Little Dorrit 035


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‘Mrs Meagles and your daughter–?’

‘Are as well as possible,’ said Mr Meagles. ‘I only wish you had come upon me in a more prepossessing condition as to coolness.’

Though it was anything but a hot day, Mr Meagles was in a heated state that attracted the attention of the passersby; more particularly as he leaned his back against a railing, took off his hat and cravat, and heartily rubbed his steaming head and face, and his reddened ears and neck, without the least regard for public opinion.

‘Whew!’ said Mr Meagles, dressing again. ‘That’s comfortable. Now I am cooler.’

‘You have been ruffled, Mr Meagles. What is the matter?’

‘Wait a bit, and I’ll tell you. Have you leisure for a turn in the Park?’

‘As much as you please.’

‘Come along then. Ah! you may well look at him.’ He happened to have turned his eyes towards the offender whom Mr Meagles had so angrily collared. ‘He’s something to look at, that fellow is.’

He was not much to look at, either in point of size or in point of dress; being merely a short, square, practical looking man, whose hair had turned grey, and in whose face and forehead there were deep lines of cogitation, which looked as though they were carved in hard wood. He was dressed in decent black, a little rusty, and had the appearance of a sagacious master in some handicraft. He had a spectacle-case in his hand, which he turned over and over while he was thus in question, with a certain free use of the thumb that is never seen but in a hand accustomed to tools.

‘You keep with us,’ said Mr Meagles, in a threatening kind of Way, ‘and I’ll introduce you presently. Now then!’

Clennam wondered within himself, as they took the nearest way to the Park, what this unknown (who complied in the gentlest manner) could have been doing. His appearance did not at all justify the suspicion that he had been detected in designs on Mr Meagles’s pocket-handkerchief; nor had he any appearance of being quarrelsome or violent. He was a quiet, plain, steady man; made no attempt to escape; and seemed a little depressed, but neither ashamed nor repentant. If he were a criminal offender, he must surely be an incorrigible hypocrite; and if he were no offender, why should Mr Meagles have collared him in the Circumlocution Office? He perceived that the man was not a difficulty in his own mind alone, but in Mr Meagles’s too; for such conversation as they had together on the short way to the Park was by no means well sustained, and Mr Meagles’s eye always wandered back to the man, even when he spoke of something very different.

At length they being among the trees, Mr Meagles stopped short, and said:

‘Mr Clennam, will you do me the favour to look at this man? His name is Doyce, Daniel Doyce. You wouldn’t suppose this man to be a notorious rascal; would you?’

‘I certainly should not.’ It was really a disconcerting question, with the man there.

‘No. You would not. I know you would not. You wouldn’t suppose him to be a public offender; would you?’

‘No.’

‘No. But he is. He is a public offender. What has he been guilty of? Murder, manslaughter, arson, forgery, swindling, house-breaking, highway robbery, larceny, conspiracy, fraud? Which should you say, now?’

‘I should say,’ returned Arthur Clennam, observing a faint smile in Daniel Doyce’s face, ‘not one of them.’

‘You are right,’ said Mr Meagles. ‘But he has been ingenious, and he has been trying to turn his ingenuity to his country’s service. That makes him a public offender directly, sir.’

Arthur looked at the man himself, who only shook his head.

‘This Doyce,’ said Mr Meagles, ‘is a smith and engineer. He is not in a large way, but he is well known as a very ingenious man. A dozen years ago, he perfects an invention (involving a very curious secret process) of great importance to his country and his fellow-creatures. I won’t say how much money it cost him, or how many years of his life he had been about it, but he brought it to perfection a dozen years ago. Wasn’t it a dozen?’ said Mr Meagles, addressing Doyce. ‘He is the most exasperating man in the world; he never complains!’

‘Yes. Rather better than twelve years ago.’

‘Rather better?’ said Mr Meagles, ‘you mean rather worse. Well, Mr Clennam, he addresses himself to the Government. The moment he addresses himself to the Government, he becomes a public offender! Sir,’ said Mr Meagles, in danger of making himself excessively hot again, ‘he ceases to be an innocent citizen, and becomes a culprit. He is treated from that instant as a man who has done some infernal action. He is a man to be shirked, put off, brow-beaten, sneered at, handed over by this highly-connected young or old gentleman, to that highly-connected young or old gentleman, and dodged back again; he is a man with no rights in his own time, or his own property; a mere outlaw, whom it is justifiable to get rid of anyhow; a man to be worn out by all possible means.’

It was not so difficult to believe, after the morning’s experience, as Mr Meagles supposed.

‘Don’t stand there, Doyce, turning your spectacle-case over and over,’ cried Mr Meagles, ‘but tell Mr Clennam what you confessed to me.’

‘I undoubtedly was made to feel,’ said the inventor, ‘as if I had committed an offence. In dancing attendance at the various offices, I was always treated, more or less, as if it was a very bad offence. I have frequently found it necessary to reflect, for my own self-support, that I really had not done anything to bring myself into the Newgate Calendar, but only wanted to effect a great saving and a great improvement.’

‘There!’ said Mr Meagles. ‘Judge whether I exaggerate. Now you’ll be able to believe me when I tell you the rest of the case.’

With this prelude, Mr Meagles went through the narrative; the established narrative, which has become tiresome; the matter-of-course narrative which we all know by heart. How, after interminable attendance and correspondence, after infinite impertinences, ignorances, and insults, my lords made a Minute, number three thousand four hundred and seventy-two, allowing the culprit to make certain trials of his invention at his own expense. How the trials were made in the presence of a board of six, of whom two ancient members were too blind to see it, two other ancient members were too deaf to hear it, one other ancient member was too lame to get near it, and the final ancient member was too pig-headed to look at it. How there were more years; more impertinences, ignorances, and insults. How my lords then made a Minute, number five thousand one hundred and three, whereby they resigned the business to the Circumlocution Office. How the Circumlocution Office, in course of time, took up the business as if it were a bran new thing of yesterday, which had never been heard of before; muddled the business, addled the business, tossed the business in a wet blanket. How the impertinences, ignorances, and insults went through the multiplication table. How there was a reference of the invention to three Barnacles and a Stiltstalking, who knew nothing about it; into whose heads nothing could be hammered about it; who got bored about it, and reported physical impossibilities about it. How the Circumlocution Office, in a Minute, number eight thousand seven hundred and forty, ‘saw no reason to reverse the decision at which my lords had arrived.’ How the Circumlocution Office, being reminded that my lords had arrived at no decision, shelved the business. How there had been a final interview with the head of the Circumlocution Office that very morning, and how the Brazen Head had spoken, and had been, upon the whole, and under all the circumstances, and looking at it from the various points of view, of opinion that one of two courses was to be pursued in respect of the business: that was to say, either to leave it alone for evermore, or to begin it all over again.

‘Upon which,’ said Mr Meagles, ‘as a practical man, I then and there, in that presence, took Doyce by the collar, and told him it was plain to me that he was an infamous rascal and treasonable disturber of the government peace, and took him away. I brought him out of the office door by the collar, that the very porter might know I was a practical man who appreciated the official estimate of such characters; and here we are!’

If that airy young Barnacle had been there, he would have frankly told them perhaps that the Circumlocution Office had achieved its function. That what the Barnacles had to do, was to stick on to the national ship as long as they could. That to trim the ship, lighten the ship, clean the ship, would be to knock them off; that they could but be knocked off once; and that if the ship went down with them yet sticking to it, that was the ship’s look out, and not theirs.


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