Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/7

CHAPTER 6. The Father of the Marshalsea

Thirty years ago there stood, a few doors short of the church of SaintGeorge, in the borough of Southwark, on the left-hand side of the waygoing southward, the Marshalsea Prison. It had stood there many yearsbefore, and it remained there some years afterwards; but it is gone now,and the world is none the worse without it.

It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalidhouses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms;environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly spiked attop. Itself a close and confined prison for debtors, it contained withinit a much closer and more confined jail for smugglers. Offenders againstthe revenue laws, and defaulters to excise or customs who had incurredfines which they were unable to pay, were supposed to be incarceratedbehind an iron-plated door closing up a second prison, consisting of astrong cell or two, and a blind alley some yard and a half wide, whichformed the mysterious termination of the very limited skittle-ground inwhich the Marshalsea debtors bowled down their troubles.

Supposed to be incarcerated there, because the time had rather outgrownthe strong cells and the blind alley. In practice they had come to beconsidered a little too bad, though in theory they were quite as good asever; which may be observed to be the case at the present day with othercells that are not at all strong, and with other blind alleys that arestone-blind. Hence the smugglers habitually consorted with the debtors(who received them with open arms), except at certain constitutionalmoments when somebody came from some Office, to go through some form ofoverlooking something which neither he nor anybody else knew anythingabout. On these truly British occasions, the smugglers, if any, made afeint of walking into the strong cells and the blind alley, while thissomebody pretended to do his something: and made a reality of walkingout again as soon as he hadn't done it--neatly epitomising theadministration of most of the public affairs in our right little, tightlittle, island.

There had been taken to the Marshalsea Prison, long before the day whenthe sun shone on Marseilles and on the opening of this narrative, adebtor with whom this narrative has some concern.

He was, at that time, a very amiable and very helpless middle-agedgentleman, who was going out again directly. Necessarily, he was goingout again directly, because the Marshalsea lock never turned upon adebtor who was not. He brought in a portmanteau with him, which hedoubted its being worth while to unpack; he was so perfectly clear--likeall the rest of them, the turnkey on the lock said--that he was goingout again directly.

He was a shy, retiring man; well-looking, though in an effeminate style;with a mild voice, curling hair, and irresolute hands--rings upon thefingers in those days--which nervously wandered to his trembling lip ahundred times in the first half-hour of his acquaintance with the jail.His principal anxiety was about his wife.

'Do you think, sir,' he asked the turnkey, 'that she will be very muchshocked, if she should come to the gate to-morrow morning?'

The turnkey gave it as the result of his experience that some of 'em wasand some of 'em wasn't. In general, more no than yes. 'What like is she,you see?' he philosophically asked: 'that's what it hinges on.'

'She is very delicate and inexperienced indeed.'

'That,' said the turnkey, 'is agen her.'

'She is so little used to go out alone,' said the debtor, 'that I am ata loss to think how she will ever make her way here, if she walks.'

'P'raps,' quoth the turnkey, 'she'll take a ackney coach.'

'Perhaps.' The irresolute fingers went to the trembling lip. 'I hope shewill. She may not think of it.'

'Or p'raps,' said the turnkey, offering his suggestions from the the topof his well-worn wooden stool, as he might have offered them to a childfor whose weakness he felt a compassion, 'p'raps she'll get her brother,or her sister, to come along with her.'

'She has no brother or sister.'

'Niece, nevy, cousin, serwant, young 'ooman, greengrocer.--Dash it! Oneor another on 'em,' said the turnkey, repudiating beforehand the refusalof all his suggestions.

'I fear--I hope it is not against the rules--that she will bring thechildren.'

'The children?' said the turnkey. 'And the rules? Why, lord set youup like a corner pin, we've a reg'lar playground o' children here.Children! Why we swarm with 'em. How many a you got?'

'Two,' said the debtor, lifting his irresolute hand to his lip again,and turning into the prison.

The turnkey followed him with his eyes. 'And you another,' he observedto himself, 'which makes three on you. And your wife another, I'll laya crown. Which makes four on you. And another coming, I'll layhalf-a-crown. Which'll make five on you. And I'll go another seven andsixpence to name which is the helplessest, the unborn baby or you!'

