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Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/61

CHAPTER 23. Mistress Affery makes a Conditional Promise,respecting her Dreams

Left alone, with the expressive looks and gestures of Mr Baptist,otherwise Giovanni Baptista Cavalletto, vividly before him, Clennamentered on a weary day. It was in vain that he tried to control hisattention by directing it to any business occupation or train ofthought; it rode at anchor by the haunting topic, and would hold to noother idea. As though a criminal should be chained in a stationary boaton a deep clear river, condemned, whatever countless leagues of waterflowed past him, always to see the body of the fellow-creature he haddrowned lying at the bottom, immovable, and unchangeable, except asthe eddies made it broad or long, now expanding, now contractingits terrible lineaments; so Arthur, below the shifting current oftransparent thoughts and fancies which were gone and succeeded by othersas soon as come, saw, steady and dark, and not to be stirred from itsplace, the one subject that he endeavoured with all his might to ridhimself of, and that he could not fly from.

The assurance he now had, that Blandois, whatever his right name, wasone of the worst of characters, greatly augmented the burden of hisanxieties. Though the disappearance should be accounted for to-morrow,the fact that his mother had been in communication with such a man,would remain unalterable. That the communication had been of a secretkind, and that she had been submissive to him and afraid of him, hehoped might be known to no one beyond himself; yet, knowing it, howcould he separate it from his old vague fears, and how believe thatthere was nothing evil in such relations?

Her resolution not to enter on the question with him, and his knowledgeof her indomitable character, enhanced his sense of helplessness. It waslike the oppression of a dream to believe that shame and exposure wereimpending over her and his father's memory, and to be shut out, as by abrazen wall, from the possibility of coming to their aid. The purpose hehad brought home to his native country, and had ever since kept in view,was, with her greatest determination, defeated by his mother herself, atthe time of all others when he feared that it pressed most. His advice,energy, activity, money, credit, all his resources whatsoever, were allmade useless. If she had been possessed of the old fabled influence, andhad turned those who looked upon her into stone, she could not haverendered him more completely powerless (so it seemed to him in hisdistress of mind) than she did, when she turned her unyielding face tohis in her gloomy room.

But the light of that day's discovery, shining on these considerations,roused him to take a more decided course of action. Confident in therectitude of his purpose, and impelled by a sense of overhanging dangerclosing in around, he resolved, if his mother would still admit of noapproach, to make a desperate appeal to Affery. If she could be broughtto become communicative, and to do what lay in her to break the spell ofsecrecy that enshrouded the house, he might shake off the paralysis ofwhich every hour that passed over his head made him more acutelysensible. This was the result of his day's anxiety, and this was thedecision he put in practice when the day closed in.

His first disappointment, on arriving at the house, was to find the dooropen, and Mr Flintwinch smoking a pipe on the steps. If circumstanceshad been commonly favourable, Mistress Affery would have opened thedoor to his knock. Circumstances being uncommonly unfavourable, the doorstood open, and Mr Flintwinch was smoking his pipe on the steps.

'Good evening,' said Arthur.

'Good evening,' said Mr Flintwinch.

The smoke came crookedly out of Mr Flintwinch's mouth, as if itcirculated through the whole of his wry figure and came back by his wrythroat, before coming forth to mingle with the smoke from the crookedchimneys and the mists from the crooked river.

'Have you any news?' said Arthur.

'We have no news,' said Jeremiah.

'I mean of the foreign man,' Arthur explained.

'_I_ mean of the foreign man,' said Jeremiah.

He looked so grim, as he stood askew, with the knot of his cravat underhis ear, that the thought passed into Clennam's mind, and not for thefirst time by many, could Flintwinch for a purpose of his own have gotrid of Blandois? Could it have been his secret, and his safety, thatwere at issue? He was small and bent, and perhaps not actively strong;yet he was as tough as an old yew-tree, and as crusty as an old jackdaw.Such a man, coming behind a much younger and more vigorous man, andhaving the will to put an end to him and no relenting, might do itpretty surely in that solitary place at a late hour.

While, in the morbid condition of his thoughts, these thoughts driftedover the main one that was always in Clennam's mind, Mr Flintwinch,regarding the opposite house over the gateway with his neck twisted andone eye shut up, stood smoking with a vicious expression upon him; moreas if he were trying to bite off the stem of his pipe, than as if hewere enjoying it. Yet he was enjoying it in his own way.

