Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/6

CHAPTER 5. Family Affairs

As the city clocks struck nine on Monday morning, Mrs Clennam waswheeled by Jeremiah Flintwinch of the cut-down aspect to her tallcabinet. When she had unlocked and opened it, and had settled herselfat its desk, Jeremiah withdrew--as it might be, to hang himself moreeffectually--and her son appeared.

'Are you any better this morning, mother?'

She shook her head, with the same austere air of luxuriousness that shehad shown over-night when speaking of the weather. 'I shall never bebetter any more. It is well for me, Arthur, that I know it and can bearit.'

Sitting with her hands laid separately upon the desk, and the tallcabinet towering before her, she looked as if she were performing on adumb church organ. Her son thought so (it was an old thought with him),while he took his seat beside it.

She opened a drawer or two, looked over some business papers, and putthem back again. Her severe face had no thread of relaxation in it, bywhich any explorer could have been guided to the gloomy labyrinth of herthoughts.

'Shall I speak of our affairs, mother? Are you inclined to enter uponbusiness?'

'Am I inclined, Arthur? Rather, are you? Your father has been dead ayear and more. I have been at your disposal, and waiting your pleasure,ever since.'

'There was much to arrange before I could leave; and when I did leave, Itravelled a little for rest and relief.'

She turned her face towards him, as not having heard or understood hislast words.

'For rest and relief.'

She glanced round the sombre room, and appeared from the motion of herlips to repeat the words to herself, as calling it to witness how littleof either it afforded her.

'Besides, mother, you being sole executrix, and having the direction andmanagement of the estate, there remained little business, or I might saynone, that I could transact, until you had had time to arrange mattersto your satisfaction.'

'The accounts are made out,' she returned. 'I have them here. Thevouchers have all been examined and passed. You can inspect them whenyou like, Arthur; now, if you please.'

'It is quite enough, mother, to know that the business is completed.Shall I proceed then?'

'Why not?' she said, in her frozen way.

'Mother, our House has done less and less for some years past, and ourdealings have been progressively on the decline. We have never shownmuch confidence, or invited much; we have attached no people to us; thetrack we have kept is not the track of the time; and we have beenleft far behind. I need not dwell on this to you, mother. You know itnecessarily.'

'I know what you mean,' she answered, in a qualified tone.

'Even this old house in which we speak,' pursued her son, 'is aninstance of what I say. In my father's earlier time, and in his uncle'stime before him, it was a place of business--really a place of business,and business resort. Now, it is a mere anomaly and incongruity here, outof date and out of purpose. All our consignments have long been made toRovinghams' the commission-merchants; and although, as a check uponthem, and in the stewardship of my father's resources, your judgment andwatchfulness have been actively exerted, still those qualities wouldhave influenced my father's fortunes equally, if you had lived in anyprivate dwelling: would they not?'

'Do you consider,' she returned, without answering his question, 'thata house serves no purpose, Arthur, in sheltering your infirm andafflicted--justly infirm and righteously afflicted--mother?'

'I was speaking only of business purposes.'

'With what object?'

'I am coming to it.'

'I foresee,' she returned, fixing her eyes upon him, 'what it is.But the Lord forbid that I should repine under any visitation. In mysinfulness I merit bitter disappointment, and I accept it.'

'Mother, I grieve to hear you speak like this, though I have had myapprehensions that you would--'

'You knew I would. You knew _me_,' she interrupted.

Her son paused for a moment. He had struck fire out of her, and wassurprised. 'Well!' she said, relapsing into stone. 'Go on. Let me hear.'

'You have anticipated, mother, that I decide for my part, to abandonthe business. I have done with it. I will not take upon myself to adviseyou; you will continue it, I see. If I had any influence with you, Iwould simply use it to soften your judgment of me in causing you thisdisappointment: to represent to you that I have lived the half of a longterm of life, and have never before set my own will against yours. Icannot say that I have been able to conform myself, in heart and spirit,to your rules; I cannot say that I believe my forty years have beenprofitable or pleasant to myself, or any one; but I have habituallysubmitted, and I only ask you to remember it.'

Woe to the suppliant, if such a one there were or ever had been, who hadany concession to look for in the inexorable face at the cabinet. Woe tothe defaulter whose appeal lay to the tribunal where those severe eyespresided. Great need had the rigid woman of her mystical religion,veiled in gloom and darkness, with lightnings of cursing, vengeance, anddestruction, flashing through the sable clouds. Forgive us our debts aswe forgive our debtors, was a prayer too poor in spirit for her. SmiteThou my debtors, Lord, wither them, crush them; do Thou as I would do,and Thou shalt have my worship: this was the impious tower of stone shebuilt up to scale Heaven.

