Little Dorrit 042


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‘Don’t name it, sir,’ returned Plornish, ‘it’ll be ekally a pleasure an a–it’l be ekally a pleasure and a–’ Finding himself unable to balance his sentence after two efforts, Mr Plornish wisely dropped it. He took Clennam’s card and appropriate pecuniary compliment.

He was earnest to finish his commission at once, and his Principal was in the same mind. So his Principal offered to set him down at the Marshalsea Gate, and they drove in that direction over Blackfriars Bridge. On the way, Arthur elicited from his new friend a confused summary of the interior life of Bleeding Heart Yard. They was all hard up there, Mr Plornish said, uncommon hard up, to be sure. Well, he couldn’t say how it was; he didn’t know as anybody _could_ say how it was; all he know’d was, that so it was. When a man felt, on his own back and in his own belly, that poor he was, that man (Mr Plornish gave it as his decided belief) know’d well that he was poor somehow or another, and you couldn’t talk it out of him, no more than you could talk Beef into him. Then you see, some people as was better off said, and a good many such people lived pretty close up to the mark themselves if not beyond it so he’d heerd, that they was ‘improvident’ (that was the favourite word) down the Yard. For instance, if they see a man with his wife and children going to Hampton Court in a Wan, perhaps once in a year, they says, ‘Hallo! I thought you was poor, my improvident friend!’ Why, Lord, how hard it was upon a man! What was a man to do? He couldn’t go mollancholy mad, and even if he did, you wouldn’t be the better for it. In Mr Plornish’s judgment you would be the worse for it. Yet you seemed to want to make a man mollancholy mad. You was always at it–if not with your right hand, with your left. What was they a doing in the Yard? Why, take a look at ‘em and see. There was the girls and their mothers a working at their sewing, or their shoe-binding, or their trimming, or their waistcoat making, day and night and night and day, and not more than able to keep body and soul together after all–often not so much. There was people of pretty well all sorts of trades you could name, all wanting to work, and yet not able to get it. There was old people, after working all their lives, going and being shut up in the workhouse, much worse fed and lodged and treated altogether, than–Mr Plornish said manufacturers, but appeared to mean malefactors. Why, a man didn’t know where to turn himself for a crumb of comfort. As to who was to blame for it, Mr Plornish didn’t know who was to blame for it. He could tell you who suffered, but he couldn’t tell you whose fault it was. It wasn’t _his_ place to find out, and who’d mind what he said, if he did find out? He only know’d that it wasn’t put right by them what undertook that line of business, and that it didn’t come right of itself. And, in brief, his illogical opinion was, that if you couldn’t do nothing for him, you had better take nothing from him for doing of it; so far as he could make out, that was about what it come to. Thus, in a prolix, gently-growling, foolish way, did Plornish turn the tangled skein of his estate about and about, like a blind man who was trying to find some beginning or end to it; until they reached the prison gate. There, he left his Principal alone; to wonder, as he rode away, how many thousand Plornishes there might be within a day or two’s journey of the Circumlocution Office, playing sundry curious variations on the same tune, which were not known by ear in that glorious institution.

CHAPTER 13. Patriarchal

The mention of Mr Casby again revived in Clennam’s memory the smouldering embers of curiosity and interest which Mrs Flintwinch had fanned on the night of his arrival. Flora Casby had been the beloved of his boyhood; and Flora was the daughter and only child of wooden-headed old Christopher (so he was still occasionally spoken of by some irreverent spirits who had had dealings with him, and in whom familiarity had bred its proverbial result perhaps), who was reputed to be rich in weekly tenants, and to get a good quantity of blood out of the stones of several unpromising courts and alleys.

After some days of inquiry and research, Arthur Clennam became convinced that the case of the Father of the Marshalsea was indeed a hopeless one, and sorrowfully resigned the idea of helping him to freedom again. He had no hopeful inquiry to make at present, concerning Little Dorrit either; but he argued with himself that it might–for anything he knew–it might be serviceable to the poor child, if he renewed this acquaintance. It is hardly necessary to add that beyond all doubt he would have presented himself at Mr Casby’s door, if there had been no Little Dorrit in existence; for we all know how we all deceive ourselves–that is to say, how people in general, our profounder selves excepted, deceive themselves–as to motives of action.

With a comfortable impression upon him, and quite an honest one in its way, that he was still patronising Little Dorrit in doing what had no reference to her, he found himself one afternoon at the corner of Mr Casby’s street. Mr Casby lived in a street in the Gray’s Inn Road, which had set off from that thoroughfare with the intention of running at one heat down into the valley, and up again to the top of Pentonville Hill; but which had run itself out of breath in twenty yards, and had stood still ever since. There is no such place in that part now; but it remained there for many years, looking with a baulked countenance at the wilderness patched with unfruitful gardens and pimpled with eruptive summerhouses, that it had meant to run over in no time.

‘The house,’ thought Clennam, as he crossed to the door, ‘is as little changed as my mother’s, and looks almost as gloomy. But the likeness ends outside. I know its staid repose within. The smell of its jars of old rose-leaves and lavender seems to come upon me even here.’

When his knock at the bright brass knocker of obsolete shape brought a woman-servant to the door, those faded scents in truth saluted him like wintry breath that had a faint remembrance in it of the bygone spring. He stepped into the sober, silent, air-tight house–one might have fancied it to have been stifled by Mutes in the Eastern manner–and the door, closing again, seemed to shut out sound and motion. The furniture was formal, grave, and quaker-like, but well-kept; and had as prepossessing an aspect as anything, from a human creature to a wooden stool, that is meant for much use and is preserved for little, can ever wear. There was a grave clock, ticking somewhere up the staircase; and there was a songless bird in the same direction, pecking at his cage, as if he were ticking too. The parlour-fire ticked in the grate. There was only one person on the parlour-hearth, and the loud watch in his pocket ticked audibly.