'You'll be able to take my likeness, the next time you call, Arthur,I should think,' said Mr Flintwinch, drily, as he stooped to knock theashes out.

Rather conscious and confused, Arthur asked his pardon, if he had staredat him unpolitely. 'But my mind runs so much upon this matter,' he said,'that I lose myself.'

'Hah! Yet I don't see,' returned Mr Flintwinch, quite at his leisure,'why it should trouble _you_, Arthur.'

'No?'

'No,' said Mr Flintwinch, very shortly and decidedly: much as if he wereof the canine race, and snapped at Arthur's hand.

'Is it nothing to see those placards about? Is it nothing to me tosee my mother's name and residence hawked up and down in such anassociation?'

'I don't see,' returned Mr Flintwinch, scraping his horny cheek, 'thatit need signify much to you. But I'll tell you what I do see, Arthur,'glancing up at the windows; 'I see the light of fire and candle in yourmother's room!'

'And what has that to do with it?'

'Why, sir, I read by it,' said Mr Flintwinch, screwing himself at him,'that if it's advisable (as the proverb says it is) to let sleeping dogslie, it's just as advisable, perhaps, to let missing dogs lie. Let 'embe. They generally turn up soon enough.'

Mr Flintwinch turned short round when he had made this remark, and wentinto the dark hall. Clennam stood there, following him with his eyes,as he dipped for a light in the phosphorus-box in the little room at theside, got one after three or four dips, and lighted the dim lamp againstthe wall. All the while, Clennam was pursuing the probabilities--ratheras if they were being shown to him by an invisible hand than as if hehimself were conjuring them up--of Mr Flintwinch's ways and means ofdoing that darker deed, and removing its traces by any of the blackavenues of shadow that lay around them.

'Now, sir,' said the testy Jeremiah; 'will it be agreeable to walkup-stairs?'

'My mother is alone, I suppose?'

'Not alone,' said Mr Flintwinch. 'Mr Casby and his daughter are withher. They came in while I was smoking, and I stayed behind to have mysmoke out.'

This was the second disappointment. Arthur made no remark upon it, andrepaired to his mother's room, where Mr Casby and Flora had beentaking tea, anchovy paste, and hot buttered toast. The relics of thosedelicacies were not yet removed, either from the table or from thescorched countenance of Affery, who, with the kitchen toasting-forkstill in her hand, looked like a sort of allegorical personage; exceptthat she had a considerable advantage over the general run of suchpersonages in point of significant emblematical purpose.

Flora had spread her bonnet and shawl upon the bed, with a careindicative of an intention to stay some time. Mr Casby, too, was beamingnear the hob, with his benevolent knobs shining as if the warm butter ofthe toast were exuding through the patriarchal skull, and with his faceas ruddy as if the colouring matter of the anchovy paste were mantlingin the patriarchal visage. Seeing this, as he exchanged theusual salutations, Clennam decided to speak to his mother withoutpostponement.

It had long been customary, as she never changed her room, for those whohad anything to say to her apart, to wheel her to her desk; where shesat, usually with the back of her chair turned towards the rest of theroom, and the person who talked with her seated in a corner, on a stoolwhich was always set in that place for that purpose. Except that itwas long since the mother and son had spoken together without theintervention of a third person, it was an ordinary matter of coursewithin the experience of visitors for Mrs Clennam to be asked, with aword of apology for the interruption, if she could be spoken with ona matter of business, and, on her replying in the affirmative, to bewheeled into the position described.

Therefore, when Arthur now made such an apology, and such a request,and moved her to her desk and seated himself on the stool, Mrs Finchingmerely began to talk louder and faster, as a delicate hint that shecould overhear nothing, and Mr Casby stroked his long white locks withsleepy calmness.

'Mother, I have heard something to-day which I feel persuaded you don'tknow, and which I think you should know, of the antecedents of that manI saw here.'

'I know nothing of the antecedents of the man you saw here, Arthur.'

She spoke aloud. He had lowered his own voice; but she rejected thatadvance towards confidence as she rejected every other, and spoke in herusual key and in her usual stern voice.

