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Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/28

CHAPTER 27. Five-and-Twenty

A frequently recurring doubt, whether Mr Pancks's desire to collectinformation relative to the Dorrit family could have any possiblebearing on the misgivings he had imparted to his mother on his returnfrom his long exile, caused Arthur Clennam much uneasiness at thisperiod. What Mr Pancks already knew about the Dorrit family, what morehe really wanted to find out, and why he should trouble his busy headabout them at all, were questions that often perplexed him. Mr Panckswas not a man to waste his time and trouble in researches prompted byidle curiosity. That he had a specific object Clennam could not doubt.And whether the attainment of that object by Mr Pancks's industry mightbring to light, in some untimely way, secret reasons which had inducedhis mother to take Little Dorrit by the hand, was a serious speculation.

Not that he ever wavered either in his desire or his determination torepair a wrong that had been done in his father's time, should awrong come to light, and be reparable. The shadow of a supposed actof injustice, which had hung over him since his father's death, wasso vague and formless that it might be the result of a reality widelyremote from his idea of it. But, if his apprehensions should prove tobe well founded, he was ready at any moment to lay down all he had, andbegin the world anew. As the fierce dark teaching of his childhood hadnever sunk into his heart, so that first article in his code of moralswas, that he must begin, in practical humility, with looking well tohis feet on Earth, and that he could never mount on wings of words toHeaven. Duty on earth, restitution on earth, action on earth; thesefirst, as the first steep steps upward. Strait was the gate and narrowwas the way; far straiter and narrower than the broad high road pavedwith vain professions and vain repetitions, motes from other men's eyesand liberal delivery of others to the judgment--all cheap materialscosting absolutely nothing.

No. It was not a selfish fear or hesitation that rendered himuneasy, but a mistrust lest Pancks might not observe his part of theunderstanding between them, and, making any discovery, might take somecourse upon it without imparting it to him. On the other hand, when herecalled his conversation with Pancks, and the little reason he had tosuppose that there was any likelihood of that strange personage beingon that track at all, there were times when he wondered that he made somuch of it. Labouring in this sea, as all barks labour in cross seas, hetossed about and came to no haven.

The removal of Little Dorrit herself from their customary association,did not mend the matter. She was so much out, and so much in her ownroom, that he began to miss her and to find a blank in her place. He hadwritten to her to inquire if she were better, and she had writtenback, very gratefully and earnestly telling him not to be uneasy on herbehalf, for she was quite well; but he had not seen her, for what, intheir intercourse, was a long time.

He returned home one evening from an interview with her father, who hadmentioned that she was out visiting--which was what he always saidwhen she was hard at work to buy his supper--and found Mr Meagles in anexcited state walking up and down his room. On his opening the door, MrMeagles stopped, faced round, and said:

'Clennam!--Tattycoram!'

'What's the matter?'

'Lost!'

'Why, bless my heart alive!' cried Clennam in amazement. 'What do youmean?'

'Wouldn't count five-and-twenty, sir; couldn't be got to do it; stoppedat eight, and took herself off.'

'Left your house?'

'Never to come back,' said Mr Meagles, shaking his head. 'You don't knowthat girl's passionate and proud character. A team of horses couldn'tdraw her back now; the bolts and bars of the old Bastille couldn't keepher.'

'How did it happen? Pray sit down and tell me.'

'As to how it happened, it's not so easy to relate: because you musthave the unfortunate temperament of the poor impetuous girl herself,before you can fully understand it. But it came about in this way. Petand Mother and I have been having a good deal of talk together of late.I'll not disguise from you, Clennam, that those conversations have notbeen of as bright a kind as I could wish; they have referred to ourgoing away again. In proposing to do which, I have had, in fact, anobject.'

Nobody's heart beat quickly.

'An object,' said Mr Meagles, after a moment's pause, 'that I will notdisguise from you, either, Clennam. There's an inclination on the partof my dear child which I am sorry for. Perhaps you guess the person.Henry Gowan.'

'I was not unprepared to hear it.'

