Little Dorrit 051


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Three o’clock, and half-past three, and they had passed over London Bridge. They had heard the rush of the tide against obstacles; and looked down, awed, through the dark vapour on the river; had seen little spots of lighted water where the bridge lamps were reflected, shining like demon eyes, with a terrible fascination in them for guilt and misery. They had shrunk past homeless people, lying coiled up in nooks. They had run from drunkards. They had started from slinking men, whistling and signing to one another at bye corners, or running away at full speed. Though everywhere the leader and the guide, Little Dorrit, happy for once in her youthful appearance, feigned to cling to and rely upon Maggy. And more than once some voice, from among a knot of brawling or prowling figures in their path, had called out to the rest to ‘let the woman and the child go by!’

So, the woman and the child had gone by, and gone on, and five had sounded from the steeples. They were walking slowly towards the east, already looking for the first pale streak of day, when a woman came after them.

‘What are you doing with the child?’ she said to Maggy.

She was young–far too young to be there, Heaven knows!–and neither ugly nor wicked-looking. She spoke coarsely, but with no naturally coarse voice; there was even something musical in its sound.

‘What are you doing with yourself?’ retorted Maggy, for want of a better answer.

‘Can’t you see, without my telling you?’

‘I don’t know as I can,’ said Maggy.

‘Killing myself! Now I have answered you, answer me. What are you doing with the child?’

The supposed child kept her head drooped down, and kept her form close at Maggy’s side.

‘Poor thing!’ said the woman. ‘Have you no feeling, that you keep her out in the cruel streets at such a time as this? Have you no eyes, that you don’t see how delicate and slender she is? Have you no sense (you don’t look as if you had much) that you don’t take more pity on this cold and trembling little hand?’

She had stepped across to that side, and held the hand between her own two, chafing it. ‘Kiss a poor lost creature, dear,’ she said, bending her face, ‘and tell me where’s she taking you.’

Little Dorrit turned towards her.

‘Why, my God!’ she said, recoiling, ‘you’re a woman!’

‘Don’t mind that!’ said Little Dorrit, clasping one of her hands that had suddenly released hers. ‘I am not afraid of you.’

‘Then you had better be,’ she answered. ‘Have you no mother?’

‘No.’

‘No father?’

‘Yes, a very dear one.’

‘Go home to him, and be afraid of me. Let me go. Good night!’

‘I must thank you first; let me speak to you as if I really were a child.’

‘You can’t do it,’ said the woman. ‘You are kind and innocent; but you can’t look at me out of a child’s eyes. I never should have touched you, but I thought that you were a child.’ And with a strange, wild cry, she went away.

No day yet in the sky, but there was day in the resounding stones of the streets; in the waggons, carts, and coaches; in the workers going to various occupations; in the opening of early shops; in the traffic at markets; in the stir of the riverside. There was coming day in the flaring lights, with a feebler colour in them than they would have had at another time; coming day in the increased sharpness of the air, and the ghastly dying of the night.

They went back again to the gate, intending to wait there now until it should be opened; but the air was so raw and cold that Little Dorrit, leading Maggy about in her sleep, kept in motion. Going round by the Church, she saw lights there, and the door open; and went up the steps and looked in.

‘Who’s that?’ cried a stout old man, who was putting on a nightcap as if he were going to bed in a vault.

‘It’s no one particular, sir,’ said Little Dorrit.

‘Stop!’ cried the man. ‘Let’s have a look at you!’

This caused her to turn back again in the act of going out, and to present herself and her charge before him.

‘I thought so!’ said he. ‘I know _you_.’

‘We have often seen each other,’ said Little Dorrit, recognising the sexton, or the beadle, or the verger, or whatever he was, ‘when I have been at church here.’

‘More than that, we’ve got your birth in our Register, you know; you’re one of our curiosities.’


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