Little Dorrit 064


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The brother only sighed again, as he plodded dreamily along, ‘Hah! Yes, yes, yes, yes.’

‘My dear fellow,’ said the Father of the Marshalsea, laying his hand upon his shoulder, and mildly rallying him–mildly, because of his weakness, poor dear soul; ‘you said that before, and it does not express much, Frederick, even if it means much. I wish I could rouse you, my good Frederick; you want to be roused.’

‘Yes, William, yes. No doubt,’ returned the other, lifting his dim eyes to his face. ‘But I am not like you.’

The Father of the Marshalsea said, with a shrug of modest self-depreciation, ‘Oh! You might be like me, my dear Frederick; you might be, if you chose!’ and forbore, in the magnanimity of his strength, to press his fallen brother further.

There was a great deal of leave-taking going on in corners, as was usual on Sunday nights; and here and there in the dark, some poor woman, wife or mother, was weeping with a new Collegian. The time had been when the Father himself had wept, in the shades of that yard, as his own poor wife had wept. But it was many years ago; and now he was like a passenger aboard ship in a long voyage, who has recovered from sea-sickness, and is impatient of that weakness in the fresher passengers taken aboard at the last port. He was inclined to remonstrate, and to express his opinion that people who couldn’t get on without crying, had no business there. In manner, if not in words, he always testified his displeasure at these interruptions of the general harmony; and it was so well understood, that delinquents usually withdrew if they were aware of him.

On this Sunday evening, he accompanied his brother to the gate with an air of endurance and clemency; being in a bland temper and graciously disposed to overlook the tears. In the flaring gaslight of the Lodge, several Collegians were basking; some taking leave of visitors, and some who had no visitors, watching the frequent turning of the key, and conversing with one another and with Mr Chivery. The paternal entrance made a sensation of course; and Mr Chivery, touching his hat (in a short manner though) with his key, hoped he found himself tolerable.

‘Thank you, Chivery, quite well. And you?’

Mr Chivery said in a low growl, ‘Oh! _he_ was all right.’ Which was his general way of acknowledging inquiries after his health when a little sullen.

‘I had a visit from Young John to-day, Chivery. And very smart he looked, I assure you.’

So Mr Chivery had heard. Mr Chivery must confess, however, that his wish was that the boy didn’t lay out so much money upon it. For what did it bring him in? It only brought him in wexation. And he could get that anywhere for nothing.

‘How vexation, Chivery?’ asked the benignant father.

‘No odds,’ returned Mr Chivery. ‘Never mind. Mr Frederick going out?’

‘Yes, Chivery, my brother is going home to bed. He is tired, and not quite well. Take care, Frederick, take care. Good night, my dear Frederick!’

Shaking hands with his brother, and touching his greasy hat to the company in the Lodge, Frederick slowly shuffled out of the door which Mr Chivery unlocked for him. The Father of the Marshalsea showed the amiable solicitude of a superior being that he should come to no harm.

‘Be so kind as to keep the door open a moment, Chivery, that I may see him go along the passage and down the steps. Take care, Frederick! (He is very infirm.) Mind the steps! (He is so very absent.) Be careful how you cross, Frederick. (I really don’t like the notion of his going wandering at large, he is so extremely liable to be run over.)’

With these words, and with a face expressive of many uneasy doubts and much anxious guardianship, he turned his regards upon the assembled company in the Lodge: so plainly indicating that his brother was to be pitied for not being under lock and key, that an opinion to that effect went round among the Collegians assembled.

But he did not receive it with unqualified assent; on the contrary, he said, No, gentlemen, no; let them not misunderstand him. His brother Frederick was much broken, no doubt, and it might be more comfortable to himself (the Father of the Marshalsea) to know that he was safe within the walls. Still, it must be remembered that to support an existence there during many years, required a certain combination of qualities–he did not say high qualities, but qualities–moral qualities. Now, had his brother Frederick that peculiar union of qualities? Gentlemen, he was a most excellent man, a most gentle, tender, and estimable man, with the simplicity of a child; but would he, though unsuited for most other places, do for that place? No; he said confidently, no! And, he said, Heaven forbid that Frederick should be there in any other character than in his present voluntary character! Gentlemen, whoever came to that College, to remain there a length of time, must have strength of character to go through a good deal and to come out of a good deal. Was his beloved brother Frederick that man? No. They saw him, even as it was, crushed. Misfortune crushed him. He had not power of recoil enough, not elasticity enough, to be a long time in such a place, and yet preserve his self-respect and feel conscious that he was a gentleman. Frederick had not (if he might use the expression) Power enough to see in any delicate little attentions and–and–Testimonials that he might under such circumstances receive, the goodness of human nature, the fine spirit animating the Collegians as a community, and at the same time no degradation to himself, and no depreciation of his claims as a gentleman. Gentlemen, God bless you!