'Well!' said Mr Meagles, with a heavy sigh, 'I wish to God you had neverhad to hear it. However, so it is. Mother and I have done all we couldto get the better of it, Clennam. We have tried tender advice, wehave tried time, we have tried absence. As yet, of no use. Our lateconversations have been upon the subject of going away for another yearat least, in order that there might be an entire separation and breakingoff for that term. Upon that question, Pet has been unhappy, andtherefore Mother and I have been unhappy.'

Clennam said that he could easily believe it.

'Well!' continued Mr Meagles in an apologetic way, 'I admit as apractical man, and I am sure Mother would admit as a practical woman,that we do, in families, magnify our troubles and make mountains of ourmolehills in a way that is calculated to be rather trying to people wholook on--to mere outsiders, you know, Clennam. Still, Pet's happinessor unhappiness is quite a life or death question with us; and we may beexcused, I hope, for making much of it. At all events, it might havebeen borne by Tattycoram. Now, don't you think so?'

'I do indeed think so,' returned Clennam, in most emphatic recognitionof this very moderate expectation.

'No, sir,' said Mr Meagles, shaking his head ruefully. 'She couldn'tstand it. The chafing and firing of that girl, the wearing and tearingof that girl within her own breast, has been such that I havesoftly said to her again and again in passing her, ”Five-and-twenty,Tattycoram, five-and-twenty!” I heartily wish she could have goneon counting five-and-twenty day and night, and then it wouldn't havehappened.'

Mr Meagles with a despondent countenance in which the goodness of hisheart was even more expressed than in his times of cheerfulness andgaiety, stroked his face down from his forehead to his chin, and shookhis head again.

'I said to Mother (not that it was necessary, for she would have thoughtit all for herself), we are practical people, my dear, and we know herstory; we see in this unhappy girl some reflection of what was raging inher mother's heart before ever such a creature as this poor thing wasin the world; we'll gloss her temper over, Mother, we won't notice it atpresent, my dear, we'll take advantage of some better disposition in heranother time. So we said nothing. But, do what we would, it seems as ifit was to be; she broke out violently one night.'

'How, and why?'

'If you ask me Why,' said Mr Meagles, a little disturbed by thequestion, for he was far more intent on softening her case than thefamily's, 'I can only refer you to what I have just repeated as havingbeen pretty near my words to Mother. As to How, we had said Good nightto Pet in her presence (very affectionately, I must allow), and shehad attended Pet up-stairs--you remember she was her maid. Perhaps Pet,having been out of sorts, may have been a little more inconsiderate thanusual in requiring services of her: but I don't know that I have anyright to say so; she was always thoughtful and gentle.'

'The gentlest mistress in the world.'

'Thank you, Clennam,' said Mr Meagles, shaking him by the hand; 'youhave often seen them together. Well! We presently heard this unfortunateTattycoram loud and angry, and before we could ask what was the matter,Pet came back in a tremble, saying she was frightened of her. Closeafter her came Tattycoram in a flaming rage. ”I hate you all three,”says she, stamping her foot at us. ”I am bursting with hate of the wholehouse.”'

'Upon which you--?'

'I?' said Mr Meagles, with a plain good faith that might have commandedthe belief of Mrs Gowan herself. 'I said, count five-and-twenty,Tattycoram.'

Mr Meagles again stroked his face and shook his head, with an air ofprofound regret.

'She was so used to do it, Clennam, that even then, such a picture ofpassion as you never saw, she stopped short, looked me full in the face,and counted (as I made out) to eight. But she couldn't control herselfto go any further. There she broke down, poor thing, and gave the otherseventeen to the four winds. Then it all burst out. She detested us, shewas miserable with us, she couldn't bear it, she wouldn't bear it, shewas determined to go away. She was younger than her young mistress, andwould she remain to see her always held up as the only creature who wasyoung and interesting, and to be cherished and loved? No. She wouldn't,she wouldn't, she wouldn't! What did we think she, Tattycoram, mighthave been if she had been caressed and cared for in her childhood, likeher young mistress? As good as her? Ah! Perhaps fifty times as good.When we pretended to be so fond of one another, we exulted over her;that was what we did; we exulted over her and shamed her. And all inthe house did the same. They talked about their fathers and mothers, andbrothers and sisters; they liked to drag them up before her face. Therewas Mrs Tickit, only yesterday, when her little grandchild was with her,had been amused by the child's trying to call her (Tattycoram) by thewretched name we gave her; and had laughed at the name. Why, who didn't;and who were we that we should have a right to name her like a dog or acat? But she didn't care. She would take no more benefits from us; shewould fling us her name back again, and she would go. She would leaveus that minute, nobody should stop her, and we should never hear of heragain.'

