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Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit/9

CHAPTER 8. The Lock

Arthur Clennam stood in the street, waiting to ask some passer-by whatplace that was. He suffered a few people to pass him in whose face therewas no encouragement to make the inquiry, and still stood pausing in thestreet, when an old man came up and turned into the courtyard.

He stooped a good deal, and plodded along in a slow pre-occupied manner,which made the bustling London thoroughfares no very safe resort forhim. He was dirtily and meanly dressed, in a threadbare coat, once blue,reaching to his ankles and buttoned to his chin, where it vanished inthe pale ghost of a velvet collar. A piece of red cloth with which thatphantom had been stiffened in its lifetime was now laid bare, and pokeditself up, at the back of the old man's neck, into a confusion of greyhair and rusty stock and buckle which altogether nearly poked hishat off. A greasy hat it was, and a napless; impending over his eyes,cracked and crumpled at the brim, and with a wisp of pocket-handkerchiefdangling out below it. His trousers were so long and loose, and hisshoes so clumsy and large, that he shuffled like an elephant; though howmuch of this was gait, and how much trailing cloth and leather, no onecould have told. Under one arm he carried a limp and worn-out case,containing some wind instrument; in the same hand he had a pennyworthof snuff in a little packet of whitey-brown paper, from which he slowlycomforted his poor blue old nose with a lengthened-out pinch, as ArthurClennam looked at him.

To this old man crossing the court-yard, he preferred his inquiry,touching him on the shoulder. The old man stopped and looked round, withthe expression in his weak grey eyes of one whose thoughts had been faroff, and who was a little dull of hearing also.

'Pray, sir,' said Arthur, repeating his question, 'what is this place?'

'Ay! This place?' returned the old man, staying his pinch of snuff onits road, and pointing at the place without looking at it. 'This is theMarshalsea, sir.'

'The debtors' prison?'

'Sir,' said the old man, with the air of deeming it not quite necessaryto insist upon that designation, 'the debtors' prison.'

He turned himself about, and went on.

'I beg your pardon,' said Arthur, stopping him once more, 'but will youallow me to ask you another question? Can any one go in here?'

'Any one can _go in_,' replied the old man; plainly adding by thesignificance of his emphasis, 'but it is not every one who can go out.'

'Pardon me once more. Are you familiar with the place?'

'Sir,' returned the old man, squeezing his little packet of snuff in hishand, and turning upon his interrogator as if such questions hurt him.'I am.'

'I beg you to excuse me. I am not impertinently curious, but have a goodobject. Do you know the name of Dorrit here?'

'My name, sir,' replied the old man most unexpectedly, 'is Dorrit.'

Arthur pulled off his hat to him. 'Grant me the favour of half-a-dozenwords. I was wholly unprepared for your announcement, and hope thatassurance is my sufficient apology for having taken the liberty ofaddressing you. I have recently come home to England after a longabsence. I have seen at my mother's--Mrs Clennam in the city--a youngwoman working at her needle, whom I have only heard addressed or spokenof as Little Dorrit. I have felt sincerely interested in her, and havehad a great desire to know something more about her. I saw her, not aminute before you came up, pass in at that door.'

The old man looked at him attentively. 'Are you a sailor, sir?' heasked. He seemed a little disappointed by the shake of the head thatreplied to him. 'Not a sailor? I judged from your sunburnt face that youmight be. Are you in earnest, sir?'

'I do assure you that I am, and do entreat you to believe that I am, inplain earnest.'

'I know very little of the world, sir,' returned the other, who had aweak and quavering voice. 'I am merely passing on, like the shadow overthe sun-dial. It would be worth no man's while to mislead me; it wouldreally be too easy--too poor a success, to yield any satisfaction. Theyoung woman whom you saw go in here is my brother's child. My brotheris William Dorrit; I am Frederick. You say you have seen her at yourmother's (I know your mother befriends her), you have felt an interestin her, and you wish to know what she does here. Come and see.'

He went on again, and Arthur accompanied him.

'My brother,' said the old man, pausing on the step and slowly facinground again, 'has been here many years; and much that happens even amongourselves, out of doors, is kept from him for reasons that I needn'tenter upon now. Be so good as to say nothing of my niece's working ather needle. Be so good as to say nothing that goes beyond what is saidamong us. If you keep within our bounds, you cannot well be wrong. Now!Come and see.'

