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Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/3

CHAPTER 2 Fellow Travellers

'No more of yesterday's howling over yonder to-day, Sir; is there?'

'I have heard none.'

'Then you may be sure there _is_ none. When these people howl, they howlto be heard.'

'Most people do, I suppose.'

'Ah! but these people are always howling. Never happy otherwise.'

'Do you mean the Marseilles people?'

'I mean the French people. They're always at it. As to Marseilles, weknow what Marseilles is. It sent the most insurrectionary tune into theworld that was ever composed. It couldn't exist without allonging andmarshonging to something or other--victory or death, or blazes, orsomething.'

The speaker, with a whimsical good humour upon him all the time, lookedover the parapet-wall with the greatest disparagement of Marseilles; andtaking up a determined position by putting his hands in his pockets andrattling his money at it, apostrophised it with a short laugh.

'Allong and marshong, indeed. It would be more creditable to you,I think, to let other people allong and marshong about their lawfulbusiness, instead of shutting 'em up in quarantine!'

'Tiresome enough,' said the other. 'But we shall be out to-day.'

'Out to-day!' repeated the first. 'It's almost an aggravation of theenormity, that we shall be out to-day. Out! What have we ever been infor?'

'For no very strong reason, I must say. But as we come from the East,and as the East is the country of the plague--'

'The plague!' repeated the other. 'That's my grievance. I have had theplague continually, ever since I have been here. I am like a sane manshut up in a madhouse; I can't stand the suspicion of the thing. I camehere as well as ever I was in my life; but to suspect me of the plagueis to give me the plague. And I have had it--and I have got it.'

'You bear it very well, Mr Meagles,' said the second speaker, smiling.

'No. If you knew the real state of the case, that's the last observationyou would think of making. I have been waking up night after night, andsaying, _now_ I have got it, _now_ it has developed itself, _now_ I amin for it, _now_ these fellows are making out their case for theirprecautions. Why, I'd as soon have a spit put through me, and be stuckupon a card in a collection of beetles, as lead the life I have beenleading here.'

'Well, Mr Meagles, say no more about it now it's over,' urged a cheerfulfeminine voice.

'Over!' repeated Mr Meagles, who appeared (though without anyill-nature) to be in that peculiar state of mind in which the last wordspoken by anybody else is a new injury. 'Over! and why should I say nomore about it because it's over?'

It was Mrs Meagles who had spoken to Mr Meagles; and Mrs Meagles was,like Mr Meagles, comely and healthy, with a pleasant English face whichhad been looking at homely things for five-and-fifty years or more, andshone with a bright reflection of them.

'There! Never mind, Father, never mind!' said Mrs Meagles. 'For goodnesssake content yourself with Pet.'

'With Pet?' repeated Mr Meagles in his injured vein. Pet, however,being close behind him, touched him on the shoulder, and Mr Meaglesimmediately forgave Marseilles from the bottom of his heart.

Pet was about twenty. A fair girl with rich brown hair hanging free innatural ringlets. A lovely girl, with a frank face, and wonderful eyes;so large, so soft, so bright, set to such perfection in her kind goodhead. She was round and fresh and dimpled and spoilt, and there was inPet an air of timidity and dependence which was the best weakness inthe world, and gave her the only crowning charm a girl so pretty andpleasant could have been without.

'Now, I ask you,' said Mr Meagles in the blandest confidence, fallingback a step himself, and handing his daughter a step forward toillustrate his question: 'I ask you simply, as between man and man,you know, DID you ever hear of such damned nonsense as putting Pet inquarantine?'

'It has had the result of making even quarantine enjoyable.'

'Come!' said Mr Meagles, 'that's something to be sure. I am obliged toyou for that remark. Now, Pet, my darling, you had better go along withMother and get ready for the boat. The officer of health, and a varietyof humbugs in cocked hats, are coming off to let us out of this at last:and all we jail-birds are to breakfast together in something approachingto a Christian style again, before we take wing for our differentdestinations. Tattycoram, stick you close to your young mistress.'

He spoke to a handsome girl with lustrous dark hair and eyes, and veryneatly dressed, who replied with a half curtsey as she passed off in thetrain of Mrs Meagles and Pet. They crossed the bare scorched terraceall three together, and disappeared through a staring white archway.Mr Meagles's companion, a grave dark man of forty, still stood lookingtowards this archway after they were gone; until Mr Meagles tapped himon the arm.

