Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/30

CHAPTER 29. Mrs Flintwinch goes on Dreaming

The house in the city preserved its heavy dulness through all thesetransactions, and the invalid within it turned the same unvaryinground of life. Morning, noon, and night, morning, noon, and night, eachrecurring with its accompanying monotony, always the same reluctantreturn of the same sequences of machinery, like a dragging piece ofclockwork.

The wheeled chair had its associated remembrances and reveries, one maysuppose, as every place that is made the station of a human being has.Pictures of demolished streets and altered houses, as they formerly werewhen the occupant of the chair was familiar with them, images of peopleas they too used to be, with little or no allowance made for the lapseof time since they were seen; of these, there must have been many in thelong routine of gloomy days. To stop the clock of busy existence at thehour when we were personally sequestered from it, to suppose mankindstricken motionless when we were brought to a stand-still, to be unableto measure the changes beyond our view by any larger standard thanthe shrunken one of our own uniform and contracted existence, is theinfirmity of many invalids, and the mental unhealthiness of almost allrecluses.

What scenes and actors the stern woman most reviewed, as she satfrom season to season in her one dark room, none knew but herself. MrFlintwinch, with his wry presence brought to bear upon her daily likesome eccentric mechanical force, would perhaps have screwed it out ofher, if there had been less resistance in her; but she was too strongfor him. So far as Mistress Affery was concerned, to regard herliege-lord and her disabled mistress with a face of blank wonder, togo about the house after dark with her apron over her head, always tolisten for the strange noises and sometimes to hear them, and neverto emerge from her ghostly, dreamy, sleep-waking state, was occupationenough for her.

There was a fair stroke of business doing, as Mistress Affery made out,for her husband had abundant occupation in his little office, and sawmore people than had been used to come there for some years. This mighteasily be, the house having been long deserted; but he did receiveletters, and comers, and keep books, and correspond. Moreover, he wentabout to other counting-houses, and to wharves, and docks, and to theCustom House, and to Garraway's Coffee House, and the Jerusalem CoffeeHouse, and on 'Change; so that he was much in and out. He began, too,sometimes of an evening, when Mrs Clennam expressed no particular wishfor his society, to resort to a tavern in the neighbourhood to look atthe shipping news and closing prices in the evening paper, and even toexchange small socialities with mercantile Sea Captains who frequentedthat establishment. At some period of every day, he and Mrs Clennam helda council on matters of business; and it appeared to Affery, who wasalways groping about, listening and watching, that the two clever oneswere making money.

The state of mind into which Mr Flintwinch's dazed lady had fallen, hadnow begun to be so expressed in all her looks and actions that she washeld in very low account by the two clever ones, as a person, neverof strong intellect, who was becoming foolish. Perhaps because herappearance was not of a commercial cast, or perhaps because it occurredto him that his having taken her to wife might expose his judgment todoubt in the minds of customers, Mr Flintwinch laid his commands uponher that she should hold her peace on the subject of her conjugalrelations, and should no longer call him Jeremiah out of the domestictrio. Her frequent forgetfulness of this admonition intensified herstartled manner, since Mr Flintwinch's habit of avenging himself on herremissness by making springs after her on the staircase, and shakingher, occasioned her to be always nervously uncertain when she might bethus waylaid next.

Little Dorrit had finished a long day's work in Mrs Clennam's room, andwas neatly gathering up her shreds and odds and ends before going home.Mr Pancks, whom Affery had just shown in, was addressing an inquiry toMrs Clennam on the subject of her health, coupled with the remark that,'happening to find himself in that direction,' he had looked in toinquire, on behalf of his proprietor, how she found herself. MrsClennam, with a deep contraction of her brows, was looking at him.

'Mr Casby knows,' said she, 'that I am not subject to changes. Thechange that I await here is the great change.'

'Indeed, ma'am?' returned Mr Pancks, with a wandering eye towards thefigure of the little seamstress on her knee picking threads and frayingof her work from the carpet. 'You look nicely, ma'am.'

