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Actions & Adventure
History & Fiction
Thrillers & Crime
Romance & Love
Mystery & Detective
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CHAPTER 30. Closing in
The last day of the appointed week touched the bars of the Marshalseagate. Black, all night, since the gate had clashed upon Little Dorrit,its iron stripes were turned by the early-glowing sun into stripes ofgold. Far aslant across the city, over its jumbled roofs, and throughthe open tracery of its church towers, struck the long bright rays, barsof the prison of this lower world.
Throughout the day the old house within the gateway remained untroubledby any visitors. But, when the sun was low, three men turned in at thegateway and made for the dilapidated house.
Rigaud was the first, and walked by himself smoking. Mr Baptist wasthe second, and jogged close after him, looking at no other object.Mr Pancks was the third, and carried his hat under his arm for theliberation of his restive hair; the weather being extremely hot. Theyall came together at the door-steps.
'You pair of madmen!' said Rigaud, facing about. 'Don't go yet!'
'We don't mean to,' said Mr Pancks.
Giving him a dark glance in acknowledgment of his answer, Rigaud knockedloudly. He had charged himself with drink, for the playing out of hisgame, and was impatient to begin. He had hardly finished one longresounding knock, when he turned to the knocker again and began another.That was not yet finished when Jeremiah Flintwinch opened the door, andthey all clanked into the stone hall. Rigaud, thrusting Mr Flintwinchaside, proceeded straight up-stairs. His two attendants followed him, MrFlintwinch followed them, and they all came trooping into Mrs Clennam'squiet room. It was in its usual state; except that one of the windowswas wide open, and Affery sat on its old-fashioned window-seat, mendinga stocking. The usual articles were on the little table; the usualdeadened fire was in the grate; the bed had its usual pall upon it; andthe mistress of all sat on her black bier-like sofa, propped up by herblack angular bolster that was like the headsman's block.
Yet there was a nameless air of preparation in the room, as if it werestrung up for an occasion. From what the room derived it--every one ofits small variety of objects being in the fixed spot it had occupiedfor years--no one could have said without looking attentively at itsmistress, and that, too, with a previous knowledge of her face. Althoughher unchanging black dress was in every plait precisely as of old, andher unchanging attitude was rigidly preserved, a very slight additionalsetting of her features and contraction of her gloomy forehead was sopowerfully marked, that it marked everything about her.
'Who are these?' she said, wonderingly, as the two attendants entered.'What do these people want here?'
'Who are these, dear madame, is it?' returned Rigaud. 'Faith, they arefriends of your son the prisoner. And what do they want here, is it?Death, madame, I don't know. You will do well to ask them.'
'You know you told us at the door, not to go yet,' said Pancks.
'And you know you told me at the door, you didn't mean to go,' retortedRigaud. 'In a word, madame, permit me to present two spies of theprisoner's--madmen, but spies. If you wish them to remain here duringour little conversation, say the word. It is nothing to me.'
'Why should I wish them to remain here?' said Mrs Clennam. 'What have Ito do with them?'
'Then, dearest madame,' said Rigaud, throwing himself into an arm-chairso heavily that the old room trembled, 'you will do well to dismissthem. It is your affair. They are not my spies, not my rascals.'
'Hark! You Pancks,' said Mrs Clennam, bending her brows upon himangrily, 'you Casby's clerk! Attend to your employer's business and yourown. Go. And take that other man with you.'
'Thank you, ma'am,' returned Mr Pancks, 'I am glad to say I see noobjection to our both retiring. We have done all we undertook to do forMr Clennam. His constant anxiety has been (and it grew worse upon himwhen he became a prisoner), that this agreeable gentleman should bebrought back here to the place from which he slipped away. Here heis--brought back. And I will say,' added Mr Pancks, 'to his ill-lookingface, that in my opinion the world would be no worse for his slippingout of it altogether.'
'Your opinion is not asked,' answered Mrs Clennam. 'Go.'
'I am sorry not to leave you in better company, ma'am,' said Pancks;'and sorry, too, that Mr Clennam can't be present. It's my fault, thatis.'
'You mean his own,' she returned.
'No, I mean mine, ma'am,' said Pancks, 'for it was my misfortune to leadhim into a ruinous investment.' (Mr Pancks still clung to that word,and never said speculation.) 'Though I can prove by figures,' added MrPancks, with an anxious countenance, 'that it ought to have been a goodinvestment. I have gone over it since it failed, every day of my life,and it comes out--regarded as a question of figures--triumphant. Thepresent is not a time or place,' Mr Pancks pursued, with a longingglance into his hat, where he kept his calculations, 'for entering uponthe figures; but the figures are not to be disputed. Mr Clennam ought tohave been at this moment in his carriage and pair, and I ought to havebeen worth from three to five thousand pound.'
Mr Pancks put his hair erect with a general aspect of confidence thatcould hardly have been surpassed, if he had had the amount in hispocket. These incontrovertible figures had been the occupation of everymoment of his leisure since he had lost his money, and were destined toafford him consolation to the end of his days.
'However,' said Mr Pancks, 'enough of that. Altro, old boy, you haveseen the figures, and you know how they come out.' Mr Baptist, who hadnot the slightest arithmetical power of compensating himself in thisway, nodded, with a fine display of bright teeth.
At whom Mr Flintwinch had been looking, and to whom he then said:
'Oh! it's you, is it? I thought I remembered your face, but I wasn'tcertain till I saw your teeth. Ah! yes, to be sure. It was thisofficious refugee,' said Jeremiah to Mrs Clennam, 'who came knockingat the door on the night when Arthur and Chatterbox were here, and whoasked me a whole Catechism of questions about Mr Blandois.'
'It is true,' Mr Baptist cheerfully admitted. 'And behold him, padrone!I have found him consequentementally.'
'I shouldn't have objected,' returned Mr Flintwinch, 'to your havingbroken your neck consequentementally.'
'And now,' said Mr Pancks, whose eye had often stealthily wandered tothe window-seat and the stocking that was being mended there, 'I'veonly one other word to say before I go. If Mr Clennam was here--butunfortunately, though he has so far got the better of this finegentleman as to return him to this place against his will, he is illand in prison--ill and in prison, poor fellow--if he was here,' said MrPancks, taking one step aside towards the window-seat, and layinghis right hand upon the stocking; 'he would say, Affery, tell yourdreams!'