'I beg your pardon,' said he, starting.

'Not at all,' said Mr Meagles.

They took one silent turn backward and forward in the shade of the wall,getting, at the height on which the quarantine barracks are placed, whatcool refreshment of sea breeze there was at seven in the morning. MrMeagles's companion resumed the conversation.

'May I ask you,' he said, 'what is the name of--'

'Tattycoram?' Mr Meagles struck in. 'I have not the least idea.'

'I thought,' said the other, 'that--'

'Tattycoram?' suggested Mr Meagles again.

'Thank you--that Tattycoram was a name; and I have several timeswondered at the oddity of it.'

'Why, the fact is,' said Mr Meagles, 'Mrs Meagles and myself are, yousee, practical people.'

'That you have frequently mentioned in the course of the agreeable andinteresting conversations we have had together, walking up and down onthese stones,' said the other, with a half smile breaking through thegravity of his dark face.

'Practical people. So one day, five or six years ago now, when we tookPet to church at the Foundling--you have heard of the Foundling Hospitalin London? Similar to the Institution for the Found Children in Paris?'

'I have seen it.'

'Well! One day when we took Pet to church there to hear themusic--because, as practical people, it is the business of our lives toshow her everything that we think can please her--Mother (my usual namefor Mrs Meagles) began to cry so, that it was necessary to take her out.”What's the matter, Mother?” said I, when we had brought her a littleround: ”you are frightening Pet, my dear.” ”Yes, I know that, Father,”says Mother, ”but I think it's through my loving her so much, that itever came into my head.” ”That ever what came into your head, Mother?””O dear, dear!” cried Mother, breaking out again, ”when I saw all thosechildren ranged tier above tier, and appealing from the father none ofthem has ever known on earth, to the great Father of us all in Heaven,I thought, does any wretched mother ever come here, and look among thoseyoung faces, wondering which is the poor child she brought into thisforlorn world, never through all its life to know her love, her kiss,her face, her voice, even her name!” Now that was practical in Mother,and I told her so. I said, ”Mother, that's what I call practical in you,my dear.”'

The other, not unmoved, assented.

'So I said next day: Now, Mother, I have a proposition to make that Ithink you'll approve of. Let us take one of those same little childrento be a little maid to Pet. We are practical people. So if we shouldfind her temper a little defective, or any of her ways a little wideof ours, we shall know what we have to take into account. We shallknow what an immense deduction must be made from all the influences andexperiences that have formed us--no parents, no child-brother or sister,no individuality of home, no Glass Slipper, or Fairy Godmother. Andthat's the way we came by Tattycoram.'

'And the name itself--'

'By George!' said Mr Meagles, 'I was forgetting the name itself. Why,she was called in the Institution, Harriet Beadle--an arbitrary name,of course. Now, Harriet we changed into Hattey, and then into Tatty,because, as practical people, we thought even a playful name might bea new thing to her, and might have a softening and affectionate kind ofeffect, don't you see? As to Beadle, that I needn't say was wholly outof the question. If there is anything that is not to be tolerated onany terms, anything that is a type of Jack-in-office insolence andabsurdity, anything that represents in coats, waistcoats, and big sticksour English holding on by nonsense after every one has found it out, itis a beadle. You haven't seen a beadle lately?'

'As an Englishman who has been more than twenty years in China, no.'

'Then,' said Mr Meagles, laying his forefinger on his companion's breastwith great animation, 'don't you see a beadle, now, if you can help it.Whenever I see a beadle in full fig, coming down a street on a Sundayat the head of a charity school, I am obliged to turn and run away, orI should hit him. The name of Beadle being out of the question, and theoriginator of the Institution for these poor foundlings having been ablessed creature of the name of Coram, we gave that name to Pet's littlemaid. At one time she was Tatty, and at one time she was Coram, until wegot into a way of mixing the two names together, and now she is alwaysTattycoram.'