'I have received it on no circuitous information; it has come to medirect.'

She asked him, exactly as before, if he were there to tell her what itwas?

'I thought it right that you should know it.'

'And what is it?'

'He has been a prisoner in a French gaol.'

She answered with composure, 'I should think that very likely.'

'But in a gaol for criminals, mother. On an accusation of murder.'

She started at the word, and her looks expressed her natural horror. Yetshe still spoke aloud, when she demanded:--

'Who told you so?'

'A man who was his fellow-prisoner.'

'That man's antecedents, I suppose, were not known to you, before hetold you?'

'No.'

'Though the man himself was?'

'Yes.'

'My case and Flintwinch's, in respect of this other man! I dare say theresemblance is not so exact, though, as that your informant became knownto you through a letter from a correspondent with whom he had depositedmoney? How does that part of the parallel stand?'

Arthur had no choice but to say that his informant had not become knownto him through the agency of any such credentials, or indeed of anycredentials at all. Mrs Clennam's attentive frown expanded by degreesinto a severe look of triumph, and she retorted with emphasis, 'Takecare how you judge others, then. I say to you, Arthur, for your good,take care how you judge!'

Her emphasis had been derived from her eyes quite as much as from thestress she laid upon her words. She continued to look at him; and if,when he entered the house, he had had any latent hope of prevailing inthe least with her, she now looked it out of his heart.

'Mother, shall I do nothing to assist you?'

'Nothing.'

'Will you entrust me with no confidence, no charge, no explanation?Will you take no counsel with me? Will you not let me come near you?'

'How can you ask me? You separated yourself from my affairs. It was notmy act; it was yours. How can you consistently ask me such a question?You know that you left me to Flintwinch, and that he occupies yourplace.'

Glancing at Jeremiah, Clennam saw in his very gaiters that his attentionwas closely directed to them, though he stood leaning against the wallscraping his jaw, and pretended to listen to Flora as she held forth ina most distracting manner on a chaos of subjects, in which mackerel, andMr F.'s Aunt in a swing, had become entangled with cockchafers and thewine trade.

'A prisoner, in a French gaol, on an accusation of murder,' repeatedMrs Clennam, steadily going over what her son had said. 'That is all youknow of him from the fellow-prisoner?'

'In substance, all.'

'And was the fellow-prisoner his accomplice and a murderer, too? But, ofcourse, he gives a better account of himself than of his friend; it isneedless to ask. This will supply the rest of them here with somethingnew to talk about. Casby, Arthur tells me--'

'Stay, mother! Stay, stay!' He interrupted her hastily, for it had notentered his imagination that she would openly proclaim what he had toldher.

'What now?' she said with displeasure. 'What more?'

'I beg you to excuse me, Mr Casby--and you, too, Mrs Finching--for oneother moment with my mother--'

He had laid his hand upon her chair, or she would otherwise have wheeledit round with the touch of her foot upon the ground. They were stillface to face. She looked at him, as he ran over the possibilities ofsome result he had not intended, and could not foresee, being influencedby Cavalletto's disclosure becoming a matter of notoriety, and hurriedlyarrived at the conclusion that it had best not be talked about; thoughperhaps he was guided by no more distinct reason than that he had takenit for granted that his mother would reserve it to herself and herpartner.

'What now?' she said again, impatiently. 'What is it?'

'I did not mean, mother, that you should repeat what I havecommunicated. I think you had better not repeat it.'

'Do you make that a condition with me?'

'Well! Yes.'

'Observe, then! It is you who make this a secret,' said she, holdingup her hand, 'and not I. It is you, Arthur, who bring here doubts andsuspicions and entreaties for explanations, and it is you, Arthur, whobring secrets here. What is it to me, do you think, where the man hasbeen, or what he has been? What can it be to me? The whole world mayknow it, if they care to know it; it is nothing to me. Now, let me go.'

He yielded to her imperious but elated look, and turned her chair backto the place from which he had wheeled it. In doing so he saw elationin the face of Mr Flintwinch, which most assuredly was not inspired byFlora. This turning of his intelligence and of his whole attempt anddesign against himself, did even more than his mother's fixedness andfirmness to convince him that his efforts with her were idle. Nothingremained but the appeal to his old friend Affery.

