Little Dorrit 065


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‘Dear father!’ She tried to take down the shaking arm that he flourished in the air, but he resisted, and put her hand away.

‘If I had but a picture of myself in those days, though it was ever so ill done, you would be proud of it, you would be proud of it. But I have no such thing. Now, let me be a warning! Let no man,’ he cried, looking haggardly about, ‘fail to preserve at least that little of the times of his prosperity and respect. Let his children have that clue to what he was. Unless my face, when I am dead, subsides into the long departed look–they say such things happen, I don’t know–my children will have never seen me.’

‘Father, father!’

‘O despise me, despise me! Look away from me, don’t listen to me, stop me, blush for me, cry for me–even you, Amy! Do it, do it! I do it to myself! I am hardened now, I have sunk too low to care long even for that.’

‘Dear father, loved father, darling of my heart!’ She was clinging to him with her arms, and she got him to drop into his chair again, and caught at the raised arm, and tried to put it round her neck.

‘Let it lie there, father. Look at me, father, kiss me, father! Only think of me, father, for one little moment!’

Still he went on in the same wild way, though it was gradually breaking down into a miserable whining.

‘And yet I have some respect here. I have made some stand against it. I am not quite trodden down. Go out and ask who is the chief person in the place. They’ll tell you it’s your father. Go out and ask who is never trifled with, and who is always treated with some delicacy. They’ll say, your father. Go out and ask what funeral here (it must be here, I know it can be nowhere else) will make more talk, and perhaps more grief, than any that has ever gone out at the gate. They’ll say your father’s. Well then. Amy! Amy! Is your father so universally despised? Is there nothing to redeem him? Will you have nothing to remember him by but his ruin and decay? Will you be able to have no affection for him when he is gone, poor castaway, gone?’

He burst into tears of maudlin pity for himself, and at length suffering her to embrace him and take charge of him, let his grey head rest against her cheek, and bewailed his wretchedness. Presently he changed the subject of his lamentations, and clasping his hands about her as she embraced him, cried, O Amy, his motherless, forlorn child! O the days that he had seen her careful and laborious for him! Then he reverted to himself, and weakly told her how much better she would have loved him if she had known him in his vanished character, and how he would have married her to a gentleman who should have been proud of her as his daughter, and how (at which he cried again) she should first have ridden at his fatherly side on her own horse, and how the crowd (by which he meant in effect the people who had given him the twelve shillings he then had in his pocket) should have trudged the dusty roads respectfully.

Thus, now boasting, now despairing, in either fit a captive with the jail-rot upon him, and the impurity of his prison worn into the grain of his soul, he revealed his degenerate state to his affectionate child. No one else ever beheld him in the details of his humiliation. Little recked the Collegians who were laughing in their rooms over his late address in the Lodge, what a serious picture they had in their obscure gallery of the Marshalsea that Sunday night.

There was a classical daughter once–perhaps–who ministered to her father in his prison as her mother had ministered to her. Little Dorrit, though of the unheroic modern stock and mere English, did much more, in comforting her father’s wasted heart upon her innocent breast, and turning to it a fountain of love and fidelity that never ran dry or waned through all his years of famine.

She soothed him; asked him for his forgiveness if she had been, or seemed to have been, undutiful; told him, Heaven knows truly, that she could not honour him more if he were the favourite of Fortune and the whole world acknowledged him. When his tears were dried, and he sobbed in his weakness no longer, and was free from that touch of shame, and had recovered his usual bearing, she prepared the remains of his supper afresh, and, sitting by his side, rejoiced to see him eat and drink. For now he sat in his black velvet cap and old grey gown, magnanimous again; and would have comported himself towards any Collegian who might have looked in to ask his advice, like a great moral Lord Chesterfield, or Master of the ethical ceremonies of the Marshalsea.

To keep his attention engaged, she talked with him about his wardrobe; when he was pleased to say, that Yes, indeed, those shirts she proposed would be exceedingly acceptable, for those he had were worn out, and, being ready-made, had never fitted him. Being conversational, and in a reasonable flow of spirits, he then invited her attention to his coat as it hung behind the door: remarking that the Father of the place would set an indifferent example to his children, already disposed to be slovenly, if he went among them out at elbows. He was jocular, too, as to the heeling of his shoes; but became grave on the subject of his cravat, and promised her that, when she could afford it, she should buy him a new one.

While he smoked out his cigar in peace, she made his bed, and put the small room in order for his repose. Being weary then, owing to the advanced hour and his emotions, he came out of his chair to bless her and wish her Good night. All this time he had never once thought of _her_ dress, her shoes, her need of anything. No other person upon earth, save herself, could have been so unmindful of her wants.

He kissed her many times with ‘Bless you, my love. Good night, my dear!’

But her gentle breast had been so deeply wounded by what she had seen of him that she was unwilling to leave him alone, lest he should lament and despair again. ‘Father, dear, I am not tired; let me come back presently, when you are in bed, and sit by you.’

He asked her, with an air of protection, if she felt solitary?

‘Yes, father.’

‘Then come back by all means, my love.’

‘I shall be very quiet, father.’

‘Don’t think of me, my dear,’ he said, giving her his kind permission fully. ‘Come back by all means.’

He seemed to be dozing when she returned, and she put the low fire together very softly lest she should awake him. But he overheard her, and called out who was that?

‘Only Amy, father.’

‘Amy, my child, come here. I want to say a word to you.’

He raised himself a little in his low bed, as she kneeled beside it to bring her face near him; and put his hand between hers. O! Both the private father and the Father of the Marshalsea were strong within him then.

‘My love, you have had a life of hardship here. No companions, no recreations, many cares I am afraid?’

‘Don’t think of that, dear. I never do.’

‘You know my position, Amy. I have not been able to do much for you; but all I have been able to do, I have done.’

‘Yes, my dear father,’ she rejoined, kissing him. ‘I know, I know.’

‘I am in the twenty-third year of my life here,’ he said, with a catch in his breath that was not so much a sob as an irrepressible sound of self-approval, the momentary outburst of a noble consciousness. ‘It is all I could do for my children–I have done it. Amy, my love, you are by far the best loved of the three; I have had you principally in my mind–whatever I have done for your sake, my dear child, I have done freely and without murmuring.’


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