'I bear what I have to bear,' she answered. 'Do you what you have todo.'

'Thank you, ma'am,' said Mr Pancks, 'such is my endeavour.'

'You are often in this direction, are you not?' asked Mrs Clennam.

'Why, yes, ma'am,' said Pancks, 'rather so lately; I have lately beenround this way a good deal, owing to one thing and another.'

'Beg Mr Casby and his daughter not to trouble themselves, by deputy,about me. When they wish to see me, they know I am here to see them.They have no need to trouble themselves to send. You have no need totrouble yourself to come.'

'Not the least trouble, ma'am,' said Mr Pancks. 'You really are lookinguncommonly nicely, ma'am.'

'Thank you. Good evening.'

The dismissal, and its accompanying finger pointed straight at the door,was so curt and direct that Mr Pancks did not see his way to prolong hisvisit. He stirred up his hair with his sprightliest expression, glancedat the little figure again, said 'Good evening, ma 'am; don't come down,Mrs Affery, I know the road to the door,' and steamed out. Mrs Clennam,her chin resting on her hand, followed him with attentive and darklydistrustful eyes; and Affery stood looking at her as if she werespell-bound.

Slowly and thoughtfully, Mrs Clennam's eyes turned from the door bywhich Pancks had gone out, to Little Dorrit, rising from the carpet.With her chin drooping more heavily on her hand, and her eyes vigilantand lowering, the sick woman sat looking at her until she attracted herattention. Little Dorrit coloured under such a gaze, and looked down.Mrs Clennam still sat intent.

'Little Dorrit,' she said, when she at last broke silence, 'what do youknow of that man?'

'I don't know anything of him, ma'am, except that I have seen him about,and that he has spoken to me.'

'What has he said to you?'

'I don't understand what he has said, he is so strange. But nothingrough or disagreeable.'

'Why does he come here to see you?'

'I don't know, ma'am,' said Little Dorrit, with perfect frankness.

'You know that he does come here to see you?'

'I have fancied so,' said Little Dorrit. 'But why he should come here oranywhere for that, ma'am, I can't think.'

Mrs Clennam cast her eyes towards the ground, and with her strong, setface, as intent upon a subject in her mind as it had lately been uponthe form that seemed to pass out of her view, sat absorbed. Some minuteselapsed before she came out of this thoughtfulness, and resumed her hardcomposure.

Little Dorrit in the meanwhile had been waiting to go, but afraid todisturb her by moving. She now ventured to leave the spot where shehad been standing since she had risen, and to pass gently round by thewheeled chair. She stopped at its side to say 'Good night, ma'am.'

Mrs Clennam put out her hand, and laid it on her arm. Little Dorrit,confused under the touch, stood faltering. Perhaps some momentaryrecollection of the story of the Princess may have been in her mind.

'Tell me, Little Dorrit,' said Mrs Clennam, 'have you many friends now?'

'Very few, ma'am. Besides you, only Miss Flora and--one more.'

'Meaning,' said Mrs Clennam, with her unbent finger again pointing tothe door, 'that man?'

'Oh no, ma'am!'

'Some friend of his, perhaps?'

'No ma'am.' Little Dorrit earnestly shook her head. 'Oh no! No one atall like him, or belonging to him.'

'Well!' said Mrs Clennam, almost smiling. 'It is no affair of mine. Iask, because I take an interest in you; and because I believe I was yourfriend when you had no other who could serve you. Is that so?'

'Yes, ma'am; indeed it is. I have been here many a time when, but foryou and the work you gave me, we should have wanted everything.'

'We,' repeated Mrs Clennam, looking towards the watch, once her deadhusband's, which always lay upon her table. 'Are there many of you?'

'Only father and I, now. I mean, only father and I to keep regularly outof what we get.'

'Have you undergone many privations? You and your father and who elsethere may be of you?' asked Mrs Clennam, speaking deliberately, andmeditatively turning the watch over and over.

'Sometimes it has been rather hard to live,' said Little Dorrit, in hersoft voice, and timid uncomplaining way; 'but I think not harder--as tothat--than many people find it.'

