Little Dorrit 097


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‘Don’t you say anything about the door and me, then,’ whispered Affery.

‘Not a word.’

‘And don’t you stir from here, or speak if she calls, while I run round the corner.’

‘Madam, I am a statue.’

Affery had so vivid a fear of his going stealthily up-stairs the moment her back was turned, that after hurrying out of sight, she returned to the gateway to peep at him. Seeing him still on the threshold, more out of the house than in it, as if he had no love for darkness and no desire to probe its mysteries, she flew into the next street, and sent a message into the tavern to Mr Flintwinch, who came out directly. The two returning together–the lady in advance, and Mr Flintwinch coming up briskly behind, animated with the hope of shaking her before she could get housed–saw the gentleman standing in the same place in the dark, and heard the strong voice of Mrs Clennam calling from her room, ‘Who is it? What is it? Why does no one answer? Who _is_ that, down there?’

CHAPTER 30. The Word of a Gentleman

When Mr and Mrs Flintwinch panted up to the door of the old house in the twilight, Jeremiah within a second of Affery, the stranger started back. ‘Death of my soul!’ he exclaimed. ‘Why, how did you get here?’

Mr Flintwinch, to whom these words were spoken, repaid the stranger’s wonder in full. He gazed at him with blank astonishment; he looked over his own shoulder, as expecting to see some one he had not been aware of standing behind him; he gazed at the stranger again, speechlessly, at a loss to know what he meant; he looked to his wife for explanation; receiving none, he pounced upon her, and shook her with such heartiness that he shook her cap off her head, saying between his teeth, with grim raillery, as he did it, ‘Affery, my woman, you must have a dose, my woman! This is some of your tricks! You have been dreaming again, mistress. What’s it about? Who is it? What does it mean! Speak out or be choked! It’s the only choice I’ll give you.’

Supposing Mistress Affery to have any power of election at the moment, her choice was decidedly to be choked; for she answered not a syllable to this adjuration, but, with her bare head wagging violently backwards and forwards, resigned herself to her punishment. The stranger, however, picking up her cap with an air of gallantry, interposed.

‘Permit me,’ said he, laying his hand on the shoulder of Jeremiah, who stopped and released his victim. ‘Thank you. Excuse me. Husband and wife I know, from this playfulness. Haha! Always agreeable to see that relation playfully maintained. Listen! May I suggest that somebody up-stairs, in the dark, is becoming energetically curious to know what is going on here?’

This reference to Mrs Clennam’s voice reminded Mr Flintwinch to step into the hall and call up the staircase. ‘It’s all right, I am here, Affery is coming with your light.’ Then he said to the latter flustered woman, who was putting her cap on, ‘Get out with you, and get up-stairs!’ and then turned to the stranger and said to him, ‘Now, sir, what might you please to want?’

‘I am afraid,’ said the stranger, ‘I must be so troublesome as to propose a candle.’

‘True,’ assented Jeremiah. ‘I was going to do so. Please to stand where you are while I get one.’

The visitor was standing in the doorway, but turned a little into the gloom of the house as Mr Flintwinch turned, and pursued him with his eyes into the little room, where he groped about for a phosphorus box. When he found it, it was damp, or otherwise out of order; and match after match that he struck into it lighted sufficiently to throw a dull glare about his groping face, and to sprinkle his hands with pale little spots of fire, but not sufficiently to light the candle. The stranger, taking advantage of this fitful illumination of his visage, looked intently and wonderingly at him. Jeremiah, when he at last lighted the candle, knew he had been doing this, by seeing the last shade of a lowering watchfulness clear away from his face, as it broke into the doubtful smile that was a large ingredient in its expression.

‘Be so good,’ said Jeremiah, closing the house door, and taking a pretty sharp survey of the smiling visitor in his turn, ‘as to step into my counting-house.–It’s all right, I tell you!’ petulantly breaking off to answer the voice up-stairs, still unsatisfied, though Affery was there, speaking in persuasive tones. ‘Don’t I tell you it’s all right? Preserve the woman, has she no reason at all in her!’

‘Timorous,’ remarked the stranger.

‘Timorous?’ said Mr Flintwinch, turning his head to retort, as he went before with the candle. ‘More courageous than ninety men in a hundred, sir, let me tell you.’

‘Though an invalid?’

‘Many years an invalid. Mrs Clennam. The only one of that name left in the House now. My partner.’

Saying something apologetically as he crossed the hall, to the effect that at that time of night they were not in the habit of receiving any one, and were always shut up, Mr Flintwinch led the way into his own office, which presented a sufficiently business-like appearance. Here he put the light on his desk, and said to the stranger, with his wryest twist upon him, ‘Your commands.’

‘My name is Blandois.’

‘Blandois. I don’t know it,’ said Jeremiah.

‘I thought it possible,’ resumed the other, ‘that you might have been advised from Paris–’

‘We have had no advice from Paris respecting anybody of the name of Blandois,’ said Jeremiah.

‘No?’

‘No.’

Jeremiah stood in his favourite attitude. The smiling Mr Blandois, opening his cloak to get his hand to a breast-pocket, paused to say, with a laugh in his glittering eyes, which it occurred to Mr Flintwinch were too near together:

‘You are so like a friend of mine! Not so identically the same as I supposed when I really did for the moment take you to be the same in the dusk–for which I ought to apologise; permit me to do so; a readiness to confess my errors is, I hope, a part of the frankness of my character–still, however, uncommonly like.’

‘Indeed?’ said Jeremiah, perversely. ‘But I have not received any letter of advice from anywhere respecting anybody of the name of Blandois.’

‘Just so,’ said the stranger.


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