He was right in all his particulars. She came next day with a littleboy of three years old, and a little girl of two, and he stood entirelycorroborated.

'Got a room now; haven't you?' the turnkey asked the debtor after a weekor two.

'Yes, I have got a very good room.'

'Any little sticks a coming to furnish it?' said the turnkey.

'I expect a few necessary articles of furniture to be delivered by thecarrier, this afternoon.'

'Missis and little 'uns a coming to keep you company?' asked theturnkey.

'Why, yes, we think it better that we should not be scattered, even fora few weeks.'

'Even for a few weeks, _of_ course,' replied the turnkey. And he followedhim again with his eyes, and nodded his head seven times when he wasgone.

The affairs of this debtor were perplexed by a partnership, of which heknew no more than that he had invested money in it; by legal mattersof assignment and settlement, conveyance here and conveyance there,suspicion of unlawful preference of creditors in this direction, and ofmysterious spiriting away of property in that; and as nobody on the faceof the earth could be more incapable of explaining any single item inthe heap of confusion than the debtor himself, nothing comprehensiblecould be made of his case. To question him in detail, and endeavourto reconcile his answers; to closet him with accountants and sharppractitioners, learned in the wiles of insolvency and bankruptcy; wasonly to put the case out at compound interest and incomprehensibility.The irresolute fingers fluttered more and more ineffectually about thetrembling lip on every such occasion, and the sharpest practitionersgave him up as a hopeless job.

'Out?' said the turnkey, '_he_'ll never get out, unless his creditors takehim by the shoulders and shove him out.'

He had been there five or six months, when he came running to thisturnkey one forenoon to tell him, breathless and pale, that his wife wasill.

'As anybody might a known she would be,' said the turnkey.

'We intended,' he returned, 'that she should go to a country lodgingonly to-morrow. What am I to do! Oh, good heaven, what am I to do!'

'Don't waste your time in clasping your hands and biting your fingers,'responded the practical turnkey, taking him by the elbow, 'but comealong with me.'

The turnkey conducted him--trembling from head to foot, and constantlycrying under his breath, What was he to do! while his irresolute fingersbedabbled the tears upon his face--up one of the common staircases inthe prison to a door on the garret story. Upon which door the turnkeyknocked with the handle of his key.

'Come in!' cried a voice inside.

The turnkey, opening the door, disclosed in a wretched, ill-smellinglittle room, two hoarse, puffy, red-faced personages seated at arickety table, playing at all-fours, smoking pipes, and drinking brandy.

'Doctor,' said the turnkey, 'here's a gentleman's wife in want of youwithout a minute's loss of time!'

The doctor's friend was in the positive degree of hoarseness, puffiness,red-facedness, all-fours, tobacco, dirt, and brandy; the doctor inthe comparative--hoarser, puffier, more red-faced, more all-fourey,tobaccoer, dirtier, and brandier. The doctor was amazingly shabby, ina torn and darned rough-weather sea-jacket, out at elbows and eminentlyshort of buttons (he had been in his time the experienced surgeoncarried by a passenger ship), the dirtiest white trousers conceivable bymortal man, carpet slippers, and no visible linen. 'Childbed?' saidthe doctor. 'I'm the boy!' With that the doctor took a comb from thechimney-piece and stuck his hair upright--which appeared to be hisway of washing himself--produced a professional chest or case, of mostabject appearance, from the cupboard where his cup and saucer and coalswere, settled his chin in the frowsy wrapper round his neck, and becamea ghastly medical scarecrow.

The doctor and the debtor ran down-stairs, leaving the turnkey to returnto the lock, and made for the debtor's room. All the ladies in theprison had got hold of the news, and were in the yard. Some of themhad already taken possession of the two children, and were hospitablycarrying them off; others were offering loans of little comforts fromtheir own scanty store; others were sympathising with the greatestvolubility. The gentlemen prisoners, feeling themselves at adisadvantage, had for the most part retired, not to say sneaked,to their rooms; from the open windows of which some of them nowcomplimented the doctor with whistles as he passed below, while others,with several stories between them, interchanged sarcastic references tothe prevalent excitement.