'Have you finished, Arthur, or have you anything more to say to me? Ithink there can be nothing else. You have been short, but full of matter!'

'Mother, I have yet something more to say. It has been upon my mind,night and day, this long time. It is far more difficult to say than whatI have said. That concerned myself; this concerns us all.'

'Us all! Who are us all?'

'Yourself, myself, my dead father.'

She took her hands from the desk; folded them in her lap; and satlooking towards the fire, with the impenetrability of an old Egyptiansculpture.

'You knew my father infinitely better than I ever knew him; and hisreserve with me yielded to you. You were much the stronger, mother, anddirected him. As a child, I knew it as well as I know it now. I knewthat your ascendancy over him was the cause of his going to China totake care of the business there, while you took care of it here (thoughI do not even now know whether these were really terms of separationthat you agreed upon); and that it was your will that I should remainwith you until I was twenty, and then go to him as I did. You will notbe offended by my recalling this, after twenty years?'

'I am waiting to hear why you recall it.'

He lowered his voice, and said, with manifest reluctance, and againsthis will:

'I want to ask you, mother, whether it ever occurred to you tosuspect--'

At the word Suspect, she turned her eyes momentarily upon her son, witha dark frown. She then suffered them to seek the fire, as before; butwith the frown fixed above them, as if the sculptor of old Egypt hadindented it in the hard granite face, to frown for ages.

'--that he had any secret remembrance which caused him trouble ofmind--remorse? Whether you ever observed anything in his conductsuggesting that; or ever spoke to him upon it, or ever heard him hint atsuch a thing?'

'I do not understand what kind of secret remembrance you mean to inferthat your father was a prey to,' she returned, after a silence. 'Youspeak so mysteriously.'

'Is it possible, mother,' her son leaned forward to be the nearer to herwhile he whispered it, and laid his hand nervously upon her desk, 'isit possible, mother, that he had unhappily wronged any one, and made noreparation?'

Looking at him wrathfully, she bent herself back in her chair to keephim further off, but gave him no reply.

'I am deeply sensible, mother, that if this thought has never at anytime flashed upon you, it must seem cruel and unnatural in me, even inthis confidence, to breathe it. But I cannot shake it off. Time andchange (I have tried both before breaking silence) do nothing to wear itout. Remember, I was with my father. Remember, I saw his face when hegave the watch into my keeping, and struggled to express that he sent itas a token you would understand, to you. Remember, I saw him at the lastwith the pencil in his failing hand, trying to write some word for youto read, but to which he could give no shape. The more remote and cruelthis vague suspicion that I have, the stronger the circumstances thatcould give it any semblance of probability to me. For Heaven's sake, letus examine sacredly whether there is any wrong entrusted to us to setright. No one can help towards it, mother, but you.'

Still so recoiling in her chair that her overpoised weight moved it,from time to time, a little on its wheels, and gave her the appearanceof a phantom of fierce aspect gliding away from him, she interposed herleft arm, bent at the elbow with the back of her hand towards her face,between herself and him, and looked at him in a fixed silence.

'In grasping at money and in driving hard bargains--I have begun, and Imust speak of such things now, mother--some one may have been grievouslydeceived, injured, ruined. You were the moving power of all thismachinery before my birth; your stronger spirit has been infused intoall my father's dealings for more than two score years. You can setthese doubts at rest, I think, if you will really help me to discoverthe truth. Will you, mother?'

He stopped in the hope that she would speak. But her grey hair was notmore immovable in its two folds, than were her firm lips.

'If reparation can be made to any one, if restitution can be made to anyone, let us know it and make it. Nay, mother, if within my means, let _me_make it. I have seen so little happiness come of money; it has broughtwithin my knowledge so little peace to this house, or to any onebelonging to it, that it is worth less to me than to another. It can buyme nothing that will not be a reproach and misery to me, if I am hauntedby a suspicion that it darkened my father's last hours with remorse, andthat it is not honestly and justly mine.'

There was a bell-rope hanging on the panelled wall, some two or three yardsfrom the cabinet. By a swift and sudden action of her foot, she drove herwheeled chair rapidly back to it and pulled it violently--still holding herarm up in its shield-like posture, as if he were striking at her, and shewarding off the blow.