Mr Pancks held up his right forefinger between his nose and the stockingwith a ghostly air of warning, turned, steamed out and towed Mr Baptistafter him. The house-door was heard to close upon them, their stepswere heard passing over the dull pavement of the echoing court-yard, andstill nobody had added a word. Mrs Clennam and Jeremiah had exchanged alook; and had then looked, and looked still, at Affery, who sat mendingthe stocking with great assiduity.
'Come!' said Mr Flintwinch at length, screwing himself a curve or two inthe direction of the window-seat, and rubbing the palms of his hands onhis coat-tail as if he were preparing them to do something: 'Whateverhas to be said among us had better be begun to be said without more lossof time.--So, Affery, my woman, take yourself away!'
In a moment Affery had thrown the stocking down, started up, caughthold of the windowsill with her right hand, lodged herself upon thewindow-seat with her right knee, and was flourishing her left hand,beating expected assailants off.
'No, I won't, Jeremiah--no, I won't--no, I won't! I won't go! I'll stayhere. I'll hear all I don't know, and say all I know. I will, at last,if I die for it. I will, I will, I will, I will!'
Mr Flintwinch, stiffening with indignation and amazement, moistened thefingers of one hand at his lips, softly described a circle with them inthe palm of the other hand, and continued with a menacing grin toscrew himself in the direction of his wife; gasping some remark as headvanced, of which, in his choking anger, only the words, 'Such a dose!'were audible.
'Not a bit nearer, Jeremiah!' cried Affery, never ceasing to beat theair. 'Don't come a bit nearer to me, or I'll rouse the neighbourhood!I'll throw myself out of window. I'll scream Fire and Murder! I'll wakethe dead! Stop where you are, or I'll make shrieks enough to wake thedead!'
The determined voice of Mrs Clennam echoed 'Stop!' Jeremiah had stoppedalready.
'It is closing in, Flintwinch. Let her alone. Affery, do you turnagainst me after these many years?'
'I do, if it's turning against you to hear what I don't know, and saywhat I know. I have broke out now, and I can't go back. I am determinedto do it. I will do it, I will, I will, I will! If that's turningagainst you, yes, I turn against both of you two clever ones. I toldArthur when he first come home to stand up against you. I told him itwas no reason, because I was afeard of my life of you, that he shouldbe. All manner of things have been a-going on since then, and I won'tbe run up by Jeremiah, nor yet I won't be dazed and scared, nor made aparty to I don't know what, no more. I won't, I won't, I won't! I'llup for Arthur when he has nothing left, and is ill, and in prison, andcan't up for himself. I will, I will, I will, I will!'
'How do you know, you heap of confusion,' asked Mrs Clennam sternly,'that in doing what you are doing now, you are even serving Arthur?'
'I don't know nothing rightly about anything,' said Affery; 'and ifever you said a true word in your life, it's when you call me a heap ofconfusion, for you two clever ones have done your most to make me such.You married me whether I liked it or not, and you've led me, pretty wellever since, such a life of dreaming and frightening as never was known,and what do you expect me to be but a heap of confusion? You wanted tomake me such, and I am such; but I won't submit no longer; no, I won't,I won't, I won't, I won't!' She was still beating the air against allcomers.
After gazing at her in silence, Mrs Clennam turned to Rigaud. 'Yousee and hear this foolish creature. Do you object to such a piece ofdistraction remaining where she is?'
'I, madame,' he replied, 'do I? That's a question for you.'
'I do not,' she said, gloomily. 'There is little left to choose now.Flintwinch, it is closing in.'
Mr Flintwinch replied by directing a look of red vengeance at his wife,and then, as if to pinion himself from falling upon her, screwed hiscrossed arms into the breast of his waistcoat, and with his chin verynear one of his elbows stood in a corner, watching Rigaud in the oddestattitude. Rigaud, for his part, arose from his chair, and seated himselfon the table with his legs dangling. In this easy attitude, he met MrsClennam's set face, with his moustache going up and his nose comingdown.
'Madame, I am a gentleman--'
'Of whom,' she interrupted in her steady tones, 'I have hearddisparagement, in connection with a French jail and an accusation ofmurder.'
He kissed his hand to her with his exaggerated gallantry.
'Perfectly. Exactly. Of a lady too! What absurdity! How incredible! Ihad the honour of making a great success then; I hope to have thehonour of making a great success now. I kiss your hands. Madame, I am agentleman (I was going to observe), who when he says, I will definitelyfinish this or that affair at the present sitting, does definitelyfinish it. I announce to you that we are arrived at our last sitting onour little business. You do me the favour to follow, and to comprehend?'
She kept her eyes fixed upon him with a frown. 'Yes.'
'Further, I am a gentleman to whom mere mercenary trade-bargains areunknown, but to whom money is always acceptable as the means of pursuinghis pleasures. You do me the favour to follow, and to comprehend?'
'Scarcely necessary to ask, one would say. Yes.'
'Further, I am a gentleman of the softest and sweetest disposition,but who, if trifled with, becomes enraged. Noble natures under suchcircumstances become enraged. I possess a noble nature. When the lionis awakened--that is to say, when I enrage--the satisfaction of myanimosity is as acceptable to me as money. You always do me the favourto follow, and to comprehend?'
'Yes,' she answered, somewhat louder than before.
'Do not let me derange you; pray be tranquil. I have said we are nowarrived at our last sitting. Allow me to recall the two sittings we haveheld.'
'It is not necessary.'
'Death, madame,' he burst out, 'it's my fancy! Besides, it clears theway. The first sitting was limited. I had the honour of making youracquaintance--of presenting my letter; I am a Knight of Industry, atyour service, madame, but my polished manners had won me so much ofsuccess, as a master of languages, among your compatriots who are asstiff as their own starch is to one another, but are ready to relax toa foreign gentleman of polished manners--and of observing one or twolittle things,' he glanced around the room and smiled, 'about thishonourable house, to know which was necessary to assure me, andto convince me that I had the distinguished pleasure of making theacquaintance of the lady I sought. I achieved this. I gave my wordof honour to our dear Flintwinch that I would return. I gracefullydeparted.'