Arthur followed him down a narrow entry, at the end of which a key wasturned, and a strong door was opened from within. It admitted them intoa lodge or lobby, across which they passed, and so through another doorand a grating into the prison. The old man always plodding on before,turned round, in his slow, stiff, stooping manner, when they came to theturnkey on duty, as if to present his companion. The turnkey nodded; andthe companion passed in without being asked whom he wanted.

The night was dark; and the prison lamps in the yard, and the candles inthe prison windows faintly shining behind many sorts of wry old curtainand blind, had not the air of making it lighter. A few people loiteredabout, but the greater part of the population was within doors. The oldman, taking the right-hand side of the yard, turned in at the third orfourth doorway, and began to ascend the stairs. 'They are rather dark,sir, but you will not find anything in the way.'

He paused for a moment before opening a door on the second story. He hadno sooner turned the handle than the visitor saw Little Dorrit, and sawthe reason of her setting so much store by dining alone.

She had brought the meat home that she should have eaten herself, andwas already warming it on a gridiron over the fire for her father, cladin an old grey gown and a black cap, awaiting his supper at the table.A clean cloth was spread before him, with knife, fork, and spoon,salt-cellar, pepper-box, glass, and pewter ale-pot. Such zests as hisparticular little phial of cayenne pepper and his pennyworth of picklesin a saucer, were not wanting.

She started, coloured deeply, and turned white. The visitor, more withhis eyes than by the slight impulsive motion of his hand, entreated herto be reassured and to trust him.

'I found this gentleman,' said the uncle--'Mr Clennam, William, son ofAmy's friend--at the outer gate, wishful, as he was going by, of payinghis respects, but hesitating whether to come in or not. This is mybrother William, sir.'

'I hope,' said Arthur, very doubtful what to say, 'that my respect foryour daughter may explain and justify my desire to be presented to you,sir.'

'Mr Clennam,' returned the other, rising, taking his cap off in theflat of his hand, and so holding it, ready to put on again, 'you do mehonour. You are welcome, sir;' with a low bow. 'Frederick, a chair. Praysit down, Mr Clennam.'

He put his black cap on again as he had taken it off, and resumed hisown seat. There was a wonderful air of benignity and patronage in hismanner. These were the ceremonies with which he received the collegians.

'You are welcome to the Marshalsea, sir. I have welcomed many gentlemento these walls. Perhaps you are aware--my daughter Amy may havementioned that I am the Father of this place.'

'I--so I have understood,' said Arthur, dashing at the assertion.

'You know, I dare say, that my daughter Amy was born here. A good girl,sir, a dear girl, and long a comfort and support to me. Amy, my dear,put this dish on; Mr Clennam will excuse the primitive customs to whichwe are reduced here. Is it a compliment to ask you if you would do methe honour, sir, to--'

'Thank you,' returned Arthur. 'Not a morsel.'

He felt himself quite lost in wonder at the manner of the man, and thatthe probability of his daughter's having had a reserve as to her familyhistory, should be so far out of his mind.

She filled his glass, put all the little matters on the table ready tohis hand, and then sat beside him while he ate his supper. Evidently inobservance of their nightly custom, she put some bread before herself,and touched his glass with her lips; but Arthur saw she was troubledand took nothing. Her look at her father, half admiring him and proudof him, half ashamed for him, all devoted and loving, went to his inmostheart.

The Father of the Marshalsea condescended towards his brother as anamiable, well-meaning man; a private character, who had not arrived atdistinction. 'Frederick,' said he, 'you and Fanny sup at your lodgingsto-night, I know. What have you done with Fanny, Frederick?'

'She is walking with Tip.'

'Tip--as you may know--is my son, Mr Clennam. He has been a littlewild, and difficult to settle, but his introduction to the world wasrather'--he shrugged his shoulders with a faint sigh, and looked roundthe room--'a little adverse. Your first visit here, sir?'

'My first.'

'You could hardly have been here since your boyhood without myknowledge. It very seldom happens that anybody--of any pretensions--anypretensions--comes here without being presented to me.'

'As many as forty or fifty in a day have been introduced to my brother,'said Frederick, faintly lighting up with a ray of pride.

'Yes!' the Father of the Marshalsea assented. 'We have even exceededthat number. On a fine Sunday in term time, it is quite a Levee--quitea Levee. Amy, my dear, I have been trying half the day to remember thename of the gentleman from Camberwell who was introduced to me lastChristmas week by that agreeable coal-merchant who was remanded for sixmonths.'