A girl came hurrying in, frightened.

'Send Flintwinch here!'

In a moment the girl had withdrawn, and the old man stood within thedoor. 'What! You're hammer and tongs, already, you two?' he said, coollystroking his face. 'I thought you would be. I was pretty sure of it.'

'Flintwinch!' said the mother, 'look at my son. Look at him!'

'Well, I _am_ looking at him,' said Flintwinch.

She stretched out the arm with which she had shielded herself, and asshe went on, pointed at the object of her anger.

'In the very hour of his return almost--before the shoe upon his foot isdry--he asperses his father's memory to his mother! Asks his motherto become, with him, a spy upon his father's transactions through alifetime! Has misgivings that the goods of this world which we havepainfully got together early and late, with wear and tear and toil andself-denial, are so much plunder; and asks to whom they shall be givenup, as reparation and restitution!'

Although she said this raging, she said it in a voice so far from beingbeyond her control that it was even lower than her usual tone. She alsospoke with great distinctness.

'Reparation!' said she. 'Yes, truly! It is easy for him to talk ofreparation, fresh from journeying and junketing in foreign lands, andliving a life of vanity and pleasure. But let him look at me, in prison,and in bonds here. I endure without murmuring, because it is appointedthat I shall so make reparation for my sins. Reparation! Is there nonein this room? Has there been none here this fifteen years?'

Thus was she always balancing her bargains with the Majesty of heaven,posting up the entries to her credit, strictly keeping her set-off, andclaiming her due. She was only remarkable in this, for the forceand emphasis with which she did it. Thousands upon thousands do it,according to their varying manner, every day.

'Flintwinch, give me that book!'

The old man handed it to her from the table. She put two fingers betweenthe leaves, closed the book upon them, and held it up to her son ina threatening way.

'In the days of old, Arthur, treated of in this commentary, there werepious men, beloved of the Lord, who would have cursed their sons forless than this: who would have sent them forth, and sent whole nationsforth, if such had supported them, to be avoided of God and man, andperish, down to the baby at the breast. But I only tell you that if youever renew that theme with me, I will renounce you; I will so dismissyou through that doorway, that you had better have been motherless fromyour cradle. I will never see or know you more. And if, after all, youwere to come into this darkened room to look upon me lying dead, my bodyshould bleed, if I could make it, when you came near me.'

In part relieved by the intensity of this threat, and in part (monstrousas the fact is) by a general impression that it was in some sort areligious proceeding, she handed back the book to the old man, and wassilent.

'Now,' said Jeremiah; 'premising that I'm not going to stand between youtwo, will you let me ask (as I _have_ been called in, and made a third)what is all this about?'

'Take your version of it,' returned Arthur, finding it left to him tospeak, 'from my mother. Let it rest there. What I have said, was said tomy mother only.'

'Oh!' returned the old man. 'From your mother? Take it from your mother?Well! But your mother mentioned that you had been suspecting your father.That's not dutiful, Mr Arthur. Who will you be suspecting next?'

'Enough,' said Mrs Clennam, turning her face so that it was addressedfor the moment to the old man only. 'Let no more be said about this.'

'Yes, but stop a bit, stop a bit,' the old man persisted. 'Let us seehow we stand. Have you told Mr Arthur that he mustn't lay offences athis father's door? That he has no right to do it? That he has no groundto go upon?'

'I tell him so now.'

'Ah! Exactly,' said the old man. 'You tell him so now. You hadn't toldhim so before, and you tell him so now. Ay, ay! That's right! You know Istood between you and his father so long, that it seems as if death hadmade no difference, and I was still standing between you. So I will, andso in fairness I require to have that plainly put forward. Arthur, youplease to hear that you have no right to mistrust your father, and haveno ground to go upon.'

He put his hands to the back of the wheeled chair, and muttering tohimself, slowly wheeled his mistress back to her cabinet. 'Now,' heresumed, standing behind her: 'in case I should go away leaving thingshalf done, and so should be wanted again when you come to the other halfand get into one of your flights, has Arthur told you what he means todo about the business?'

'He has relinquished it.'

'In favour of nobody, I suppose?'

Mrs Clennam glanced at her son, leaning against one of the windows. Heobserved the look and said, 'To my mother, of course. She does what shepleases.'

'And if any pleasure,' she said after a short pause, 'could arise for meout of the disappointment of my expectations that my son, in the primeof his life, would infuse new youth and strength into it, and make itof great profit and power, it would be in advancing an old and faithfulservant. Jeremiah, the captain deserts the ship, but you and I will sinkor float with it.'