But even to get the very doubtful and preliminary stage of making theappeal, seemed one of the least promising of human undertakings. Shewas so completely under the thrall of the two clever ones, was sosystematically kept in sight by one or other of them, and was so afraidto go about the house besides, that every opportunity of speaking to heralone appeared to be forestalled. Over and above that, Mistress Affery,by some means (it was not very difficult to guess, through the sharparguments of her liege lord), had acquired such a lively convictionof the hazard of saying anything under any circumstances, that she hadremained all this time in a corner guarding herself from approach withthat symbolical instrument of hers; so that, when a word or two hadbeen addressed to her by Flora, or even by the bottle-green patriarchhimself, she had warded off conversation with the toasting-fork like adumb woman.

After several abortive attempts to get Affery to look at him whileshe cleared the table and washed the tea-service, Arthur thought of anexpedient which Flora might originate. To whom he therefore whispered,'Could you say you would like to go through the house?'

Now, poor Flora, being always in fluctuating expectation of the timewhen Clennam would renew his boyhood and be madly in love with heragain, received the whisper with the utmost delight; not only asrendered precious by its mysterious character, but as preparing theway for a tender interview in which he would declare the state of hisaffections. She immediately began to work out the hint.

'Ah dear me the poor old room,' said Flora, glancing round, 'looks justas ever Mrs Clennam I am touched to see except for being smokier whichwas to be expected with time and which we must all expect and reconcileourselves to being whether we like it or not as I am sure I have had todo myself if not exactly smokier dreadfully stouter which is the same orworse, to think of the days when papa used to bring me here the least ofgirls a perfect mass of chilblains to be stuck upon a chair with my feeton the rails and stare at Arthur--pray excuse me--Mr Clennam--theleast of boys in the frightfullest of frills and jackets ere yet MrF. appeared a misty shadow on the horizon paying attentions like thewell-known spectre of some place in Germany beginning with a B is amoral lesson inculcating that all the paths in life are similar to thepaths down in the North of England where they get the coals and make theiron and things gravelled with ashes!'

Having paid the tribute of a sigh to the instability of human existence,Flora hurried on with her purpose.

'Not that at any time,' she proceeded, 'its worst enemy could have saidit was a cheerful house for that it was never made to be but alwayshighly impressive, fond memory recalls an occasion in youth ere yet thejudgment was mature when Arthur--confirmed habit--Mr Clennam--tookme down into an unused kitchen eminent for mouldiness and proposed tosecrete me there for life and feed me on what he could hide from hismeals when he was not at home for the holidays and on dry bread indisgrace which at that halcyon period too frequently occurred, wouldit be inconvenient or asking too much to beg to be permitted to revivethose scenes and walk through the house?'

Mrs Clennam, who responded with a constrained grace to Mrs Finching'sgood nature in being there at all, though her visit (before Arthur'sunexpected arrival) was undoubtedly an act of pure good nature and noself-gratification, intimated that all the house was open to her. Florarose and looked to Arthur for his escort. 'Certainly,' said he, aloud;'and Affery will light us, I dare say.'

Affery was excusing herself with 'Don't ask nothing of me, Arthur!' whenMr Flintwinch stopped her with 'Why not? Affery, what's the matter withyou, woman? Why not, jade!' Thus expostulated with, she came unwillinglyout of her corner, resigned the toasting-fork into one of her husband'shands, and took the candlestick he offered from the other.

'Go before, you fool!' said Jeremiah. 'Are you going up, or down, MrsFinching?'

Flora answered, 'Down.'

'Then go before, and down, you Affery,' said Jeremiah. 'And do itproperly, or I'll come rolling down the banisters, and tumbling overyou!'

Affery headed the exploring party; Jeremiah closed it. He had nointention of leaving them. Clennam looking back, and seeing himfollowing three stairs behind, in the coolest and most methodicalmanner exclaimed in a low voice, 'Is there no getting rid of him!' Florareassured his mind by replying promptly, 'Why though not exactlyproper Arthur and a thing I couldn't think of before a younger man ora stranger still I don't mind him if you so particularly wish it andprovided you'll have the goodness not to take me too tight.'

