Little Dorrit 020


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The Plasterer turned him towards the wall, that his face might not be seen; and the action was so delicate, and the man was so penetrated with repentance, and asked pardon so honestly, that he could make him no less acknowledgment than, ‘I know you meant it kindly. Say no more.’

‘Bless your soul, sir,’ urged the Plasterer, ‘I did indeed. I’d do more by you than the rest of ‘em do, I fancy.’

‘What would you do?’ he asked.

‘I’d come back to see you, after I was let out.’

‘Give me the money again,’ said the other, eagerly, ‘and I’ll keep it, and never spend it. Thank you for it, thank you! I shall see you again?’

‘If I live a week you shall.’

They shook hands and parted. The collegians, assembled in Symposium in the Snuggery that night, marvelled what had happened to their Father; he walked so late in the shadows of the yard, and seemed so downcast.

CHAPTER 7. The Child of the Marshalsea

The baby whose first draught of air had been tinctured with Doctor Haggage’s brandy, was handed down among the generations of collegians, like the tradition of their common parent. In the earlier stages of her existence, she was handed down in a literal and prosaic sense; it being almost a part of the entrance footing of every new collegian to nurse the child who had been born in the college.

‘By rights,’ remarked the turnkey when she was first shown to him, ‘I ought to be her godfather.’

The debtor irresolutely thought of it for a minute, and said, ‘Perhaps you wouldn’t object to really being her godfather?’

‘Oh! _I_ don’t object,’ replied the turnkey, ‘if you don’t.’

Thus it came to pass that she was christened one Sunday afternoon, when the turnkey, being relieved, was off the lock; and that the turnkey went up to the font of Saint George’s Church, and promised and vowed and renounced on her behalf, as he himself related when he came back, ‘like a good ‘un.’

This invested the turnkey with a new proprietary share in the child, over and above his former official one. When she began to walk and talk, he became fond of her; bought a little arm-chair and stood it by the high fender of the lodge fire-place; liked to have her company when he was on the lock; and used to bribe her with cheap toys to come and talk to him. The child, for her part, soon grew so fond of the turnkey that she would come climbing up the lodge-steps of her own accord at all hours of the day. When she fell asleep in the little armchair by the high fender, the turnkey would cover her with his pocket-handkerchief; and when she sat in it dressing and undressing a doll which soon came to be unlike dolls on the other side of the lock, and to bear a horrible family resemblance to Mrs Bangham–he would contemplate her from the top of his stool with exceeding gentleness. Witnessing these things, the collegians would express an opinion that the turnkey, who was a bachelor, had been cut out by nature for a family man. But the turnkey thanked them, and said, ‘No, on the whole it was enough to see other people’s children there.’

At what period of her early life the little creature began to perceive that it was not the habit of all the world to live locked up in narrow yards surrounded by high walls with spikes at the top, would be a difficult question to settle. But she was a very, very little creature indeed, when she had somehow gained the knowledge that her clasp of her father’s hand was to be always loosened at the door which the great key opened; and that while her own light steps were free to pass beyond it, his feet must never cross that line. A pitiful and plaintive look, with which she had begun to regard him when she was still extremely young, was perhaps a part of this discovery.

With a pitiful and plaintive look for everything, indeed, but with something in it for only him that was like protection, this Child of the Marshalsea and the child of the Father of the Marshalsea, sat by her friend the turnkey in the lodge, kept the family room, or wandered about the prison-yard, for the first eight years of her life. With a pitiful and plaintive look for her wayward sister; for her idle brother; for the high blank walls; for the faded crowd they shut in; for the games of the prison children as they whooped and ran, and played at hide-and-seek, and made the iron bars of the inner gateway ‘Home.’

Wistful and wondering, she would sit in summer weather by the high fender in the lodge, looking up at the sky through the barred window, until, when she turned her eyes away, bars of light would arise between her and her friend, and she would see him through a grating, too.

‘Thinking of the fields,’ the turnkey said once, after watching her, ‘ain’t you?’

‘Where are they?’ she inquired.

‘Why, they’re–over there, my dear,’ said the turnkey, with a vague flourish of his key. ‘Just about there.’

‘Does anybody open them, and shut them? Are they locked?’

The turnkey was discomfited. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘Not in general.’

‘Are they very pretty, Bob?’ She called him Bob, by his own particular request and instruction.

‘Lovely. Full of flowers. There’s buttercups, and there’s daisies, and there’s’–the turnkey hesitated, being short of floral nomenclature–‘there’s dandelions, and all manner of games.’

‘Is it very pleasant to be there, Bob?’

‘Prime,’ said the turnkey.

‘Was father ever there?’

‘Hem!’ coughed the turnkey. ‘O yes, he was there, sometimes.’

‘Is he sorry not to be there now?’

‘N-not particular,’ said the turnkey.


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