Her face neither acquiesced nor demurred. The same when he paused, andwhen he spoke, it as yet showed him always the one attentive frown,and the dark revelation before mentioned of her being nerved for theoccasion.
'I say, gracefully departed, because it was graceful to retire withoutalarming a lady. To be morally graceful, not less than physically, isa part of the character of Rigaud Blandois. It was also politic, asleaving you with something overhanging you, to expect me again with alittle anxiety on a day not named. But your slave is politic. By Heaven,madame, politic! Let us return. On the day not named, I have again thehonour to render myself at your house. I intimate that I have somethingto sell, which, if not bought, will compromise madame whom I highlyesteem. I explain myself generally. I demand--I think it was a thousandpounds. Will you correct me?'
Thus forced to speak, she replied with constraint, 'You demanded as muchas a thousand pounds.'
'I demand at present, Two. Such are the evils of delay. But to returnonce more. We are not accordant; we differ on that occasion. I amplayful; playfulness is a part of my amiable character. Playfully, Ibecome as one slain and hidden. For, it may alone be worth half the sumto madame, to be freed from the suspicions that my droll idea awakens.Accident and spies intermix themselves against my playfulness, and spoilthe fruit, perhaps--who knows? only you and Flintwinch--when it is justripe. Thus, madame, I am here for the last time. Listen! Definitely thelast.'
As he struck his straggling boot-heels against the flap of the table,meeting her frown with an insolent gaze, he began to change his tone fora fierce one.
'Bah! Stop an instant! Let us advance by steps. Here is my Hotel-note tobe paid, according to contract. Five minutes hence we may be at daggers'points. I'll not leave it till then, or you'll cheat me. Pay it! Countme the money!'
'Take it from his hand and pay it, Flintwinch,' said Mrs Clennam.
He spirted it into Mr Flintwinch's face when the old man advanced totake it, and held forth his hand, repeating noisily, 'Pay it! Count itout! Good money!' Jeremiah picked the bill up, looked at the total witha bloodshot eye, took a small canvas bag from his pocket, and told theamount into his hand.
Rigaud chinked the money, weighed it in his hand, threw it up a littleway and caught it, chinked it again.
'The sound of it, to the bold Rigaud Blandois, is like the taste offresh meat to the tiger. Say, then, madame. How much?'
He turned upon her suddenly with a menacing gesture of the weighted handthat clenched the money, as if he were going to strike her with it.
'I tell you again, as I told you before, that we are not rich here, asyou suppose us to be, and that your demand is excessive. I have not thepresent means of complying with such a demand, if I had ever so great aninclination.'
'If!' cried Rigaud. 'Hear this lady with her If! Will you say that youhave not the inclination?'
'I will say what presents itself to me, and not what presents itself toyou.'
'Say it then. As to the inclination. Quick! Come to the inclination, andI know what to do.'
She was no quicker, and no slower, in her reply. 'It would seem thatyou have obtained possession of a paper--or of papers--which I assuredlyhave the inclination to recover.'
Rigaud, with a loud laugh, drummed his heels against the table, andchinked his money. 'I think so! I believe you there!'
'The paper might be worth, to me, a sum of money. I cannot say how much,or how little.'
'What the Devil!' he asked savagely. 'Not after a week's grace toconsider?'
'No! I will not out of my scanty means--for I tell you again, we arepoor here, and not rich--I will not offer any price for a power that Ido not know the worst and the fullest extent of. This is the third timeof your hinting and threatening. You must speak explicitly, or you maygo where you will, and do what you will. It is better to be torn topieces at a spring, than to be a mouse at the caprice of such a cat.'
He looked at her so hard with those eyes too near together that thesinister sight of each, crossing that of the other, seemed to make thebridge of his hooked nose crooked. After a long survey, he said, withthe further setting off of his internal smile:
'You are a bold woman!'
'I am a resolved woman.'
'You always were. What? She always was; is it not so, my littleFlintwinch?'
'Flintwinch, say nothing to him. It is for him to say, here and now,all he can; or to go hence, and do all he can. You know this to be ourdetermination. Leave him to his action on it.'
She did not shrink under his evil leer, or avoid it. He turned it uponher again, but she remained steady at the point to which she had fixedherself. He got off the table, placed a chair near the sofa, sat down init, and leaned an arm upon the sofa close to her own, which he touchedwith his hand. Her face was ever frowning, attentive, and settled.
'It is your pleasure then, madame, that I shall relate a morsel offamily history in this little family society,' said Rigaud, with awarning play of his lithe fingers on her arm. 'I am something of adoctor. Let me touch your pulse.'
She suffered him to take her wrist in his hand. Holding it, he proceededto say:
'A history of a strange marriage, and a strange mother, and a revenge,and a suppression.--Aye, aye, aye? this pulse is beating curiously!It appears to me that it doubles while I touch it. Are these the usualchanges of your malady, madame?'
There was a struggle in her maimed arm as she twisted it away, but therewas none in her face. On his face there was his own smile.
'I have lived an adventurous life. I am an adventurous character. I haveknown many adventurers; interesting spirits--amiable society! To oneof them I owe my knowledge and my proofs--I repeat it, estimablelady--proofs--of the ravishing little family history I go to commence.You will be charmed with it. But, bah! I forget. One should name ahistory. Shall I name it the history of a house? But, bah, again. Thereare so many houses. Shall I name it the history of this house?'
Leaning over the sofa, poised on two legs of his chair and his leftelbow; that hand often tapping her arm to beat his words home; hislegs crossed; his right hand sometimes arranging his hair, sometimessmoothing his moustache, sometimes striking his nose, always threateningher whatever it did; coarse, insolent, rapacious, cruel, and powerful,he pursued his narrative at his ease.
'In fine, then, I name it the history of this house. I commence it.There live here, let us suppose, an uncle and nephew. The uncle, arigid old gentleman of strong force of character; the nephew, habituallytimid, repressed, and under constraint.'
