Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/56

CHAPTER 18. A Castle in the Air

Manifold are the cares of wealth and state. Mr Dorrit's satisfaction inremembering that it had not been necessary for him to announce himselfto Clennam and Co., or to make an allusion to his having had anyknowledge of the intrusive person of that name, had been dampedover-night, while it was still fresh, by a debate that arose within himwhether or no he should take the Marshalsea in his way back, and lookat the old gate. He had decided not to do so; and had astonished thecoachman by being very fierce with him for proposing to go over LondonBridge and recross the river by Waterloo Bridge--a course which wouldhave taken him almost within sight of his old quarters. Still, for allthat, the question had raised a conflict in his breast; and, for someodd reason or no reason, he was vaguely dissatisfied. Even at the Merdledinner-table next day, he was so out of sorts about it that hecontinued at intervals to turn it over and over, in a manner frightfullyinconsistent with the good society surrounding him. It made him hot tothink what the Chief Butler's opinion of him would have been, if thatillustrious personage could have plumbed with that heavy eye of his thestream of his meditations.

The farewell banquet was of a gorgeous nature, and wound up his visitin a most brilliant manner. Fanny combined with the attractions of heryouth and beauty, a certain weight of self-sustainment as if she hadbeen married twenty years. He felt that he could leave her with aquiet mind to tread the paths of distinction, and wished--but withoutabatement of patronage, and without prejudice to the retiring virtues ofhis favourite child--that he had such another daughter.

'My dear,' he told her at parting, 'our family looks to youto--ha--assert its dignity and--hum--maintain its importance. I know youwill never disappoint it.'

'No, papa,' said Fanny, 'you may rely upon that, I think. My best loveto dearest Amy, and I will write to her very soon.'

'Shall I convey any message to--ha--anybody else?' asked Mr Dorrit, inan insinuating manner.

'Papa,' said Fanny, before whom Mrs General instantly loomed, 'no, Ithank you. You are very kind, Pa, but I must beg to be excused. Thereis no other message to send, I thank you, dear papa, that it would be atall agreeable to you to take.'

They parted in an outer drawing-room, where only Mr Sparkler waitedon his lady, and dutifully bided his time for shaking hands. When MrSparkler was admitted to this closing audience, Mr Merdle came creepingin with not much more appearance of arms in his sleeves than if hehad been the twin brother of Miss Biffin, and insisted on escortingMr Dorrit down-stairs. All Mr Dorrit's protestations being in vain,he enjoyed the honour of being accompanied to the hall-door by thisdistinguished man, who (as Mr Dorrit told him in shaking hands on thestep) had really overwhelmed him with attentions and services duringthis memorable visit. Thus they parted; Mr Dorrit entering his carriagewith a swelling breast, not at all sorry that his Courier, who hadcome to take leave in the lower regions, should have an opportunity ofbeholding the grandeur of his departure.

The aforesaid grandeur was yet full upon Mr Dorrit when he alighted athis hotel. Helped out by the Courier and some half-dozen of the hotelservants, he was passing through the hall with a serene magnificence,when lo! a sight presented itself that struck him dumb and motionless.John Chivery, in his best clothes, with his tall hat under his arm, hisivory-handled cane genteelly embarrassing his deportment, and a bundleof cigars in his hand!

'Now, young man,' said the porter. 'This is the gentleman. This youngman has persisted in waiting, sir, saying you would be glad to see him.'

Mr Dorrit glared on the young man, choked, and said, in the mildest oftones, 'Ah! Young John! It is Young John, I think; is it not?'

'Yes, sir,' returned Young John.

'I--ha--thought it was Young John!' said Mr Dorrit. 'The young man maycome up,' turning to the attendants, as he passed on: 'oh yes, he maycome up. Let Young John follow. I will speak to him above.'

Young John followed, smiling and much gratified. Mr Dorrit's rooms werereached. Candles were lighted. The attendants withdrew.

'Now, sir,' said Mr Dorrit, turning round upon him and seizing him bythe collar when they were safely alone. 'What do you mean by this?'

The amazement and horror depicted in the unfortunate John's face--forhe had rather expected to be embraced next--were of that powerfullyexpressive nature that Mr Dorrit withdrew his hand and merely glared athim.

'How dare you do this?' said Mr Dorrit. 'How do you presume to comehere? How dare you insult me?'

'I insult you, sir?' cried Young John. 'Oh!'

'Yes, sir,' returned Mr Dorrit. 'Insult me. Your coming here is anaffront, an impertinence, an audacity. You are not wanted here.Who sent you here? What--ha--the Devil do you do here?'

'I thought, sir,' said Young John, with as pale and shocked a face asever had been turned to Mr Dorrit's in his life--even in his Collegelife: 'I thought, sir, you mightn't object to have the goodness toaccept a bundle--'

'Damn your bundle, sir!' cried Mr Dorrit, in irrepressible rage.'I--hum--don't smoke.'