Mr Meagles had recited all this with such a vivid remembrance of hisoriginal, that he was almost as flushed and hot by this time as hedescribed her to have been.

'Ah, well!' he said, wiping his face. 'It was of no use trying reasonthen, with that vehement panting creature (Heaven knows what hermother's story must have been); so I quietly told her that she shouldnot go at that late hour of night, and I gave her my hand and took herto her room, and locked the house doors. But she was gone this morning.'

'And you know no more of her?'

'No more,' returned Mr Meagles. 'I have been hunting about all day. Shemust have gone very early and very silently. I have found no trace ofher down about us.'

'Stay! You want,' said Clennam, after a moment's reflection, 'to seeher? I assume that?'

'Yes, assuredly; I want to give her another chance; Mother and Petwant to give her another chance; come! You yourself,' said Mr Meagles,persuasively, as if the provocation to be angry were not his own at all,'want to give the poor passionate girl another chance, I know, Clennam.'

'It would be strange and hard indeed if I did not,' said Clennam, 'whenyou are all so forgiving. What I was going to ask you was, have youthought of that Miss Wade?'

'I have. I did not think of her until I had pervaded the whole of ourneighbourhood, and I don't know that I should have done so then butfor finding Mother and Pet, when I went home, full of the idea thatTattycoram must have gone to her. Then, of course, I recalled what shesaid that day at dinner when you were first with us.'

'Have you any idea where Miss Wade is to be found?'

'To tell you the truth,' returned Mr Meagles, 'it's because I have anaddled jumble of a notion on that subject that you found me waitinghere. There is one of those odd impressions in my house, which domysteriously get into houses sometimes, which nobody seems to havepicked up in a distinct form from anybody, and yet which everybody seemsto have got hold of loosely from somebody and let go again, that shelives, or was living, thereabouts.' Mr Meagles handed him a slip ofpaper, on which was written the name of one of the dull by-streets inthe Grosvenor region, near Park Lane.

'Here is no number,' said Arthur looking over it.

'No number, my dear Clennam?' returned his friend. 'No anything! Thevery name of the street may have been floating in the air; for, as Itell you, none of my people can say where they got it from. However,it's worth an inquiry; and as I would rather make it in company thanalone, and as you too were a fellow-traveller of that immovable woman's,I thought perhaps--' Clennam finished the sentence for him by taking uphis hat again, and saying he was ready.

It was now summer-time; a grey, hot, dusty evening. They rode to the topof Oxford Street, and there alighting, dived in among the great streetsof melancholy stateliness, and the little streets that try to be asstately and succeed in being more melancholy, of which there is alabyrinth near Park Lane. Wildernesses of corner houses, with barbarousold porticoes and appurtenances; horrors that came into existence undersome wrong-headed person in some wrong-headed time, still demandingthe blind admiration of all ensuing generations and determined to doso until they tumbled down; frowned upon the twilight. Parasite littletenements, with the cramp in their whole frame, from the dwarf hall-dooron the giant model of His Grace's in the Square to the squeezed windowof the boudoir commanding the dunghills in the Mews, made the eveningdoleful. Rickety dwellings of undoubted fashion, but of a capacity tohold nothing comfortably except a dismal smell, looked like the lastresult of the great mansions' breeding in-and-in; and, where theirlittle supplementary bows and balconies were supported on thin ironcolumns, seemed to be scrofulously resting upon crutches. Here andthere a Hatchment, with the whole science of Heraldry in it, loomed downupon the street, like an Archbishop discoursing on Vanity. The shops,few in number, made no show; for popular opinion was as nothing to them.The pastrycook knew who was on his books, and in that knowledge could becalm, with a few glass cylinders of dowager peppermint-drops in hiswindow, and half-a-dozen ancient specimens of currant-jelly. A feworanges formed the greengrocer's whole concession to the vulgar mind. Asingle basket made of moss, once containing plovers' eggs, held all thatthe poulterer had to say to the rabble. Everybody in those streetsseemed (which is always the case at that hour and season) to be gone outto dinner, and nobody seemed to be giving the dinners they had gone to.On the doorsteps there were lounging footmen with bright parti-colouredplumage and white polls, like an extinct race of monstrous birds; andbutlers, solitary men of recluse demeanour, each of whom appeareddistrustful of all other butlers. The roll of carriages in the Park wasdone for the day; the street lamps were lighting; and wicked littlegrooms in the tightest fitting garments, with twists in their legsanswering to the twists in their minds, hung about in pairs, chewingstraws and exchanging fraudulent secrets. The spotted dogs who went outwith the carriages, and who were so associated with splendid equipagesthat it looked like a condescension in those animals to come out withoutthem, accompanied helpers to and fro on messages. Here and there was aretiring public-house which did not require to be supported on theshoulders of the people, and where gentlemen out of livery were not muchwanted.