It was a hot summer day, and the prison rooms were baking between thehigh walls. In the debtor's confined chamber, Mrs Bangham, charwoman andmessenger, who was not a prisoner (though she had been once), butwas the popular medium of communication with the outer world, hadvolunteered her services as fly-catcher and general attendant. The wallsand ceiling were blackened with flies. Mrs Bangham, expert in suddendevice, with one hand fanned the patient with a cabbage leaf, and withthe other set traps of vinegar and sugar in gallipots; at the same timeenunciating sentiments of an encouraging and congratulatory nature,adapted to the occasion.

'The flies trouble you, don't they, my dear?' said Mrs Bangham. 'Butp'raps they'll take your mind off of it, and do you good. What betweenthe buryin ground, the grocer's, the waggon-stables, and the paunchtrade, the Marshalsea flies gets very large. P'raps they're sent as aconsolation, if we only know'd it. How are you now, my dear? No better?No, my dear, it ain't to be expected; you'll be worse before you'rebetter, and you know it, don't you? Yes. That's right! And to think ofa sweet little cherub being born inside the lock! Now ain't it pretty,ain't _that_ something to carry you through it pleasant? Why, we ain'thad such a thing happen here, my dear, not for I couldn't name the timewhen. And you a crying too?' said Mrs Bangham, to rally the patient moreand more. 'You! Making yourself so famous! With the flies a falling intothe gallipots by fifties! And everything a going on so well! And here ifthere ain't,' said Mrs Bangham as the door opened, 'if there ain't yourdear gentleman along with Dr Haggage! And now indeed we _are_ complete, I_think_!'

The doctor was scarcely the kind of apparition to inspire a patientwith a sense of absolute completeness, but as he presently delivered theopinion, 'We are as right as we can be, Mrs Bangham, and we shallcome out of this like a house afire;' and as he and Mrs Bangham tookpossession of the poor helpless pair, as everybody else and anybody elsehad always done, the means at hand were as good on the whole as betterwould have been. The special feature in Dr Haggage's treatment of thecase, was his determination to keep Mrs Bangham up to the mark. As thus:

'Mrs Bangham,' said the doctor, before he had been there twenty minutes,'go outside and fetch a little brandy, or we shall have you giving in.'

'Thank you, sir. But none on my accounts,' said Mrs Bangham.

'Mrs Bangham,' returned the doctor, 'I am in professional attendanceon this lady, and don't choose to allow any discussion on your part. Gooutside and fetch a little brandy, or I foresee that you'll break down.'

'You're to be obeyed, sir,' said Mrs Bangham, rising. 'If you was to putyour own lips to it, I think you wouldn't be the worse, for you look butpoorly, sir.'

'Mrs Bangham,' returned the doctor, 'I am not your business, thank you,but you are mine. Never you mind _me_, if you please. What you have got todo, is, to do as you are told, and to go and get what I bid you.'

Mrs Bangham submitted; and the doctor, having administered herpotion, took his own. He repeated the treatment every hour, being verydetermined with Mrs Bangham. Three or four hours passed; the fliesfell into the traps by hundreds; and at length one little life, hardlystronger than theirs, appeared among the multitude of lesser deaths.

'A very nice little girl indeed,' said the doctor; 'little, butwell-formed. Halloa, Mrs Bangham! You're looking queer! You be off,ma'am, this minute, and fetch a little more brandy, or we shall have youin hysterics.'

By this time, the rings had begun to fall from the debtor's irresolutehands, like leaves from a wintry tree. Not one was left upon them thatnight, when he put something that chinked into the doctor's greasy palm.In the meantime Mrs Bangham had been out on an errand to a neighbouringestablishment decorated with three golden balls, where she was very wellknown.

'Thank you,' said the doctor, 'thank you. Your good lady is quitecomposed. Doing charmingly.'

