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Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/69

CHAPTER 31. Closed

The sun had set, and the streets were dim in the dusty twilight, whenthe figure so long unused to them hurried on its way. In the immediateneighbourhood of the old house it attracted little attention, for therewere only a few straggling people to notice it; but, ascending from theriver by the crooked ways that led to London Bridge, and passing intothe great main road, it became surrounded by astonishment.

Resolute and wild of look, rapid of foot and yet weak and uncertain,conspicuously dressed in its black garments and with its hurriedhead-covering, gaunt and of an unearthly paleness, it pressed forward,taking no more heed of the throng than a sleep-walker. More remarkableby being so removed from the crowd it was among than if it had beenlifted on a pedestal to be seen, the figure attracted all eyes.Saunterers pricked up their attention to observe it; busy people,crossing it, slackened their pace and turned their heads; companionspausing and standing aside, whispered one another to look at thisspectral woman who was coming by; and the sweep of the figure as itpassed seemed to create a vortex, drawing the most idle and most curiousafter it.

Made giddy by the turbulent irruption of this multitude of staring facesinto her cell of years, by the confusing sensation of being in the air,and the yet more confusing sensation of being afoot, by the unexpectedchanges in half-remembered objects, and the want of likeness between thecontrollable pictures her imagination had often drawn of the life fromwhich she was secluded and the overwhelming rush of the reality, sheheld her way as if she were environed by distracting thoughts, ratherthan by external humanity and observation. But, having crossed thebridge and gone some distance straight onward, she remembered that shemust ask for a direction; and it was only then, when she stopped andturned to look about her for a promising place of inquiry, that shefound herself surrounded by an eager glare of faces.

'Why are you encircling me?' she asked, trembling.

None of those who were nearest answered; but from the outer ring therearose a shrill cry of ''Cause you're mad!'

'I am sure as sane as any one here. I want to find the Marshalseaprison.'

The shrill outer circle again retorted, 'Then that 'ud show you was madif nothing else did, 'cause it's right opposite!'

A short, mild, quiet-looking young man made his way through to her, asa whooping ensued on this reply, and said: 'Was it the Marshalsea youwanted? I'm going on duty there. Come across with me.'

She laid her hand upon his arm, and he took her over the way; the crowd,rather injured by the near prospect of losing her, pressing before andbehind and on either side, and recommending an adjournment to Bedlam.After a momentary whirl in the outer court-yard, the prison-door opened,and shut upon them. In the Lodge, which seemed by contrast with theouter noise a place of refuge and peace, a yellow lamp was alreadystriving with the prison shadows.

'Why, John!' said the turnkey who admitted them. 'What is it?'

'Nothing, father; only this lady not knowing her way, and being badgeredby the boys. Who did you want, ma'am?'

'Miss Dorrit. Is she here?'

The young man became more interested. 'Yes, she is here. What might yourname be?'

'Mrs Clennam.'

'Mr Clennam's mother?' asked the young man.

She pressed her lips together, and hesitated. 'Yes. She had better betold it is his mother.'

'You see,' said the young man,'the Marshal's family living in thecountry at present, the Marshal has given Miss Dorrit one of the roomsin his house to use when she likes. Don't you think you had better comeup there, and let me bring Miss Dorrit?'

She signified her assent, and he unlocked a door and conducted her upa side staircase into a dwelling-house above. He showed her into adarkening room, and left her. The room looked down into the darkeningprison-yard, with its inmates strolling here and there, leaning outof windows communing as much apart as they could with friends who weregoing away, and generally wearing out their imprisonment as they bestmight that summer evening. The air was heavy and hot; the closenessof the place, oppressive; and from without there arose a rush offree sounds, like the jarring memory of such things in a headache andheartache. She stood at the window, bewildered, looking down into thisprison as it were out of her own different prison, when a soft word ortwo of surprise made her start, and Little Dorrit stood before her.

'Is it possible, Mrs Clennam, that you are so happily recovered as--'

Little Dorrit stopped, for there was neither happiness nor health in theface that turned to her.

'This is not recovery; it is not strength; I don't know what it is.'With an agitated wave of her hand, she put all that aside. 'You have apacket left with you which you were to give to Arthur, if it was notreclaimed before this place closed to-night.'

'Yes.'

'I reclaim it.'

Little Dorrit took it from her bosom, and gave it into her hand, whichremained stretched out after receiving it.

'Have you any idea of its contents?'