'Your daughter,' said the other, when they had taken another silent turnto and fro, and, after standing for a moment at the wall glancing downat the sea, had resumed their walk, 'is your only child, I know, MrMeagles. May I ask you--in no impertinent curiosity, but because I havehad so much pleasure in your society, may never in this labyrinth ofa world exchange a quiet word with you again, and wish to preserve anaccurate remembrance of you and yours--may I ask you, if I have notgathered from your good wife that you have had other children?'

'No. No,' said Mr Meagles. 'Not exactly other children. One otherchild.'

'I am afraid I have inadvertently touched upon a tender theme.'

'Never mind,' said Mr Meagles. 'If I am grave about it, I am not at allsorrowful. It quiets me for a moment, but does not make me unhappy. Pethad a twin sister who died when we could just see her eyes--exactly likePet's--above the table, as she stood on tiptoe holding by it.'

'Ah! indeed, indeed!'

'Yes, and being practical people, a result has gradually sprung up inthe minds of Mrs Meagles and myself which perhaps you may--or perhapsyou may not--understand. Pet and her baby sister were so exactly alike,and so completely one, that in our thoughts we have never been ableto separate them since. It would be of no use to tell us that our deadchild was a mere infant. We have changed that child according to thechanges in the child spared to us and always with us. As Pet has grown,that child has grown; as Pet has become more sensible and womanly, hersister has become more sensible and womanly by just the same degrees.It would be as hard to convince me that if I was to pass into the otherworld to-morrow, I should not, through the mercy of God, be receivedthere by a daughter, just like Pet, as to persuade me that Pet herselfis not a reality at my side.'

'I understand you,' said the other, gently.

'As to her,' pursued her father, 'the sudden loss of her little pictureand playfellow, and her early association with that mystery in which weall have our equal share, but which is not often so forcibly presentedto a child, has necessarily had some influence on her character. Then,her mother and I were not young when we married, and Pet has always hada sort of grown-up life with us, though we have tried to adapt ourselvesto her. We have been advised more than once when she has been alittle ailing, to change climate and air for her as often as wecould--especially at about this time of her life--and to keep heramused. So, as I have no need to stick at a bank-desk now (though I havebeen poor enough in my time I assure you, or I should have married MrsMeagles long before), we go trotting about the world. This is how youfound us staring at the Nile, and the Pyramids, and the Sphinxes, andthe Desert, and all the rest of it; and this is how Tattycoram will be agreater traveller in course of time than Captain Cook.'

'I thank you,' said the other, 'very heartily for your confidence.'

'Don't mention it,' returned Mr Meagles, 'I am sure you are quitewelcome. And now, Mr Clennam, perhaps I may ask you whether you have yetcome to a decision where to go next?'

'Indeed, no. I am such a waif and stray everywhere, that I am liable tobe drifted where any current may set.'

'It's extraordinary to me--if you'll excuse my freedom in sayingso--that you don't go straight to London,' said Mr Meagles, in the toneof a confidential adviser.

'Perhaps I shall.'

'Ay! But I mean with a will.'

'I have no will. That is to say,'--he coloured a little,--'next to nonethat I can put in action now. Trained by main force; broken, not bent;heavily ironed with an object on which I was never consulted and whichwas never mine; shipped away to the other end of the world before Iwas of age, and exiled there until my father's death there, a year ago;always grinding in a mill I always hated; what is to be expected from mein middle life? Will, purpose, hope? All those lights were extinguishedbefore I could sound the words.'

'Light 'em up again!' said Mr Meagles.

'Ah! Easily said. I am the son, Mr Meagles, of a hard father andmother. I am the only child of parents who weighed, measured, and pricedeverything; for whom what could not be weighed, measured, and priced,had no existence. Strict people as the phrase is, professors of a sternreligion, their very religion was a gloomy sacrifice of tastes andsympathies that were never their own, offered up as a part of a bargainfor the security of their possessions. Austere faces, inexorablediscipline, penance in this world and terror in the next--nothinggraceful or gentle anywhere, and the void in my cowed hearteverywhere--this was my childhood, if I may so misuse the word as toapply it to such a beginning of life.'

'Really though?' said Mr Meagles, made very uncomfortable by the pictureoffered to his imagination. 'That was a tough commencement. But come!You must now study, and profit by, all that lies beyond it, like apractical man.'

