In all the dreams Mistress Affery had been piling up since she first became devoted to the pursuit, she had dreamed nothing more astonishing than this. Her head ached with the idea that she would find the other clever one kissing Little Dorrit next, and then the two clever ones embracing each other and dissolving into tears of tenderness for all mankind. The idea quite stunned her, as she attended the light footsteps down the stairs, that the house door might be safely shut.
On opening it to let Little Dorrit out, she found Mr Pancks, instead of having gone his way, as in any less wonderful place and among less wonderful phenomena he might have been reasonably expected to do, fluttering up and down the court outside the house. The moment he saw Little Dorrit, he passed her briskly, said with his finger to his nose (as Mrs Affery distinctly heard), ‘Pancks the gipsy, fortune-telling,’ and went away. ‘Lord save us, here’s a gipsy and a fortune-teller in it now!’ cried Mistress Affery. ‘What next!’
She stood at the open door, staggering herself with this enigma, on a rainy, thundery evening. The clouds were flying fast, and the wind was coming up in gusts, banging some neighbouring shutters that had broken loose, twirling the rusty chimney-cowls and weather-cocks, and rushing round and round a confined adjacent churchyard as if it had a mind to blow the dead citizens out of their graves. The low thunder, muttering in all quarters of the sky at once, seemed to threaten vengeance for this attempted desecration, and to mutter, ‘Let them rest! Let them rest!’
Mistress Affery, whose fear of thunder and lightning was only to be equalled by her dread of the haunted house with a premature and preternatural darkness in it, stood undecided whether to go in or not, until the question was settled for her by the door blowing upon her in a violent gust of wind and shutting her out. ‘What’s to be done now, what’s to be done now!’ cried Mistress Affery, wringing her hands in this last uneasy dream of all; ‘when she’s all alone by herself inside, and can no more come down to open it than the churchyard dead themselves!’
In this dilemma, Mistress Affery, with her apron as a hood to keep the rain off, ran crying up and down the solitary paved enclosure several times. Why she should then stoop down and look in at the keyhole of the door as if an eye would open it, it would be difficult to say; but it is none the less what most people would have done in the same situation, and it is what she did.
From this posture she started up suddenly, with a half scream, feeling something on her shoulder. It was the touch of a hand; of a man’s hand.
The man was dressed like a traveller, in a foraging cap with fur about it, and a heap of cloak. He looked like a foreigner. He had a quantity of hair and moustache–jet black, except at the shaggy ends, where it had a tinge of red–and a high hook nose. He laughed at Mistress Affery’s start and cry; and as he laughed, his moustache went up under his nose, and his nose came down over his moustache.
‘What’s the matter?’ he asked in plain English. ‘What are you frightened at?’
‘At you,’ panted Affery.
‘And the dismal evening, and–and everything,’ said Affery. ‘And here! The wind has been and blown the door to, and I can’t get in.’
‘Hah!’ said the gentleman, who took that very coolly. ‘Indeed! Do you know such a name as Clennam about here?’
‘Lord bless us, I should think I did, I should think I did!’ cried Affery, exasperated into a new wringing of hands by the inquiry.
‘Where about here?’
‘Where!’ cried Affery, goaded into another inspection of the keyhole. ‘Where but here in this house? And she’s all alone in her room, and lost the use of her limbs and can’t stir to help herself or me, and t’other clever one’s out, and Lord forgive me!’ cried Affery, driven into a frantic dance by these accumulated considerations, ‘if I ain’t a-going headlong out of my mind!’
Taking a warmer view of the matter now that it concerned himself, the gentleman stepped back to glance at the house, and his eye soon rested on the long narrow window of the little room near the hall-door.
‘Where may the lady be who has lost the use of her limbs, madam?’ he inquired, with that peculiar smile which Mistress Affery could not choose but keep her eyes upon.
‘Up there!’ said Affery. ‘Them two windows.’
‘Hah! I am of a fair size, but could not have the honour of presenting myself in that room without a ladder. Now, madam, frankly–frankness is a part of my character–shall I open the door for you?’
‘Yes, bless you, sir, for a dear creetur, and do it at once,’ cried Affery, ‘for she may be a-calling to me at this very present minute, or may be setting herself a fire and burning herself to death, or there’s no knowing what may be happening to her, and me a-going out of my mind at thinking of it!’
‘Stay, my good madam!’ He restrained her impatience with a smooth white hand. ‘Business-hours, I apprehend, are over for the day?’
‘Yes, yes, yes,’ cried Affery. ‘Long ago.’
‘Let me make, then, a fair proposal. Fairness is a part of my character. I am just landed from the packet-boat, as you may see.’ He showed her that his cloak was very wet, and that his boots were saturated with water; she had previously observed that he was dishevelled and sallow, as if from a rough voyage, and so chilled that he could not keep his teeth from chattering. ‘I am just landed from the packet-boat, madam, and have been delayed by the weather: the infernal weather! In consequence of this, madam, some necessary business that I should otherwise have transacted here within the regular hours (necessary business because money-business), still remains to be done. Now, if you will fetch any authorised neighbouring somebody to do it in return for my opening the door, I’ll open the door. If this arrangement should be objectionable, I’ll–’ and with the same smile he made a significant feint of backing away.
Mistress Affery, heartily glad to effect the proposed compromise, gave in her willing adhesion to it. The gentleman at once requested her to do him the favour of holding his cloak, took a short run at the narrow window, made a leap at the sill, clung his way up the bricks, and in a moment had his hand at the sash, raising it. His eyes looked so very sinister, as he put his leg into the room and glanced round at Mistress Affery, that she thought with a sudden coldness, if he were to go straight up-stairs to murder the invalid, what could she do to prevent him?
Happily he had no such purpose; for he reappeared, in a moment, at the house door. ‘Now, my dear madam,’ he said, as he took back his cloak and threw it on, ‘if you have the goodness to–what the Devil’s that!’
The strangest of sounds. Evidently close at hand from the peculiar shock it communicated to the air, yet subdued as if it were far off. A tremble, a rumble, and a fall of some light dry matter.
‘What the Devil is it?’
‘I don’t know what it is, but I’ve heard the like of it over and over again,’ said Affery, who had caught his arm.
He could hardly be a very brave man, even she thought in her dreamy start and fright, for his trembling lips had turned colourless. After listening a few moments, he made light of it.
‘Bah! Nothing! Now, my dear madam, I think you spoke of some clever personage. Will you be so good as to confront me with that genius?’ He held the door in his hand, as though he were quite ready to shut her out again if she failed.