Frightened by her being there with that new power Of Movement in her,which, as she said herself, was not strength, and which was unrealto look upon, as though a picture or statue had been animated, LittleDorrit answered 'No.'

'Read them.'

Little Dorrit took the packet from the still outstretched hand, andbroke the seal. Mrs Clennam then gave her the inner packet that wasaddressed to herself, and held the other. The shadow of the wall and ofthe prison buildings, which made the room sombre at noon, made it toodark to read there, with the dusk deepening apace, save in the window.In the window, where a little of the bright summer evening skycould shine upon her, Little Dorrit stood, and read. After a brokenexclamation or so of wonder and of terror, she read in silence. Whenshe had finished, she looked round, and her old mistress bowed herselfbefore her.

'You know, now, what I have done.'

'I think so. I am afraid so; though my mind is so hurried, and so sorry,and has so much to pity that it has not been able to follow all I haveread,' said Little Dorrit tremulously.

'I will restore to you what I have withheld from you. Forgive me. Canyou forgive me?'

'I can, and Heaven knows I do! Do not kiss my dress and kneel to me; youare too old to kneel to me; I forgive you freely without that.'

'I have more yet to ask.'

'Not in that posture,' said Little Dorrit. 'It is unnatural to see yourgrey hair lower than mine. Pray rise; let me help you.' With that sheraised her up, and stood rather shrinking from her, but looking at herearnestly.

'The great petition that I make to you (there is another which growsout of it), the great supplication that I address to your merciful andgentle heart, is, that you will not disclose this to Arthur until I amdead. If you think, when you have had time for consideration, that itcan do him any good to know it while I am yet alive, then tell him. Butyou will not think that; and in such case, will you promise me to spareme until I am dead?'

'I am so sorry, and what I have read has so confused my thoughts,'returned Little Dorrit, 'that I can scarcely give you a steady answer.If I should be quite sure that to be acquainted with it will do MrClennam no good--'

'I know you are attached to him, and will make him the firstconsideration. It is right that he should be the first consideration. Iask that. But, having regarded him, and still finding that you may spareme for the little time I shall remain on earth, will you do it?'

'I will.'

'GOD bless you!'

She stood in the shadow so that she was only a veiled form to LittleDorrit in the light; but the sound of her voice, in saying those threegrateful words, was at once fervent and broken--broken by emotion asunfamiliar to her frozen eyes as action to her frozen limbs.

'You will wonder, perhaps,' she said in a stronger tone, 'that I canbetter bear to be known to you whom I have wronged, than to the sonof my enemy who wronged me.--For she did wrong me! She not only sinnedgrievously against the Lord, but she wronged me. What Arthur's fatherwas to me, she made him. From our marriage day I was his dread, and thatshe made me. I was the scourge of both, and that is referable to her.You love Arthur (I can see the blush upon your face; may it be the dawnof happier days to both of you!), and you will have thought already thathe is as merciful and kind as you, and why do I not trust myself to himas soon as to you. Have you not thought so?'

'No thought,' said Little Dorrit, 'can be quite a stranger to my heart,that springs out of the knowledge that Mr Clennam is always to be reliedupon for being kind and generous and good.'

'I do not doubt it. Yet Arthur is, of the whole world, the one personfrom whom I would conceal this, while I am in it. I kept over him asa child, in the days of his first remembrance, my restraining andcorrecting hand. I was stern with him, knowing that the transgressionsof the parents are visited on their offspring, and that there was anangry mark upon him at his birth. I have sat with him and his father,seeing the weakness of his father yearning to unbend to him; and forcingit back, that the child might work out his release in bondage andhardship. I have seen him, with his mother's face, looking up at me inawe from his little books, and trying to soften me with his mother'sways that hardened me.'

The shrinking of her auditress stopped her for a moment in her flow ofwords, delivered in a retrospective gloomy voice.

