
'Agreed that I--am--to--'
'To take no notice of me away from here, unless I take on first. Notto mind me when I come and go. It's very easy. I am no loss, I am nothandsome, I am not good company, I am only my proprietors grubber.You need do no more than think, Ah! Pancks the gipsy at hisfortune-telling--he'll tell the rest of my fortune one day--I shall liveto know it. Is it agreed, Miss Dorrit?'
'Ye-es,' faltered Little Dorrit, whom he greatly confused, 'I supposeso, while you do no harm.'
'Good!' Mr Pancks glanced at the wall of the adjoining room, and stoopedforward. 'Honest creature, woman of capital points, but heedless anda loose talker, Miss Dorrit.' With that he rubbed his hands as if theinterview had been very satisfactory to him, panted away to the door,and urbanely nodded himself out again.
If Little Dorrit were beyond measure perplexed by this curious conducton the part of her new acquaintance, and by finding herself involvedin this singular treaty, her perplexity was not diminished by ensuingcircumstances. Besides that Mr Pancks took every opportunity affordedhim in Mr Casby's house of significantly glancing at her and snortingat her--which was not much, after what he had done already--he began topervade her daily life. She saw him in the street, constantly. When shewent to Mr Casby's, he was always there. When she went to Mrs Clennam's,he came there on any pretence, as if to keep her in his sight. A weekhad not gone by, when she found him to her astonishment in the Lodge onenight, conversing with the turnkey on duty, and to all appearance oneof his familiar companions. Her next surprise was to find him equally athis ease within the prison; to hear of his presenting himself amongthe visitors at her father's Sunday levee; to see him arm in arm witha Collegiate friend about the yard; to learn, from Fame, that he hadgreatly distinguished himself one evening at the social club that heldits meetings in the Snuggery, by addressing a speech to the membersof the institution, singing a song, and treating the company to fivegallons of ale--report madly added a bushel of shrimps. The effect onMr Plornish of such of these phenomena as he became an eye-witness of inhis faithful visits, made an impression on Little Dorrit only second tothat produced by the phenomena themselves. They seemed to gag and bindhim. He could only stare, and sometimes weakly mutter that it wouldn'tbe believed down Bleeding Heart Yard that this was Pancks; but he neversaid a word more, or made a sign more, even to Little Dorrit. Mr Panckscrowned his mysteries by making himself acquainted with Tip in someunknown manner, and taking a Sunday saunter into the College on thatgentleman's arm. Throughout he never took any notice of Little Dorrit,save once or twice when he happened to come close to her and therewas no one very near; on which occasions, he said in passing,with a friendly look and a puff of encouragement, 'Pancks thegipsy--fortune-telling.'
Little Dorrit worked and strove as usual, wondering at all this, butkeeping her wonder, as she had from her earliest years kept many heavierloads, in her own breast. A change had stolen, and was stealing yet,over the patient heart. Every day found her something more retiringthan the day before. To pass in and out of the prison unnoticed, andelsewhere to be overlooked and forgotten, were, for herself, her chiefdesires.
To her own room too, strangely assorted room for her delicate youthand character, she was glad to retreat as often as she could withoutdesertion of any duty. There were afternoon times when she wasunemployed, when visitors dropped in to play a hand at cards with herfather, when she could be spared and was better away. Then she wouldflit along the yard, climb the scores of stairs that led to her room,and take her seat at the window. Many combinations did those spikesupon the wall assume, many light shapes did the strong iron weave itselfinto, many golden touches fell upon the rust, while Little Dorrit satthere musing. New zig-zags sprung into the cruel pattern sometimes, whenshe saw it through a burst of tears; but beautified or hardened still,always over it and under it and through it, she was fain to look in hersolitude, seeing everything with that ineffaceable brand.
A garret, and a Marshalsea garret without compromise, was LittleDorrit's room. Beautifully kept, it was ugly in itself, and had littlebut cleanliness and air to set it off; for what embellishment she hadever been able to buy, had gone to her father's room. Howbeit, for thispoor place she showed an increasing love; and to sit in it alone becameher favourite rest.
