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Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/58

CHAPTER 20. Introduces the next

The passengers were landing from the packet on the pier at Calais.A low-lying place and a low-spirited place Calais was, with the tideebbing out towards low water-mark. There had been no more water on thebar than had sufficed to float the packet in; and now the bar itself,with a shallow break of sea over it, looked like a lazy marine monsterjust risen to the surface, whose form was indistinctly shown as it layasleep. The meagre lighthouse all in white, haunting the seaboard as ifit were the ghost of an edifice that had once had colour and rotundity,dropped melancholy tears after its late buffeting by the waves. The longrows of gaunt black piles, slimy and wet and weather-worn, with funeralgarlands of seaweed twisted about them by the late tide, mighthave represented an unsightly marine cemetery. Every wave-dashed,storm-beaten object, was so low and so little, under the broad grey sky,in the noise of the wind and sea, and before the curling lines of surf,making at it ferociously, that the wonder was there was any Calais left,and that its low gates and low wall and low roofs and low ditches andlow sand-hills and low ramparts and flat streets, had not yieldedlong ago to the undermining and besieging sea, like the fortificationschildren make on the sea-shore.

After slipping among oozy piles and planks, stumbling up wet steps andencountering many salt difficulties, the passengers entered on theircomfortless peregrination along the pier; where all the French vagabondsand English outlaws in the town (half the population) attended toprevent their recovery from bewilderment. After being minutely inspectedby all the English, and claimed and reclaimed and counter-claimed asprizes by all the French in a hand-to-hand scuffle three quarters of amile long, they were at last free to enter the streets, and to make offin their various directions, hotly pursued.

Clennam, harassed by more anxieties than one, was among this devotedband. Having rescued the most defenceless of his compatriots fromsituations of great extremity, he now went his way alone, or as nearlyalone as he could be, with a native gentleman in a suit of grease anda cap of the same material, giving chase at a distance of some fiftyyards, and continually calling after him, 'Hi! Ice-say! You! Seer!Ice-say! Nice Oatel!'

Even this hospitable person, however, was left behind at last, andClennam pursued his way, unmolested. There was a tranquil air in thetown after the turbulence of the Channel and the beach, and its dulnessin that comparison was agreeable. He met new groups of his countrymen,who had all a straggling air of having at one time overblown themselves,like certain uncomfortable kinds of flowers, and of being now mereweeds. They had all an air, too, of lounging out a limited round, dayafter day, which strongly reminded him of the Marshalsea. But, takingno further note of them than was sufficient to give birth to thereflection, he sought out a certain street and number which he kept inhis mind.

'So Pancks said,' he murmured to himself, as he stopped before a dullhouse answering to the address. 'I suppose his information to be correctand his discovery, among Mr Casby's loose papers, indisputable; but,without it, I should hardly have supposed this to be a likely place.'

A dead sort of house, with a dead wall over the way and a dead gatewayat the side, where a pendant bell-handle produced two dead tinkles, anda knocker produced a dead, flat, surface-tapping, that seemed not tohave depth enough in it to penetrate even the cracked door. However, thedoor jarred open on a dead sort of spring; and he closed it behind himas he entered a dull yard, soon brought to a close by another dead wall,where an attempt had been made to train some creeping shrubs, which weredead; and to make a little fountain in a grotto, which was dry; and todecorate that with a little statue, which was gone.

The entry to the house was on the left, and it was garnished as theouter gateway was, with two printed bills in French and English,announcing Furnished Apartments to let, with immediate possession. Astrong cheerful peasant woman, all stocking, petticoat, white cap, andear-ring, stood here in a dark doorway, and said with a pleasant show ofteeth, 'Ice-say! Seer! Who?'

Clennam, replying in French, said the English lady; he wished to seethe English lady. 'Enter then and ascend, if you please,' returned thepeasant woman, in French likewise. He did both, and followed her up adark bare staircase to a back room on the first-floor. Hence, there wasa gloomy view of the yard that was dull, and of the shrubs that weredead, and of the fountain that was dry, and of the pedestal of thestatue that was gone.