'For his good. Not for the satisfaction of my injury. What was I, andwhat was the worth of that, before the curse of Heaven! I have seen thatchild grow up; not to be pious in a chosen way (his mother's influencelay too heavy on him for that), but still to be just and upright, andto be submissive to me. He never loved me, as I once half-hoped hemight--so frail we are, and so do the corrupt affections of the fleshwar with our trusts and tasks; but he always respected me and orderedhimself dutifully to me. He does to this hour. With an empty place inhis heart that he has never known the meaning of, he has turnedaway from me and gone his separate road; but even that he has doneconsiderately and with deference. These have been his relations towardsme. Yours have been of a much slighter kind, spread over a much shortertime. When you have sat at your needle in my room, you have been in fearof me, but you have supposed me to have been doing you a kindness; youare better informed now, and know me to have done you an injury. Yourmisconstruction and misunderstanding of the cause in which, and themotives with which, I have worked out this work, is lighter to endurethan his would be. I would not, for any worldly recompense I canimagine, have him in a moment, however blindly, throw me down from thestation I have held before him all his life, and change me altogetherinto something he would cast out of his respect, and think detected andexposed. Let him do it, if it must be done, when I am not here to seeit. Let me never feel, while I am still alive, that I die before hisface, and utterly perish away from him, like one consumed by lightningand swallowed by an earthquake.'

Her pride was very strong in her, the pain of it and of her old passionswas very sharp with her, when she thus expressed herself. Not less so,when she added:

'Even now, I see _you_ shrink from me, as if I had been cruel.'

Little Dorrit could not gainsay it. She tried not to show it, but sherecoiled with dread from the state of mind that had burnt so fiercelyand lasted so long. It presented itself to her, with no sophistry uponit, in its own plain nature.

'I have done,' said Mrs Clennam,'what it was given to me to do. I haveset myself against evil; not against good. I have been an instrumentof severity against sin. Have not mere sinners like myself beencommissioned to lay it low in all time?'

'In all time?' repeated Little Dorrit.

'Even if my own wrong had prevailed with me, and my own vengeance hadmoved me, could I have found no justification? None in the old dayswhen the innocent perished with the guilty, a thousand to one? When thewrath of the hater of the unrighteous was not slaked even in blood, andyet found favour?'

'O, Mrs Clennam, Mrs Clennam,' said Little Dorrit, 'angry feelings andunforgiving deeds are no comfort and no guide to you and me. My lifehas been passed in this poor prison, and my teaching has been verydefective; but let me implore you to remember later and better days.Be guided only by the healer of the sick, the raiser of the dead, thefriend of all who were afflicted and forlorn, the patient Master whoshed tears of compassion for our infirmities. We cannot but be right ifwe put all the rest away, and do everything in remembrance of Him. Thereis no vengeance and no infliction of suffering in His life, I am sure.There can be no confusion in following Him, and seeking for no otherfootsteps, I am certain.'

In the softened light of the window, looking from the scene of her earlytrials to the shining sky, she was not in stronger opposition to theblack figure in the shade than the life and doctrine on which she restedwere to that figure's history. It bent its head low again, and said nota word. It remained thus, until the first warning bell began to ring.

'Hark!' cried Mrs Clennam starting, 'I said I had another petition.It is one that does not admit of delay. The man who brought you thispacket and possesses these proofs, is now waiting at my house to bebought off. I can keep this from Arthur, only by buying him off. Heasks a large sum; more than I can get together to pay him without havingtime. He refuses to make any abatement, because his threat is, that ifhe fails with me, he will come to you. Will you return with me and showhim that you already know it? Will you return with me and try to prevailwith him? Will you come and help me with him? Do not refuse what I askin Arthur's name, though I dare not ask it for Arthur's sake!'

Little Dorrit yielded willingly. She glided away into the prison for afew moments, returned, and said she was ready to go. They went outby another staircase, avoiding the lodge; and coming into the frontcourt-yard, now all quiet and deserted, gained the street.

It was one of those summer evenings when there is no greater darknessthan a long twilight. The vista of street and bridge was plain to see,and the sky was serene and beautiful. People stood and sat at theirdoors, playing with children and enjoying the evening; numbers werewalking for air; the worry of the day had almost worried itself out, andfew but themselves were hurried. As they crossed the bridge, the clearsteeples of the many churches looked as if they had advanced out of themurk that usually enshrouded them, and come much nearer. The smoke thatrose into the sky had lost its dingy hue and taken a brightness upon it.The beauties of the sunset had not faded from the long light films ofcloud that lay at peace in the horizon. From a radiant centre, overthe whole length and breadth of the tranquil firmament, great shoots oflight streamed among the early stars, like signs of the blessed latercovenant of peace and hope that changed the crown of thorns into aglory.

Less remarkable, now that she was not alone and it was darker, MrsClennam hurried on at Little Dorrit's side, unmolested. They left thegreat thoroughfare at the turning by which she had entered it, and woundtheir way down among the silent, empty, cross-streets. Their feet wereat the gateway, when there was a sudden noise like thunder.

