Little Dorrit 019


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By this time, the rings had begun to fall from the debtor’s irresolute hands, like leaves from a wintry tree. Not one was left upon them that night, 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 neighbouring establishment decorated with three golden balls, where she was very well known.

‘Thank you,’ said the doctor, ‘thank you. Your good lady is quite composed. Doing charmingly.’

‘I am very happy and very thankful to know it,’ said the debtor, ‘though I little thought once, that–’

‘That a child would be born to you in a place like this?’ said the doctor. ‘Bah, bah, sir, what does it signify? A little more elbow-room is 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 a man’s heart into his mouth. Nobody comes here to ask if a man’s at home, and to say he’ll stand on the door mat till he is. Nobody writes threatening letters about money to this place. It’s freedom, sir, it’s freedom! 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 ever pursued it under such quiet circumstances as here this day. Elsewhere, people are restless, worried, hurried about, anxious respecting one thing, anxious respecting another. Nothing of the kind here, sir. We have 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 for it. Peace.’ With this profession of faith, the doctor, who was an old jail-bird, and was more sodden than usual, and had the additional and unusual stimulus of money in his pocket, returned to his associate and chum in hoarseness, puffiness, red-facedness, all-fours, tobacco, dirt, and brandy.

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

When he was relieved of the perplexed affairs that nothing would make plain, through having them returned upon his hands by a dozen agents in succession who could make neither beginning, middle, nor end of them or him, he found his miserable place of refuge a quieter refuge than it had been before. He had unpacked the portmanteau long ago; and his elder children now played regularly about the yard, and everybody knew the baby, 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 like the Marshalsea now, without you and your family.’

The turnkey really was proud of him. He would mention him in laudatory terms 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 no end of expense. Went into the Marshal’s house once to try a new piano for him. Played it, I understand, like one o’clock–beautiful! As to languages–speaks anything. We’ve had a Frenchman here in his time, and it’s my opinion he knowed more French than the Frenchman did. We’ve had an 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, you must come to the Marshalsea.’

When his youngest child was eight years old, his wife, who had long been languishing away–of her own inherent weakness, not that she retained any greater sensitiveness as to her place of abode than he did–went upon a visit to a poor friend and old nurse in the country, and died there. 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 was greyer (he had soon begun to turn grey); and the turnkey noticed that his hands went often to his trembling lips again, as they had used to do when he first came in. But he got pretty well over it in a month or two; and in the meantime the children played about the yard as regularly as ever, but in black.

Then Mrs Bangham, long popular medium of communication with the outer world, began to be infirm, and to be found oftener than usual comatose on pavements, with her basket of purchases spilt, and the change of her clients ninepence short. His son began to supersede Mrs Bangham, and to execute commissions in a knowing manner, and to be of the prison prisonous, of the streets streety.

Time went on, and the turnkey began to fail. His chest swelled, and his legs got weak, and he was short of breath. The well-worn wooden stool was ‘beyond him,’ he complained. He sat in an arm-chair with a cushion, and sometimes wheezed so, for minutes together, that he couldn’t turn the key. When he was overpowered by these fits, the debtor often turned it 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 oldest inhabitants. I wasn’t here myself above seven year before you. I shan’t last long. When I’m off the lock for good and all, you’ll be the Father of the Marshalsea.’

The turnkey went off the lock of this world next day. His words were remembered and repeated; and tradition afterwards handed down from generation to generation–a Marshalsea generation might be calculated as about three months–that the shabby old debtor with the soft manner and the white hair, was the Father of the Marshalsea.

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

All new-comers were presented to him. He was punctilious in the exaction of this ceremony. The wits would perform the office of introduction with overcharged pomp and politeness, but they could not easily overstep his sense of its gravity. He received them in his poor room (he disliked an introduction in the mere yard, as informal–a thing that might happen to anybody), with a kind of bowed-down beneficence. They were welcome to the 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 than twenty years of residence gave him a claim to the title. It looked small at first, but there was very good company there–among a mixture–necessarily a mixture–and very good air.

It became a not unusual circumstance for letters to be put under his door at night, enclosing half-a-crown, two half-crowns, now and then at long intervals even half-a-sovereign, for the Father of the Marshalsea. ‘With the compliments of a collegian taking leave.’ He received the gifts as tributes, from admirers, to a public character. Sometimes these correspondents assumed facetious names, as the Brick, Bellows, Old Gooseberry, Wideawake, Snooks, Mops, Cutaway, the Dogs-meat Man; but he considered this in bad taste, and was always a little hurt by it.

In the fulness of time, this correspondence showing signs of wearing out, and seeming to require an effort on the part of the correspondents to which in the hurried circumstances of departure many of them might not be equal, he established the custom of attending collegians of a certain standing, to the gate, and taking leave of them there. The collegian under treatment, after shaking hands, would occasionally stop to wrap up something in a bit of paper, and would come back again calling ‘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 paternally add, VWhat have you forgotten? What can I do for you?’

‘I forgot to leave this,’ the collegian would usually return, ‘for the Father 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 into which he had slipped the money during two or three turns about the yard, lest the transaction should be too conspicuous to the general body of collegians.

One afternoon he had been doing the honours of the place to a rather large party of collegians, who happened to be going out, when, as he was coming back, he encountered one from the poor side who had been taken in execution for a small sum a week before, had ‘settled’ in the course of that afternoon, and was going out too. The man was a mere Plasterer in his working dress; had his wife with him, and a bundle; and was in high spirits.

‘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 the Plasterer called out, ‘I say!–sir!’ and came back to him.

‘It ain’t much,’ said the Plasterer, putting a little pile of halfpence in his hand, ‘but it’s well meant.’

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

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


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