Mistress Affery, fixedly attentive in the window-seat, biting therolled up end of her apron, and trembling from head to foot, here criedout,'Jeremiah, keep off from me! I've heerd, in my dreams, of Arthur'sfather and his uncle. He's a talking of them. It was before my timehere; but I've heerd in my dreams that Arthur's father was a poor,irresolute, frightened chap, who had had everything but his orphan lifescared out of him when he was young, and that he had no voice in thechoice of his wife even, but his uncle chose her. There she sits! Iheerd it in my dreams, and you said it to her own self.'
As Mr Flintwinch shook his fist at her, and as Mrs Clennam gazed uponher, Rigaud kissed his hand to her.
'Perfectly right, dear Madame Flintwinch. You have a genius fordreaming.'
'I don't want none of your praises,' returned Affery. 'I don't want tohave nothing at all to say to you. But Jeremiah said they was dreams,and I'll tell 'em as such!' Here she put her apron in her mouth again,as if she were stopping somebody else's mouth--perhaps Jeremiah's, whichwas chattering with threats as if he were grimly cold.
'Our beloved Madame Flintwinch,' said Rigaud, 'developing all of asudden a fine susceptibility and spirituality, is right to a marvel.Yes. So runs the history. Monsieur, the uncle, commands the nephew tomarry. Monsieur says to him in effect, My nephew, I introduce to you alady of strong force of character, like myself--a resolved lady, a sternlady, a lady who has a will that can break the weak to powder: a ladywithout pity, without love, implacable, revengeful, cold as the stone,but raging as the fire. Ah! what fortitude! Ah, what superiority ofintellectual strength! Truly, a proud and noble character that Idescribe in the supposed words of Monsieur, the uncle. Ha, ha, ha! Deathof my soul, I love the sweet lady!'
Mrs Clennam's face had changed. There was a remarkable darkness ofcolour on it, and the brow was more contracted. 'Madame, madame,' saidRigaud, tapping her on the arm, as if his cruel hand were sounding amusical instrument, 'I perceive I interest you. I perceive I awaken yoursympathy. Let us go on.'
The drooping nose and the ascending moustache had, however, to be hiddenfor a moment with the white hand, before he could go on; he enjoyed theeffect he made so much.
'The nephew, being, as the lucid Madame Flintwinch has remarked, a poordevil who has had everything but his orphan life frightened and famishedout of him--the nephew abases his head, and makes response: My uncle,it is to you to command. Do as you will! Monsieur, the uncle, does ashe will. It is what he always does. The auspicious nuptials take place;the newly married come home to this charming mansion; the lady isreceived, let us suppose, by Flintwinch. Hey, old intriguer?'
Jeremiah, with his eyes upon his mistress, made no reply. Rigaud lookedfrom one to the other, struck his ugly nose, and made a clucking withhis tongue.
'Soon the lady makes a singular and exciting discovery. Thereupon,full of anger, full of jealousy, full of vengeance, she forms--see you,madame!--a scheme of retribution, the weight of which she ingeniouslyforces her crushed husband to bear himself, as well as execute upon herenemy. What superior intelligence!'
'Keep off, Jeremiah!' cried the palpitating Affery, taking her apronfrom her mouth again. 'But it was one of my dreams, that you told her,when you quarrelled with her one winter evening at dusk--there she sitsand you looking at her--that she oughtn't to have let Arthur when hecome home, suspect his father only; that she had always had the strengthand the power; and that she ought to have stood up more to Arthur, forhis father. It was in the same dream where you said to her that she wasnot--not something, but I don't know what, for she burst out tremendousand stopped you. You know the dream as well as I do. When you comedown-stairs into the kitchen with the candle in your hand, and hitchedmy apron off my head. When you told me I had been dreaming. When youwouldn't believe the noises.' After this explosion Affery put her aproninto her mouth again; always keeping her hand on the window-sill and herknee on the window-seat, ready to cry out or jump out if her lord andmaster approached.
Rigaud had not lost a word of this.
'Haha!' he cried, lifting his eyebrows, folding his arms, and leaningback in his chair. 'Assuredly, Madame Flintwinch is an oracle! How shallwe interpret the oracle, you and I and the old intriguer? He said thatyou were not--? And you burst out and stopped him! What was it you werenot? What is it you are not? Say then, madame!'
Under this ferocious banter, she sat breathing harder, and her mouth wasdisturbed. Her lips quivered and opened, in spite of her utmost effortsto keep them still.
'Come then, madame! Speak, then! Our old intriguer said that you werenot--and you stopped him. He was going to say that you were not--what?I know already, but I want a little confidence from you. How, then? Youare not what?'
She tried again to repress herself, but broke out vehemently, 'NotArthur's mother!'
'Good,' said Rigaud. 'You are amenable.'
With the set expression of her face all torn away by the explosionof her passion, and with a bursting, from every rent feature, of thesmouldering fire so long pent up, she cried out: 'I will tell it myself!I will not hear it from your lips, and with the taint of your wickednessupon it. Since it must be seen, I will have it seen by the light I stoodin. Not another word. Hear me!'
'Unless you are a more obstinate and more persisting woman than evenI know you to be,' Mr Flintwinch interposed, 'you had better leave MrRigaud, Mr Blandois, Mr Beelzebub, to tell it in his own way. What doesit signify when he knows all about it?'
'He does not know all about it.'
'He knows all he cares about it,' Mr Flintwinch testily urged.
'He does not know _me_.'
'What do you suppose he cares for you, you conceited woman?' said MrFlintwinch.
'I tell you, Flintwinch, I will speak. I tell you when it has cometo this, I will tell it with my own lips, and will express myselfthroughout it. What! Have I suffered nothing in this room, nodeprivation, no imprisonment, that I should condescend at last tocontemplate myself in such a glass as _that_. Can you see him? Can youhear him? If your wife were a hundred times the ingrate that she is, andif I were a thousand times more hopeless than I am of inducing her to besilent if this man is silenced, I would tell it myself, before I wouldbear the torment of the hearing it from him.'
Rigaud pushed his chair a little back; pushed his legs out straightbefore him; and sat with his arms folded over against her.
