Little Dorrit 045


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‘Bleeding Heart Yard?’ said Pancks, with a puff and a snort. ‘It’s a troublesome property. Don’t pay you badly, but rents are very hard to get there. You have more trouble with that one place than with all the places belonging to you.’

Just as the big ship in tow gets the credit, with most spectators, of being the powerful object, so the Patriarch usually seemed to have said himself whatever Pancks said for him.

‘Indeed?’ returned Clennam, upon whom this impression was so efficiently made by a mere gleam of the polished head that he spoke the ship instead of the Tug. ‘The people are so poor there?’

‘_You_ can’t say, you know,’ snorted Pancks, taking one of his dirty hands out of his rusty iron-grey pockets to bite his nails, if he could find any, and turning his beads of eyes upon his employer, ‘whether they’re poor or not. They say they are, but they all say that. When a man says he’s rich, you’re generally sure he isn’t. Besides, if they _are_ poor, you can’t help it. You’d be poor yourself if you didn’t get your rents.’

‘True enough,’ said Arthur.

‘You’re not going to keep open house for all the poor of London,’ pursued Pancks. ‘You’re not going to lodge ‘em for nothing. You’re not going to open your gates wide and let ‘em come free. Not if you know it, you ain’t.’

Mr Casby shook his head, in Placid and benignant generality.

‘If a man takes a room of you at half-a-crown a week, and when the week comes round hasn’t got the half-crown, you say to that man, Why have you got the room, then? If you haven’t got the one thing, why have you got the other? What have you been and done with your money? What do you mean by it? What are you up to? That’s what _you_ say to a man of that sort; and if you didn’t say it, more shame for you!’ Mr Pancks here made a singular and startling noise, produced by a strong blowing effort in the region of the nose, unattended by any result but that acoustic one.

‘You have some extent of such property about the east and north-east here, I believe?’ said Clennam, doubtful which of the two to address.

‘Oh, pretty well,’ said Pancks. ‘You’re not particular to east or north-east, any point of the compass will do for you. What you want is a good investment and a quick return. You take it where you can find it. You ain’t nice as to situation–not you.’

There was a fourth and most original figure in the Patriarchal tent, who also appeared before dinner. This was an amazing little old woman, with a face like a staring wooden doll too cheap for expression, and a stiff yellow wig perched unevenly on the top of her head, as if the child who owned the doll had driven a tack through it anywhere, so that it only got fastened on. Another remarkable thing in this little old woman was, that the same child seemed to have damaged her face in two or three places with some blunt instrument in the nature of a spoon; her countenance, and particularly the tip of her nose, presenting the phenomena of several dints, generally answering to the bowl of that article. A further remarkable thing in this little old woman was, that she had no name but Mr F.’s Aunt.

She broke upon the visitor’s view under the following circumstances: Flora said when the first dish was being put on the table, perhaps Mr Clennam might not have heard that Mr F. had left her a legacy? Clennam in return implied his hope that Mr F. had endowed the wife whom he adored, with the greater part of his worldly substance, if not with all. Flora said, oh yes, she didn’t mean that, Mr F. had made a beautiful will, but he had left her as a separate legacy, his Aunt. She then went out of the room to fetch the legacy, and, on her return, rather triumphantly presented ‘Mr F.’s Aunt.’

The major characteristics discoverable by the stranger in Mr F.’s Aunt, were extreme severity and grim taciturnity; sometimes interrupted by a propensity to offer remarks in a deep warning voice, which, being totally uncalled for by anything said by anybody, and traceable to no association of ideas, confounded and terrified the Mind. Mr F.’s Aunt may have thrown in these observations on some system of her own, and it may have been ingenious, or even subtle: but the key to it was wanted.

The neatly-served and well-cooked dinner (for everything about the Patriarchal household promoted quiet digestion) began with some soup, some fried soles, a butter-boat of shrimp sauce, and a dish of potatoes. The conversation still turned on the receipt of rents. Mr F.’s Aunt, after regarding the company for ten minutes with a malevolent gaze, delivered the following fearful remark:

‘When we lived at Henley, Barnes’s gander was stole by tinkers.’

