Little Dorrit 026


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‘You are very good, sir. You speak very earnestly to me. But I–but I wish you had not watched me.’

He understood the emotion with which she said it, to arise in her father’s behalf; and he respected it, and was silent.

‘Mrs Clennam has been of great service to me; I don’t know what we should have done without the employment she has given me; I am afraid it may not be a good return to become secret with her; I can say no more to-night, sir. I am sure you mean to be kind to us. Thank you, thank you.’

‘Let me ask you one question before I leave. Have you known my mother long?’

‘I think two years, sir,–The bell has stopped.’

‘How did you know her first? Did she send here for you?’

‘No. She does not even know that I live here. We have a friend, father and I–a poor labouring man, but the best of friends–and I wrote out that I wished to do needlework, and gave his address. And he got what I wrote out displayed at a few places where it cost nothing, and Mrs Clennam found me that way, and sent for me. The gate will be locked, sir!’

She was so tremulous and agitated, and he was so moved by compassion for her, and by deep interest in her story as it dawned upon him, that he could scarcely tear himself away. But the stoppage of the bell, and the quiet in the prison, were a warning to depart; and with a few hurried words of kindness he left her gliding back to her father.

But he remained too late. The inner gate was locked, and the lodge closed. After a little fruitless knocking with his hand, he was standing there with the disagreeable conviction upon him that he had got to get through the night, when a voice accosted him from behind.

‘Caught, eh?’ said the voice. ‘You won’t go home till morning. Oh! It’s you, is it, Mr Clennam?’

The voice was Tip’s; and they stood looking at one another in the prison-yard, as it began to rain.

‘You’ve done it,’ observed Tip; ‘you must be sharper than that next time.’

‘But you are locked in too,’ said Arthur.

‘I believe I am!’ said Tip, sarcastically. ‘About! But not in your way. I belong to the shop, only my sister has a theory that our governor must never know it. I don’t see why, myself.’

‘Can I get any shelter?’ asked Arthur. ‘What had I better do?’

‘We had better get hold of Amy first of all,’ said Tip, referring any difficulty to her as a matter of course.

‘I would rather walk about all night–it’s not much to do–than give that trouble.’

‘You needn’t do that, if you don’t mind paying for a bed. If you don’t mind paying, they’ll make you up one on the Snuggery table, under the circumstances. If you’ll come along, I’ll introduce you there.’

As they passed down the yard, Arthur looked up at the window of the room he had lately left, where the light was still burning. ‘Yes, sir,’ said Tip, following his glance. ‘That’s the governor’s. She’ll sit with him for another hour reading yesterday’s paper to him, or something of that sort; and then she’ll come out like a little ghost, and vanish away without a sound.’

‘I don’t understand you.’

‘The governor sleeps up in the room, and she has a lodging at the turnkey’s. First house there,’ said Tip, pointing out the doorway into which she had retired. ‘First house, sky parlour. She pays twice as much for it as she would for one twice as good outside. But she stands by the governor, poor dear girl, day and night.’

This brought them to the tavern-establishment at the upper end of the prison, where the collegians had just vacated their social evening club. The apartment on the ground-floor in which it was held, was the Snuggery in question; the presidential tribune of the chairman, the pewter-pots, glasses, pipes, tobacco-ashes, and general flavour of members, were still as that convivial institution had left them on its adjournment. The Snuggery had two of the qualities popularly held to be essential to grog for ladies, in respect that it was hot and strong; but in the third point of analogy, requiring plenty of it, the Snuggery was defective; being but a cooped-up apartment.

The unaccustomed visitor from outside, naturally assumed everybody here to be prisoners–landlord, waiter, barmaid, potboy, and all. Whether they were or not, did not appear; but they all had a weedy look. The keeper of a chandler’s shop in a front parlour, who took in gentlemen boarders, lent his assistance in making the bed. He had been a tailor in his time, and had kept a phaeton, he said. He boasted that he stood up litigiously for the interests of the college; and he had undefined and undefinable ideas that the marshal intercepted a ‘Fund,’ which ought to come to the collegians. He liked to believe this, and always impressed the shadowy grievance on new-comers and strangers; though he could not, for his life, have explained what Fund he meant, or how the notion had got rooted in his soul. He had fully convinced himself, notwithstanding, that his own proper share of the Fund was three and ninepence a week; and that in this amount he, as an individual collegian, was swindled by the marshal, regularly every Monday. Apparently, he helped to make the bed, that he might not lose an opportunity of stating this case; after which unloading of his mind, and after announcing (as it seemed he always did, without anything coming of it) that he was going to write a letter to the papers and show the marshal up, he fell into miscellaneous conversation with the rest. It was evident from the general tone of the whole party, that they had come to regard insolvency as the normal state of mankind, and the payment of debts as a disease that occasionally broke out.

In this strange scene, and with these strange spectres flitting about him, Arthur Clennam looked on at the preparations as if they were part of a dream. Pending which, the long-initiated Tip, with an awful enjoyment of the Snuggery’s resources, pointed out the common kitchen fire maintained by subscription of collegians, the boiler for hot water supported in like manner, and other premises generally tending to the deduction that the way to be healthy, wealthy, and wise, was to come to the Marshalsea.

The two tables put together in a corner, were, at length, converted into a very fair bed; and the stranger was left to the Windsor chairs, the presidential tribune, the beery atmosphere, sawdust, pipe-lights, spittoons and repose. But the last item was long, long, long, in linking itself to the rest. The novelty of the place, the coming upon it without preparation, the sense of being locked up, the remembrance of that room up-stairs, of the two brothers, and above all of the retiring childish form, and the face in which he now saw years of insufficient food, if not of want, kept him waking and unhappy.

Speculations, too, bearing the strangest relations towards the prison, but always concerning the prison, ran like nightmares through his mind while he lay awake. Whether coffins were kept ready for people who might die there, where they were kept, how they were kept, where people who died in the prison were buried, how they were taken out, what forms were observed, whether an implacable creditor could arrest the dead? As to escaping, what chances there were of escape? Whether a prisoner could scale the walls with a cord and grapple, how he would descend upon the other side? whether he could alight on a housetop, steal down a staircase, let himself out at a door, and get lost in the crowd? As to Fire in the prison, if one were to break out while he lay there?

And these involuntary starts of fancy were, after all, but the setting of a picture in which three people kept before him. His father, with the steadfast look with which he had died, prophetically darkened forth in the portrait; his mother, with her arm up, warding off his suspicion; Little Dorrit, with her hand on the degraded arm, and her drooping head turned away.

What if his mother had an old reason she well knew for softening to this poor girl! What if the prisoner now sleeping quietly–Heaven grant it!–by the light of the great Day of judgment should trace back his fall to her. What if any act of hers and of his father’s, should have even remotely brought the grey heads of those two brothers so low!

A swift thought shot into his mind. In that long imprisonment here, and in her own long confinement to her room, did his mother find a balance to be struck? ‘I admit that I was accessory to that man’s captivity. I have suffered for it in kind. He has decayed in his prison: I in mine. I have paid the penalty.’

When all the other thoughts had faded out, this one held possession of him. When he fell asleep, she came before him in her wheeled chair, warding him off with this justification. When he awoke, and sprang up causelessly frightened, the words were in his ears, as if her voice had slowly spoken them at his pillow, to break his rest: ‘He withers away in his prison; I wither away in mine; inexorable justice is done; what do I owe on this score!’


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