This last discovery was made by the two friends in pursuing theirinquiries. Nothing was there, or anywhere, known of such a person asMiss Wade, in connection with the street they sought. It was one of theparasite streets; long, regular, narrow, dull and gloomy; like a brickand mortar funeral. They inquired at several little area gates, wherea dejected youth stood spiking his chin on the summit of a precipitouslittle shoot of wooden steps, but could gain no information. They walkedup the street on one side of the way, and down it on the other, whattime two vociferous news-sellers, announcing an extraordinary event thathad never happened and never would happen, pitched their hoarse voicesinto the secret chambers; but nothing came of it. At length they stoodat the corner from which they had begun, and it had fallen quite dark,and they were no wiser.

It happened that in the street they had several times passed a dingyhouse, apparently empty, with bills in the windows, announcing that itwas to let. The bills, as a variety in the funeral procession, almostamounted to a decoration. Perhaps because they kept the house separatedin his mind, or perhaps because Mr Meagles and himself had twice agreedin passing, 'It is clear she don't live there,' Clennam now proposedthat they should go back and try that house before finally going away.Mr Meagles agreed, and back they went.

They knocked once, and they rang once, without any response. 'Empty,'said Mr Meagles, listening. 'Once more,' said Clennam, and knockedagain. After that knock they heard a movement below, and somebodyshuffling up towards the door.

The confined entrance was so dark that it was impossible to make outdistinctly what kind of person opened the door; but it appeared to be anold woman. 'Excuse our troubling you,' said Clennam. 'Pray can youtell us where Miss Wade lives?' The voice in the darkness unexpectedlyreplied, 'Lives here.'

'Is she at home?'

No answer coming, Mr Meagles asked again. 'Pray is she at home?'

After another delay, 'I suppose she is,' said the voice abruptly; 'youhad better come in, and I'll ask.'

They were summarily shut into the close black house; and the figurerustling away, and speaking from a higher level, said, 'Come up, if youplease; you can't tumble over anything.' They groped their way up-stairstowards a faint light, which proved to be the light of the streetshining through a window; and the figure left them shut in an airlessroom.

'This is odd, Clennam,' said Mr Meagles, softly.

'Odd enough,' assented Clennam in the same tone, 'but we have succeeded;that's the main point. Here's a light coming!'

The light was a lamp, and the bearer was an old woman: very dirty, verywrinkled and dry. 'She's at home,' she said (and the voice was the samethat had spoken before); 'she'll come directly.' Having set the lampdown on the table, the old woman dusted her hands on her apron, whichshe might have done for ever without cleaning them, looked at thevisitors with a dim pair of eyes, and backed out.

The lady whom they had come to see, if she were the present occupantof the house, appeared to have taken up her quarters there as she mighthave established herself in an Eastern caravanserai. A small squareof carpet in the middle of the room, a few articles of furniture thatevidently did not belong to the room, and a disorder of trunks andtravelling articles, formed the whole of her surroundings. Under someformer regular inhabitant, the stifling little apartment had broken outinto a pier-glass and a gilt table; but the gilding was as faded as lastyear's flowers, and the glass was so clouded that it seemed to hold inmagic preservation all the fogs and bad weather it had ever reflected.The visitors had had a minute or two to look about them, when the dooropened and Miss Wade came in.

