‘I won’t have it!’ interposed the contradictory Jeremiah, flinging back the concession. ‘I did mean it.’
‘I suppose I must leave you to speak in soliloquy if you choose,’ she replied, after a pause that seemed an angry one. ‘It is useless my addressing myself to a rash and headstrong old man who has a set purpose not to hear me.’
‘Now, I won’t take that from you either,’ said Jeremiah. ‘I have no such purpose. I have told you I did mean it. Do you wish to know why I meant it, you rash and headstrong old woman?’
‘After all, you only restore me my own words,’ she said, struggling with her indignation. ‘Yes.’
‘This is why, then. Because you hadn’t cleared his father to him, and you ought to have done it. Because, before you went into any tantrum about yourself, who are–’
‘Hold there, Flintwinch!’ she cried out in a changed voice: ‘you may go a word too far.’
The old man seemed to think so. There was another pause, and he had altered his position in the room, when he spoke again more mildly:
‘I was going to tell you why it was. Because, before you took your own part, I thought you ought to have taken the part of Arthur’s father. Arthur’s father! I had no particular love for Arthur’s father. I served Arthur’s father’s uncle, in this house, when Arthur’s father was not much above me–was poorer as far as his pocket went–and when his uncle might as soon have left me his heir as have left him. He starved in the parlour, and I starved in the kitchen; that was the principal difference in our positions; there was not much more than a flight of breakneck stairs between us. I never took to him in those times; I don’t know that I ever took to him greatly at any time. He was an undecided, irresolute chap, who had everything but his orphan life scared out of him when he was young. And when he brought you home here, the wife his uncle had named for him, I didn’t need to look at you twice (you were a good-looking woman at that time) to know who’d be master. You have stood of your own strength ever since. Stand of your own strength now. Don’t lean against the dead.’
‘I do _not_–as you call it–lean against the dead.’
‘But you had a mind to do it, if I had submitted,’ growled Jeremiah, ‘and that’s why you drop down upon me. You can’t forget that I didn’t submit. I suppose you are astonished that I should consider it worth my while to have justice done to Arthur’s father? Hey? It doesn’t matter whether you answer or not, because I know you are, and you know you are. Come, then, I’ll tell you how it is. I may be a bit of an oddity in point of temper, but this is my temper–I can’t let anybody have entirely their own way. You are a determined woman, and a clever woman; and when you see your purpose before you, nothing will turn you from it. Who knows that better than I do?’
‘Nothing will turn me from it, Flintwinch, when I have justified it to myself. Add that.’
‘Justified it to yourself? I said you were the most determined woman on the face of the earth (or I meant to say so), and if you are determined to justify any object you entertain, of course you’ll do it.’
‘Man! I justify myself by the authority of these Books,’ she cried, with stern emphasis, and appearing from the sound that followed to strike the dead-weight of her arm upon the table.
‘Never mind that,’ returned Jeremiah calmly, ‘we won’t enter into that question at present. However that may be, you carry out your purposes, and you make everything go down before them. Now, I won’t go down before them. I have been faithful to you, and useful to you, and I am attached to you. But I can’t consent, and I won’t consent, and I never did consent, and I never will consent to be lost in you. Swallow up everybody else, and welcome. The peculiarity of my temper is, ma’am, that I won’t be swallowed up alive.’
Perhaps this had originally been the mainspring of the understanding between them. Descrying thus much of force of character in Mr Flintwinch, perhaps Mrs Clennam had deemed alliance with him worth her while.
‘Enough and more than enough of the subject,’ said she gloomily.
‘Unless you drop down upon me again,’ returned the persistent Flintwinch, ‘and then you must expect to hear of it again.’
Mistress Affery dreamed that the figure of her lord here began walking up and down the room, as if to cool his spleen, and that she ran away; but that, as he did not issue forth when she had stood listening and trembling in the shadowy hall a little time, she crept up-stairs again, impelled as before by ghosts and curiosity, and once more cowered outside the door.
‘Please to light the candle, Flintwinch,’ Mrs Clennam was saying, apparently wishing to draw him back into their usual tone. ‘It is nearly time for tea. Little Dorrit is coming, and will find me in the dark.’
Mr Flintwinch lighted the candle briskly, and said as he put it down upon the table:
‘What are you going to do with Little Dorrit? Is she to come to work here for ever? To come to tea here for ever? To come backwards and forwards here, in the same way, for ever?’
‘How can you talk about “for ever” to a maimed creature like me? Are we not all cut down like the grass of the field, and was not I shorn by the scythe many years ago: since when I have been lying here, waiting to be gathered into the barn?’
‘Ay, ay! But since you have been lying here–not near dead–nothing like it–numbers of children and young people, blooming women, strong men, and what not, have been cut down and carried; and still here are you, you see, not much changed after all. Your time and mine may be a long one yet. When I say for ever, I mean (though I am not poetical) through all our time.’ Mr Flintwinch gave this explanation with great calmness, and calmly waited for an answer.
‘So long as Little Dorrit is quiet and industrious, and stands in need of the slight help I can give her, and deserves it; so long, I suppose, unless she withdraws of her own act, she will continue to come here, I being spared.’
‘Nothing more than that?’ said Flintwinch, stroking his mouth and chin.
‘What should there be more than that! What could there be more than that!’ she ejaculated in her sternly wondering way.
Mrs Flintwinch dreamed, that, for the space of a minute or two, they remained looking at each other with the candle between them, and that she somehow derived an impression that they looked at each other fixedly.
‘Do you happen to know, Mrs Clennam,’ Affery’s liege lord then demanded in a much lower voice, and with an amount of expression that seemed quite out of proportion to the simple purpose of his words, ‘where she lives?’
‘Would you–now, would you like to know?’ said Jeremiah with a pounce as if he had sprung upon her.