'That's well said!' Mrs Clennam quickly returned. 'That's the truth!You are a good, thoughtful girl. You are a grateful girl too, or I muchmistake you.'

'It is only natural to be that. There is no merit in being that,' saidLittle Dorrit. 'I am indeed.'

Mrs Clennam, with a gentleness of which the dreaming Affery had neverdreamed her to be capable, drew down the face of her little seamstress,and kissed her on the forehead.

'Now go, Little Dorrit,' said she,'or you will be late, poor child!'

In all the dreams Mistress Affery had been piling up since she firstbecame devoted to the pursuit, she had dreamed nothing more astonishingthan this. Her head ached with the idea that she would find the otherclever one kissing Little Dorrit next, and then the two clever onesembracing each other and dissolving into tears of tenderness for allmankind. The idea quite stunned her, as she attended the light footstepsdown the stairs, that the house door might be safely shut.

On opening it to let Little Dorrit out, she found Mr Pancks, insteadof having gone his way, as in any less wonderful place and among lesswonderful phenomena he might have been reasonably expected to do,fluttering up and down the court outside the house. The moment he sawLittle Dorrit, he passed her briskly, said with his finger to his nose(as Mrs Affery distinctly heard), 'Pancks the gipsy, fortune-telling,'and went away. 'Lord save us, here's a gipsy and a fortune-teller in itnow!' cried Mistress Affery. 'What next!'

She stood at the open door, staggering herself with this enigma, on arainy, thundery evening. The clouds were flying fast, and the wind wascoming up in gusts, banging some neighbouring shutters that had brokenloose, twirling the rusty chimney-cowls and weather-cocks, and rushinground and round a confined adjacent churchyard as if it had a mind toblow the dead citizens out of their graves. The low thunder, mutteringin all quarters of the sky at once, seemed to threaten vengeance forthis attempted desecration, and to mutter, 'Let them rest! Let themrest!'

Mistress Affery, whose fear of thunder and lightning was only tobe equalled by her dread of the haunted house with a premature andpreternatural darkness in it, stood undecided whether to go in or not,until the question was settled for her by the door blowing upon her ina violent gust of wind and shutting her out. 'What's to be done now,what's to be done now!' cried Mistress Affery, wringing her hands inthis last uneasy dream of all; 'when she's all alone by herselfinside, and can no more come down to open it than the churchyard deadthemselves!'

In this dilemma, Mistress Affery, with her apron as a hood to keep therain off, ran crying up and down the solitary paved enclosure severaltimes. Why she should then stoop down and look in at the keyhole of thedoor as if an eye would open it, it would be difficult to say; but itis none the less what most people would have done in the same situation,and it is what she did.

From this posture she started up suddenly, with a half scream, feelingsomething on her shoulder. It was the touch of a hand; of a man's hand.

The man was dressed like a traveller, in a foraging cap with fur aboutit, and a heap of cloak. He looked like a foreigner. He had a quantityof hair and moustache--jet black, except at the shaggy ends, whereit had a tinge of red--and a high hook nose. He laughed at MistressAffery's start and cry; and as he laughed, his moustache went up underhis nose, and his nose came down over his moustache.

'What's the matter?' he asked in plain English. 'What are you frightenedat?'

'At you,' panted Affery.

'Me, madam?'

'And the dismal evening, and--and everything,' said Affery. 'And here!The wind has been and blown the door to, and I can't get in.'

'Hah!' said the gentleman, who took that very coolly. 'Indeed! Do youknow such a name as Clennam about here?'

'Lord bless us, I should think I did, I should think I did!' criedAffery, exasperated into a new wringing of hands by the inquiry.

'Where about here?'

'Where!' cried Affery, goaded into another inspection of the keyhole.'Where but here in this house? And she's all alone in her room, and lostthe use of her limbs and can't stir to help herself or me, and t'otherclever one's out, and Lord forgive me!' cried Affery, driven into afrantic dance by these accumulated considerations, 'if I ain't a-goingheadlong out of my mind!'