She was exactly the same as when they had parted, just as handsome, justas scornful, just as repressed. She manifested no surprise in seeingthem, nor any other emotion. She requested them to be seated; anddeclining to take a seat herself, at once anticipated any introductionof their business.

'I apprehend,' she said, 'that I know the cause of your favouring mewith this visit. We may come to it at once.'

'The cause then, ma'am,' said Mr Meagles, 'is Tattycoram.'

'So I supposed.'

'Miss Wade,' said Mr Meagles, 'will you be so kind as to say whether youknow anything of her?'

'Surely. I know she is here with me.'

'Then, ma'am,' said Mr Meagles, 'allow me to make known to you that Ishall be happy to have her back, and that my wife and daughter willbe happy to have her back. She has been with us a long time: we don'tforget her claims upon us, and I hope we know how to make allowances.'

'You hope to know how to make allowances?' she returned, in a level,measured voice. 'For what?'

'I think my friend would say, Miss Wade,' Arthur Clennam interposed,seeing Mr Meagles rather at a loss, 'for the passionate sense thatsometimes comes upon the poor girl, of being at a disadvantage. Whichoccasionally gets the better of better remembrances.'

The lady broke into a smile as she turned her eyes upon him. 'Indeed?'was all she answered.

She stood by the table so perfectly composed and still after thisacknowledgment of his remark that Mr Meagles stared at her under a sortof fascination, and could not even look to Clennam to make another move.After waiting, awkwardly enough, for some moments, Arthur said:

'Perhaps it would be well if Mr Meagles could see her, Miss Wade?'

'That is easily done,' said she. 'Come here, child.' She had opened adoor while saying this, and now led the girl in by the hand. It wasvery curious to see them standing together: the girl with her disengagedfingers plaiting the bosom of her dress, half irresolutely, halfpassionately; Miss Wade with her composed face attentively regardingher, and suggesting to an observer, with extraordinary force, in hercomposure itself (as a veil will suggest the form it covers), theunquenchable passion of her own nature.

'See here,' she said, in the same level way as before. 'Here is yourpatron, your master. He is willing to take you back, my dear, if you aresensible of the favour and choose to go. You can be, again, a foil tohis pretty daughter, a slave to her pleasant wilfulness, and a toy inthe house showing the goodness of the family. You can have your drollname again, playfully pointing you out and setting you apart, as it isright that you should be pointed out and set apart. (Your birth, youknow; you must not forget your birth.) You can again be shown to thisgentleman's daughter, Harriet, and kept before her, as a living reminderof her own superiority and her gracious condescension. You can recoverall these advantages and many more of the same kind which I dare saystart up in your memory while I speak, and which you lose in takingrefuge with me--you can recover them all by telling these gentlemen howhumbled and penitent you are, and by going back to them to be forgiven.What do you say, Harriet? Will you go?'

The girl who, under the influence of these words, had gradually risenin anger and heightened in colour, answered, raising her lustrous blackeyes for the moment, and clenching her hand upon the folds it had beenpuckering up, 'I'd die sooner!'

Miss Wade, still standing at her side holding her hand, looked quietlyround and said with a smile, 'Gentlemen! What do you do upon that?'

Poor Mr Meagles's inexpressible consternation in hearing his motives andactions so perverted, had prevented him from interposing any word untilnow; but now he regained the power of speech.

'Tattycoram,' said he, 'for I'll call you by that name still, my goodgirl, conscious that I meant nothing but kindness when I gave it to you,and conscious that you know it--'

'I don't!' said she, looking up again, and almost rending herself withthe same busy hand.

