Little Dorrit 043


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‘Little–? Dorrit? That’s the seamstress who was mentioned to me by a small tenant of mine? Yes, yes. Dorrit? That’s the name. Ah, yes, yes! You call her Little Dorrit?’

No road in that direction. Nothing came of the cross-cut. It led no further.

‘My daughter Flora,’ said Mr Casby, ‘as you may have heard probably, Mr Clennam, was married and established in life, several years ago. She had the misfortune to lose her husband when she had been married a few months. She resides with me again. She will be glad to see you, if you will permit me to let her know that you are here.’

‘By all means,’ returned Clennam. ‘I should have preferred the request, if your kindness had not anticipated me.’

Upon this Mr Casby rose up in his list shoes, and with a slow, heavy step (he was of an elephantine build), made for the door. He had a long wide-skirted bottle-green coat on, and a bottle-green pair of trousers, and a bottle-green waistcoat. The Patriarchs were not dressed in bottle-green broadcloth, and yet his clothes looked patriarchal.

He had scarcely left the room, and allowed the ticking to become audible again, when a quick hand turned a latchkey in the house-door, opened it, and shut it. Immediately afterwards, a quick and eager short dark man came into the room with so much way upon him that he was within a foot of Clennam before he could stop.

‘Halloa!’ he said.

Clennam saw no reason why he should not say ‘Halloa!’ too.

‘What’s the matter?’ said the short dark man.

‘I have not heard that anything is the matter,’ returned Clennam.

‘Where’s Mr Casby?’ asked the short dark man, looking about.

‘He will be here directly, if you want him.’

‘_I_ want him?’ said the short dark man. ‘Don’t you?’

This elicited a word or two of explanation from Clennam, during the delivery of which the short dark man held his breath and looked at him. He was dressed in black and rusty iron grey; had jet black beads of eyes; a scrubby little black chin; wiry black hair striking out from his head in prongs, like forks or hair-pins; and a complexion that was very dingy by nature, or very dirty by art, or a compound of nature and art. He had dirty hands and dirty broken nails, and looked as if he had been in the coals; he was in a perspiration, and snorted and sniffed and puffed and blew, like a little labouring steam-engine.

‘Oh!’ said he, when Arthur told him how he came to be there. ‘Very well. That’s right. If he should ask for Pancks, will you be so good as to say that Pancks is come in?’ And so, with a snort and a puff, he worked out by another door.

Now, in the old days at home, certain audacious doubts respecting the last of the Patriarchs, which were afloat in the air, had, by some forgotten means, come in contact with Arthur’s sensorium. He was aware of motes and specks of suspicion in the atmosphere of that time; seen through which medium, Christopher Casby was a mere Inn signpost, without any Inn–an invitation to rest and be thankful, when there was no place to put up at, and nothing whatever to be thankful for. He knew that some of these specks even represented Christopher as capable of harbouring designs in ‘that head,’ and as being a crafty impostor. Other motes there were which showed him as a heavy, selfish, drifting Booby, who, having stumbled, in the course of his unwieldy jostlings against other men, on the discovery that to get through life with ease and credit, he had but to hold his tongue, keep the bald part of his head well polished, and leave his hair alone, had had just cunning enough to seize the idea and stick to it. It was said that his being town-agent to Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle was referable, not to his having the least business capacity, but to his looking so supremely benignant that nobody could suppose the property screwed or jobbed under such a man; also, that for similar reasons he now got more money out of his own wretched lettings, unquestioned, than anybody with a less nobby and less shining crown could possibly have done. In a word, it was represented (Clennam called to mind, alone in the ticking parlour) that many people select their models, much as the painters, just now mentioned, select theirs; and that, whereas in the Royal Academy some evil old ruffian of a Dog-stealer will annually be found embodying all the cardinal virtues, on account of his eyelashes, or his chin, or his legs (thereby planting thorns of confusion in the breasts of the more observant students of nature), so, in the great social Exhibition, accessories are often accepted in lieu of the internal character.

