Little Dorrit 030


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‘–As I take you back,’ the word home jarred upon him, ‘let me ask you to persuade yourself that you have another friend. I make no professions, and say no more.’

‘You are truly kind to me, sir. I am sure I need no more.’

They walked back through the miserable muddy streets, and among the poor, mean shops, and were jostled by the crowds of dirty hucksters usual to a poor neighbourhood. There was nothing, by the short way, that was pleasant to any of the five senses. Yet it was not a common passage through common rain, and mire, and noise, to Clennam, having this little, slender, careful creature on his arm. How young she seemed to him, or how old he to her; or what a secret either to the other, in that beginning of the destined interweaving of their stories, matters not here. He thought of her having been born and bred among these scenes, and shrinking through them now, familiar yet misplaced; he thought of her long acquaintance with the squalid needs of life, and of her innocence; of her solicitude for others, and her few years, and her childish aspect.

They were come into the High Street, where the prison stood, when a voice cried, ‘Little mother, little mother!’ Little Dorrit stopping and looking back, an excited figure of a strange kind bounced against them (still crying ‘little mother’), fell down, and scattered the contents of a large basket, filled with potatoes, in the mud.

‘Oh, Maggy,’ said Little Dorrit, ‘what a clumsy child you are!’

Maggy was not hurt, but picked herself up immediately, and then began to pick up the potatoes, in which both Little Dorrit and Arthur Clennam helped. Maggy picked up very few potatoes and a great quantity of mud; but they were all recovered, and deposited in the basket. Maggy then smeared her muddy face with her shawl, and presenting it to Mr Clennam as a type of purity, enabled him to see what she was like.

She was about eight-and-twenty, with large bones, large features, large feet and hands, large eyes and no hair. Her large eyes were limpid and almost colourless; they seemed to be very little affected by light, and to stand unnaturally still. There was also that attentive listening expression in her face, which is seen in the faces of the blind; but she was not blind, having one tolerably serviceable eye. Her face was not exceedingly ugly, though it was only redeemed from being so by a smile; a good-humoured smile, and pleasant in itself, but rendered pitiable by being constantly there. A great white cap, with a quantity of opaque frilling that was always flapping about, apologised for Maggy’s baldness, and made it so very difficult for her old black bonnet to retain its place upon her head, that it held on round her neck like a gipsy’s baby. A commission of haberdashers could alone have reported what the rest of her poor dress was made of, but it had a strong general resemblance to seaweed, with here and there a gigantic tea-leaf. Her shawl looked particularly like a tea-leaf after long infusion.

Arthur Clennam looked at Little Dorrit with the expression of one saying, ‘May I ask who this is?’ Little Dorrit, whose hand this Maggy, still calling her little mother, had begun to fondle, answered in words (they were under a gateway into which the majority of the potatoes had rolled).

‘This is Maggy, sir.’

‘Maggy, sir,’ echoed the personage presented. ‘Little mother!’

‘She is the grand-daughter–’ said Little Dorrit.

‘Grand-daughter,’ echoed Maggy.

‘Of my old nurse, who has been dead a long time. Maggy, how old are you?’

‘Ten, mother,’ said Maggy.

‘You can’t think how good she is, sir,’ said Little Dorrit, with infinite tenderness.

‘Good _she_ is,’ echoed Maggy, transferring the pronoun in a most expressive way from herself to her little mother.

‘Or how clever,’ said Little Dorrit. ‘She goes on errands as well as any one.’ Maggy laughed. ‘And is as trustworthy as the Bank of England.’ Maggy laughed. ‘She earns her own living entirely. Entirely, sir!’ said Little Dorrit, in a lower and triumphant tone. ‘Really does!’

‘What is her history?’ asked Clennam.

‘Think of that, Maggy?’ said Little Dorrit, taking her two large hands and clapping them together. ‘A gentleman from thousands of miles away, wanting to know your history!’

‘_My_ history?’ cried Maggy. ‘Little mother.’

‘She means me,’ said Little Dorrit, rather confused; ‘she is very much attached to me. Her old grandmother was not so kind to her as she should have been; was she, Maggy?’

Maggy shook her head, made a drinking vessel of her clenched left hand, drank out of it, and said, ‘Gin.’ Then beat an imaginary child, and said, ‘Broom-handles and pokers.’

‘When Maggy was ten years old,’ said Little Dorrit, watching her face while she spoke, ‘she had a bad fever, sir, and she has never grown any older ever since.’

‘Ten years old,’ said Maggy, nodding her head. ‘But what a nice hospital! So comfortable, wasn’t it? Oh so nice it was. Such a Ev’nly place!’

‘She had never been at peace before, sir,’ said Little Dorrit, turning towards Arthur for an instant and speaking low, ‘and she always runs off upon that.’

‘Such beds there is there!’ cried Maggy. ‘Such lemonades! Such oranges! Such d’licious broth and wine! Such Chicking! Oh, AIN’T it a delightful place to go and stop at!’

‘So Maggy stopped there as long as she could,’ said Little Dorrit, in her former tone of telling a child’s story; the tone designed for Maggy’s ear, ‘and at last, when she could stop there no longer, she came out. Then, because she was never to be more than ten years old, however long she lived–’

‘However long she lived,’ echoed Maggy.

‘–And because she was very weak; indeed was so weak that when she began to laugh she couldn’t stop herself–which was a great pity–’

(Maggy mighty grave of a sudden.)


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