'I am very happy and very thankful to know it,' said the debtor, 'thoughI little thought once, that--'

'That a child would be born to you in a place like this?' said thedoctor. 'Bah, bah, sir, what does it signify? A little more elbow-roomis all we want here. We are quiet here; we don't get badgered here;there's no knocker here, sir, to be hammered at by creditors and bring aman's heart into his mouth. Nobody comes here to ask if a man's athome, and to say he'll stand on the door mat till he is. Nobody writesthreatening letters about money to this place. It's freedom, sir, it'sfreedom! I have had to-day's practice at home and abroad, on a march,and aboard ship, and I'll tell you this: I don't know that I have everpursued it under such quiet circumstances as here this day. Elsewhere,people are restless, worried, hurried about, anxious respecting onething, anxious respecting another. Nothing of the kind here, sir. Wehave done all that--we know the worst of it; we have got to the bottom,we can't fall, and what have we found? Peace. That's the word forit. Peace.' With this profession of faith, the doctor, who was an oldjail-bird, and was more sodden than usual, and had the additional andunusual stimulus of money in his pocket, returned to his associate andchum in hoarseness, puffiness, red-facedness, all-fours, tobacco, dirt,and brandy.

Now, the debtor was a very different man from the doctor, but he hadalready begun to travel, by his opposite segment of the circle, to thesame point. Crushed at first by his imprisonment, he had soon found adull relief in it. He was under lock and key; but the lock and key thatkept him in, kept numbers of his troubles out. If he had been a man withstrength of purpose to face those troubles and fight them, he might havebroken the net that held him, or broken his heart; but being what hewas, he languidly slipped into this smooth descent, and never more tookone step upward.

When he was relieved of the perplexed affairs that nothing would makeplain, through having them returned upon his hands by a dozen agents insuccession who could make neither beginning, middle, nor end of them orhim, he found his miserable place of refuge a quieter refuge than ithad been before. He had unpacked the portmanteau long ago; and his elderchildren now played regularly about the yard, and everybody knew thebaby, and claimed a kind of proprietorship in her.

'Why, I'm getting proud of you,' said his friend the turnkey, one day.'You'll be the oldest inhabitant soon. The Marshalsea wouldn't be likethe Marshalsea now, without you and your family.'

The turnkey really was proud of him. He would mention him in laudatoryterms to new-comers, when his back was turned. 'You took notice of him,'he would say, 'that went out of the lodge just now?'

New-comer would probably answer Yes.

'Brought up as a gentleman, he was, if ever a man was. Ed'cated at noend of expense. Went into the Marshal's house once to try a new pianofor him. Played it, I understand, like one o'clock--beautiful! As tolanguages--speaks anything. We've had a Frenchman here in his time, andit's my opinion he knowed more French than the Frenchman did. We've hadan Italian here in his time, and he shut _him_ up in about half a minute.You'll find some characters behind other locks, I don't say you won't;but if you want the top sawyer in such respects as I've mentioned, youmust come to the Marshalsea.'

When his youngest child was eight years old, his wife, who had long beenlanguishing away--of her own inherent weakness, not that she retainedany greater sensitiveness as to her place of abode than he did--wentupon a visit to a poor friend and old nurse in the country, and diedthere. He remained shut up in his room for a fortnight afterwards;and an attorney's clerk, who was going through the Insolvent Court,engrossed an address of condolence to him, which looked like a Lease,and which all the prisoners signed. When he appeared again he wasgreyer (he had soon begun to turn grey); and the turnkey noticed thathis hands went often to his trembling lips again, as they had used to dowhen he first came in. But he got pretty well over it in a month ortwo; and in the meantime the children played about the yard as regularlyas ever, but in black.

Then Mrs Bangham, long popular medium of communication with the outerworld, began to be infirm, and to be found oftener than usual comatoseon pavements, with her basket of purchases spilt, and the change of herclients ninepence short. His son began to supersede Mrs Bangham, andto execute commissions in a knowing manner, and to be of the prisonprisonous, of the streets streety.

Time went on, and the turnkey began to fail. His chest swelled, and hislegs got weak, and he was short of breath. The well-worn wooden stoolwas 'beyond him,' he complained. He sat in an arm-chair with a cushion,and sometimes wheezed so, for minutes together, that he couldn't turnthe key. When he was overpowered by these fits, the debtor often turnedit for him.

'You and me,' said the turnkey, one snowy winter's night when the lodge,with a bright fire in it, was pretty full of company, 'is the oldestinhabitants. I wasn't here myself above seven year before you. I shan'tlast long. When I'm off the lock for good and all, you'll be the Fatherof the Marshalsea.'

The turnkey went off the lock of this world next day. His words wereremembered and repeated; and tradition afterwards handed down fromgeneration to generation--a Marshalsea generation might be calculated asabout three months--that the shabby old debtor with the soft manner andthe white hair, was the Father of the Marshalsea.