'Monsieur Blandois,' said Clennam.

'With pleasure, Monsieur.'

Thereupon the woman withdrew and left him to look at the room. It wasthe pattern of room always to be found in such a house. Cool, dull, anddark. Waxed floor very slippery. A room not large enough to skate in;nor adapted to the easy pursuit of any other occupation. Red andwhite curtained windows, little straw mat, little round table with atumultuous assemblage of legs underneath, clumsy rush-bottomed chairs,two great red velvet arm-chairs affording plenty of space to beuncomfortable in, bureau, chimney-glass in several pieces pretending tobe in one piece, pair of gaudy vases of very artificial flowers; betweenthem a Greek warrior with his helmet off, sacrificing a clock to theGenius of France.

After some pause, a door of communication with another room was opened,and a lady entered. She manifested great surprise on seeing Clennam, andher glance went round the room in search of some one else.

'Pardon me, Miss Wade. I am alone.'

'It was not your name that was brought to me.'

'No; I know that. Excuse me. I have already had experience that my namedoes not predispose you to an interview; and I ventured to mention thename of one I am in search of.'

'Pray,' she returned, motioning him to a chair so coldly that heremained standing, 'what name was it that you gave?'

'I mentioned the name of Blandois.'

'Blandois?'

'A name you are acquainted with.'

'It is strange,' she said, frowning, 'that you should still press anundesired interest in me and my acquaintances, in me and my affairs, MrClennam. I don't know what you mean.'

'Pardon me. You know the name?'

'What can you have to do with the name? What can I have to do with thename? What can you have to do with my knowing or not knowing any name?I know many names and I have forgotten many more. This may be in theone class, or it may be in the other, or I may never have heard it. I amacquainted with no reason for examining myself, or for being examined,about it.'

'If you will allow me,' said Clennam, 'I will tell you my reason forpressing the subject. I admit that I do press it, and I must beg you toforgive me if I do so, very earnestly. The reason is all mine, I do notinsinuate that it is in any way yours.'

'Well, sir,' she returned, repeating a little less haughtily than beforeher former invitation to him to be seated: to which he now deferred, asshe seated herself. 'I am at least glad to know that this is not anotherbondswoman of some friend of yours, who is bereft of free choice, andwhom I have spirited away. I will hear your reason, if you please.'

'First, to identify the person of whom we speak,' said Clennam, 'let meobserve that it is the person you met in London some time back. You willremember meeting him near the river--in the Adelphi!'

'You mix yourself most unaccountably with my business,' she replied,looking full at him with stern displeasure. 'How do you know that?'

'I entreat you not to take it ill. By mere accident.'

'What accident?'

'Solely the accident of coming upon you in the street and seeing themeeting.'

'Do you speak of yourself, or of some one else?'

'Of myself. I saw it.'

'To be sure it was in the open street,' she observed, after a fewmoments of less and less angry reflection. 'Fifty people might have seenit. It would have signified nothing if they had.'

'Nor do I make my having seen it of any moment, nor (otherwise than asan explanation of my coming here) do I connect my visit with it or thefavour that I have to ask.'

'Oh! You have to ask a favour! It occurred to me,' and the handsome facelooked bitterly at him, 'that your manner was softened, Mr Clennam.'

He was content to protest against this by a slight action withoutcontesting it in words. He then referred to Blandois' disappearance, ofwhich it was probable she had heard? However probable it was to him, shehad heard of no such thing. Let him look round him (she said) and judgefor himself what general intelligence was likely to reach the ears ofa woman who had been shut up there while it was rife, devouring her ownheart. When she had uttered this denial, which he believed to be true,she asked him what he meant by disappearance? That led to his narratingthe circumstances in detail, and expressing something of his anxietyto discover what had really become of the man, and to repel the darksuspicions that clouded about his mother's house. She heard him withevident surprise, and with more marks of suppressed interest than hehad seen in her; still they did not overcome her distant, proud, andself-secluded manner. When he had finished, she said nothing but thesewords:

'You have not yet told me, sir, what I have to do with it, or what thefavour is? Will you be so good as come to that?'