'You do not know what it is,' she went on addressing him, 'to be broughtup strictly and straitly. I was so brought up. Mine was no light youthof sinful gaiety and pleasure. Mine were days of wholesome repression,punishment, and fear. The corruption of our hearts, the evil of ourways, the curse that is upon us, the terrors that surround us--thesewere the themes of my childhood. They formed my character, and filled mewith an abhorrence of evil-doers. When old Mr Gilbert Clennam proposedhis orphan nephew to my father for my husband, my father impressed uponme that his bringing-up had been, like mine, one of severe restraint.He told me, that besides the discipline his spirit had undergone, hehad lived in a starved house, where rioting and gaiety were unknown, andwhere every day was a day of toil and trial like the last. He told methat he had been a man in years long before his uncle had acknowledgedhim as one; and that from his school-days to that hour, his uncle's roofhas been a sanctuary to him from the contagion of the irreligiousand dissolute. When, within a twelvemonth of our marriage, I foundmy husband, at that time when my father spoke of him, to have sinnedagainst the Lord and outraged me by holding a guilty creature in myplace, was I to doubt that it had been appointed to me to make thediscovery, and that it was appointed to me to lay the hand of punishmentupon that creature of perdition? Was I to dismiss in a moment--not myown wrongs--what was I! but all the rejection of sin, and all the waragainst it, in which I had been bred?'
She laid her wrathful hand upon the watch on the table.
'No! Do not forget. The initials of those words are within here now,and were within here then. I was appointed to find the old letter thatreferred to them, and that told me what they meant, and whose work theywere, and why they were worked, lying with this watch in his secretdrawer. But for that appointment there would have been no discovery.Do not forget. It spoke to me like a voice from an angry cloud. Donot forget the deadly sin, do not forget the appointed discovery, do notforget the appointed suffering. I did not forget. Was it my own wrong Iremembered? Mine! I was but a servant and a minister. What power could Ihave over them, but that they were bound in the bonds of their sin, anddelivered to me!'
More than forty years had passed over the grey head of this determinedwoman, since the time she recalled. More than forty years of strifeand struggle with the whisper that, by whatever name she called hervindictive pride and rage, nothing through all eternity could changetheir nature. Yet, gone those more than forty years, and come thisNemesis now looking her in the face, she still abided by her oldimpiety--still reversed the order of Creation, and breathed her ownbreath into a clay image of her Creator. Verily, verily, travellers haveseen many monstrous idols in many countries; but no human eyes have everseen more daring, gross, and shocking images of the Divine nature thanwe creatures of the dust make in our own likenesses, of our own badpassions.
'When I forced him to give her up to me, by her name and place ofabode,' she went on in her torrent of indignation and defence; 'when Iaccused her, and she fell hiding her face at my feet, was it my injurythat I asserted, were they my reproaches that I poured upon her? Thosewho were appointed of old to go to wicked kings and accuse them--werethey not ministers and servants? And had not I, unworthy and far-removedfrom them, sin to denounce? When she pleaded to me her youth, and hiswretched and hard life (that was her phrase for the virtuous training hehad belied), and the desecrated ceremony of marriage there hadsecretly been between them, and the terrors of want and shame that hadoverwhelmed them both when I was first appointed to be the instrument oftheir punishment, and the love (for she said the word to me, down at myfeet) in which she had abandoned him and left him to me, was it _my_enemy that became my footstool, were they the words of my wrath thatmade her shrink and quiver! Not unto me the strength be ascribed; notunto me the wringing of the expiation!'
Many years had come and gone since she had had the free use even ofher fingers; but it was noticeable that she had already more than oncestruck her clenched hand vigorously upon the table, and that when shesaid these words she raised her whole arm in the air, as though it hadbeen a common action with her.
'And what was the repentance that was extorted from the hardness of herheart and the blackness of her depravity? I, vindictive and implacable?It may be so, to such as you who know no righteousness, and noappointment except Satan's. Laugh; but I will be known as I knowmyself, and as Flintwinch knows me, though it is only to you and thishalf-witted woman.'
'Add, to yourself, madame,' said Rigaud. 'I have my little suspicionsthat madame is rather solicitous to be justified to herself.'
'It is false. It is not so. I have no need to be,' she said, with greatenergy and anger.
'Truly?' retorted Rigaud. 'Hah!'
'I ask, what was the penitence, in works, that was demanded of her?You have a child; I have none. You love that child. Give him to me. Heshall believe himself to be my son, and he shall be believed by everyone to be my son. To save you from exposure, his father shall swearnever to see or communicate with you more; equally to save him frombeing stripped by his uncle, and to save your child from being a beggar,you shall swear never to see or communicate with either of them more.That done, and your present means, derived from my husband, renounced,I charge myself with your support. You may, with your place of retreatunknown, then leave, if you please, uncontradicted by me, the lie thatwhen you passed out of all knowledge but mine, you merited a good name.That was all. She had to sacrifice her sinful and shameful affections;no more. She was then free to bear her load of guilt in secret, and tobreak her heart in secret; and through such present misery (light enoughfor her, I think!) to purchase her redemption from endless misery, ifshe could. If, in this, I punished her here, did I not open to her a wayhereafter? If she knew herself to be surrounded by insatiable vengeanceand unquenchable fires, were they mine? If I threatened her, then andafterwards, with the terrors that encompassed her, did I hold them in myright hand?'
She turned the watch upon the table, and opened it, and, with anunsoftening face, looked at the worked letters within.
'They did _not_ forget. It is appointed against such offences that theoffenders shall not be able to forget. If the presence of Arthur was adaily reproach to his father, and if the absence of Arthur was a dailyagony to his mother, that was the just dispensation of Jehovah. As wellmight it be charged upon me, that the stings of an awakened consciencedrove her mad, and that it was the will of the Disposer of all thingsthat she should live so, many years. I devoted myself to reclaim theotherwise predestined and lost boy; to give him the reputation of anhonest origin; to bring him up in fear and trembling, and in a life ofpractical contrition for the sins that were heavy on his head before hisentrance into this condemned world. Was that a cruelty? Was I, too,not visited with consequences of the original offence in which I had nocomplicity? Arthur's father and I lived no further apart, with half theglobe between us, than when we were together in this house. He died,and sent this watch back to me, with its Do not forget. I do NOT forget,though I do not read it as he did. I read in it, that I was appointedto do these things. I have so read these three letters since I havehad them lying on this table, and I did so read them, with equaldistinctness, when they were thousands of miles away.'