Wanting the heart to explain that this was not at all what he meant,Arthur extended his supporting arm round Flora's figure. 'Oh my goodnessme,' said she. 'You are very obedient indeed really and it's extremelyhonourable and gentlemanly in you I am sure but still at the same timeif you would like to be a little tighter than that I shouldn't considerit intruding.'

In this preposterous attitude, unspeakably at variance with his anxiousmind, Clennam descended to the basement of the house; finding thatwherever it became darker than elsewhere, Flora became heavier, andthat when the house was lightest she was too. Returning from the dismalkitchen regions, which were as dreary as they could be, Mistress Afferypassed with the light into his father's old room, and then into the olddining-room; always passing on before like a phantom that was not to beovertaken, and neither turning nor answering when he whispered, 'Affery!I want to speak to you!'

In the dining-room, a sentimental desire came over Flora to look intothe dragon closet which had so often swallowed Arthur in the days of hisboyhood--not improbably because, as a very dark closet, it was a likelyplace to be heavy in. Arthur, fast subsiding into despair, had openedit, when a knock was heard at the outer door.

Mistress Affery, with a suppressed cry, threw her apron over her head.

'What? You want another dose!' said Mr Flintwinch. 'You shall have it,my woman, you shall have a good one! Oh! You shall have a sneezer, youshall have a teaser!'

'In the meantime is anybody going to the door?' said Arthur.

'In the meantime, _I_ am going to the door, sir,' returned the old man sosavagely, as to render it clear that in a choice of difficulties he felthe must go, though he would have preferred not to go. 'Stay here thewhile, all! Affery, my woman, move an inch, or speak a word in yourfoolishness, and I'll treble your dose!'

The moment he was gone, Arthur released Mrs Finching: with somedifficulty, by reason of that lady misunderstanding his intentions, andmaking arrangements with a view to tightening instead of slackening.

'Affery, speak to me now!'

'Don't touch me, Arthur!' she cried, shrinking from him. 'Don't comenear me. He'll see you. Jeremiah will. Don't.'

'He can't see me,' returned Arthur, suiting the action to the word, 'ifI blow the candle out.'

'He'll hear you,' cried Affery.

'He can't hear me,' returned Arthur, suiting the action to the wordsagain, 'if I draw you into this black closet, and speak here. Why doyou hide your face?'

'Because I am afraid of seeing something.'

'You can't be afraid of seeing anything in this darkness, Affery.'

'Yes I am. Much more than if it was light.'

'Why are you afraid?'

'Because the house is full of mysteries and secrets; because it's fullof whisperings and counsellings; because it's full of noises. Therenever was such a house for noises. I shall die of 'em, if Jeremiah don'tstrangle me first. As I expect he will.'

'I have never heard any noises here, worth speaking of.'

'Ah! But you would, though, if you lived in the house, and was obligedto go about it as I am,' said Affery; 'and you'd feel that they was sowell worth speaking of, that you'd feel you was nigh bursting throughnot being allowed to speak of 'em. Here's Jeremiah! You'll get mekilled.'

'My good Affery, I solemnly declare to you that I can see the light ofthe open door on the pavement of the hall, and so could you if you woulduncover your face and look.'

'I durstn't do it,' said Affery, 'I durstn't never, Arthur. I'm alwaysblind-folded when Jeremiah an't a looking, and sometimes even when heis.'

'He cannot shut the door without my seeing him,' said Arthur. 'You areas safe with me as if he was fifty miles away.'

('I wish he was!' cried Affery.)

'Affery, I want to know what is amiss here; I want some light thrownon the secrets of this house.'

'I tell you, Arthur,' she interrupted, 'noises is the secrets, rustlingsand stealings about, tremblings, treads overhead and treads underneath.'

'But those are not all the secrets.'

'I don't know,' said Affery. 'Don't ask me no more. Your old sweetheartan't far off, and she's a blabber.'

His old sweetheart, being in fact so near at hand that she was thenreclining against him in a flutter, a very substantial angle offorty-five degrees, here interposed to assure Mistress Affery withgreater earnestness than directness of asseveration, that what she heardshould go no further, but should be kept inviolate, 'if on no otheraccount on Arthur's--sensible of intruding in being too familiar Doyceand Clennam's.'