Jeremiah, whose eyes glistened as if they saw money, darted a suddenlook at the son, which seemed to say, 'I owe _you_ no thanks for this;_you_ have done nothing towards it!' and then told the mother that hethanked her, and that Affery thanked her, and that he would never deserther, and that Affery would never desert her. Finally, he hauled up hiswatch from its depths, and said, 'Eleven. Time for your oysters!' and withthat change of subject, which involved no change of expression or manner,rang the bell.

But Mrs Clennam, resolved to treat herself with the greater rigour forhaving been supposed to be unacquainted with reparation, refused toeat her oysters when they were brought. They looked tempting; eight innumber, circularly set out on a white plate on a tray covered with awhite napkin, flanked by a slice of buttered French roll, and a littlecompact glass of cool wine and water; but she resisted all persuasions,and sent them down again--placing the act to her credit, no doubt, inher Eternal Day-Book.

This refection of oysters was not presided over by Affery, but by thegirl who had appeared when the bell was rung; the same who had been inthe dimly-lighted room last night. Now that he had an opportunity ofobserving her, Arthur found that her diminutive figure, small features,and slight spare dress, gave her the appearance of being much youngerthan she was. A woman, probably of not less than two-and-twenty, shemight have been passed in the street for little more than half thatage. Not that her face was very youthful, for in truth there was moreconsideration and care in it than naturally belonged to her utmostyears; but she was so little and light, so noiseless and shy, andappeared so conscious of being out of place among the three hard elders,that she had all the manner and much of the appearance of a subduedchild.

In a hard way, and in an uncertain way that fluctuated between patronageand putting down, the sprinkling from a watering-pot and hydraulicpressure, Mrs Clennam showed an interest in this dependent. Even in themoment of her entrance, upon the violent ringing of the bell, when themother shielded herself with that singular action from the son, MrsClennam's eyes had had some individual recognition in them, which seemedreserved for her. As there are degrees of hardness in the hardest metal,and shades of colour in black itself, so, even in the asperity of MrsClennam's demeanour towards all the rest of humanity and towards LittleDorrit, there was a fine gradation.

Little Dorrit let herself out to do needlework. At so much a day--or atso little--from eight to eight, Little Dorrit was to be hired. Punctualto the moment, Little Dorrit appeared; punctual to the moment, LittleDorrit vanished. What became of Little Dorrit between the two eights wasa mystery.

Another of the moral phenomena of Little Dorrit. Besides herconsideration money, her daily contract included meals. She had anextraordinary repugnance to dining in company; would never do so, ifit were possible to escape. Would always plead that she had this bit ofwork to begin first, or that bit of work to finish first; and would, ofa certainty, scheme and plan--not very cunningly, it would seem, for shedeceived no one--to dine alone. Successful in this, happy in carryingoff her plate anywhere, to make a table of her lap, or a box, or theground, or even as was supposed, to stand on tip-toe, dining moderatelyat a mantel-shelf; the great anxiety of Little Dorrit's day was set atrest.

It was not easy to make out Little Dorrit's face; she was so retiring,plied her needle in such removed corners, and started away so scared ifencountered on the stairs. But it seemed to be a pale transparent face,quick in expression, though not beautiful in feature, its soft hazeleyes excepted. A delicately bent head, a tiny form, a quick little pairof busy hands, and a shabby dress--it must needs have been very shabbyto look at all so, being so neat--were Little Dorrit as she sat at work.

For these particulars or generalities concerning Little Dorrit, MrArthur was indebted in the course of the day to his own eyes and to MrsAffery's tongue. If Mrs Affery had had any will or way of her own, itwould probably have been unfavourable to Little Dorrit. But as 'them twoclever ones'--Mrs Affery's perpetual reference, in whom her personalitywas swallowed up--were agreed to accept Little Dorrit as a matter ofcourse, she had nothing for it but to follow suit. Similarly, if thetwo clever ones had agreed to murder Little Dorrit by candlelight, MrsAffery, being required to hold the candle, would no doubt have done it.

In the intervals of roasting the partridge for the invalid chamber, andpreparing a baking-dish of beef and pudding for the dining-room, MrsAffery made the communications above set forth; invariably puttingher head in at the door again after she had taken it out, to enforceresistance to the two clever ones. It appeared to have become a perfectpassion with Mrs Flintwinch, that the only son should be pitted againstthem.