'If the people who are usually called practical, were practical in yourdirection--'

'Why, so they are!' said Mr Meagles.

'Are they indeed?'

'Well, I suppose so,' returned Mr Meagles, thinking about it. 'Eh? Onecan but _be_ practical, and Mrs Meagles and myself are nothing else.'

'My unknown course is easier and more helpful than I had expected tofind it, then,' said Clennam, shaking his head with his grave smile.'Enough of me. Here is the boat.'

The boat was filled with the cocked hats to which Mr Meagles entertaineda national objection; and the wearers of those cocked hats landedand came up the steps, and all the impounded travellers congregatedtogether. There was then a mighty production of papers on the part ofthe cocked hats, and a calling over of names, and great work of signing,sealing, stamping, inking, and sanding, with exceedingly blurred,gritty, and undecipherable results. Finally, everything was doneaccording to rule, and the travellers were at liberty to departwhithersoever they would.

They made little account of stare and glare, in the new pleasure ofrecovering their freedom, but flitted across the harbour in gay boats,and reassembled at a great hotel, whence the sun was excluded by closedlattices, and where bare paved floors, lofty ceilings, and resoundingcorridors tempered the intense heat. There, a great table in a greatroom was soon profusely covered with a superb repast; and the quarantinequarters became bare indeed, remembered among dainty dishes, southernfruits, cooled wines, flowers from Genoa, snow from the mountain tops,and all the colours of the rainbow flashing in the mirrors.

'But I bear those monotonous walls no ill-will now,' said Mr Meagles.'One always begins to forgive a place as soon as it's left behind; Idare say a prisoner begins to relent towards his prison, after he is letout.'

They were about thirty in company, and all talking; but necessarily ingroups. Father and Mother Meagles sat with their daughter between them,the last three on one side of the table: on the opposite side sat MrClennam; a tall French gentleman with raven hair and beard, of a swartand terrible, not to say genteelly diabolical aspect, but who hadshown himself the mildest of men; and a handsome young Englishwoman,travelling quite alone, who had a proud observant face, and had eitherwithdrawn herself from the rest or been avoided by the rest--nobody,herself excepted perhaps, could have quite decided which. The restof the party were of the usual materials: travellers on business, andtravellers for pleasure; officers from India on leave; merchants inthe Greek and Turkey trades; a clerical English husband in a meekstrait-waistcoat, on a wedding trip with his young wife; a majesticEnglish mama and papa, of the patrician order, with a family of threegrowing-up daughters, who were keeping a journal for the confusion oftheir fellow-creatures; and a deaf old English mother, tough in travel,with a very decidedly grown-up daughter indeed, which daughter wentsketching about the universe in the expectation of ultimately toningherself off into the married state.

The reserved Englishwoman took up Mr Meagles in his last remark.

'Do you mean that a prisoner forgives his prison?' said she, slowly andwith emphasis.

'That was my speculation, Miss Wade. I don't pretend to know positivelyhow a prisoner might feel. I never was one before.'

'Mademoiselle doubts,' said the French gentleman in his own language,'it's being so easy to forgive?'

'I do.'

Pet had to translate this passage to Mr Meagles, who never by anyaccident acquired any knowledge whatever of the language of any countryinto which he travelled. 'Oh!' said he. 'Dear me! But that's a pity,isn't it?'

'That I am not credulous?' said Miss Wade.

'Not exactly that. Put it another way. That you can't believe it easy toforgive.'

'My experience,' she quietly returned, 'has been correcting my beliefin many respects, for some years. It is our natural progress, I haveheard.'

'Well, well! But it's not natural to bear malice, I hope?' said MrMeagles, cheerily.

'If I had been shut up in any place to pine and suffer, I should alwayshate that place and wish to burn it down, or raze it to the ground. Iknow no more.'

'Strong, sir?' said Mr Meagles to the Frenchman; it being another of hishabits to address individuals of all nations in idiomatic English, witha perfect conviction that they were bound to understand it somehow.'Rather forcible in our fair friend, you'll agree with me, I think?'

The French gentleman courteously replied, 'Plait-il?' To which MrMeagles returned with much satisfaction, 'You are right. My opinion.'

