Little Dorrit 084


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‘No, sir, certainly,’ Young John added with simplicity, ‘I should be very sorry if there was.’

‘The sentiment,’ said Mr Rugg, ‘is what I should have expected from your known principles. It would affect my daughter greatly, sir, if she heard it. As I perceive the mutton, I am glad she didn’t hear it. Mr Pancks, on this occasion, pray face me. My dear, face Mr Chivery. For what we are going to receive, may we (and Miss Dorrit) be truly thankful!’

But for a grave waggishness in Mr Rugg’s manner of delivering this introduction to the feast, it might have appeared that Miss Dorrit was expected to be one of the company. Pancks recognised the sally in his usual way, and took in his provender in his usual way. Miss Rugg, perhaps making up some of her arrears, likewise took very kindly to the mutton, and it rapidly diminished to the bone. A bread-and-butter pudding entirely disappeared, and a considerable amount of cheese and radishes vanished by the same means. Then came the dessert.

Then also, and before the broaching of the rum and water, came Mr Pancks’s note-book. The ensuing business proceedings were brief but curious, and rather in the nature of a conspiracy. Mr Pancks looked over his note-book, which was now getting full, studiously; and picked out little extracts, which he wrote on separate slips of paper on the table; Mr Rugg, in the meanwhile, looking at him with close attention, and Young John losing his uncollected eye in mists of meditation. When Mr Pancks, who supported the character of chief conspirator, had completed his extracts, he looked them over, corrected them, put up his note-book, and held them like a hand at cards.

‘Now, there’s a churchyard in Bedfordshire,’ said Pancks. ‘Who takes it?’

‘I’ll take it, sir,’ returned Mr Rugg, ‘if no one bids.’

Mr Pancks dealt him his card, and looked at his hand again.

‘Now, there’s an Enquiry in York,’ said Pancks. ‘Who takes it?’

‘I’m not good for York,’ said Mr Rugg.

‘Then perhaps,’ pursued Pancks, ‘you’ll be so obliging, John Chivery?’

Young John assenting, Pancks dealt him his card, and consulted his hand again.

‘There’s a Church in London; I may as well take that. And a Family Bible; I may as well take that, too. That’s two to me. Two to me,’ repeated Pancks, breathing hard over his cards. ‘Here’s a Clerk at Durham for you, John, and an old seafaring gentleman at Dunstable for you, Mr Rugg. Two to me, was it? Yes, two to me. Here’s a Stone; three to me. And a Still-born Baby; four to me. And all, for the present, told.’

When he had thus disposed of his cards, all being done very quietly and in a suppressed tone, Mr Pancks puffed his way into his own breast-pocket and tugged out a canvas bag; from which, with a sparing hand, he told forth money for travelling expenses in two little portions. ‘Cash goes out fast,’ he said anxiously, as he pushed a portion to each of his male companions, ‘very fast.’

‘I can only assure you, Mr Pancks,’ said Young John, ‘that I deeply regret my circumstances being such that I can’t afford to pay my own charges, or that it’s not advisable to allow me the time necessary for my doing the distances on foot; because nothing would give me greater satisfaction than to walk myself off my legs without fee or reward.’

This young man’s disinterestedness appeared so very ludicrous in the eyes of Miss Rugg, that she was obliged to effect a precipitate retirement from the company, and to sit upon the stairs until she had had her laugh out. Meanwhile Mr Pancks, looking, not without some pity, at Young John, slowly and thoughtfully twisted up his canvas bag as if he were wringing its neck. The lady, returning as he restored it to his pocket, mixed rum and water for the party, not forgetting her fair self, and handed to every one his glass. When all were supplied, Mr Rugg rose, and silently holding out his glass at arm’s length above the centre of the table, by that gesture invited the other three to add theirs, and to unite in a general conspiratorial clink. The ceremony was effective up to a certain point, and would have been wholly so throughout, if Miss Rugg, as she raised her glass to her lips in completion of it, had not happened to look at Young John; when she was again so overcome by the contemptible comicality of his disinterestedness as to splutter some ambrosial drops of rum and water around, and withdraw in confusion.

Such was the dinner without precedent, given by Pancks at Pentonville; and such was the busy and strange life Pancks led. The only waking moments at which he appeared to relax from his cares, and to recreate himself by going anywhere or saying anything without a pervading object, were when he showed a dawning interest in the lame foreigner with the stick, down Bleeding Heart Yard.

The foreigner, by name John Baptist Cavalletto–they called him Mr Baptist in the Yard–was such a chirping, easy, hopeful little fellow, that his attraction for Pancks was probably in the force of contrast. Solitary, weak, and scantily acquainted with the most necessary words of the only language in which he could communicate with the people about him, he went with the stream of his fortunes, in a brisk way that was new in those parts. With little to eat, and less to drink, and nothing to wear but what he wore upon him, or had brought tied up in one of the smallest bundles that ever were seen, he put as bright a face upon it as if he were in the most flourishing circumstances when he first hobbled up and down the Yard, humbly propitiating the general good-will with his white teeth.