'I assume,' said Arthur, persevering, in his endeavour to softenher scornful demeanour, 'that being in communication--may I say,confidential communication?--with this person--'

'You may say, of course, whatever you like,' she remarked; 'but I do notsubscribe to your assumptions, Mr Clennam, or to any one's.'

'--that being, at least in personal communication with him,' saidClennam, changing the form of his position in the hope of makingit unobjectionable, 'you can tell me something of his antecedents,pursuits, habits, usual place of residence. Can give me some little clueby which to seek him out in the likeliest manner, and either producehim, or establish what has become of him. This is the favour I ask,and I ask it in a distress of mind for which I hope you will feel someconsideration. If you should have any reason for imposing conditionsupon me, I will respect it without asking what it is.'

'You chanced to see me in the street with the man,' she observed,after being, to his mortification, evidently more occupied with her ownreflections on the matter than with his appeal. 'Then you knew the manbefore?'

'Not before; afterwards. I never saw him before, but I saw him again onthis very night of his disappearance. In my mother's room, in fact. Ileft him there. You will read in this paper all that is known of him.'

He handed her one of the printed bills, which she read with a steady andattentive face.

'This is more than _I_ knew of him,' she said, giving it back.Clennam's looks expressed his heavy disappointment, perhaps hisincredulity; for she added in the same unsympathetic tone: 'You don'tbelieve it. Still, it is so. As to personal communication: it seems thatthere was personal communication between him and your mother. And yetyou say you believe _her_ declaration that she knows no more of him!'

A sufficiently expressive hint of suspicion was conveyed in these words,and in the smile by which they were accompanied, to bring the blood intoClennam's cheeks.

'Come, sir,' she said, with a cruel pleasure in repeating the stab, 'Iwill be as open with you as you can desire. I will confess that if Icared for my credit (which I do not), or had a good name to preserve(which I have not, for I am utterly indifferent to its being consideredgood or bad), I should regard myself as heavily compromised by havinghad anything to do with this fellow. Yet he never passed in at _my_door--never sat in colloquy with _me_ until midnight.'

She took her revenge for her old grudge in thus turning his subjectagainst him. Hers was not the nature to spare him, and she had nocompunction.

'That he is a low, mercenary wretch; that I first saw him prowling aboutItaly (where I was, not long ago), and that I hired him there, as thesuitable instrument of a purpose I happened to have; I have no objectionto tell you. In short, it was worth my while, for my own pleasure--thegratification of a strong feeling--to pay a spy who would fetch andcarry for money. I paid this creature. And I dare say that if I hadwanted to make such a bargain, and if I could have paid him enough, andif he could have done it in the dark, free from all risk, he would havetaken any life with as little scruple as he took my money. That, atleast, is my opinion of him; and I see it is not very far removed fromyours. Your mother's opinion of him, I am to assume (following yourexample of assuming this and that), was vastly different.'

'My mother, let me remind you,' said Clennam, 'was first brought intocommunication with him in the unlucky course of business.'

'It appears to have been an unlucky course of business that last broughther into communication with him,' returned Miss Wade; 'and businesshours on that occasion were late.'

'You imply,' said Arthur, smarting under these cool-handed thrusts, ofwhich he had deeply felt the force already, 'that there was something--'

'Mr Clennam,' she composedly interrupted, 'recollect that I do not speakby implication about the man. He is, I say again without disguise, a lowmercenary wretch. I suppose such a creature goes where there is occasionfor him. If I had not had occasion for him, you would not have seen himand me together.'