The breakfast beginning by-and-by to languish, Mr Meagles made thecompany a speech. It was short enough and sensible enough, consideringthat it was a speech at all, and hearty. It merely went to the effectthat as they had all been thrown together by chance, and had allpreserved a good understanding together, and were now about to disperse,and were not likely ever to find themselves all together again, whatcould they do better than bid farewell to one another, and give oneanother good-speed in a simultaneous glass of cool champagne all roundthe table? It was done, and with a general shaking of hands the assemblybroke up for ever.

The solitary young lady all this time had said no more. She rose withthe rest, and silently withdrew to a remote corner of the great room,where she sat herself on a couch in a window, seeming to watch thereflection of the water as it made a silver quivering on the bars of thelattice. She sat, turned away from the whole length of the apartment, asif she were lonely of her own haughty choice. And yet it would have beenas difficult as ever to say, positively, whether she avoided the rest,or was avoided.

The shadow in which she sat, falling like a gloomy veil across herforehead, accorded very well with the character of her beauty. One couldhardly see the face, so still and scornful, set off by the archeddark eyebrows, and the folds of dark hair, without wondering what itsexpression would be if a change came over it. That it could soften orrelent, appeared next to impossible. That it could deepen into anger orany extreme of defiance, and that it must change in that direction whenit changed at all, would have been its peculiar impression upon mostobservers. It was dressed and trimmed into no ceremony of expression.Although not an open face, there was no pretence in it. 'I amself-contained and self-reliant; your opinion is nothing to me; I haveno interest in you, care nothing for you, and see and hear you withindifference'--this it said plainly. It said so in the proud eyes, inthe lifted nostril, in the handsome but compressed and even cruel mouth.Cover either two of those channels of expression, and the third wouldhave said so still. Mask them all, and the mere turn of the head wouldhave shown an unsubduable nature.

Pet had moved up to her (she had been the subject of remark among herfamily and Mr Clennam, who were now the only other occupants of theroom), and was standing at her side.

'Are you'--she turned her eyes, and Pet faltered--'expecting any one tomeet you here, Miss Wade?'

'I? No.'

'Father is sending to the Poste Restante. Shall he have the pleasure ofdirecting the messenger to ask if there are any letters for you?'

'I thank him, but I know there can be none.'

'We are afraid,' said Pet, sitting down beside her, shyly and halftenderly, 'that you will feel quite deserted when we are all gone.'

'Indeed!'

'Not,' said Pet, apologetically and embarrassed by her eyes, 'not, ofcourse, that we are any company to you, or that we have been able to beso, or that we thought you wished it.'

'I have not intended to make it understood that I did wish it.'

'No. Of course. But--in short,' said Pet, timidly touching her hand asit lay impassive on the sofa between them, 'will you not allow Father totender you any slight assistance or service? He will be very glad.'

'Very glad,' said Mr Meagles, coming forward with his wife and Clennam.'Anything short of speaking the language, I shall be delighted toundertake, I am sure.'

'I am obliged to you,' she returned, 'but my arrangements are made, andI prefer to go my own way in my own manner.'

'_Do_ you?' said Mr Meagles to himself, as he surveyed her with a puzzledlook. 'Well! There's character in that, too.'

'I am not much used to the society of young ladies, and I am afraid Imay not show my appreciation of it as others might. A pleasant journeyto you. Good-bye!'

She would not have put out her hand, it seemed, but that Mr Meagles putout his so straight before her that she could not pass it. She put hersin it, and it lay there just as it had lain upon the couch.

'Good-bye!' said Mr Meagles. 'This is the last good-bye upon the list,for Mother and I have just said it to Mr Clennam here, and he only waitsto say it to Pet. Good-bye! We may never meet again.'

'In our course through life we shall meet the people who are coming tomeet _us_, from many strange places and by many strange roads,' was thecomposed reply; 'and what it is set to us to do to them, and what it isset to them to do to us, will all be done.'

There was something in the manner of these words that jarred upon Pet'sear. It implied that what was to be done was necessarily evil, and itcaused her to say in a whisper, 'O Father!' and to shrink childishly, inher spoilt way, a little closer to him. This was not lost on thespeaker.