It was uphill work for a foreigner, lame or sound, to make his way with the Bleeding Hearts. In the first place, they were vaguely persuaded that every foreigner had a knife about him; in the second, they held it to be a sound constitutional national axiom that he ought to go home to his own country. They never thought of inquiring how many of their own countrymen would be returned upon their hands from divers parts of the world, if the principle were generally recognised; they considered it particularly and peculiarly British. In the third place, they had a notion that it was a sort of Divine visitation upon a foreigner that he was not an Englishman, and that all kinds of calamities happened to his country because it did things that England did not, and did not do things that England did. In this belief, to be sure, they had long been carefully trained by the Barnacles and Stiltstalkings, who were always proclaiming to them, officially, that no country which failed to submit itself to those two large families could possibly hope to be under the protection of Providence; and who, when they believed it, disparaged them in private as the most prejudiced people under the sun.

This, therefore, might be called a political position of the Bleeding Hearts; but they entertained other objections to having foreigners in the Yard. They believed that foreigners were always badly off; and though they were as ill off themselves as they could desire to be, that did not diminish the force of the objection. They believed that foreigners were dragooned and bayoneted; and though they certainly got their own skulls promptly fractured if they showed any ill-humour, still it was with a blunt instrument, and that didn’t count. They believed that foreigners were always immoral; and though they had an occasional assize at home, and now and then a divorce case or so, that had nothing to do with it. They believed that foreigners had no independent spirit, as never being escorted to the poll in droves by Lord Decimus Tite Barnacle, with colours flying and the tune of Rule Britannia playing. Not to be tedious, they had many other beliefs of a similar kind.

Against these obstacles, the lame foreigner with the stick had to make head as well as he could; not absolutely single-handed, because Mr Arthur Clennam had recommended him to the Plornishes (he lived at the top of the same house), but still at heavy odds. However, the Bleeding Hearts were kind hearts; and when they saw the little fellow cheerily limping about with a good-humoured face, doing no harm, drawing no knives, committing no outrageous immoralities, living chiefly on farinaceous and milk diet, and playing with Mrs Plornish’s children of an evening, they began to think that although he could never hope to be an Englishman, still it would be hard to visit that affliction on his head. They began to accommodate themselves to his level, calling him ‘Mr Baptist,’ but treating him like a baby, and laughing immoderately at his lively gestures and his childish English–more, because he didn’t mind it, and laughed too. They spoke to him in very loud voices as if he were stone deaf. They constructed sentences, by way of teaching him the language in its purity, such as were addressed by the savages to Captain Cook, or by Friday to Robinson Crusoe. Mrs Plornish was particularly ingenious in this art; and attained so much celebrity for saying ‘Me ope you leg well soon,’ that it was considered in the Yard but a very short remove indeed from speaking Italian. Even Mrs Plornish herself began to think that she had a natural call towards that language. As he became more popular, household objects were brought into requisition for his instruction in a copious vocabulary; and whenever he appeared in the Yard ladies would fly out at their doors crying ‘Mr Baptist–tea-pot!’ ‘Mr Baptist–dust-pan!’ ‘Mr Baptist–flour-dredger!’ ‘Mr Baptist–coffee-biggin!’ At the same time exhibiting those articles, and penetrating him with a sense of the appalling difficulties of the Anglo-Saxon tongue.

It was in this stage of his progress, and in about the third week of his occupation, that Mr Pancks’s fancy became attracted by the little man. Mounting to his attic, attended by Mrs Plornish as interpreter, he found Mr Baptist with no furniture but his bed on the ground, a table, and a chair, carving with the aid of a few simple tools, in the blithest way possible.

‘Now, old chap,’ said Mr Pancks, ‘pay up!’

He had his money ready, folded in a scrap of paper, and laughingly handed it in; then with a free action, threw out as many fingers of his right hand as there were shillings, and made a cut crosswise in the air for an odd sixpence.

‘Oh!’ said Mr Pancks, watching him, wonderingly. ‘That’s it, is it? You’re a quick customer. It’s all right. I didn’t expect to receive it, though.’

Mrs Plornish here interposed with great condescension, and explained to Mr Baptist. ‘E please. E glad get money.’

The little man smiled and nodded. His bright face seemed uncommonly attractive to Mr Pancks. ‘How’s he getting on in his limb?’ he asked Mrs Plornish.

‘Oh, he’s a deal better, sir,’ said Mrs Plornish. ‘We expect next week he’ll be able to leave off his stick entirely.’ (The opportunity being too favourable to be lost, Mrs Plornish displayed her great accomplishment by explaining with pardonable pride to Mr Baptist, ‘E ope you leg well soon.’)

‘He’s a merry fellow, too,’ said Mr Pancks, admiring him as if he were a mechanical toy. ‘How does he live?’

‘Why, sir,’ rejoined Mrs Plornish, ‘he turns out to have quite a power of carving them flowers that you see him at now.’ (Mr Baptist, watching their faces as they spoke, held up his work. Mrs Plornish interpreted in her Italian manner, on behalf of Mr Pancks, ‘E please. Double good!’)

‘Can he live by that?’ asked Mr Pancks.


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