'What was that! Let us make haste in,' cried Mrs Clennam.

They were in the gateway. Little Dorrit, with a piercing cry, held herback.

In one swift instant the old house was before them, with the man lyingsmoking in the window; another thundering sound, and it heaved, surgedoutward, opened asunder in fifty places, collapsed, and fell. Deafenedby the noise, stifled, choked, and blinded by the dust, they hid theirfaces and stood rooted to the spot. The dust storm, driving between themand the placid sky, parted for a moment and showed them the stars. Asthey looked up, wildly crying for help, the great pile of chimneys,which was then alone left standing like a tower in a whirlwind, rocked,broke, and hailed itself down upon the heap of ruin, as if everytumbling fragment were intent on burying the crushed wretch deeper.

So blackened by the flying particles of rubbish as to be unrecognisable,they ran back from the gateway into the street, crying and shrieking.There, Mrs Clennam dropped upon the stones; and she never from that hourmoved so much as a finger again, or had the power to speak one word.For upwards of three years she reclined in a wheeled chair, lookingattentively at those about her and appearing to understand what theysaid; but the rigid silence she had so long held was evermore enforcedupon her, and except that she could move her eyes and faintly express anegative and affirmative with her head, she lived and died a statue.

Affery had been looking for them at the prison, and had caught sightof them at a distance on the bridge. She came up to receive her oldmistress in her arms, to help to carry her into a neighbouring house,and to be faithful to her. The mystery of the noises was out now;Affery, like greater people, had always been right in her facts, andalways wrong in the theories she deduced from them.

When the storm of dust had cleared away and the summer night was calmagain, numbers of people choked up every avenue of access, and partiesof diggers were formed to relieve one another in digging among theruins. There had been a hundred people in the house at the time of itsfall, there had been fifty, there had been fifteen, there had beentwo. Rumour finally settled the number at two; the foreigner and MrFlintwinch.

The diggers dug all through the short night by flaring pipes of gas, andon a level with the early sun, and deeper and deeper below it as it roseinto its zenith, and aslant of it as it declined, and on a level with itagain as it departed. Sturdy digging, and shovelling, and carrying away,in carts, barrows, and baskets, went on without intermission, by nightand by day; but it was night for the second time when they found thedirty heap of rubbish that had been the foreigner before his head hadbeen shivered to atoms, like so much glass, by the great beam that layupon him, crushing him.

Still, they had not come upon Flintwinch yet; so the sturdy digging andshovelling and carrying away went on without intermission by night andby day. It got about that the old house had had famous cellarage (whichindeed was true), and that Flintwinch had been in a cellar at themoment, or had had time to escape into one, and that he was safe underits strong arch, and even that he had been heard to cry, in hollow,subterranean, suffocated notes, 'Here I am!' At the opposite extremityof the town it was even known that the excavators had been able to opena communication with him through a pipe, and that he had received bothsoup and brandy by that channel, and that he had said with admirablefortitude that he was All right, my lads, with the exception of hiscollar-bone. But the digging and shovelling and carrying away went onwithout intermission, until the ruins were all dug out, and the cellarsopened to the light; and still no Flintwinch, living or dead, all rightor all wrong, had been turned up by pick or spade.

It began then to be perceived that Flintwinch had not been there at thetime of the fall; and it began then to be perceived that he had beenrather busy elsewhere, converting securities into as much money as couldbe got for them on the shortest notice, and turning to his own exclusiveaccount his authority to act for the Firm. Affery, remembering that theclever one had said he would explain himself further in four-and-twentyhours' time, determined for her part that his taking himself off withinthat period with all he could get, was the final satisfactory sum andsubstance of his promised explanation; but she held her peace, devoutlythankful to be quit of him. As it seemed reasonable to conclude that aman who had never been buried could not be unburied, the diggers gavehim up when their task was done, and did not dig down for him into thedepths of the earth.

This was taken in ill part by a great many people, who persistedin believing that Flintwinch was lying somewhere among the Londongeological formation. Nor was their belief much shaken by repeatedintelligence which came over in course of time, that an old man who worethe tie of his neckcloth under one ear, and who was very well known tobe an Englishman, consorted with the Dutchmen on the quaint banks of thecanals of the Hague and in the drinking-shops of Amsterdam, under thestyle and designation of Mynheer von Flyntevynge.