'I don't remember his name, father.'

'Frederick, do _you_ remember his name?'

Frederick doubted if he had ever heard it. No one could doubt thatFrederick was the last person upon earth to put such a question to, withany hope of information.

'I mean,' said his brother, 'the gentleman who did that handsome actionwith so much delicacy. Ha! Tush! The name has quite escaped me. MrClennam, as I have happened to mention handsome and delicate action, youmay like, perhaps, to know what it was.'

'Very much,' said Arthur, withdrawing his eyes from the delicate headbeginning to droop and the pale face with a new solicitude stealing overit.

'It is so generous, and shows so much fine feeling, that it is almost aduty to mention it. I said at the time that I always would mention iton every suitable occasion, without regard to personal sensitiveness.A--well--a--it's of no use to disguise the fact--you must know, MrClennam, that it does sometimes occur that people who come here desireto offer some little--Testimonial--to the Father of the place.'

To see her hand upon his arm in mute entreaty half-repressed, and hertimid little shrinking figure turning away, was to see a sad, sad sight.

'Sometimes,' he went on in a low, soft voice, agitated, and clearinghis throat every now and then; 'sometimes--hem--it takes one shape andsometimes another; but it is generally--ha--Money. And it is, I cannotbut confess it, it is too often--hem--acceptable. This gentleman that Irefer to, was presented to me, Mr Clennam, in a manner highly gratifyingto my feelings, and conversed not only with great politeness, but withgreat--ahem--information.' All this time, though he had finished hissupper, he was nervously going about his plate with his knife andfork, as if some of it were still before him. 'It appeared from hisconversation that he had a garden, though he was delicate of mentioningit at first, as gardens are--hem--are not accessible to me. But it cameout, through my admiring a very fine cluster of geranium--beautifulcluster of geranium to be sure--which he had brought from hisconservatory. On my taking notice of its rich colour, he showed me apiece of paper round it, on which was written, ”For the Father of theMarshalsea,” and presented it to me. But this was--hem--not all. He madea particular request, on taking leave, that I would remove the paper inhalf an hour. I--ha--I did so; and I found that it contained--ahem--twoguineas. I assure you, Mr Clennam, I have received--hem--Testimonialsin many ways, and of many degrees of value, and they have alwaysbeen--ha--unfortunately acceptable; but I never was more pleased thanwith this--ahem--this particular Testimonial.'

Arthur was in the act of saying the little he could say on such a theme,when a bell began to ring, and footsteps approached the door. A prettygirl of a far better figure and much more developed than Little Dorrit,though looking much younger in the face when the two were observedtogether, stopped in the doorway on seeing a stranger; and a young manwho was with her, stopped too.

'Mr Clennam, Fanny. My eldest daughter and my son, Mr Clennam. The bellis a signal for visitors to retire, and so they have come to say goodnight; but there is plenty of time, plenty of time. Girls, Mr Clennamwill excuse any household business you may have together. He knows, Idare say, that I have but one room here.'

'I only want my clean dress from Amy, father,' said the second girl.

'And I my clothes,' said Tip.

Amy opened a drawer in an old piece of furniture that was a chest ofdrawers above and a bedstead below, and produced two little bundles,which she handed to her brother and sister. 'Mended and made up?'Clennam heard the sister ask in a whisper. To which Amy answered 'Yes.'He had risen now, and took the opportunity of glancing round the room.The bare walls had been coloured green, evidently by an unskilled hand,and were poorly decorated with a few prints. The window was curtained,and the floor carpeted; and there were shelves and pegs, and other suchconveniences, that had accumulated in the course of years. It was aclose, confined room, poorly furnished; and the chimney smoked to boot,or the tin screen at the top of the fireplace was superfluous; butconstant pains and care had made it neat, and even, after its kind,comfortable.

All the while the bell was ringing, and the uncle was anxious to go.'Come, Fanny, come, Fanny,' he said, with his ragged clarionet caseunder his arm; 'the lock, child, the lock!'

Fanny bade her father good night, and whisked off airily. Tip hadalready clattered down-stairs. 'Now, Mr Clennam,' said the uncle,looking back as he shuffled out after them, 'the lock, sir, the lock.'

Mr Clennam had two things to do before he followed; one, to offer histestimonial to the Father of the Marshalsea, without giving pain to hischild; the other to say something to that child, though it were but aword, in explanation of his having come there.