Insomuch, that on a certain afternoon during the Pancks mysteries, whenshe was seated at her window, and heard Maggy's well-known step comingup the stairs, she was very much disturbed by the apprehension of beingsummoned away. As Maggy's step came higher up and nearer, she trembledand faltered; and it was as much as she could do to speak, when Maggy atlength appeared.
'Please, Little Mother,' said Maggy, panting for breath, 'you must comedown and see him. He's here.'
'Who, o' course Mr Clennam. He's in your father's room, and he says tome, Maggy, will you be so kind and go and say it's only me.'
'I am not very well, Maggy. I had better not go. I am going to lie down.See! I lie down now, to ease my head. Say, with my grateful regard, thatyou left me so, or I would have come.'
'Well, it an't very polite though, Little Mother,' said the staringMaggy, 'to turn your face away, neither!'
Maggy was very susceptible to personal slights, and very ingenious ininventing them. 'Putting both your hands afore your face too!' she wenton. 'If you can't bear the looks of a poor thing, it would be better totell her so at once, and not go and shut her out like that, hurting herfeelings and breaking her heart at ten year old, poor thing!'
'It's to ease my head, Maggy.'
'Well, and if you cry to ease your head, Little Mother, let me cry too.Don't go and have all the crying to yourself,' expostulated Maggy, 'thatan't not being greedy.' And immediately began to blubber.
It was with some difficulty that she could be induced to go back withthe excuse; but the promise of being told a story--of old her greatdelight--on condition that she concentrated her faculties upon theerrand and left her little mistress to herself for an hour longer,combined with a misgiving on Maggy's part that she had left her goodtemper at the bottom of the staircase, prevailed. So away she went,muttering her message all the way to keep it in her mind, and, at theappointed time, came back.
'He was very sorry, I can tell you,' she announced, 'and wanted to senda doctor. And he's coming again to-morrow he is and I don't think he'llhave a good sleep to-night along o' hearing about your head, LittleMother. Oh my! Ain't you been a-crying!'
'I think I have, a little, Maggy.'
'A little! Oh!'
'But it's all over now--all over for good, Maggy. And my head is muchbetter and cooler, and I am quite comfortable. I am very glad I did notgo down.'
Her great staring child tenderly embraced her; and having smoothed herhair, and bathed her forehead and eyes with cold water (offices in whichher awkward hands became skilful), hugged her again, exulted in herbrighter looks, and stationed her in her chair by the window. Overagainst this chair, Maggy, with apoplectic exertions that were notat all required, dragged the box which was her seat on story-tellingoccasions, sat down upon it, hugged her own knees, and said, with avoracious appetite for stories, and with widely-opened eyes:
'Now, Little Mother, let's have a good 'un!'
'What shall it be about, Maggy?'
'Oh, let's have a princess,' said Maggy, 'and let her be a reg'lar one.Beyond all belief, you know!'
Little Dorrit considered for a moment; and with a rather sad smile uponher face, which was flushed by the sunset, began:
'Maggy, there was once upon a time a fine King, and he had everything hecould wish for, and a great deal more. He had gold and silver, diamondsand rubies, riches of every kind. He had palaces, and he had--'
'Hospitals,' interposed Maggy, still nursing her knees. 'Let him havehospitals, because they're so comfortable. Hospitals with lots ofChicking.'
'Yes, he had plenty of them, and he had plenty of everything.'
'Plenty of baked potatoes, for instance?' said Maggy.
'Plenty of everything.'
'Lor!' chuckled Maggy, giving her knees a hug. 'Wasn't it prime!'
'This King had a daughter, who was the wisest and most beautifulPrincess that ever was seen. When she was a child she understood all herlessons before her masters taught them to her; and when she was grownup, she was the wonder of the world. Now, near the Palace where thisPrincess lived, there was a cottage in which there was a poor littletiny woman, who lived all alone by herself.'
'An old woman,' said Maggy, with an unctuous smack of her lips.
'No, not an old woman. Quite a young one.'
'I wonder she warn't afraid,' said Maggy. 'Go on, please.'
'The Princess passed the cottage nearly every day, and whenever she wentby in her beautiful carriage, she saw the poor tiny woman spinning ather wheel, and she looked at the tiny woman, and the tiny woman lookedat her. So, one day she stopped the coachman a little way from thecottage, and got out and walked on and peeped in at the door, and there,as usual, was the tiny woman spinning at her wheel, and she looked atthe Princess, and the Princess looked at her.'
