Little Dorrit 018


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

‘Got a room now; haven’t you?’ the turnkey asked the debtor after a week or 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 the carrier, this afternoon.’

‘Missis and little ‘uns a coming to keep you company?’ asked the turnkey.

‘Why, yes, we think it better that we should not be scattered, even for a few weeks.’

‘Even for a few weeks, _of_ course,’ replied the turnkey. And he followed him again with his eyes, and nodded his head seven times when he was gone.

The affairs of this debtor were perplexed by a partnership, of which he knew no more than that he had invested money in it; by legal matters of assignment and settlement, conveyance here and conveyance there, suspicion of unlawful preference of creditors in this direction, and of mysterious spiriting away of property in that; and as nobody on the face of the earth could be more incapable of explaining any single item in the heap of confusion than the debtor himself, nothing comprehensible could be made of his case. To question him in detail, and endeavour to reconcile his answers; to closet him with accountants and sharp practitioners, learned in the wiles of insolvency and bankruptcy; was only to put the case out at compound interest and incomprehensibility. The irresolute fingers fluttered more and more ineffectually about the trembling lip on every such occasion, and the sharpest practitioners gave him up as a hopeless job.

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

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

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

‘We intended,’ he returned, ‘that she should go to a country lodging only 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 come along with me.’

The turnkey conducted him–trembling from head to foot, and constantly crying under his breath, What was he to do! while his irresolute fingers bedabbled the tears upon his face–up one of the common staircases in the prison to a door on the garret story. Upon which door the turnkey knocked with the handle of his key.

‘Come in!’ cried a voice inside.

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

‘Doctor,’ said the turnkey, ‘here’s a gentleman’s wife in want of you without 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 in the comparative–hoarser, puffier, more red-faced, more all-fourey, tobaccoer, dirtier, and brandier. The doctor was amazingly shabby, in a torn and darned rough-weather sea-jacket, out at elbows and eminently short of buttons (he had been in his time the experienced surgeon carried by a passenger ship), the dirtiest white trousers conceivable by mortal man, carpet slippers, and no visible linen. ‘Childbed?’ said the doctor. ‘I’m the boy!’ With that the doctor took a comb from the chimney-piece and stuck his hair upright–which appeared to be his way of washing himself–produced a professional chest or case, of most abject appearance, from the cupboard where his cup and saucer and coals were, settled his chin in the frowsy wrapper round his neck, and became a ghastly medical scarecrow.

The doctor and the debtor ran down-stairs, leaving the turnkey to return to the lock, and made for the debtor’s room. All the ladies in the prison had got hold of the news, and were in the yard. Some of them had already taken possession of the two children, and were hospitably carrying them off; others were offering loans of little comforts from their own scanty store; others were sympathising with the greatest volubility. The gentlemen prisoners, feeling themselves at a disadvantage, had for the most part retired, not to say sneaked, to their rooms; from the open windows of which some of them now complimented the doctor with whistles as he passed below, while others, with several stories between them, interchanged sarcastic references to the prevalent excitement.

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

‘The flies trouble you, don’t they, my dear?’ said Mrs Bangham. ‘But p’raps they’ll take your mind off of it, and do you good. What between the buryin ground, the grocer’s, the waggon-stables, and the paunch trade, the Marshalsea flies gets very large. P’raps they’re sent as a consolation, 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’re better, and you know it, don’t you? Yes. That’s right! And to think of a 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’t had such a thing happen here, my dear, not for I couldn’t name the time when. And you a crying too?’ said Mrs Bangham, to rally the patient more and more. ‘You! Making yourself so famous! With the flies a falling into the gallipots by fifties! And everything a going on so well! And here if there ain’t,’ said Mrs Bangham as the door opened, ‘if there ain’t your dear gentleman along with Dr Haggage! And now indeed we _are_ complete, I _think_!’

The doctor was scarcely the kind of apparition to inspire a patient with a sense of absolute completeness, but as he presently delivered the opinion, ‘We are as right as we can be, Mrs Bangham, and we shall come out of this like a house afire;’ and as he and Mrs Bangham took possession of the poor helpless pair, as everybody else and anybody else had always done, the means at hand were as good on the whole as better would have been. The special feature in Dr Haggage’s treatment of the case, 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 attendance on this lady, and don’t choose to allow any discussion on your part. Go outside 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 put your own lips to it, I think you wouldn’t be the worse, for you look but poorly, 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 to do, is, to do as you are told, and to go and get what I bid you.’

Mrs Bangham submitted; and the doctor, having administered her potion, took his own. He repeated the treatment every hour, being very determined with Mrs Bangham. Three or four hours passed; the flies fell into the traps by hundreds; and at length one little life, hardly stronger than theirs, appeared among the multitude of lesser deaths.

‘A very nice little girl indeed,’ said the doctor; ‘little, but well-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 you in hysterics.’


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