'I humbly beg your pardon, sir. You used to.'

'Tell me that again,' cried Mr Dorrit, quite beside himself, 'and I'lltake the poker to you!'

John Chivery backed to the door.

'Stop, sir!' cried Mr Dorrit. 'Stop! Sit down. Confound you sit down!'

John Chivery dropped into the chair nearest the door, and Mr Dorritwalked up and down the room; rapidly at first; then, more slowly. Once,he went to the window, and stood there with his forehead against theglass. All of a sudden, he turned and said:

'What else did you come for, Sir?'

'Nothing else in the world, sir. Oh dear me! Only to say, Sir, that Ihoped you was well, and only to ask if Miss Amy was Well?'

'What's that to you, sir?' retorted Mr Dorrit.

'It's nothing to me, sir, by rights. I never thought of lessening thedistance betwixt us, I am sure. I know it's a liberty, sir, but I neverthought you'd have taken it ill. Upon my word and honour, sir,' saidYoung John, with emotion, 'in my poor way, I am too proud to have come,I assure you, if I had thought so.'

Mr Dorrit was ashamed. He went back to the window, and leaned hisforehead against the glass for some time. When he turned, he had hishandkerchief in his hand, and he had been wiping his eyes with it, andhe looked tired and ill.

'Young John, I am very sorry to have been hasty with you, but--ha--someremembrances are not happy remembrances, and--hum--you shouldn't havecome.'

'I feel that now, sir,' returned John Chivery; 'but I didn't before, andHeaven knows I meant no harm, sir.'

'No. No,' said Mr Dorrit. 'I am--hum--sure of that. Ha. Give me yourhand, Young John, give me your hand.'

Young John gave it; but Mr Dorrit had driven his heart out of it, andnothing could change his face now, from its white, shocked look.

'There!' said Mr Dorrit, slowly shaking hands with him. 'Sit down again,Young John.'

'Thank you, sir--but I'd rather stand.'

Mr Dorrit sat down instead. After painfully holding his head a littlewhile, he turned it to his visitor, and said, with an effort to be easy:

'And how is your father, Young John? How--ha--how are they all, YoungJohn?'

'Thank you, sir, They're all pretty well, sir. They're not any wayscomplaining.'

'Hum. You are in your--ha--old business I see, John?' said Mr Dorrit,with a glance at the offending bundle he had anathematised.

'Partly, sir. I am in my'--John hesitated a little--'father's businesslikewise.'

'Oh indeed!' said Mr Dorrit. 'Do you--ha hum--go upon the ha--'

'Lock, sir? Yes, sir.'

'Much to do, John?'

'Yes, sir; we're pretty heavy at present. I don't know how it is, but wegenerally _are_ pretty heavy.'

'At this time of the year, Young John?'

'Mostly at all times of the year, sir. I don't know the time that makesmuch difference to us. I wish you good night, sir.'

'Stay a moment, John--ha--stay a moment. Hum. Leave me the cigars, John,I--ha--beg.'

'Certainly, sir.' John put them, with a trembling hand, on the table.

'Stay a moment, Young John; stay another moment. It would be a--ha--agratification to me to send a little--hum--Testimonial, by such a trustymessenger, to be divided among--ha hum--them--_them_--according to theirwants. Would you object to take it, John?'

'Not in any ways, sir. There's many of them, I'm sure, that would be thebetter for it.'

'Thank you, John. I--ha--I'll write it, John.'

His hand shook so that he was a long time writing it, and wrote it ina tremulous scrawl at last. It was a cheque for one hundred pounds. Hefolded it up, put it in Young John's hand, and pressed the hand in his.

'I hope you'll--ha--overlook--hum--what has passed, John.'

'Don't speak of it, sir, on any accounts. I don't in any ways bearmalice, I'm sure.'

But nothing while John was there could change John's face to its naturalcolour and expression, or restore John's natural manner.

'And, John,' said Mr Dorrit, giving his hand a final pressure, andreleasing it, 'I hope we--ha--agree that we have spoken togetherin confidence; and that you will abstain, in going out, from sayinganything to any one that might--hum--suggest that--ha--once I--'

'Oh! I assure you, sir,' returned John Chivery, 'in my poor humble way,sir, I'm too proud and honourable to do it, sir.'

Mr Dorrit was not too proud and honourable to listen at the door thathe might ascertain for himself whether John really went straight out, orlingered to have any talk with any one. There was no doubt that he wentdirect out at the door, and away down the street with a quick step.After remaining alone for an hour, Mr Dorrit rang for the Courier,who found him with his chair on the hearth-rug, sitting with his backtowards him and his face to the fire. 'You can take that bundle ofcigars to smoke on the journey, if you like,' said Mr Dorrit, witha careless wave of his hand. 'Ha--brought by--hum--little offeringfrom--ha--son of old tenant of mine.'