As she took the watch-case in her hand, with that new freedom in the useof her hand of which she showed no consciousness whatever, bending hereyes upon it as if she were defying it to move her, Rigaud cried with aloud and contemptuous snapping of his fingers. 'Come, madame! Time runsout. Come, lady of piety, it must be! You can tell nothing I don't know.Come to the money stolen, or I will! Death of my soul, I have had enoughof your other jargon. Come straight to the stolen money!'
'Wretch that you are,' she answered, and now her hands clasped her head:'through what fatal error of Flintwinch's, through what incompletenesson his part, who was the only other person helping in these things andtrusted with them, through whose and what bringing together of the ashesof a burnt paper, you have become possessed of that codicil, I know nomore than how you acquired the rest of your power here--'
'And yet,' interrupted Rigaud, 'it is my odd fortune to have by me, in aconvenient place that I know of, that same short little addition to thewill of Monsieur Gilbert Clennam, written by a lady and witnessed by thesame lady and our old intriguer! Ah, bah, old intriguer, crooked littlepuppet! Madame, let us go on. Time presses. You or I to finish?'
'I!' she answered, with increased determination, if it were possible.'I, because I will not endure to be shown myself, and have myselfshown to any one, with your horrible distortion upon me. You, with yourpractices of infamous foreign prisons and galleys would make it themoney that impelled me. It was not the money.'
'Bah, bah, bah! I repudiate, for the moment, my politeness, and say,Lies, lies, lies. You know you suppressed the deed and kept the money.'
'Not for the money's sake, wretch!' She made a struggle as if she werestarting up; even as if, in her vehemence, she had almost risen on herdisabled feet. 'If Gilbert Clennam, reduced to imbecility, at the pointof death, and labouring under the delusion of some imaginary relentingtowards a girl of whom he had heard that his nephew had once had a fancyfor her which he had crushed out of him, and that she afterwards droopedaway into melancholy and withdrawal from all who knew her--if, in thatstate of weakness, he dictated to me, whose life she had darkened withher sin, and who had been appointed to know her wickedness from herown hand and her own lips, a bequest meant as a recompense to herfor supposed unmerited suffering; was there no difference between myspurning that injustice, and coveting mere money--a thing which you, andyour comrades in the prisons, may steal from anyone?'
'Time presses, madame. Take care!'
'If this house was blazing from the roof to the ground,' she returned,'I would stay in it to justify myself against my righteous motives beingclassed with those of stabbers and thieves.'
Rigaud snapped his fingers tauntingly in her face. 'One thousand guineasto the little beauty you slowly hunted to death. One thousand guineasto the youngest daughter her patron might have at fifty, or (if hehad none) brother's youngest daughter, on her coming of age, as theremembrance his disinterestedness may like best, of his protection ofa friendless young orphan girl. Two thousand guineas. What! You willnever come to the money?'
'That patron,' she was vehemently proceeding, when he checked her.
'Names! Call him Mr Frederick Dorrit. No more evasions.'
'That Frederick Dorrit was the beginning of it all. If he had not beena player of music, and had not kept, in those days of his youth andprosperity, an idle house where singers, and players, and such-likechildren of Evil turned their backs on the Light and their faces to theDarkness, she might have remained in her lowly station, and might nothave been raised out of it to be cast down. But, no. Satan entered intothat Frederick Dorrit, and counselled him that he was a man of innocentand laudable tastes who did kind actions, and that here was a poor girlwith a voice for singing music with. Then he is to have her taught. ThenArthur's father, who has all along been secretly pining in the ways ofvirtuous ruggedness for those accursed snares which are called the Arts,becomes acquainted with her. And so, a graceless orphan, training to bea singing girl, carries it, by that Frederick Dorrit's agency, againstme, and I am humbled and deceived!--Not I, that is to say,' she addedquickly, as colour flushed into her face; 'a greater than I. What am I?'
Jeremiah Flintwinch, who had been gradually screwing himself towardsher, and who was now very near her elbow without her knowing it, made aspecially wry face of objection when she said these words, and moreovertwitched his gaiters, as if such pretensions were equivalent to littlebarbs in his legs.
'Lastly,' she continued, 'for I am at the end of these things, and Iwill say no more of them, and you shall say no more of them, and allthat remains will be to determine whether the knowledge of them canbe kept among us who are here present; lastly, when I suppressed thatpaper, with the knowledge of Arthur's father--'
'But not with his consent, you know,' said Mr Flintwinch.
'Who said with his consent?' She started to find Jeremiah so near her,and drew back her head, looking at him with some rising distrust. 'Youwere often enough between us when he would have had me produce it andI would not, to have contradicted me if I had said, with his consent. Isay, when I suppressed that paper, I made no effort to destroy it, butkept it by me, here in this house, many years. The rest of the Gilbertproperty being left to Arthur's father, I could at any time, withoutunsettling more than the two sums, have made a pretence of findingit. But, besides that I must have supported such pretence by a directfalsehood (a great responsibility), I have seen no new reason, inall the time I have been tried here, to bring it to light. It was arewarding of sin; the wrong result of a delusion. I did what I wasappointed to do, and I have undergone, within these four walls, whatI was appointed to undergo. When the paper was at last destroyed--asI thought--in my presence, she had long been dead, and her patron,Frederick Dorrit, had long been deservedly ruined and imbecile. He hadno daughter. I had found the niece before then; and what I did for her,was better for her far than the money of which she would have had nogood.' She added, after a moment, as though she addressed the watch:'She herself was innocent, and I might not have forgotten to relinquishit to her at my death:' and sat looking at it.
'Shall I recall something to you, worthy madame?' said Rigaud. 'Thelittle paper was in this house on the night when our friend theprisoner--jail-comrade of my soul--came home from foreign countries.Shall I recall yet something more to you? The little singing-birdthat never was fledged, was long kept in a cage by a guardian of yourappointing, well enough known to our old intriguer here. Shall we coaxour old intriguer to tell us when he saw him last?'