'No, not now, perhaps,' said Mr Meagles; 'not with that lady's eyes sointent upon you, Tattycoram,' she glanced at them for a moment, 'andthat power over you, which we see she exercises; not now, perhaps, butat another time. Tattycoram, I'll not ask that lady whether she believeswhat she has said, even in the anger and ill blood in which I and myfriend here equally know she has spoken, though she subdues herself,with a determination that any one who has once seen her is not likelyto forget. I'll not ask you, with your remembrance of my house and allbelonging to it, whether you believe it. I'll only say that you haveno profession to make to me or mine, and no forgiveness to entreat;and that all in the world that I ask you to do, is, to countfive-and-twenty, Tattycoram.'

She looked at him for an instant, and then said frowningly, 'I won't.Miss Wade, take me away, please.'

The contention that raged within her had no softening in it now; itwas wholly between passionate defiance and stubborn defiance. Her richcolour, her quick blood, her rapid breath, were all setting themselvesagainst the opportunity of retracing their steps. 'I won't. I won't.I won't!' she repeated in a low, thick voice. 'I'd be torn to piecesfirst. I'd tear myself to pieces first!'

Miss Wade, who had released her hold, laid her hand protectingly on thegirl's neck for a moment, and then said, looking round with her formersmile and speaking exactly in her former tone, 'Gentlemen! What do youdo upon that?'

'Oh, Tattycoram, Tattycoram!' cried Mr Meagles, adjuring her besideswith an earnest hand. 'Hear that lady's voice, look at that lady's face,consider what is in that lady's heart, and think what a future liesbefore you. My child, whatever you may think, that lady's influenceover you--astonishing to us, and I should hardly go too far in sayingterrible to us to see--is founded in passion fiercer than yours, andtemper more violent than yours. What can you two be together? What cancome of it?'

'I am alone here, gentlemen,' observed Miss Wade, with no change ofvoice or manner. 'Say anything you will.'

'Politeness must yield to this misguided girl, ma'am,' said Mr Meagles,'at her present pass; though I hope not altogether to dismiss it,even with the injury you do her so strongly before me. Excuse me forreminding you in her hearing--I must say it--that you were a mysteryto all of us, and had nothing in common with any of us when sheunfortunately fell in your way. I don't know what you are, but you don'thide, can't hide, what a dark spirit you have within you. If it shouldhappen that you are a woman, who, from whatever cause, has a perverteddelight in making a sister-woman as wretched as she is (I am old enoughto have heard of such), I warn her against you, and I warn you againstyourself.'

'Gentlemen!' said Miss Wade, calmly. 'When you have concluded--MrClennam, perhaps you will induce your friend--'

'Not without another effort,' said Mr Meagles, stoutly. 'Tattycoram,my poor dear girl, count five-and-twenty.'

'Do not reject the hope, the certainty, this kind man offers you,' saidClennam in a low emphatic voice. 'Turn to the friends you have notforgotten. Think once more!'

'I won't! Miss Wade,' said the girl, with her bosom swelling high, andspeaking with her hand held to her throat, 'take me away!'

'Tattycoram,' said Mr Meagles. 'Once more yet! The only thing I ask ofyou in the world, my child! Count five-and-twenty!'

She put her hands tightly over her ears, confusedly tumbling down herbright black hair in the vehemence of the action, and turned her faceresolutely to the wall. Miss Wade, who had watched her under this finalappeal with that strange attentive smile, and that repressing handupon her own bosom with which she had watched her in her struggle atMarseilles, then put her arm about her waist as if she took possessionof her for evermore.

And there was a visible triumph in her face when she turned it todismiss the visitors.

'As it is the last time I shall have the honour,' she said, 'and as youhave spoken of not knowing what I am, and also of the foundation of myinfluence here, you may now know that it is founded in a common cause.What your broken plaything is as to birth, I am. She has no name, I haveno name. Her wrong is my wrong. I have nothing more to say to you.'

This was addressed to Mr Meagles, who sorrowfully went out. As Clennamfollowed, she said to him, with the same external composure and in thesame level voice, but with a smile that is only seen on cruel faces: avery faint smile, lifting the nostril, scarcely touching the lips, andnot breaking away gradually, but instantly dismissed when done with:

'I hope the wife of your dear friend Mr Gowan, may be happy in thecontrast of her extraction to this girl's and mine, and in the high goodfortune that awaits her.'