'Like trying to stare one another out,' said Maggy. 'Please go on,Little Mother.'
'The Princess was such a wonderful Princess that she had the power ofknowing secrets, and she said to the tiny woman, Why do you keep itthere? This showed her directly that the Princess knew why she livedall alone by herself spinning at her wheel, and she kneeled down atthe Princess's feet, and asked her never to betray her. So the Princesssaid, I never will betray you. Let me see it. So the tiny woman closedthe shutter of the cottage window and fastened the door, and tremblingfrom head to foot for fear that any one should suspect her, opened avery secret place and showed the Princess a shadow.'
'Lor!' said Maggy.
'It was the shadow of Some one who had gone by long before: of Some onewho had gone on far away quite out of reach, never, never to come back.It was bright to look at; and when the tiny woman showed it to thePrincess, she was proud of it with all her heart, as a great, greattreasure. When the Princess had considered it a little while, she saidto the tiny woman, And you keep watch over this every day? And she castdown her eyes, and whispered, Yes. Then the Princess said, Remind mewhy. To which the other replied, that no one so good and kind had everpassed that way, and that was why in the beginning. She said, too, thatnobody missed it, that nobody was the worse for it, that Some one hadgone on, to those who were expecting him--'
'Some one was a man then?' interposed Maggy.
Little Dorrit timidly said Yes, she believed so; and resumed:
'--Had gone on to those who were expecting him, and that thisremembrance was stolen or kept back from nobody. The Princess madeanswer, Ah! But when the cottager died it would be discovered there. Thetiny woman told her No; when that time came, it would sink quietly intoher own grave, and would never be found.'
'Well, to be sure!' said Maggy. 'Go on, please.'
'The Princess was very much astonished to hear this, as you may suppose,Maggy.'
('And well she might be,' said Maggy.)
'So she resolved to watch the tiny woman, and see what came of it. Everyday she drove in her beautiful carriage by the cottage-door, and thereshe saw the tiny woman always alone by herself spinning at her wheel,and she looked at the tiny woman, and the tiny woman looked at her. Atlast one day the wheel was still, and the tiny woman was not to be seen.When the Princess made inquiries why the wheel had stopped, and wherethe tiny woman was, she was informed that the wheel had stopped becausethere was nobody to turn it, the tiny woman being dead.'
('They ought to have took her to the Hospital,' said Maggy, and thenshe'd have got over it.')
'The Princess, after crying a very little for the loss of the tinywoman, dried her eyes and got out of her carriage at the place whereshe had stopped it before, and went to the cottage and peeped in at thedoor. There was nobody to look at her now, and nobody for her to lookat, so she went in at once to search for the treasured shadow. But therewas no sign of it to be found anywhere; and then she knew that the tinywoman had told her the truth, and that it would never give anybody anytrouble, and that it had sunk quietly into her own grave, and that sheand it were at rest together.
'That's all, Maggy.'
The sunset flush was so bright on Little Dorrit's face when she camethus to the end of her story, that she interposed her hand to shade it.
'Had she got to be old?' Maggy asked.
'The tiny woman?'
'I don't know,' said Little Dorrit. 'But it would have been just thesame if she had been ever so old.'
'Would it raly!' said Maggy. 'Well, I suppose it would though.' And satstaring and ruminating.
She sat so long with her eyes wide open, that at length Little Dorrit,to entice her from her box, rose and looked out of window. As sheglanced down into the yard, she saw Pancks come in and leer up with thecorner of his eye as he went by.
'Who's he, Little Mother?' said Maggy. She had joined her at the windowand was leaning on her shoulder. 'I see him come in and out often.'
'I have heard him called a fortune-teller,' said Little Dorrit. 'But Idoubt if he could tell many people even their past or present fortunes.'
'Couldn't have told the Princess hers?' said Maggy.
Little Dorrit, looking musingly down into the dark valley of the prison,shook her head.
'Nor the tiny woman hers?' said Maggy.
'No,' said Little Dorrit, with the sunset very bright upon her. 'But letus come away from the window.'