'I'll tell you!' cried Affery, unstopping her mouth. 'I dreamed it,first of all my dreams. Jeremiah, if you come a-nigh me now, I'll screamto be heard at St Paul's! The person as this man has spoken of, wasJeremiah's own twin brother; and he was here in the dead of the night,on the night when Arthur come home, and Jeremiah with his own hands givehim this paper, along with I don't know what more, and he took it awayin an iron box--Help! Murder! Save me from Jere-_mi_-ah!'
Mr Flintwinch had made a run at her, but Rigaud had caught him in hisarms midway. After a moment's wrestle with him, Flintwinch gave up, andput his hands in his pockets.
'What!' cried Rigaud, rallying him as he poked and jerked him back withhis elbows, 'assault a lady with such a genius for dreaming! Ha, ha, ha!Why, she'll be a fortune to you as an exhibition. All that she dreamscomes true. Ha, ha, ha! You're so like him, Little Flintwinch. So likehim, as I knew him (when I first spoke English for him to the host) inthe Cabaret of the Three Billiard Tables, in the little street of thehigh roofs, by the wharf at Antwerp! Ah, but he was a brave boy todrink. Ah, but he was a brave boy to smoke! Ah, but he lived in a sweetbachelor-apartment--furnished, on the fifth floor, above the wood andcharcoal merchant's, and the dress-maker's, and the chair-maker's, andthe maker of tubs--where I knew him too, and wherewith his cognac andtobacco, he had twelve sleeps a day and one fit, until he had a fit toomuch, and ascended to the skies. Ha, ha, ha! What does it matter how Itook possession of the papers in his iron box? Perhaps he confided itto my hands for you, perhaps it was locked and my curiosity was piqued,perhaps I suppressed it. Ha, ha, ha! What does it matter, so that Ihave it safe? We are not particular here; hey, Flintwinch? We are notparticular here; is it not so, madame?'
Retiring before him with vicious counter-jerks of his own elbows, MrFlintwinch had got back into his corner, where he now stood with hishands in his pockets, taking breath, and returning Mrs Clennam's stare.'Ha, ha, ha! But what's this?' cried Rigaud. 'It appears as if youdon't know, one the other. Permit me, Madame Clennam who suppresses, topresent Monsieur Flintwinch who intrigues.'
Mr Flintwinch, unpocketing one of his hands to scrape his jaw, advanceda step or so in that attitude, still returning Mrs Clennam's look, andthus addressed her:
'Now, I know what you mean by opening your eyes so wide at me, but youneedn't take the trouble, because I don't care for it. I've been tellingyou for how many years that you're one of the most opinionated andobstinate of women. That's what _you_ are. You call yourself humble andsinful, but you are the most Bumptious of your sex. That's what _you_ are.I have told you, over and over again when we have had a tiff, that youwanted to make everything go down before you, but I wouldn't go downbefore you--that you wanted to swallow up everybody alive, but Iwouldn't be swallowed up alive. Why didn't you destroy the paper whenyou first laid hands upon it? I advised you to; but no, it's not yourway to take advice. You must keep it forsooth. Perhaps you may carry itout at some other time, forsooth. As if I didn't know better than that!I think I see your pride carrying it out, with a chance of beingsuspected of having kept it by you. But that's the way you cheatyourself. Just as you cheat yourself into making out that you didn't doall this business because you were a rigorous woman, all slight, andspite, and power, and unforgiveness, but because you were a servant anda minister, and were appointed to do it. Who are you, that you shouldbe appointed to do it? That may be your religion, but it's my gammon.And to tell you all the truth while I am about it,' said Mr Flintwinch,crossing his arms, and becoming the express image of irascibledoggedness, 'I have been rasped--rasped these forty years--by yourtaking such high ground even with me, who knows better; the effect of itbeing coolly to put me on low ground. I admire you very much; you are awoman of strong head and great talent; but the strongest head, and thegreatest talent, can't rasp a man for forty years without making himsore. So I don't care for your present eyes. Now, I am coming to thepaper, and mark what I say. You put it away somewhere, and you kept yourown counsel where. You're an active woman at that time, and if you wantto get that paper, you can get it. But, mark. There comes a time whenyou are struck into what you are now, and then if you want to get thatpaper, you can't get it. So it lies, long years, in its hiding-place. Atlast, when we are expecting Arthur home every day, and when any day maybring him home, and it's impossible to say what rummaging he may makeabout the house, I recommend you five thousand times, if you can't getat it, to let me get at it, that it may be put in the fire. But no--noone but you knows where it is, and that's power; and, call yourselfwhatever humble names you will, I call you a female Lucifer in appetitefor power! On a Sunday night, Arthur comes home. He has not been in thisroom ten minutes, when he speaks of his father's watch. You know verywell that the Do Not Forget, at the time when his father sent that watchto you, could only mean, the rest of the story being then all dead andover, Do Not Forget the suppression. Make restitution! Arthur's wayshave frightened you a bit, and the paper shall be burnt after all. So,before that jumping jade and Jezebel,' Mr Flintwinch grinned at hiswife, 'has got you into bed, you at last tell me where you have put thepaper, among the old ledgers in the cellars, where Arthur himself wentprowling the very next morning. But it's not to be burnt on a Sundaynight. No; you are strict, you are; we must wait over twelve o'clock,and get into Monday. Now, all this is a swallowing of me up alive thatrasps me; so, feeling a little out of temper, and not being as strict asyourself, I take a look at the document before twelve o'clock to refreshmy memory as to its appearance--fold up one of the many yellow oldpapers in the cellars like it--and afterwards, when we have got intoMonday morning, and I have, by the light of your lamp, to walk from you,lying on that bed, to this grate, make a little exchange like theconjuror, and burn accordingly. My brother Ephraim, the lunatic-keeper(I wish he had had himself to keep in a strait-waistcoat), had had manyjobs since the close of the long job he got from you, but had not donewell. His wife died (not that that was much; mine might have diedinstead, and welcome), he speculated unsuccessfully in lunatics, he gotinto difficulty about over-roasting a patient to bring him to reason,and he got into debt. He was going out of the way, on what he had beenable to scrape up, and a trifle from me. He was here that early Mondaymorning, waiting for the tide; in short, he was going to Antwerp, where(I am afraid you'll be shocked at my saying, And be damned to him!) hemade the acquaintance of this gentleman. He had come a long way, and, Ithought then, was only sleepy; but, I suppose now, was drunk. WhenArthur's mother had been under the care of him and his wife, she hadbeen always writing, incessantly writing,--mostly letters of confessionto you, and Prayers for forgiveness. My brother had handed, from time totime, lots of these sheets to me. I thought I might as well keep them tomyself as have them swallowed up alive too; so I kept them in a box,looking over them when I felt in the humour. Convinced that it wasadvisable to get the paper out of the place, with Arthur coming aboutit, I put it into this same box, and I locked the whole up with twolocks, and I trusted it to my brother to take away and keep, till Ishould write about it. I did write about it, and never got an answer. Ididn't know what to make of it, till this gentleman favoured us with hisfirst visit. Of course, I began to suspect how it was, then; and I don'twant his word for it now to understand how he gets his knowledge from mypapers, and your paper, and my brother's cognac and tobacco talk (I wishhe'd had to gag himself). Now, I have only one thing more to say, youhammer-headed woman, and that is, that I haven't altogether made up mymind whether I might, or might not, have ever given you any troubleabout the codicil. I think not; and that I should have been quitesatisfied with knowing I had got the better of you, and that I held thepower over you. In the present state of circumstances, I have no moreexplanation to give you till this time to-morrow night. So you may aswell,' said Mr Flintwinch, terminating his oration with a screw, 'keepyour eyes open at somebody else, for it's no use keeping 'em open atme.'