'Your pretty daughter,' she said, 'starts to think of such things. Yet,'looking full upon her, 'you may be sure that there are men and womenalready on their road, who have their business to do with _you_, and whowill do it. Of a certainty they will do it. They may be coming hundreds,thousands, of miles over the sea there; they may be close at hand now;they may be coming, for anything you know or anything you can do toprevent it, from the vilest sweepings of this very town.'

With the coldest of farewells, and with a certain worn expression on herbeauty that gave it, though scarcely yet in its prime, a wasted look,she left the room.

Now, there were many stairs and passages that she had to traverse inpassing from that part of the spacious house to the chamber she hadsecured for her own occupation. When she had almost completed thejourney, and was passing along the gallery in which her room was, sheheard an angry sound of muttering and sobbing. A door stood open, andwithin she saw the attendant upon the girl she had just left; the maidwith the curious name.

She stood still, to look at this maid. A sullen, passionate girl! Herrich black hair was all about her face, her face was flushed and hot,and as she sobbed and raged, she plucked at her lips with an unsparinghand.

'Selfish brutes!' said the girl, sobbing and heaving between whiles.'Not caring what becomes of me! Leaving me here hungry and thirsty andtired, to starve, for anything they care! Beasts! Devils! Wretches!'

'My poor girl, what is the matter?'

She looked up suddenly, with reddened eyes, and with her handssuspended, in the act of pinching her neck, freshly disfigured withgreat scarlet blots. 'It's nothing to you what's the matter. It don'tsignify to any one.'

'O yes it does; I am sorry to see you so.'

'You are not sorry,' said the girl. 'You are glad. You know you areglad. I never was like this but twice over in the quarantine yonder; andboth times you found me. I am afraid of you.'

'Afraid of me?'

'Yes. You seem to come like my own anger, my own malice, myown--whatever it is--I don't know what it is. But I am ill-used, I amill-used, I am ill-used!' Here the sobs and the tears, and the tearinghand, which had all been suspended together since the first surprise,went on together anew.

The visitor stood looking at her with a strange attentive smile. It waswonderful to see the fury of the contest in the girl, and the bodilystruggle she made as if she were rent by the Demons of old.

'I am younger than she is by two or three years, and yet it's me thatlooks after her, as if I was old, and it's she that's always petted andcalled Baby! I detest the name. I hate her! They make a fool of her,they spoil her. She thinks of nothing but herself, she thinks no more ofme than if I was a stock and a stone!' So the girl went on.

'You must have patience.'

'I _won't_ have patience!'

'If they take much care of themselves, and little or none of you, youmust not mind it.'

I _will_ mind it.'

'Hush! Be more prudent. You forget your dependent position.'

'I don't care for that. I'll run away. I'll do some mischief. I won'tbear it; I can't bear it; I shall die if I try to bear it!'

The observer stood with her hand upon her own bosom, looking at thegirl, as one afflicted with a diseased part might curiously watch thedissection and exposition of an analogous case.

The girl raged and battled with all the force of her youth and fulnessof life, until by little and little her passionate exclamations trailedoff into broken murmurs as if she were in pain. By corresponding degreesshe sank into a chair, then upon her knees, then upon the ground besidethe bed, drawing the coverlet with her, half to hide her shamed head andwet hair in it, and half, as it seemed, to embrace it, rather than havenothing to take to her repentant breast.

'Go away from me, go away from me! When my temper comes upon me, Iam mad. I know I might keep it off if I only tried hard enough, andsometimes I do try hard enough, and at other times I don't and won't.What have I said! I knew when I said it, it was all lies. They think Iam being taken care of somewhere, and have all I want. They are nothingbut good to me. I love them dearly; no people could ever be kinder to athankless creature than they always are to me. Do, do go away, for I amafraid of you. I am afraid of myself when I feel my temper coming, and Iam as much afraid of you. Go away from me, and let me pray and crymyself better!'

The day passed on; and again the wide stare stared itself out; and thehot night was on Marseilles; and through it the caravan of the morning,all dispersed, went their appointed ways. And thus ever by day andnight, under the sun and under the stars, climbing the dusty hills andtoiling along the weary plains, journeying by land and journeying bysea, coming and going so strangely, to meet and to act and react on oneanother, move all we restless travellers through the pilgrimage of life.