Little Dorrit 011


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‘You see.’

‘I never knew my father to show so much anxiety on any subject, as that his watch should be sent straight to you.’

‘I keep it here as a remembrance of your father.’

‘It was not until the last, that he expressed the wish; when he could only put his hand upon it, and very indistinctly say to me “your mother.” A moment before, I thought him wandering in his mind, as he had been for many hours–I think he had no consciousness of pain in his short illness–when I saw him turn himself in his bed and try to open it.’

‘Was your father, then, not wandering in his mind when he tried to open it?’

‘No. He was quite sensible at that time.’

Mrs Clennam shook her head; whether in dismissal of the deceased or opposing herself to her son’s opinion, was not clearly expressed.

‘After my father’s death I opened it myself, thinking there might be, for anything I knew, some memorandum there. However, as I need not tell you, mother, there was nothing but the old silk watch-paper worked in beads, which you found (no doubt) in its place between the cases, where I found and left it.’

Mrs Clennam signified assent; then added, ‘No more of business on this day,’ and then added, ‘Affery, it is nine o’clock.’

Upon this, the old woman cleared the little table, went out of the room, and quickly returned with a tray on which was a dish of little rusks and a small precise pat of butter, cool, symmetrical, white, and plump. The old man who had been standing by the door in one attitude during the whole interview, looking at the mother up-stairs as he had looked at the son down-stairs, went out at the same time, and, after a longer absence, returned with another tray on which was the greater part of a bottle of port wine (which, to judge by his panting, he had brought from the cellar), a lemon, a sugar-basin, and a spice box. With these materials and the aid of the kettle, he filled a tumbler with a hot and odorous mixture, measured out and compounded with as much nicety as a physician’s prescription. Into this mixture Mrs Clennam dipped certain of the rusks, and ate them; while the old woman buttered certain other of the rusks, which were to be eaten alone. When the invalid had eaten all the rusks and drunk all the mixture, the two trays were removed; and the books and the candle, watch, handkerchief, and spectacles were replaced upon the table. She then put on the spectacles and read certain passages aloud from a book–sternly, fiercely, wrathfully–praying that her enemies (she made them by her tone and manner expressly hers) might be put to the edge of the sword, consumed by fire, smitten by plagues and leprosy, that their bones might be ground to dust, and that they might be utterly exterminated. As she read on, years seemed to fall away from her son like the imaginings of a dream, and all the old dark horrors of his usual preparation for the sleep of an innocent child to overshadow him.

She shut the book and remained for a little time with her face shaded by her hand. So did the old man, otherwise still unchanged in attitude; so, probably, did the old woman in her dimmer part of the room. Then the sick woman was ready for bed.

‘Good night, Arthur. Affery will see to your accommodation. Only touch me, for my hand is tender.’ He touched the worsted muffling of her hand–that was nothing; if his mother had been sheathed in brass there would have been no new barrier between them–and followed the old man and woman down-stairs.

The latter asked him, when they were alone together among the heavy shadows of the dining-room, would he have some supper?

‘No, Affery, no supper.’

‘You shall if you like,’ said Affery. ‘There’s her tomorrow’s partridge in the larder–her first this year; say the word and I’ll cook it.’

No, he had not long dined, and could eat nothing.

‘Have something to drink, then,’ said Affery; ‘you shall have some of her bottle of port, if you like. I’ll tell Jeremiah that you ordered me to bring it you.’

No; nor would he have that, either.

‘It’s no reason, Arthur,’ said the old woman, bending over him to whisper, ‘that because I am afeared of my life of ‘em, you should be. You’ve got half the property, haven’t you?’

‘Yes, yes.’

‘Well then, don’t you be cowed. You’re clever, Arthur, an’t you?’

He nodded, as she seemed to expect an answer in the affirmative.

‘Then stand up against them! She’s awful clever, and none but a clever one durst say a word to her. _He’s_ a clever one–oh, he’s a clever one!–and he gives it her when he has a mind to’t, he does!’

‘Your husband does?’

‘Does? It makes me shake from head to foot, to hear him give it her. My husband, Jeremiah Flintwinch, can conquer even your mother. What can he be but a clever one to do that!’

His shuffling footstep coming towards them caused her to retreat to the other end of the room. Though a tall, hard-favoured, sinewy old woman, who in her youth might have enlisted in the Foot Guards without much fear of discovery, she collapsed before the little keen-eyed crab-like old man.

‘Now, Affery,’ said he, ‘now, woman, what are you doing? Can’t you find Master Arthur something or another to pick at?’

Master Arthur repeated his recent refusal to pick at anything.

‘Very well, then,’ said the old man; ‘make his bed. Stir yourself.’ His neck was so twisted that the knotted ends of his white cravat usually dangled under one ear; his natural acerbity and energy, always contending with a second nature of habitual repression, gave his features a swollen and suffused look; and altogether, he had a weird appearance of having hanged himself at one time or other, and of having gone about ever since, halter and all, exactly as some timely hand had cut him down.

‘You’ll have bitter words together to-morrow, Arthur; you and your mother,’ said Jeremiah. ‘Your having given up the business on your father’s death–which she suspects, though we have left it to you to tell her–won’t go off smoothly.’


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