'Allow me,' said the Father, 'to see you down-stairs.'

She had slipped out after the rest, and they were alone. 'Not on anyaccount,' said the visitor, hurriedly. 'Pray allow me to--' chink,chink, chink.

'Mr Clennam,' said the Father, 'I am deeply, deeply--' But his visitorhad shut up his hand to stop the clinking, and had gone down-stairs withgreat speed.

He saw no Little Dorrit on his way down, or in the yard. The last two orthree stragglers were hurrying to the lodge, and he was following,when he caught sight of her in the doorway of the first house from theentrance. He turned back hastily.

'Pray forgive me,' he said, 'for speaking to you here; pray forgive mefor coming here at all! I followed you to-night. I did so, that I mightendeavour to render you and your family some service. You know theterms on which I and my mother are, and may not be surprised that Ihave preserved our distant relations at her house, lest I shouldunintentionally make her jealous, or resentful, or do you any injury inher estimation. What I have seen here, in this short time, has greatlyincreased my heartfelt wish to be a friend to you. It would recompenseme for much disappointment if I could hope to gain your confidence.'

She was scared at first, but seemed to take courage while he spoke toher.

'You are very good, sir. You speak very earnestly to me. But I--but Iwish you had not watched me.'

He understood the emotion with which she said it, to arise in herfather's behalf; and he respected it, and was silent.

'Mrs Clennam has been of great service to me; I don't know what weshould have done without the employment she has given me; I am afraidit may not be a good return to become secret with her; I can say no moreto-night, sir. I am sure you mean to be kind to us. Thank you, thankyou.'

'Let me ask you one question before I leave. Have you known my motherlong?'

'I think two years, sir,--The bell has stopped.'

'How did you know her first? Did she send here for you?'

'No. She does not even know that I live here. We have a friend, fatherand I--a poor labouring man, but the best of friends--and I wrote outthat I wished to do needlework, and gave his address. And he got whatI wrote out displayed at a few places where it cost nothing, and MrsClennam found me that way, and sent for me. The gate will be locked,sir!'

She was so tremulous and agitated, and he was so moved by compassion forher, and by deep interest in her story as it dawned upon him, that hecould scarcely tear himself away. But the stoppage of the bell, and thequiet in the prison, were a warning to depart; and with a few hurriedwords of kindness he left her gliding back to her father.

But he remained too late. The inner gate was locked, and the lodgeclosed. After a little fruitless knocking with his hand, he was standingthere with the disagreeable conviction upon him that he had got to getthrough the night, when a voice accosted him from behind.

'Caught, eh?' said the voice. 'You won't go home till morning. Oh! It'syou, is it, Mr Clennam?'

The voice was Tip's; and they stood looking at one another in theprison-yard, as it began to rain.

'You've done it,' observed Tip; 'you must be sharper than that nexttime.'

'But you are locked in too,' said Arthur.

'I believe I am!' said Tip, sarcastically. 'About! But not in your way.I belong to the shop, only my sister has a theory that our governor mustnever know it. I don't see why, myself.'

'Can I get any shelter?' asked Arthur. 'What had I better do?'

'We had better get hold of Amy first of all,' said Tip, referring anydifficulty to her as a matter of course.

'I would rather walk about all night--it's not much to do--than givethat trouble.'

'You needn't do that, if you don't mind paying for a bed. If you don'tmind paying, they'll make you up one on the Snuggery table, under thecircumstances. If you'll come along, I'll introduce you there.'

As they passed down the yard, Arthur looked up at the window of the roomhe had lately left, where the light was still burning. 'Yes, sir,' saidTip, following his glance. 'That's the governor's. She'll sit with himfor another hour reading yesterday's paper to him, or something of thatsort; and then she'll come out like a little ghost, and vanish awaywithout a sound.'

'I don't understand you.'

'The governor sleeps up in the room, and she has a lodging at theturnkey's. First house there,' said Tip, pointing out the doorway intowhich she had retired. 'First house, sky parlour. She pays twice as muchfor it as she would for one twice as good outside. But she stands by thegovernor, poor dear girl, day and night.'