She slowly withdrew them when he had ceased, and dropped her foreheadon her hand. Her other hand pressed hard upon the table, and again thecurious stir was observable in her, as if she were going to rise.
'This box can never bring, elsewhere, the price it will bring here.This knowledge can never be of the same profit to you, sold to any otherperson, as sold to me. But I have not the present means of raising thesum you have demanded. I have not prospered. What will you take now, andwhat at another time, and how am I to be assured of your silence?'
'My angel,' said Rigaud, 'I have said what I will take, and timepresses. Before coming here, I placed copies of the most important ofthese papers in another hand. Put off the time till the Marshalseagate shall be shut for the night, and it will be too late to treat. Theprisoner will have read them.'
She put her two hands to her head again, uttered a loud exclamation, andstarted to her feet. She staggered for a moment, as if she would havefallen; then stood firm.
'Say what you mean. Say what you mean, man!'
Before her ghostly figure, so long unused to its erect attitude, and sostiffened in it, Rigaud fell back and dropped his voice. It was, to allthe three, almost as if a dead woman had risen.
'Miss Dorrit,' answered Rigaud, 'the little niece of Monsieur Frederick,whom I have known across the water, is attached to the prisoner. MissDorrit, little niece of Monsieur Frederick, watches at this moment overthe prisoner, who is ill. For her I with my own hands left a packetat the prison, on my way here, with a letter of instructions, _for hissake_--she will do anything for his sake--to keep it without breakingthe seal, in case of its being reclaimed before the hour of shutting upto-night--if it should not be reclaimed before the ringing of the prisonbell, to give it to him; and it encloses a second copy for herself,which he must give to her. What! I don't trust myself among you, now wehave got so far, without giving my secret a second life. And as to itsnot bringing me, elsewhere, the price it will bring here, say then,madame, have you limited and settled the price the little niece willgive--for his sake--to hush it up? Once more I say, time presses. Thepacket not reclaimed before the ringing of the bell to-night, you cannotbuy. I sell, then, to the little girl!'
Once more the stir and struggle in her, and she ran to a closet, torethe door open, took down a hood or shawl, and wrapped it over her head.Affery, who had watched her in terror, darted to her in the middle ofthe room, caught hold of her dress, and went on her knees to her.
'Don't, don't, don't! What are you doing? Where are you going? You're afearful woman, but I don't bear you no ill-will. I can do poor Arthurno good now, that I see; and you needn't be afraid of me. I'll keep yoursecret. Don't go out, you'll fall dead in the street. Only promise me,that, if it's the poor thing that's kept here secretly, you'll let metake charge of her and be her nurse. Only promise me that, and never beafraid of me.'
Mrs Clennam stood still for an instant, at the height of her rapidhaste, saying in stern amazement:
'Kept here? She has been dead a score of years or more. AskFlintwinch--ask _him_. They can both tell you that she died when Arthurwent abroad.'
'So much the worse,' said Affery, with a shiver, 'for she haunts thehouse, then. Who else rustles about it, making signals by droppingdust so softly? Who else comes and goes, and marks the walls withlong crooked touches when we are all a-bed? Who else holds the doorsometimes? But don't go out--don't go out! Mistress, you'll die in thestreet!'
Her mistress only disengaged her dress from the beseeching hands, saidto Rigaud, 'Wait here till I come back!' and ran out of the room. Theysaw her, from the window, run wildly through the court-yard and out atthe gateway.
For a few moments they stood motionless. Affery was the first to move,and she, wringing her hands, pursued her mistress. Next, JeremiahFlintwinch, slowly backing to the door, with one hand in a pocket, andthe other rubbing his chin, twisted himself out in his reticent way,speechlessly. Rigaud, left alone, composed himself upon the window-seatof the open window, in the old Marseilles-jail attitude. He laid hiscigarettes and fire-box ready to his hand, and fell to smoking.
'Whoof! Almost as dull as the infernal old jail. Warmer, but almost asdismal. Wait till she comes back? Yes, certainly; but where is she gone,and how long will she be gone? No matter! Rigaud Lagnier Blandois, myamiable subject, you will get your money. You will enrich yourself. Youhave lived a gentleman; you will die a gentleman. You triumph, my littleboy; but it is your character to triumph. Whoof!'
In the hour of his triumph, his moustache went up and his nose camedown, as he ogled a great beam over his head with particularsatisfaction.