Wrung by her persistence in keeping that dark side of the case beforehim, of which there was a half-hidden shadow in his own breast, Clennamwas silent.

'I have spoken of him as still living,' she added, 'but he may have beenput out of the way for anything I know. For anything I care, also. Ihave no further occasion for him.'

With a heavy sigh and a despondent air, Arthur Clennam slowly rose.She did not rise also, but said, having looked at him in the meanwhilewith a fixed look of suspicion, and lips angrily compressed:

'He was the chosen associate of your dear friend, Mr Gowan, was he not?Why don't you ask your dear friend to help you?'

The denial that he was a dear friend rose to Arthur's lips; but herepressed it, remembering his old struggles and resolutions, and said:

'Further than that he has never seen Blandois since Blandois set out forEngland, Mr Gowan knows nothing additional about him. He was a chanceacquaintance, made abroad.'

'A chance acquaintance made abroad!' she repeated. 'Yes. Your dearfriend has need to divert himself with all the acquaintances he canmake, seeing what a wife he has. I hate his wife, sir.'

The anger with which she said it, the more remarkable for being so muchunder her restraint, fixed Clennam's attention, and kept him on thespot. It flashed out of her dark eyes as they regarded him, quivered inher nostrils, and fired the very breath she exhaled; but her face wasotherwise composed into a disdainful serenity; and her attitude was ascalmly and haughtily graceful as if she had been in a mood of completeindifference.

'All I will say is, Miss Wade,' he remarked, 'that you can have receivedno provocation to a feeling in which I believe you have no sharer.'

'You may ask your dear friend, if you choose,' she returned, 'for hisopinion upon that subject.'

'I am scarcely on those intimate terms with my dear friend,' saidArthur, in spite of his resolutions, 'that would render my approachingthe subject very probable, Miss Wade.'

'I hate him,' she returned. 'Worse than his wife, because I was oncedupe enough, and false enough to myself, almost to love him. You haveseen me, sir, only on common-place occasions, when I dare say you havethought me a common-place woman, a little more self-willed than thegenerality. You don't know what I mean by hating, if you know me nobetter than that; you can't know, without knowing with what care I havestudied myself and people about me. For this reason I have for sometime inclined to tell you what my life has been--not to propitiate youropinion, for I set no value on it; but that you may comprehend, whenyou think of your dear friend and his dear wife, what I mean by hating.Shall I give you something I have written and put by for your perusal,or shall I hold my hand?'

Arthur begged her to give it to him. She went to the bureau, unlockedit, and took from an inner drawer a few folded sheets of paper. Withoutany conciliation of him, scarcely addressing him, rather speaking as ifshe were speaking to her own looking-glass for the justification of herown stubbornness, she said, as she gave them to him:

'Now you may know what I mean by hating! No more of that. Sir, whetheryou find me temporarily and cheaply lodging in an empty London house, orin a Calais apartment, you find Harriet with me. You may like to seeher before you leave. Harriet, come in!' She called Harriet again. Thesecond call produced Harriet, once Tattycoram.

'Here is Mr Clennam,' said Miss Wade; 'not come for you; he has givenyou up,--I suppose you have, by this time?'

'Having no authority, or influence--yes,' assented Clennam.

'Not come in search of you, you see; but still seeking some one. Hewants that Blandois man.'

'With whom I saw you in the Strand in London,' hinted Arthur.

'If you know anything of him, Harriet, except that he came fromVenice--which we all know--tell it to Mr Clennam freely.'

'I know nothing more about him,' said the girl.

'Are you satisfied?' Miss Wade inquired of Arthur.

He had no reason to disbelieve them; the girl's manner being so naturalas to be almost convincing, if he had had any previous doubts. Hereplied, 'I must seek for intelligence elsewhere.'

He was not going in the same breath; but he had risen before the girlentered, and she evidently thought he was. She looked quickly at him,and said:

'Are they well, sir?'

