Little Dorrit 054


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‘If I cared to know, I should know already. Could I not have asked her any day?’

‘Then you don’t care to know?’

‘I do not.’

Mr Flintwinch, having expelled a long significant breath said, with his former emphasis, ‘For I have accidentally–mind!–found out.’

‘Wherever she lives,’ said Mrs Clennam, speaking in one unmodulated hard voice, and separating her words as distinctly as if she were reading them off from separate bits of metal that she took up one by one, ‘she has made a secret of it, and she shall always keep her secret from me.’

‘After all, perhaps you would rather not have known the fact, any how?’ said Jeremiah; and he said it with a twist, as if his words had come out of him in his own wry shape.

‘Flintwinch,’ said his mistress and partner, flashing into a sudden energy that made Affery start, ‘why do you goad me? Look round this room. If it is any compensation for my long confinement within these narrow limits–not that I complain of being afflicted; you know I never complain of that–if it is any compensation to me for long confinement to this room, that while I am shut up from all pleasant change I am also shut up from the knowledge of some things that I may prefer to avoid knowing, why should you, of all men, grudge me that belief?’

‘I don’t grudge it to you,’ returned Jeremiah.

‘Then say no more. Say no more. Let Little Dorrit keep her secret from me, and do you keep it from me also. Let her come and go, unobserved and unquestioned. Let me suffer, and let me have what alleviation belongs to my condition. Is it so much, that you torment me like an evil spirit?’

‘I asked you a question. That’s all.’

‘I have answered it. So, say no more. Say no more.’ Here the sound of the wheeled chair was heard upon the floor, and Affery’s bell rang with a hasty jerk.

More afraid of her husband at the moment than of the mysterious sound in the kitchen, Affery crept away as lightly and as quickly as she could, descended the kitchen stairs almost as rapidly as she had ascended them, resumed her seat before the fire, tucked up her skirt again, and finally threw her apron over her head. Then the bell rang once more, and then once more, and then kept on ringing; in despite of which importunate summons, Affery still sat behind her apron, recovering her breath.

At last Mr Flintwinch came shuffling down the staircase into the hall, muttering and calling ‘Affery woman!’ all the way. Affery still remaining behind her apron, he came stumbling down the kitchen stairs, candle in hand, sidled up to her, twitched her apron off, and roused her.

‘Oh Jeremiah!’ cried Affery, waking. ‘What a start you gave me!’

‘What have you been doing, woman?’ inquired Jeremiah. ‘You’ve been rung for fifty times.’

‘Oh Jeremiah,’ said Mistress Affery, ‘I have been a-dreaming!’

Reminded of her former achievement in that way, Mr Flintwinch held the candle to her head, as if he had some idea of lighting her up for the illumination of the kitchen.

‘Don’t you know it’s her tea-time?’ he demanded with a vicious grin, and giving one of the legs of Mistress Affery’s chair a kick.

‘Jeremiah? Tea-time? I don’t know what’s come to me. But I got such a dreadful turn, Jeremiah, before I went–off a-dreaming, that I think it must be that.’

‘Yoogh! Sleepy-Head!’ said Mr Flintwinch, ‘what are you talking about?’

‘Such a strange noise, Jeremiah, and such a curious movement. In the kitchen here–just here.’

Jeremiah held up his light and looked at the blackened ceiling, held down his light and looked at the damp stone floor, turned round with his light and looked about at the spotted and blotched walls.

‘Rats, cats, water, drains,’ said Jeremiah.

Mistress Affery negatived each with a shake of her head. ‘No, Jeremiah; I have felt it before. I have felt it up-stairs, and once on the staircase as I was going from her room to ours in the night–a rustle and a sort of trembling touch behind me.’

‘Affery, my woman,’ said Mr Flintwinch grimly, after advancing his nose to that lady’s lips as a test for the detection of spirituous liquors, ‘if you don’t get tea pretty quick, old woman, you’ll become sensible of a rustle and a touch that’ll send you flying to the other end of the kitchen.’

This prediction stimulated Mrs Flintwinch to bestir herself, and to hasten up-stairs to Mrs Clennam’s chamber. But, for all that, she now began to entertain a settled conviction that there was something wrong in the gloomy house. Henceforth, she was never at peace in it after daylight departed; and never went up or down stairs in the dark without having her apron over her head, lest she should see something.

What with these ghostly apprehensions and her singular dreams, Mrs Flintwinch fell that evening into a haunted state of mind, from which it may be long before this present narrative descries any trace of her recovery. In the vagueness and indistinctness of all her new experiences and perceptions, as everything about her was mysterious to herself she began to be mysterious to others: and became as difficult to be made out to anybody’s satisfaction as she found the house and everything in it difficult to make out to her own.

She had not yet finished preparing Mrs Clennam’s tea, when the soft knock came to the door which always announced Little Dorrit. Mistress Affery looked on at Little Dorrit taking off her homely bonnet in the hall, and at Mr Flintwinch scraping his jaws and contemplating her in silence, as expecting some wonderful consequence to ensue which would frighten her out of her five wits or blow them all three to pieces.

After tea there came another knock at the door, announcing Arthur. Mistress Affery went down to let him in, and he said on entering, ‘Affery, I am glad it’s you. I want to ask you a question.’ Affery immediately replied, ‘For goodness sake don’t ask me nothing, Arthur! I am frightened out of one half of my life, and dreamed out of the other. Don’t ask me nothing! I don’t know which is which, or what is what!’–and immediately started away from him, and came near him no more.

Mistress Affery having no taste for reading, and no sufficient light for needlework in the subdued room, supposing her to have the inclination, now sat every night in the dimness from which she had momentarily emerged on the evening of Arthur Clennam’s return, occupied with crowds of wild speculations and suspicions respecting her mistress and her husband and the noises in the house. When the ferocious devotional exercises were engaged in, these speculations would distract Mistress Affery’s eyes towards the door, as if she expected some dark form to appear at those propitious moments, and make the party one too many.


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