Mr Pancks courageously nodded his head and said, ‘All right, ma’am.’ But the effect of this mysterious communication upon Clennam was absolutely to frighten him. And another circumstance invested this old lady with peculiar terrors. Though she was always staring, she never acknowledged that she saw any individual. The polite and attentive stranger would desire, say, to consult her inclinations on the subject of potatoes. His expressive action would be hopelessly lost upon her, and what could he do? No man could say, ‘Mr F.’s Aunt, will you permit me?’ Every man retired from the spoon, as Clennam did, cowed and baffled.

There was mutton, a steak, and an apple-pie–nothing in the remotest way connected with ganders–and the dinner went on like a disenchanted feast, as it truly was. Once upon a time Clennam had sat at that table taking no heed of anything but Flora; now the principal heed he took of Flora was to observe, against his will, that she was very fond of porter, that she combined a great deal of sherry with sentiment, and that if she were a little overgrown, it was upon substantial grounds. The last of the Patriarchs had always been a mighty eater, and he disposed of an immense quantity of solid food with the benignity of a good soul who was feeding some one else. Mr Pancks, who was always in a hurry, and who referred at intervals to a little dirty notebook which he kept beside him (perhaps containing the names of the defaulters he meant to look up by way of dessert), took in his victuals much as if he were coaling; with a good deal of noise, a good deal of dropping about, and a puff and a snort occasionally, as if he were nearly ready to steam away.

All through dinner, Flora combined her present appetite for eating and drinking with her past appetite for romantic love, in a way that made Clennam afraid to lift his eyes from his plate; since he could not look towards her without receiving some glance of mysterious meaning or warning, as if they were engaged in a plot. Mr F.’s Aunt sat silently defying him with an aspect of the greatest bitterness, until the removal of the cloth and the appearance of the decanters, when she originated another observation–struck into the conversation like a clock, without consulting anybody.

Flora had just said, ‘Mr Clennam, will you give me a glass of port for Mr F.’s Aunt?’

‘The Monument near London Bridge,’ that lady instantly proclaimed, ‘was put up arter the Great Fire of London; and the Great Fire of London was not the fire in which your uncle George’s workshops was burned down.’

Mr Pancks, with his former courage, said, ‘Indeed, ma’am? All right!’ But appearing to be incensed by imaginary contradiction, or other ill-usage, Mr F.’s Aunt, instead of relapsing into silence, made the following additional proclamation:

‘I hate a fool!’

She imparted to this sentiment, in itself almost Solomonic, so extremely injurious and personal a character by levelling it straight at the visitor’s head, that it became necessary to lead Mr F.’s Aunt from the room. This was quietly done by Flora; Mr F.’s Aunt offering no resistance, but inquiring on her way out, ‘What he come there for, then?’ with implacable animosity.

When Flora returned, she explained that her legacy was a clever old lady, but was sometimes a little singular, and ‘took dislikes’–peculiarities of which Flora seemed to be proud rather than otherwise. As Flora’s good nature shone in the case, Clennam had no fault to find with the old lady for eliciting it, now that he was relieved from the terrors of her presence; and they took a glass or two of wine in peace. Foreseeing then that the Pancks would shortly get under weigh, and that the Patriarch would go to sleep, he pleaded the necessity of visiting his mother, and asked Mr Pancks in which direction he was going?

‘Citywards, sir,’ said Pancks.

‘Shall we walk together?’ said Arthur.

‘Quite agreeable,’ said Pancks.

Meanwhile Flora was murmuring in rapid snatches for his ear, that there was a time and that the past was a yawning gulf however and that a golden chain no longer bound him and that she revered the memory of the late Mr F. and that she should be at home to-morrow at half-past one and that the decrees of Fate were beyond recall and that she considered nothing so improbable as that he ever walked on the north-west side of Gray’s-Inn Gardens at exactly four o’clock in the afternoon. He tried at parting to give his hand in frankness to the existing Flora–not the vanished Flora, or the mermaid–but Flora wouldn’t have it, couldn’t have it, was wholly destitute of the power of separating herself and him from their bygone characters. He left the house miserably enough; and so much more light-headed than ever, that if it had not been his good fortune to be towed away, he might, for the first quarter of an hour, have drifted anywhere.

When he began to come to himself, in the cooler air and the absence of Flora, he found Pancks at full speed, cropping such scanty pasturage of nails as he could find, and snorting at intervals. These, in conjunction with one hand in his pocket and his roughened hat hind side before, were evidently the conditions under which he reflected.

‘A fresh night!’ said Arthur.


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