Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/48

CHAPTER 10. The Dreams of Mrs Flintwinch thicken

The shady waiting-rooms of the Circumlocution Office, where he passed agood deal of time in company with various troublesome Convicts who wereunder sentence to be broken alive on that wheel, had afforded ArthurClennam ample leisure, in three or four successive days, to exhaust thesubject of his late glimpse of Miss Wade and Tattycoram. He had beenable to make no more of it and no less of it, and in this unsatisfactorycondition he was fain to leave it.

During this space he had not been to his mother's dismal old house.One of his customary evenings for repairing thither now coming round,he left his dwelling and his partner at nearly nine o'clock, and slowlywalked in the direction of that grim home of his youth.

It always affected his imagination as wrathful, mysterious, and sad;and his imagination was sufficiently impressible to see the wholeneighbourhood under some tinge of its dark shadow. As he went along,upon a dreary night, the dim streets by which he went, seemed alldepositories of oppressive secrets. The deserted counting-houses, withtheir secrets of books and papers locked up in chests and safes; thebanking-houses, with their secrets of strong rooms and wells, thekeys of which were in a very few secret pockets and a very few secretbreasts; the secrets of all the dispersed grinders in the vast mill,among whom there were doubtless plunderers, forgers, and trust-betrayersof many sorts, whom the light of any day that dawned might reveal; hecould have fancied that these things, in hiding, imparted a heavinessto the air. The shadow thickening and thickening as he approached itssource, he thought of the secrets of the lonely church-vaults, where thepeople who had hoarded and secreted in iron coffers were in their turnsimilarly hoarded, not yet at rest from doing harm; and then of thesecrets of the river, as it rolled its turbid tide between two frowningwildernesses of secrets, extending, thick and dense, for many miles, andwarding off the free air and the free country swept by winds and wingsof birds.

The shadow still darkening as he drew near the house, the melancholyroom which his father had once occupied, haunted by the appealing facehe had himself seen fade away with him when there was no other watcherby the bed, arose before his mind. Its close air was secret. The gloom,and must, and dust of the whole tenement, were secret. At the heart ofit his mother presided, inflexible of face, indomitable of will, firmlyholding all the secrets of her own and his father's life, and austerelyopposing herself, front to front, to the great final secret of all life.

He had turned into the narrow and steep street from which the court ofenclosure wherein the house stood opened, when another footstep turnedinto it behind him, and so close upon his own that he was jostled to thewall. As his mind was teeming with these thoughts, the encounter tookhim altogether unprepared, so that the other passenger had had time tosay, boisterously, 'Pardon! Not my fault!' and to pass on before theinstant had elapsed which was requisite to his recovery of the realitiesabout him.

When that moment had flashed away, he saw that the man striding onbefore him was the man who had been so much in his mind during the lastfew days. It was no casual resemblance, helped out by the force ofthe impression the man made upon him. It was the man; the man he hadfollowed in company with the girl, and whom he had overheard talking toMiss Wade.

The street was a sharp descent and was crooked too, and the man (whoalthough not drunk had the air of being flushed with some strong drink)went down it so fast that Clennam lost him as he looked at him. Withno defined intention of following him, but with an impulse to keep thefigure in view a little longer, Clennam quickened his pace to pass thetwist in the street which hid him from his sight. On turning it, he sawthe man no more.

Standing now, close to the gateway of his mother's house, he lookeddown the street: but it was empty. There was no projecting shadow largeenough to obscure the man; there was no turning near that he could havetaken; nor had there been any audible sound of the opening and closingof a door. Nevertheless, he concluded that the man must have had a keyin his hand, and must have opened one of the many house-doors and gonein.

Ruminating on this strange chance and strange glimpse, he turned intothe court-yard. As he looked, by mere habit, towards the feebly lightedwindows of his mother's room, his eyes encountered the figure he hadjust lost, standing against the iron railings of the little wasteenclosure looking up at those windows and laughing to himself. Some ofthe many vagrant cats who were always prowling about there by night,and who had taken fright at him, appeared to have stopped when he hadstopped, and were looking at him with eyes by no means unlike his ownfrom tops of walls and porches, and other safe points of pause. He hadonly halted for a moment to entertain himself thus; he immediately wentforward, throwing the end of his cloak off his shoulder as he went,ascended the unevenly sunken steps, and knocked a sounding knock at thedoor.

Clennam's surprise was not so absorbing but that he took his resolutionwithout any incertitude. He went up to the door too, and ascended thesteps too. His friend looked at him with a braggart air, and sang tohimself.

'Who passes by this road so late? Compagnon de la Majolaine; Who passes by this road so late? Always gay!'

After which he knocked again.

'You are impatient, sir,' said Arthur.

'I am, sir. Death of my life, sir,' returned the stranger, 'it's mycharacter to be impatient!'

The sound of Mistress Affery cautiously chaining the door before sheopened it, caused them both to look that way. Affery opened it a verylittle, with a flaring candle in her hands and asked who was that, atthat time of night, with that knock! 'Why, Arthur!' she added withastonishment, seeing him first. 'Not you sure? Ah, Lord save us! No,'she cried out, seeing the other. 'Him again!'