In the course of the day, too, Arthur looked through the whole house.Dull and dark he found it. The gaunt rooms, deserted for years uponyears, seemed to have settled down into a gloomy lethargy from whichnothing could rouse them again. The furniture, at once spare andlumbering, hid in the rooms rather than furnished them, and there wasno colour in all the house; such colour as had ever been there, had longago started away on lost sunbeams--got itself absorbed, perhaps, intoflowers, butterflies, plumage of birds, precious stones, what not. Therewas not one straight floor from the foundation to the roof; the ceilingswere so fantastically clouded by smoke and dust, that old women mighthave told fortunes in them better than in grouts of tea; the dead-coldhearths showed no traces of having ever been warmed but in heaps of sootthat had tumbled down the chimneys, and eddied about in littledusky whirlwinds when the doors were opened. In what had once beena drawing-room, there were a pair of meagre mirrors, with dismalprocessions of black figures carrying black garlands, walking roundthe frames; but even these were short of heads and legs, and oneundertaker-like Cupid had swung round on its own axis and got upsidedown, and another had fallen off altogether. The room Arthur Clennam'sdeceased father had occupied for business purposes, when he firstremembered him, was so unaltered that he might have been imagined stillto keep it invisibly, as his visible relict kept her room up-stairs;Jeremiah Flintwinch still going between them negotiating. His picture,dark and gloomy, earnestly speechless on the wall, with the eyesintently looking at his son as they had looked when life departed fromthem, seemed to urge him awfully to the task he had attempted; but asto any yielding on the part of his mother, he had now no hope, and as toany other means of setting his distrust at rest, he had abandoned hope along time. Down in the cellars, as up in the bed-chambers, old objectsthat he well remembered were changed by age and decay, but were still intheir old places; even to empty beer-casks hoary with cobwebs, and emptywine-bottles with fur and fungus choking up their throats. There, too,among unusual bottle-racks and pale slants of light from the yard above,was the strong room stored with old ledgers, which had as musty andcorrupt a smell as if they were regularly balanced, in the dead smallhours, by a nightly resurrection of old book-keepers.

The baking-dish was served up in a penitential manner on a shrunkencloth at an end of the dining-table, at two o'clock, when he dined withMr Flintwinch, the new partner. Mr Flintwinch informed him that hismother had recovered her equanimity now, and that he need not fear heragain alluding to what had passed in the morning. 'And don't you layoffences at your father's door, Mr Arthur,' added Jeremiah, 'once forall, don't do it! Now, we have done with the subject.'

Mr Flintwinch had been already rearranging and dusting his ownparticular little office, as if to do honour to his accession to newdignity. He resumed this occupation when he was replete with beef, hadsucked up all the gravy in the baking-dish with the flat of his knife,and had drawn liberally on a barrel of small beer in the scullery. Thusrefreshed, he tucked up his shirt-sleeves and went to work again; and MrArthur, watching him as he set about it, plainly saw that his father'spicture, or his father's grave, would be as communicative with him asthis old man.

'Now, Affery, woman,' said Mr Flintwinch, as she crossed the hall. 'Youhadn't made Mr Arthur's bed when I was up there last. Stir yourself.Bustle.'

But Mr Arthur found the house so blank and dreary, and was so unwillingto assist at another implacable consignment of his mother's enemies(perhaps himself among them) to mortal disfigurement and immortal ruin,that he announced his intention of lodging at the coffee-house where hehad left his luggage. Mr Flintwinch taking kindly to the idea of gettingrid of him, and his mother being indifferent, beyond considerations ofsaving, to most domestic arrangements that were not bounded by the wallsof her own chamber, he easily carried this point without new offence.Daily business hours were agreed upon, which his mother, Mr Flintwinch,and he, were to devote together to a necessary checking of books andpapers; and he left the home he had so lately found, with depressedheart.

But Little Dorrit?

The business hours, allowing for intervals of invalid regimen of oystersand partridges, during which Clennam refreshed himself with a walk,were from ten to six for about a fortnight. Sometimes Little Dorrit wasemployed at her needle, sometimes not, sometimes appeared as a humblevisitor: which must have been her character on the occasion of hisarrival. His original curiosity augmented every day, as he watched forher, saw or did not see her, and speculated about her. Influenced by hispredominant idea, he even fell into a habit of discussing with himselfthe possibility of her being in some way associated with it. At last heresolved to watch Little Dorrit and know more of her story.