And he grew to be proud of the title. If any impostor had arisen toclaim it, he would have shed tears in resentment of the attempt todeprive him of his rights. A disposition began to be perceived in himto exaggerate the number of years he had been there; it was generallyunderstood that you must deduct a few from his account; he was vain, thefleeting generations of debtors said.

All new-comers were presented to him. He was punctilious in the exactionof this ceremony. The wits would perform the office of introduction withovercharged pomp and politeness, but they could not easily overstep hissense of its gravity. He received them in his poor room (he disliked anintroduction in the mere yard, as informal--a thing that might happento anybody), with a kind of bowed-down beneficence. They were welcome tothe Marshalsea, he would tell them. Yes, he was the Father of the place.So the world was kind enough to call him; and so he was, if more thantwenty years of residence gave him a claim to the title. It lookedsmall at first, but there was very good company there--among amixture--necessarily a mixture--and very good air.

It became a not unusual circumstance for letters to be put under hisdoor at night, enclosing half-a-crown, two half-crowns, now and then atlong intervals even half-a-sovereign, for the Father of the Marshalsea.'With the compliments of a collegian taking leave.' He received thegifts as tributes, from admirers, to a public character. Sometimesthese correspondents assumed facetious names, as the Brick, Bellows, OldGooseberry, Wideawake, Snooks, Mops, Cutaway, the Dogs-meat Man; but heconsidered this in bad taste, and was always a little hurt by it.

In the fulness of time, this correspondence showing signs of wearingout, and seeming to require an effort on the part of the correspondentsto which in the hurried circumstances of departure many of them mightnot be equal, he established the custom of attending collegians ofa certain standing, to the gate, and taking leave of them there. Thecollegian under treatment, after shaking hands, would occasionallystop to wrap up something in a bit of paper, and would come back againcalling 'Hi!'

He would look round surprised.'Me?' he would say, with a smile.

By this time the collegian would be up with him, and he would paternallyadd,'What have you forgotten? What can I do for you?'

'I forgot to leave this,' the collegian would usually return, 'for theFather of the Marshalsea.'

'My good sir,' he would rejoin, 'he is infinitely obliged to you.' But,to the last, the irresolute hand of old would remain in the pocket intowhich he had slipped the money during two or three turns about the yard,lest the transaction should be too conspicuous to the general body ofcollegians.

One afternoon he had been doing the honours of the place to a ratherlarge party of collegians, who happened to be going out, when, as he wascoming back, he encountered one from the poor side who had been taken inexecution for a small sum a week before, had 'settled' in the course ofthat afternoon, and was going out too. The man was a mere Plasterer inhis working dress; had his wife with him, and a bundle; and was in highspirits.

'God bless you, sir,' he said in passing.

'And you,' benignantly returned the Father of the Marshalsea.

They were pretty far divided, going their several ways, when thePlasterer called out, 'I say!--sir!' and came back to him.

'It ain't much,' said the Plasterer, putting a little pile of halfpencein his hand, 'but it's well meant.'

The Father of the Marshalsea had never been offered tribute in copperyet. His children often had, and with his perfect acquiescence it hadgone into the common purse to buy meat that he had eaten, and drink thathe had drunk; but fustian splashed with white lime, bestowing halfpenceon him, front to front, was new.

'How dare you!' he said to the man, and feebly burst into tears.

The Plasterer turned him towards the wall, that his face might not beseen; and the action was so delicate, and the man was so penetrated withrepentance, and asked pardon so honestly, that he could make him no lessacknowledgment than, 'I know you meant it kindly. Say no more.'

'Bless your soul, sir,' urged the Plasterer, 'I did indeed. I'd do moreby you than the rest of 'em do, I fancy.'

'What would you do?' he asked.

'I'd come back to see you, after I was let out.'

'Give me the money again,' said the other, eagerly, 'and I'll keep it,and never spend it. Thank you for it, thank you! I shall see you again?'

'If I live a week you shall.'

They shook hands and parted. The collegians, assembled in Symposium inthe Snuggery that night, marvelled what had happened to their Father; hewalked so late in the shadows of the yard, and seemed so downcast.