'It's true! Him again, dear Mrs Flintwinch,' cried the stranger. 'Openthe door, and let me take my dear friend Jeremiah to my arms! Open thedoor, and let me hasten myself to embrace my Flintwinch!'

'He's not at home,' cried Affery.

'Fetch him!' cried the stranger. 'Fetch my Flintwinch! Tell him that itis his old Blandois, who comes from arriving in England; tell him thatit is his little boy who is here, his cabbage, his well-beloved! Openthe door, beautiful Mrs Flintwinch, and in the meantime let me to passupstairs, to present my compliments--homage of Blandois--to my lady! Mylady lives always? It is well. Open then!'

To Arthur's increased surprise, Mistress Affery, stretching her eyeswide at himself, as if in warning that this was not a gentleman forhim to interfere with, drew back the chain, and opened the door. Thestranger, without ceremony, walked into the hall, leaving Arthur tofollow him.

'Despatch then! Achieve then! Bring my Flintwinch! Announce me to mylady!' cried the stranger, clanking about the stone floor.

'Pray tell me, Affery,' said Arthur aloud and sternly, as he surveyedhim from head to foot with indignation; 'who is this gentleman?'

'Pray tell me, Affery,' the stranger repeated in his turn, 'who--ha, ha,ha!--who is this gentleman?'

The voice of Mrs Clennam opportunely called from her chamber above,'Affery, let them both come up. Arthur, come straight to me!'

'Arthur?' exclaimed Blandois, taking off his hat at arm's length,and bringing his heels together from a great stride in making him aflourishing bow. 'The son of my lady? I am the all-devoted of the son ofmy lady!'

Arthur looked at him again in no more flattering manner than before,and, turning on his heel without acknowledgment, went up-stairs. Thevisitor followed him up-stairs. Mistress Affery took the key from behindthe door, and deftly slipped out to fetch her lord.

A bystander, informed of the previous appearance of Monsieur Blandoisin that room, would have observed a difference in Mrs Clennam's presentreception of him. Her face was not one to betray it; and her suppressedmanner, and her set voice, were equally under her control. It whollyconsisted in her never taking her eyes off his face from the moment ofhis entrance, and in her twice or thrice, when he was becoming noisy,swaying herself a very little forward in the chair in which she satupright, with her hands immovable upon its elbows; as if she gave himthe assurance that he should be presently heard at any length he would.Arthur did not fail to observe this; though the difference between thepresent occasion and the former was not within his power of observation.

'Madame,' said Blandois, 'do me the honour to present me to Monsieur,your son. It appears to me, madame, that Monsieur, your son, is disposedto complain of me. He is not polite.'

'Sir,' said Arthur, striking in expeditiously, 'whoever you are, andhowever you come to be here, if I were the master of this house I wouldlose no time in placing you on the outside of it.'

'But you are not,' said his mother, without looking at him.'Unfortunately for the gratification of your unreasonable temper, youare not the master, Arthur.'

'I make no claim to be, mother. If I object to this person's manner ofconducting himself here, and object to it so much, that if I had anyauthority here I certainly would not suffer him to remain a minute, Iobject on your account.'

'In the case of objection being necessary,' she returned, 'I couldobject for myself. And of course I should.'

The subject of their dispute, who had seated himself, laughed aloud, andrapped his legs with his hand.

'You have no right,' said Mrs Clennam, always intent on Blandois,however directly she addressed her son, 'to speak to the prejudice ofany gentleman (least of all a gentleman from another country), becausehe does not conform to your standard, or square his behaviour by yourrules. It is possible that the gentleman may, on similar grounds, objectto you.'

'I hope so,' returned Arthur.

'The gentleman,' pursued Mrs Clennam, 'on a former occasion broughta letter of recommendation to us from highly esteemed and responsiblecorrespondents. I am perfectly unacquainted with the gentleman's objectin coming here at present. I am entirely ignorant of it, and cannot besupposed likely to be able to form the remotest guess at its nature;'her habitual frown became stronger, as she very slowly and weightilyemphasised those words; 'but, when the gentleman proceeds to explainhis object, as I shall beg him to have the goodness to do to myself andFlintwinch, when Flintwinch returns, it will prove, no doubt, to be onemore or less in the usual way of our business, which it will be both ourbusiness and our pleasure to advance. It can be nothing else.'

'We shall see, madame!' said the man of business.

'We shall see,' she assented. 'The gentleman is acquainted withFlintwinch; and when the gentleman was in London last, I rememberto have heard that he and Flintwinch had some entertainment orgood-fellowship together. I am not in the way of knowing much thatpasses outside this room, and the jingle of little worldly things beyondit does not much interest me; but I remember to have heard that.'

'Right, madame. It is true.' He laughed again, and whistled the burdenof the tune he had sung at the door.