'I make an imploring appeal to you, Affery, to you, one of the fewagreeable early remembrances I have, for my mother's sake, for yourhusband's sake, for my own, for all our sakes. I am sure you can tell mesomething connected with the coming here of this man, if you will.'

'Why, then I'll tell you, Arthur,' returned Affery--'Jeremiah's coming!'

'No, indeed he is not. The door is open, and he is standing outside,talking.'

'I'll tell you then,' said Affery, after listening, 'that the first timehe ever come he heard the noises his own self. ”What's that?” he said tome. ”I don't know what it is,” I says to him, catching hold of him,”but I have heard it over and over again.” While I says it, he stands alooking at me, all of a shake, he do.'

'Has he been here often?'

'Only that night, and the last night.'

'What did you see of him on the last night, after I was gone?'

'Them two clever ones had him all alone to themselves. Jeremiah comea dancing at me sideways, after I had let you out (he always comes adancing at me sideways when he's going to hurt me), and he said to me,”Now, Affery,” he said, ”I am a coming behind you, my woman, and a goingto run you up.” So he took and squeezed the back of my neck in his hand,till it made me open my mouth, and then he pushed me before him to bed,squeezing all the way. That's what he calls running me up, he do. Oh,he's a wicked one!'

'And did you hear or see no more, Affery?'

'Don't I tell you I was sent to bed, Arthur! Here he is!'

'I assure you he is still at the door. Those whisperings andcounsellings, Affery, that you have spoken of. What are they?'

'How should I know? Don't ask me nothing about 'em, Arthur. Get away!'

'But my dear Affery; unless I can gain some insight into these hiddenthings, in spite of your husband and in spite of my mother, ruin willcome of it.'

'Don't ask me nothing,' repeated Affery. 'I have been in a dream forever so long. Go away, go away!'

'You said that before,' returned Arthur. 'You used the same expressionthat night, at the door, when I asked you what was going on here. Whatdo you mean by being in a dream?'

'I an't a going to tell you. Get away! I shouldn't tell you, if you wasby yourself; much less with your old sweetheart here.'

It was equally vain for Arthur to entreat, and for Flora to protest.Affery, who had been trembling and struggling the whole time, turned adeaf ear to all adjuration, and was bent on forcing herself out of thecloset.

'I'd sooner scream to Jeremiah than say another word! I'll call out tohim, Arthur, if you don't give over speaking to me. Now here's the verylast word I'll say afore I call to him--If ever you begin to get thebetter of them two clever ones your own self (you ought to it, as I toldyou when you first come home, for you haven't been a living here longyears, to be made afeared of your life as I have), then do you get thebetter of 'em afore my face; and then do you say to me, Affery tell yourdreams! Maybe, then I'll tell 'em!'

The shutting of the door stopped Arthur from replying. They glided intothe places where Jeremiah had left them; and Clennam, stepping forwardas that old gentleman returned, informed him that he had accidentallyextinguished the candle. Mr Flintwinch looked on as he re-lighted it atthe lamp in the hall, and preserved a profound taciturnity respectingthe person who had been holding him in conversation. Perhaps hisirascibility demanded compensation for some tediousness that the visitorhad expended on him; however that was, he took such umbrage at seeinghis wife with her apron over her head, that he charged at her, andtaking her veiled nose between his thumb and finger, appeared to throwthe whole screw-power of his person into the wring he gave it.

Flora, now permanently heavy, did not release Arthur from the survey ofthe house, until it had extended even to his old garret bedchamber. Histhoughts were otherwise occupied than with the tour of inspection; yethe took particular notice at the time, as he afterwards had occasion toremember, of the airlessness and closeness of the house; that they leftthe track of their footsteps in the dust on the upper floors; and thatthere was a resistance to the opening of one room door, which occasionedAffery to cry out that somebody was hiding inside, and to continue tobelieve so, though somebody was sought and not discovered. When they atlast returned to his mother's room, they found her shading her facewith her muffled hand, and talking in a low voice to the Patriarch as hestood before the fire, whose blue eyes, polished head, and silken locks,turning towards them as they came in, imparted an inestimable value andinexhaustible love of his species to his remark:

'So you have been seeing the premises, seeing the premises--premises--seeing the premises!'

It was not in itself a jewel of benevolence or wisdom, yet he made it anexemplar of both that one would have liked to have a copy of.