‘Flintwinch!’ said the mother, ‘look at my son. Look at him!’
‘Well, I _am_ looking at him,’ said Flintwinch.
She stretched out the arm with which she had shielded herself, and as she went on, pointed at the object of her anger.
‘In the very hour of his return almost–before the shoe upon his foot is dry–he asperses his father’s memory to his mother! Asks his mother to become, with him, a spy upon his father’s transactions through a lifetime! Has misgivings that the goods of this world which we have painfully got together early and late, with wear and tear and toil and self-denial, are so much plunder; and asks to whom they shall be given up, as reparation and restitution!’
Although she said this raging, she said it in a voice so far from being beyond her control that it was even lower than her usual tone. She also spoke with great distinctness.
‘Reparation!’ said she. ‘Yes, truly! It is easy for him to talk of reparation, fresh from journeying and junketing in foreign lands, and living a life of vanity and pleasure. But let him look at me, in prison, and in bonds here. I endure without murmuring, because it is appointed that I shall so make reparation for my sins. Reparation! Is there none in this room? Has there been none here this fifteen years?’
Thus was she always balancing her bargains with the Majesty of heaven, posting up the entries to her credit, strictly keeping her set-off, and claiming her due. She was only remarkable in this, for the force and emphasis with which she did it. Thousands upon thousands do it, according to their varying manner, every day.
‘Flintwinch, give me that book!’
The old man handed it to her from the table. She put two fingers between the leaves, closed the book upon them, and held it up to her son in a threatening way.
‘In the days of old, Arthur, treated of in this commentary, there were pious men, beloved of the Lord, who would have cursed their sons for less than this: who would have sent them forth, and sent whole nations forth, if such had supported them, to be avoided of God and man, and perish, down to the baby at the breast. But I only tell you that if you ever renew that theme with me, I will renounce you; I will so dismiss you through that doorway, that you had better have been motherless from your cradle. I will never see or know you more. And if, after all, you were to come into this darkened room to look upon me lying dead, my body should bleed, if I could make it, when you came near me.’
In part relieved by the intensity of this threat, and in part (monstrous as the fact is) by a general impression that it was in some sort a religious proceeding, she handed back the book to the old man, and was silent.
‘Now,’ said Jeremiah; ‘premising that I’m not going to stand between you two, will you let me ask (as I _have_ been called in, and made a third) what is all this about?’
‘Take your version of it,’ returned Arthur, finding it left to him to speak, ‘from my mother. Let it rest there. What I have said, was said to my mother only.’
‘Oh!’ returned the old man. ‘From your mother? Take it from your mother? Well! But your mother mentioned that you had been suspecting your father. That’s not dutiful, Mr Arthur. Who will you be suspecting next?’
‘Enough,’ said Mrs Clennam, turning her face so that it was addressed for the moment to the old man only. ‘Let no more be said about this.’
‘Yes, but stop a bit, stop a bit,’ the old man persisted. ‘Let us see how we stand. Have you told Mr Arthur that he mustn’t lay offences at his father’s door? That he has no right to do it? That he has no ground to go upon?’
‘I tell him so now.’
‘Ah! Exactly,’ said the old man. ‘You tell him so now. You hadn’t told him so before, and you tell him so now. Ay, ay! That’s right! You know I stood between you and his father so long, that it seems as if death had made no difference, and I was still standing between you. So I will, and so in fairness I require to have that plainly put forward. Arthur, you please to hear that you have no right to mistrust your father, and have no ground to go upon.’
He put his hands to the back of the wheeled chair, and muttering to himself, slowly wheeled his mistress back to her cabinet. ‘Now,’ he resumed, standing behind her: ‘in case I should go away leaving things half done, and so should be wanted again when you come to the other half and get into one of your flights, has Arthur told you what he means to do about the business?’
‘He has relinquished it.’
‘In favour of nobody, I suppose?’
Mrs Clennam glanced at her son, leaning against one of the windows. He observed the look and said, ‘To my mother, of course. She does what she pleases.’
‘And if any pleasure,’ she said after a short pause, ‘could arise for me out of the disappointment of my expectations that my son, in the prime of his life, would infuse new youth and strength into it, and make it of great profit and power, it would be in advancing an old and faithful servant. Jeremiah, the captain deserts the ship, but you and I will sink or float with it.’
Jeremiah, whose eyes glistened as if they saw money, darted a sudden look at the son, which seemed to say, ‘I owe _you_ no thanks for this; _you_ have done nothing towards it!’ and then told the mother that he thanked her, and that Affery thanked her, and that he would never desert her, and that Affery would never desert her. Finally, he hauled up his watch from its depths, and said, ‘Eleven. Time for your oysters!’ and with that change of subject, which involved no change of expression or manner, rang the bell.
But Mrs Clennam, resolved to treat herself with the greater rigour for having been supposed to be unacquainted with reparation, refused to eat her oysters when they were brought. They looked tempting; eight in number, circularly set out on a white plate on a tray covered with a white napkin, flanked by a slice of buttered French roll, and a little compact glass of cool wine and water; but she resisted all persuasions, and sent them down again–placing the act to her credit, no doubt, in her Eternal Day-Book.
This refection of oysters was not presided over by Affery, but by the girl who had appeared when the bell was rung; the same who had been in the dimly-lighted room last night. Now that he had an opportunity of observing her, Arthur found that her diminutive figure, small features, and slight spare dress, gave her the appearance of being much younger than she was. A woman, probably of not less than two-and-twenty, she might have been passed in the street for little more than half that age. Not that her face was very youthful, for in truth there was more consideration and care in it than naturally belonged to her utmost years; but she was so little and light, so noiseless and shy, and appeared so conscious of being out of place among the three hard elders, that she had all the manner and much of the appearance of a subdued child.
In a hard way, and in an uncertain way that fluctuated between patronage and putting down, the sprinkling from a watering-pot and hydraulic pressure, Mrs Clennam showed an interest in this dependent. Even in the moment of her entrance, upon the violent ringing of the bell, when the mother shielded herself with that singular action from the son, Mrs Clennam’s eyes had had some individual recognition in them, which seemed reserved for her. As there are degrees of hardness in the hardest metal, and shades of colour in black itself, so, even in the asperity of Mrs Clennam’s demeanour towards all the rest of humanity and towards Little Dorrit, there was a fine gradation.
Little Dorrit let herself out to do needlework. At so much a day–or at so little–from eight to eight, Little Dorrit was to be hired. Punctual to the moment, Little Dorrit appeared; punctual to the moment, Little Dorrit vanished. What became of Little Dorrit between the two eights was a mystery.
Another of the moral phenomena of Little Dorrit. Besides her consideration money, her daily contract included meals. She had an extraordinary repugnance to dining in company; would never do so, if it were possible to escape. Would always plead that she had this bit of work to begin first, or that bit of work to finish first; and would, of a certainty, scheme and plan–not very cunningly, it would seem, for she deceived no one–to dine alone. Successful in this, happy in carrying off her plate anywhere, to make a table of her lap, or a box, or the ground, or even as was supposed, to stand on tip-toe, dining moderately at a mantel-shelf; the great anxiety of Little Dorrit’s day was set at rest.
It was not easy to make out Little Dorrit’s face; she was so retiring, plied her needle in such removed corners, and started away so scared if encountered on the stairs. But it seemed to be a pale transparent face, quick in expression, though not beautiful in feature, its soft hazel eyes excepted. A delicately bent head, a tiny form, a quick little pair of busy hands, and a shabby dress–it must needs have been very shabby to look at all so, being so neat–were Little Dorrit as she sat at work.