'Who?'

She stopped herself in saying what would have been 'all of them;'glanced at Miss Wade; and said 'Mr and Mrs Meagles.'

'They were, when I last heard of them. They are not at home. By the way,let me ask you. Is it true that you were seen there?'

'Where? Where does any one say I was seen?' returned the girl, sullenlycasting down her eyes.

'Looking in at the garden gate of the cottage.'

'No,' said Miss Wade. 'She has never been near it.'

'You are wrong, then,' said the girl. 'I went down there the last timewe were in London. I went one afternoon when you left me alone. And Idid look in.'

'You poor-spirited girl,' returned Miss Wade with infinite contempt;'does all our companionship, do all our conversations, do all your oldcomplainings, tell for so little as that?'

'There was no harm in looking in at the gate for an instant,' said thegirl. 'I saw by the windows that the family were not there.'

'Why should you go near the place?'

'Because I wanted to see it. Because I felt that I should like to lookat it again.'

As each of the two handsome faces looked at the other, Clennam felt howeach of the two natures must be constantly tearing the other to pieces.

'Oh!' said Miss Wade, coldly subduing and removing her glance; 'if youhad any desire to see the place where you led the life from which Irescued you because you had found out what it was, that is anotherthing. But is that your truth to me? Is that your fidelity to me? Isthat the common cause I make with you? You are not worth the confidenceI have placed in you. You are not worth the favour I have shown you. Youare no higher than a spaniel, and had better go back to the people whodid worse than whip you.'

'If you speak so of them with any one else by to hear, you'll provoke meto take their part,' said the girl.

'Go back to them,' Miss Wade retorted. 'Go back to them.'

'You know very well,' retorted Harriet in her turn, 'that I won't goback to them. You know very well that I have thrown them off, and nevercan, never shall, never will, go back to them. Let them alone, then,Miss Wade.'

'You prefer their plenty to your less fat living here,' she rejoined.'You exalt them, and slight me. What else should I have expected? Iought to have known it.'

'It's not so,' said the girl, flushing high, 'and you don't say what youmean. I know what you mean. You are reproaching me, underhanded, withhaving nobody but you to look to. And because I have nobody but youto look to, you think you are to make me do, or not do, everything youplease, and are to put any affront upon me. You are as bad as they were,every bit. But I will not be quite tamed, and made submissive. I willsay again that I went to look at the house, because I had often thoughtthat I should like to see it once more. I will ask again how they are,because I once liked them and at times thought they were kind to me.'

Hereupon Clennam said that he was sure they would still receive herkindly, if she should ever desire to return.

'Never!' said the girl passionately. 'I shall never do that. Nobodyknows that better than Miss Wade, though she taunts me because she hasmade me her dependent. And I know I am so; and I know she is overjoyedwhen she can bring it to my mind.'

'A good pretence!' said Miss Wade, with no less anger, haughtiness, andbitterness; 'but too threadbare to cover what I plainly see in this. Mypoverty will not bear competition with their money. Better go back atonce, better go back at once, and have done with it!'

Arthur Clennam looked at them, standing a little distance asunder in thedull confined room, each proudly cherishing her own anger; each, witha fixed determination, torturing her own breast, and torturing theother's. He said a word or two of leave-taking; but Miss Wade barelyinclined her head, and Harriet, with the assumed humiliation of anabject dependent and serf (but not without defiance for all that), madeas if she were too low to notice or to be noticed.

He came down the dark winding stairs into the yard with an increasedsense upon him of the gloom of the wall that was dead, and of the shrubsthat were dead, and of the fountain that was dry, and of the statue thatwas gone. Pondering much on what he had seen and heard in that house,as well as on the failure of all his efforts to trace the suspiciouscharacter who was lost, he returned to London and to England by thepacket that had taken him over. On the way he unfolded the sheets ofpaper, and read in them what is reproduced in the next chapter.