'Therefore, Arthur,' said his mother, 'the gentleman comes here as anacquaintance, and no stranger; and it is much to be regretted that yourunreasonable temper should have found offence in him. I regret it. I sayso to the gentleman. You will not say so, I know; therefore I say it formyself and Flintwinch, since with us two the gentleman's business lies.'

The key of the door below was now heard in the lock, and the door washeard to open and close. In due sequence Mr Flintwinch appeared; onwhose entrance the visitor rose from his chair, laughing loud, andfolded him in a close embrace.

'How goes it, my cherished friend!' said he. 'How goes the world, myFlintwinch? Rose-coloured? So much the better, so much the better! Ah,but you look charming! Ah, but you look young and fresh as the flowersof Spring! Ah, good little boy! Brave child, brave child!'

While heaping these compliments on Mr Flintwinch, he rolled him aboutwith a hand on each of his shoulders, until the staggerings of thatgentleman, who under the circumstances was dryer and more twisted thanever, were like those of a teetotum nearly spent.

'I had a presentiment, last time, that we should be better and moreintimately acquainted. Is it coming on you, Flintwinch? Is it yet comingon?'

'Why, no, sir,' retorted Mr Flintwinch. 'Not unusually. Hadn't youbetter be seated? You have been calling for some more of that port, sir,I guess?'

'Ah, Little joker! Little pig!' cried the visitor. 'Ha ha ha ha!' Andthrowing Mr Flintwinch away, as a closing piece of raillery, he sat downagain.

The amazement, suspicion, resentment, and shame, with which Arthurlooked on at all this, struck him dumb. Mr Flintwinch, who had spunbackward some two or three yards under the impetus last given to him,brought himself up with a face completely unchanged in its stolidityexcept as it was affected by shortness of breath, and looked hard atArthur. Not a whit less reticent and wooden was Mr Flintwinch outwardly,than in the usual course of things: the only perceptible difference inhim being that the knot of cravat which was generally under his ear,had worked round to the back of his head: where it formed an ornamentalappendage not unlike a bagwig, and gave him something of a courtlyappearance.

As Mrs Clennam never removed her eyes from Blandois (on whom they hadsome effect, as a steady look has on a lower sort of dog), so Jeremiahnever removed his from Arthur. It was as if they had tacitly agreed totake their different provinces. Thus, in the ensuing silence, Jeremiahstood scraping his chin and looking at Arthur as though he were tryingto screw his thoughts out of him with an instrument.

After a little, the visitor, as if he felt the silence irksome, rose,and impatiently put himself with his back to the sacred fire which hadburned through so many years. Thereupon Mrs Clennam said, moving one ofher hands for the first time, and moving it very slightly with an actionof dismissal:

'Please to leave us to our business, Arthur.'

'Mother, I do so with reluctance.'

'Never mind with what,' she returned, 'or with what not. Please to leaveus. Come back at any other time when you may consider it a duty to buryhalf an hour wearily here. Good night.'

She held up her muffled fingers that he might touch them with his,according to their usual custom, and he stood over her wheeled chair totouch her face with his lips. He thought, then, that her cheek wasmore strained than usual, and that it was colder. As he followed thedirection of her eyes, in rising again, towards Mr Flintwinch's goodfriend, Mr Blandois, Mr Blandois snapped his finger and thumb with oneloud contemptuous snap.

'I leave your--your business acquaintance in my mother's room, MrFlintwinch,' said Clennam, 'with a great deal of surprise and a greatdeal of unwillingness.'

The person referred to snapped his finger and thumb again.

'Good night, mother.'

'Good night.'

'I had a friend once, my good comrade Flintwinch,' said Blandois,standing astride before the fire, and so evidently saying it to arrestClennam's retreating steps, that he lingered near the door; 'I had afriend once, who had heard so much of the dark side of this city andits ways, that he wouldn't have confided himself alone by night with twopeople who had an interest in getting him under the ground--my faith!not even in a respectable house like this--unless he was bodily toostrong for them. Bah! What a poltroon, my Flintwinch! Eh?'

'A cur, sir.'

'Agreed! A cur. But he wouldn't have done it, my Flintwinch, unless hehad known them to have the will to silence him, without the power. Hewouldn't have drunk from a glass of water under such circumstances--noteven in a respectable house like this, my Flintwinch--unless he had seenone of them drink first, and swallow too!'

Disdaining to speak, and indeed not very well able, for he washalf-choking, Clennam only glanced at the visitor as he passed out.The visitor saluted him with another parting snap, and his nose camedown over his moustache and his moustache went up under his nose, in anominous and ugly smile.

'For Heaven's sake, Affery,' whispered Clennam, as she opened the doorfor him in the dark hall, and he groped his way to the sight of thenight-sky, 'what is going on here?'

Her own appearance was sufficiently ghastly, standing in the darkwith her apron thrown over her head, and speaking behind it in a low,deadened voice.

'Don't ask me anything, Arthur. I've been in a dream for ever so long.Go away!'

He went out, and she shut the door upon him. He looked up at the windowsof his mother's room, and the dim light, deadened by the yellow blinds,seemed to say a response after Affery, and to mutter, 'Don't ask meanything. Go away!'