This brought them to the tavern-establishment at the upper end of theprison, where the collegians had just vacated their social evening club.The apartment on the ground-floor in which it was held, was the Snuggeryin question; the presidential tribune of the chairman, the pewter-pots,glasses, pipes, tobacco-ashes, and general flavour of members, werestill as that convivial institution had left them on its adjournment.The Snuggery had two of the qualities popularly held to be essential togrog for ladies, in respect that it was hot and strong; but in the thirdpoint of analogy, requiring plenty of it, the Snuggery was defective;being but a cooped-up apartment.

The unaccustomed visitor from outside, naturally assumed everybody hereto be prisoners--landlord, waiter, barmaid, potboy, and all. Whetherthey were or not, did not appear; but they all had a weedy look. Thekeeper of a chandler's shop in a front parlour, who took in gentlemenboarders, lent his assistance in making the bed. He had been a tailor inhis time, and had kept a phaeton, he said. He boasted that he stood uplitigiously for the interests of the college; and he had undefined andundefinable ideas that the marshal intercepted a 'Fund,' which ought tocome to the collegians. He liked to believe this, and always impressedthe shadowy grievance on new-comers and strangers; though he could not,for his life, have explained what Fund he meant, or how the notion hadgot rooted in his soul. He had fully convinced himself, notwithstanding,that his own proper share of the Fund was three and ninepence a week;and that in this amount he, as an individual collegian, was swindled bythe marshal, regularly every Monday. Apparently, he helped to make thebed, that he might not lose an opportunity of stating this case; afterwhich unloading of his mind, and after announcing (as it seemed healways did, without anything coming of it) that he was going to write aletter to the papers and show the marshal up, he fell into miscellaneousconversation with the rest. It was evident from the general tone of thewhole party, that they had come to regard insolvency as the normal stateof mankind, and the payment of debts as a disease that occasionallybroke out.

In this strange scene, and with these strange spectres flitting abouthim, Arthur Clennam looked on at the preparations as if they were partof a dream. Pending which, the long-initiated Tip, with an awfulenjoyment of the Snuggery's resources, pointed out the common kitchenfire maintained by subscription of collegians, the boiler for hot watersupported in like manner, and other premises generally tending to thededuction that the way to be healthy, wealthy, and wise, was to come tothe Marshalsea.

The two tables put together in a corner, were, at length, converted intoa very fair bed; and the stranger was left to the Windsor chairs,the presidential tribune, the beery atmosphere, sawdust, pipe-lights,spittoons and repose. But the last item was long, long, long, in linkingitself to the rest. The novelty of the place, the coming upon it withoutpreparation, the sense of being locked up, the remembrance of that roomup-stairs, of the two brothers, and above all of the retiring childishform, and the face in which he now saw years of insufficient food, ifnot of want, kept him waking and unhappy.

Speculations, too, bearing the strangest relations towards the prison,but always concerning the prison, ran like nightmares through his mindwhile he lay awake. Whether coffins were kept ready for people who mightdie there, where they were kept, how they were kept, where people whodied in the prison were buried, how they were taken out, what forms wereobserved, whether an implacable creditor could arrest the dead? As toescaping, what chances there were of escape? Whether a prisoner couldscale the walls with a cord and grapple, how he would descend uponthe other side? whether he could alight on a housetop, steal down astaircase, let himself out at a door, and get lost in the crowd? As toFire in the prison, if one were to break out while he lay there?

And these involuntary starts of fancy were, after all, but the settingof a picture in which three people kept before him. His father, with thesteadfast look with which he had died, prophetically darkened forth inthe portrait; his mother, with her arm up, warding off his suspicion;Little Dorrit, with her hand on the degraded arm, and her drooping headturned away.

What if his mother had an old reason she well knew for softening tothis poor girl! What if the prisoner now sleeping quietly--Heaven grantit!--by the light of the great Day of judgment should trace back hisfall to her. What if any act of hers and of his father's, should haveeven remotely brought the grey heads of those two brothers so low!

A swift thought shot into his mind. In that long imprisonment here, andin her own long confinement to her room, did his mother find a balanceto be struck? 'I admit that I was accessory to that man's captivity. Ihave suffered for it in kind. He has decayed in his prison: I in mine. Ihave paid the penalty.'

When all the other thoughts had faded out, this one held possessionof him. When he fell asleep, she came before him in her wheeled chair,warding him off with this justification. When he awoke, and sprang upcauselessly frightened, the words were in his ears, as if her voice hadslowly spoken them at his pillow, to break his rest: 'He withers away inhis prison; I wither away in mine; inexorable justice is done; what do Iowe on this score!'