Calling these things to mind, and ranging Mr Pancks in a row with them, Arthur Clennam leaned this day to the opinion, without quite deciding on it, that the last of the Patriarchs was the drifting Booby aforesaid, with the one idea of keeping the bald part of his head highly polished: and that, much as an unwieldy ship in the Thames river may sometimes be seen heavily driving with the tide, broadside on, stern first, in its own way and in the way of everything else, though making a great show of navigation, when all of a sudden, a little coaly steam-tug will bear down upon it, take it in tow, and bustle off with it; similarly the cumbrous Patriarch had been taken in tow by the snorting Pancks, and was now following in the wake of that dingy little craft.

The return of Mr Casby with his daughter Flora, put an end to these meditations. Clennam’s eyes no sooner fell upon the subject of his old passion than it shivered and broke to pieces.

Most men will be found sufficiently true to themselves to be true to an old idea. It is no proof of an inconstant mind, but exactly the opposite, when the idea will not bear close comparison with the reality, and the contrast is a fatal shock to it. Such was Clennam’s case. In his youth he had ardently loved this woman, and had heaped upon her all the locked-up wealth of his affection and imagination. That wealth had been, in his desert home, like Robinson Crusoe’s money; exchangeable with no one, lying idle in the dark to rust, until he poured it out for her. Ever since that memorable time, though he had, until the night of his arrival, as completely dismissed her from any association with his Present or Future as if she had been dead (which she might easily have been for anything he knew), he had kept the old fancy of the Past unchanged, in its old sacred place. And now, after all, the last of the Patriarchs coolly walked into the parlour, saying in effect, ‘Be good enough to throw it down and dance upon it. This is Flora.’

Flora, always tall, had grown to be very broad too, and short of breath; but that was not much. Flora, whom he had left a lily, had become a peony; but that was not much. Flora, who had seemed enchanting in all she said and thought, was diffuse and silly. That was much. Flora, who had been spoiled and artless long ago, was determined to be spoiled and artless now. That was a fatal blow.

This is Flora!

‘I am sure,’ giggled Flora, tossing her head with a caricature of her girlish manner, such as a mummer might have presented at her own funeral, if she had lived and died in classical antiquity, ‘I am ashamed to see Mr Clennam, I am a mere fright, I know he’ll find me fearfully changed, I am actually an old woman, it’s shocking to be found out, it’s really shocking!’

He assured her that she was just what he had expected and that time had not stood still with himself.

‘Oh! But with a gentleman it’s so different and really you look so amazingly well that you have no right to say anything of the kind, while, as to me, you know–oh!’ cried Flora with a little scream, ‘I am dreadful!’

The Patriarch, apparently not yet understanding his own part in the drama under representation, glowed with vacant serenity.

‘But if we talk of not having changed,’ said Flora, who, whatever she said, never once came to a full stop, ‘look at Papa, is not Papa precisely what he was when you went away, isn’t it cruel and unnatural of Papa to be such a reproach to his own child, if we go on in this way much longer people who don’t know us will begin to suppose that I am Papa’s Mama!’

That must be a long time hence, Arthur considered.

‘Oh Mr Clennam you insincerest of creatures,’ said Flora, ‘I perceive already you have not lost your old way of paying compliments, your old way when you used to pretend to be so sentimentally struck you know–at least I don’t mean that, I–oh I don’t know what I mean!’ Here Flora tittered confusedly, and gave him one of her old glances.

The Patriarch, as if he now began to perceive that his part in the piece was to get off the stage as soon as might be, rose, and went to the door by which Pancks had worked out, hailing that Tug by name. He received an answer from some little Dock beyond, and was towed out of sight directly.

‘You mustn’t think of going yet,’ said Flora–Arthur had looked at his hat, being in a ludicrous dismay, and not knowing what to do: ‘you could never be so unkind as to think of going, Arthur–I mean Mr Arthur–or I suppose Mr Clennam would be far more proper–but I am sure I don’t know what I am saying–without a word about the dear old days gone for ever, when I come to think of it I dare say it would be much better not to speak of them and it’s highly probable that you have some much more agreeable engagement and pray let Me be the last person in the world to interfere with it though there _was_ a time, but I am running into nonsense again.’


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