The servant-maid had ticked the two words ‘Mr Clennam’ so softly that she had not been heard; and he consequently stood, within the door she had closed, unnoticed. The figure of a man advanced in life, whose smooth grey eyebrows seemed to move to the ticking as the fire-light flickered on them, sat in an arm-chair, with his list shoes on the rug, and his thumbs slowly revolving over one another. This was old Christopher Casby–recognisable at a glance–as unchanged in twenty years and upward as his own solid furniture–as little touched by the influence of the varying seasons as the old rose-leaves and old lavender in his porcelain jars.

Perhaps there never was a man, in this troublesome world, so troublesome for the imagination to picture as a boy. And yet he had changed very little in his progress through life. Confronting him, in the room in which he sat, was a boy’s portrait, which anybody seeing him would have identified as Master Christopher Casby, aged ten: though disguised with a haymaking rake, for which he had had, at any time, as much taste or use as for a diving-bell; and sitting (on one of his own legs) upon a bank of violets, moved to precocious contemplation by the spire of a village church. There was the same smooth face and forehead, the same calm blue eye, the same placid air. The shining bald head, which looked so very large because it shone so much; and the long grey hair at its sides and back, like floss silk or spun glass, which looked so very benevolent because it was never cut; were not, of course, to be seen in the boy as in the old man. Nevertheless, in the Seraphic creature with the haymaking rake, were clearly to be discerned the rudiments of the Patriarch with the list shoes.

Patriarch was the name which many people delighted to give him. Various old ladies in the neighbourhood spoke of him as The Last of the Patriarchs. So grey, so slow, so quiet, so impassionate, so very bumpy in the head, Patriarch was the word for him. He had been accosted in the streets, and respectfully solicited to become a Patriarch for painters and for sculptors; with so much importunity, in sooth, that it would appear to be beyond the Fine Arts to remember the points of a Patriarch, or to invent one. Philanthropists of both sexes had asked who he was, and on being informed, ‘Old Christopher Casby, formerly Town-agent to Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle,’ had cried in a rapture of disappointment, ‘Oh! why, with that head, is he not a benefactor to his species! Oh! why, with that head, is he not a father to the orphan and a friend to the friendless!’ With that head, however, he remained old Christopher Casby, proclaimed by common report rich in house property; and with that head, he now sat in his silent parlour. Indeed it would be the height of unreason to expect him to be sitting there without that head.

Arthur Clennam moved to attract his attention, and the grey eyebrows turned towards him.

‘I beg your pardon,’ said Clennam, ‘I fear you did not hear me announced?’

‘No, sir, I did not. Did you wish to see me, sir?’

‘I wished to pay my respects.’

Mr Casby seemed a feather’s weight disappointed by the last words, having perhaps prepared himself for the visitor’s wishing to pay something else. ‘Have I the pleasure, sir,’ he proceeded–‘take a chair, if you please–have I the pleasure of knowing–? Ah! truly, yes, I think I have! I believe I am not mistaken in supposing that I am acquainted with those features? I think I address a gentleman of whose return to this country I was informed by Mr Flintwinch?’

‘That is your present visitor.’

‘Really! Mr Clennam?’

‘No other, Mr Casby.’

‘Mr Clennam, I am glad to see you. How have you been since we met?’

Without thinking it worth while to explain that in the course of some quarter of a century he had experienced occasional slight fluctuations in his health and spirits, Clennam answered generally that he had never been better, or something equally to the purpose; and shook hands with the possessor of ‘that head’ as it shed its patriarchal light upon him.

‘We are older, Mr Clennam,’ said Christopher Casby.

‘We are–not younger,’ said Clennam. After this wise remark he felt that he was scarcely shining with brilliancy, and became aware that he was nervous.

‘And your respected father,’ said Mr Casby, ‘is no more! I was grieved to hear it, Mr Clennam, I was grieved.’

Arthur replied in the usual way that he felt infinitely obliged to him.

‘There was a time,’ said Mr Casby, ‘when your parents and myself were not on friendly terms. There was a little family misunderstanding among us. Your respected mother was rather jealous of her son, maybe; when I say her son, I mean your worthy self, your worthy self.’

His smooth face had a bloom upon it like ripe wall-fruit. What with his blooming face, and that head, and his blue eyes, he seemed to be delivering sentiments of rare wisdom and virtue. In like manner, his physiognomical expression seemed to teem with benignity. Nobody could have said where the wisdom was, or where the virtue was, or where the benignity was; but they all seemed to be somewhere about him.

‘Those times, however,’ pursued Mr Casby, ‘are past and gone, past and gone. I do myself the pleasure of making a visit to your respected mother occasionally, and of admiring the fortitude and strength of mind with which she bears her trials, bears her trials.’

When he made one of these little repetitions, sitting with his hands crossed before him, he did it with his head on one side, and a gentle smile, as if he had something in his thoughts too sweetly profound to be put into words. As if he denied himself the pleasure of uttering it, lest he should soar too high; and his meekness therefore preferred to be unmeaning.

‘I have heard that you were kind enough on one of those occasions,’ said Arthur, catching at the opportunity as it drifted past him, ‘to mention Little Dorrit to my mother.’


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