Taking a warmer view of the matter now that it concerned himself, thegentleman stepped back to glance at the house, and his eye soon restedon the long narrow window of the little room near the hall-door.

'Where may the lady be who has lost the use of her limbs, madam?' heinquired, with that peculiar smile which Mistress Affery could notchoose but keep her eyes upon.

'Up there!' said Affery. 'Them two windows.'

'Hah! I am of a fair size, but could not have the honour of presentingmyself in that room without a ladder. Now, madam, frankly--frankness isa part of my character--shall I open the door for you?'

'Yes, bless you, sir, for a dear creetur, and do it at once,' criedAffery, 'for she may be a-calling to me at this very present minute, ormay be setting herself a fire and burning herself to death, or there'sno knowing what may be happening to her, and me a-going out of my mindat thinking of it!'

'Stay, my good madam!' He restrained her impatience with a smooth whitehand. 'Business-hours, I apprehend, are over for the day?'

'Yes, yes, yes,' cried Affery. 'Long ago.'

'Let me make, then, a fair proposal. Fairness is a part of my character.I am just landed from the packet-boat, as you may see.' He showed herthat his cloak was very wet, and that his boots were saturated withwater; she had previously observed that he was dishevelled and sallow,as if from a rough voyage, and so chilled that he could not keep histeeth from chattering. 'I am just landed from the packet-boat, madam,and have been delayed by the weather: the infernal weather! Inconsequence of this, madam, some necessary business that I shouldotherwise have transacted here within the regular hours (necessarybusiness because money-business), still remains to be done. Now, if youwill fetch any authorised neighbouring somebody to do it in return formy opening the door, I'll open the door. If this arrangement should beobjectionable, I'll--' and with the same smile he made a significantfeint of backing away.

Mistress Affery, heartily glad to effect the proposed compromise, gavein her willing adhesion to it. The gentleman at once requested her todo him the favour of holding his cloak, took a short run at the narrowwindow, made a leap at the sill, clung his way up the bricks, and ina moment had his hand at the sash, raising it. His eyes looked so verysinister, as he put his leg into the room and glanced round at MistressAffery, that she thought with a sudden coldness, if he were to gostraight up-stairs to murder the invalid, what could she do to preventhim?

Happily he had no such purpose; for he reappeared, in a moment, at thehouse door. 'Now, my dear madam,' he said, as he took back his cloak andthrew it on, 'if you have the goodness to--what the Devil's that!'

The strangest of sounds. Evidently close at hand from the peculiarshock it communicated to the air, yet subdued as if it were far off. Atremble, a rumble, and a fall of some light dry matter.

'What the Devil is it?'

'I don't know what it is, but I've heard the like of it over and overagain,' said Affery, who had caught his arm.

He could hardly be a very brave man, even she thought in her dreamystart and fright, for his trembling lips had turned colourless. Afterlistening a few moments, he made light of it.

'Bah! Nothing! Now, my dear madam, I think you spoke of some cleverpersonage. Will you be so good as to confront me with that genius?' Heheld the door in his hand, as though he were quite ready to shut her outagain if she failed.

'Don't you say anything about the door and me, then,' whispered Affery.

'Not a word.'

'And don't you stir from here, or speak if she calls, while I run roundthe corner.'

'Madam, I am a statue.'

Affery had so vivid a fear of his going stealthily up-stairs the momenther back was turned, that after hurrying out of sight, she returned tothe gateway to peep at him. Seeing him still on the threshold, more outof the house than in it, as if he had no love for darkness and nodesire to probe its mysteries, she flew into the next street, and sent amessage into the tavern to Mr Flintwinch, who came out directly. Thetwo returning together--the lady in advance, and Mr Flintwinch coming upbriskly behind, animated with the hope of shaking her before she couldget housed--saw the gentleman standing in the same place in the dark,and heard the strong voice of Mrs Clennam calling from her room, 'Who isit? What is it? Why does no one answer? Who _is_ that, down there?'