Such was the homily with which he improved and pointed the occasion to the company in the Lodge before turning into the sallow yard again, and going with his own poor shabby dignity past the Collegian in the dressing-gown who had no coat, and past the Collegian in the sea-side slippers who had no shoes, and past the stout greengrocer Collegian in the corduroy knee-breeches who had no cares, and past the lean clerk Collegian in buttonless black who had no hopes, up his own poor shabby staircase to his own poor shabby room.

There, the table was laid for his supper, and his old grey gown was ready for him on his chair-back at the fire. His daughter put her little prayer-book in her pocket–had she been praying for pity on all prisoners and captives!–and rose to welcome him.

Uncle had gone home, then? she asked him, as she changed his coat and gave him his black velvet cap. Yes, uncle had gone home. Had her father enjoyed his walk? Why, not much, Amy; not much. No! Did he not feel quite well?

As she stood behind him, leaning over his chair so lovingly, he looked with downcast eyes at the fire. An uneasiness stole over him that was like a touch of shame; and when he spoke, as he presently did, it was in an unconnected and embarrassed manner.

‘Something, I–hem!–I don’t know what, has gone wrong with Chivery. He is not–ha!–not nearly so obliging and attentive as usual to-night. It–hem!–it’s a little thing, but it puts me out, my love. It’s impossible to forget,’ turning his hands over and over and looking closely at them, ‘that–hem!–that in such a life as mine, I am unfortunately dependent on these men for something every hour in the day.’

Her arm was on his shoulder, but she did not look in his face while he spoke. Bending her head she looked another way.

‘I–hem!–I can’t think, Amy, what has given Chivery offence. He is generally so–so very attentive and respectful. And to-night he was quite–quite short with me. Other people there too! Why, good Heaven! if I was to lose the support and recognition of Chivery and his brother officers, I might starve to death here.’ While he spoke, he was opening and shutting his hands like valves; so conscious all the time of that touch of shame, that he shrunk before his own knowledge of his meaning.

‘I–ha!–I can’t think what it’s owing to. I am sure I cannot imagine what the cause of it is. There was a certain Jackson here once, a turnkey of the name of Jackson (I don’t think you can remember him, my dear, you were very young), and–hem!–and he had a–brother, and this–young brother paid his addresses to–at least, did not go so far as to pay his addresses to–but admired–respectfully admired–the–not daughter, the sister–of one of us; a rather distinguished Collegian; I may say, very much so. His name was Captain Martin; and he consulted me on the question whether it was necessary that his daughter–sister–should hazard offending the turnkey brother by being too–ha!–too plain with the other brother. Captain Martin was a gentleman and a man of honour, and I put it to him first to give me his–his own opinion. Captain Martin (highly respected in the army) then unhesitatingly said that it appeared to him that his–hem!–sister was not called upon to understand the young man too distinctly, and that she might lead him on–I am doubtful whether “lead him on” was Captain Martin’s exact expression: indeed I think he said tolerate him–on her father’s–I should say, brother’s–account. I hardly know how I have strayed into this story. I suppose it has been through being unable to account for Chivery; but as to the connection between the two, I don’t see–’

His voice died away, as if she could not bear the pain of hearing him, and her hand had gradually crept to his lips. For a little while there was a dead silence and stillness; and he remained shrunk in his chair, and she remained with her arm round his neck and her head bowed down upon his shoulder.

His supper was cooking in a saucepan on the fire, and, when she moved, it was to make it ready for him on the table. He took his usual seat, she took hers, and he began his meal. They did not, as yet, look at one another. By little and little he began; laying down his knife and fork with a noise, taking things up sharply, biting at his bread as if he were offended with it, and in other similar ways showing that he was out of sorts. At length he pushed his plate from him, and spoke aloud; with the strangest inconsistency.

‘What does it matter whether I eat or starve? What does it matter whether such a blighted life as mine comes to an end, now, next week, or next year? What am I worth to anyone? A poor prisoner, fed on alms and broken victuals; a squalid, disgraced wretch!’

‘Father, father!’ As he rose she went on her knees to him, and held up her hands to him.

‘Amy,’ he went on in a suppressed voice, trembling violently, and looking at her as wildly as if he had gone mad. ‘I tell you, if you could see me as your mother saw me, you wouldn’t believe it to be the creature you have only looked at through the bars of this cage. I was young, I was accomplished, I was good-looking, I was independent–by God I was, child!–and people sought me out, and envied me. Envied me!’


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