Next morning's sun saw Mr Dorrit's equipage upon the Dover road, whereevery red-jacketed postilion was the sign of a cruel house, establishedfor the unmerciful plundering of travellers. The whole business of thehuman race, between London and Dover, being spoliation, Mr Dorrit waswaylaid at Dartford, pillaged at Gravesend, rifled at Rochester, fleecedat Sittingbourne, and sacked at Canterbury. However, it being theCourier's business to get him out of the hands of the banditti, theCourier brought him off at every stage; and so the red-jackets wentgleaming merrily along the spring landscape, rising and falling toa regular measure, between Mr Dorrit in his snug corner and the nextchalky rise in the dusty highway.

Another day's sun saw him at Calais. And having now got the Channelbetween himself and John Chivery, he began to feel safe, and to findthat the foreign air was lighter to breathe than the air of England.

On again by the heavy French roads for Paris. Having now quite recoveredhis equanimity, Mr Dorrit, in his snug corner, fell to castle-buildingas he rode along. It was evident that he had a very large castle inhand. All day long he was running towers up, taking towers down, addinga wing here, putting on a battlement there, looking to the walls,strengthening the defences, giving ornamental touches to the interior,making in all respects a superb castle of it. His preoccupied face soclearly denoted the pursuit in which he was engaged, that every crippleat the post-houses, not blind, who shoved his little battered tin-box inat the carriage window for Charity in the name of Heaven, Charity in thename of our Lady, Charity in the name of all the Saints, knew as wellwhat work he was at, as their countryman Le Brun could have known ithimself, though he had made that English traveller the subject of aspecial physiognomical treatise.

Arrived at Paris, and resting there three days, Mr Dorrit strolledmuch about the streets alone, looking in at the shop-windows, andparticularly the jewellers' windows. Ultimately, he went into the mostfamous jeweller's, and said he wanted to buy a little gift for a lady.

It was a charming little woman to whom he said it--a sprightly littlewoman, dressed in perfect taste, who came out of a green velvet bowerto attend upon him, from posting up some dainty little books of accountwhich one could hardly suppose to be ruled for the entry of any articlesmore commercial than kisses, at a dainty little shining desk whichlooked in itself like a sweetmeat.

For example, then, said the little woman, what species of gift didMonsieur desire? A love-gift?

Mr Dorrit smiled, and said, Eh, well! Perhaps. What did he know? It wasalways possible; the sex being so charming. Would she show him some?

Most willingly, said the little woman. Flattered and enchanted to showhim many. But pardon! To begin with, he would have the great goodnessto observe that there were love-gifts, and there were nuptial gifts.For example, these ravishing ear-rings and this necklace so superb tocorrespond, were what one called a love-gift. These brooches and theserings, of a beauty so gracious and celestial, were what one called, withthe permission of Monsieur, nuptial gifts.

Perhaps it would be a good arrangement, Mr Dorrit hinted, smiling, topurchase both, and to present the love-gift first, and to finish withthe nuptial offering?

Ah Heaven! said the little woman, laying the tips of the fingers of hertwo little hands against each other, that would be generous indeed, thatwould be a special gallantry! And without doubt the lady so crushed withgifts would find them irresistible.

Mr Dorrit was not sure of that. But, for example, the sprightly littlewoman was very sure of it, she said. So Mr Dorrit bought a gift ofeach sort, and paid handsomely for it. As he strolled back to his hotelafterwards, he carried his head high: having plainly got up his castlenow to a much loftier altitude than the two square towers of Notre Dame.

Building away with all his might, but reserving the plans of his castleexclusively for his own eye, Mr Dorrit posted away for Marseilles.Building on, building on, busily, busily, from morning to night. Fallingasleep, and leaving great blocks of building materials dangling in theair; waking again, to resume work and get them into their places. Whattime the Courier in the rumble, smoking Young John's best cigars, lefta little thread of thin light smoke behind--perhaps as _he_ built acastle or two with stray pieces of Mr Dorrit's money.

Not a fortified town that they passed in all their journey was asstrong, not a Cathedral summit was as high, as Mr Dorrit's castle.Neither the Saone nor the Rhone sped with the swiftness of that peerlessbuilding; nor was the Mediterranean deeper than its foundations; norwere the distant landscapes on the Cornice road, nor the hills and bayof Genoa the Superb, more beautiful. Mr Dorrit and his matchless castlewere disembarked among the dirty white houses and dirtier felons ofCivita Vecchia, and thence scrambled on to Rome as they could, throughthe filth that festered on the way.