Little Dorrit 010


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He went up to the door, which had a projecting canopy in carved work of festooned jack-towels and children’s heads with water on the brain, designed after a once-popular monumental pattern, and knocked. A shuffling step was soon heard on the stone floor of the hall, and the door was opened by an old man, bent and dried, but with keen eyes.

He had a candle in his hand, and he held it up for a moment to assist his keen eyes. ‘Ah, Mr Arthur?’ he said, without any emotion, ‘you are come at last? Step in.’

Mr Arthur stepped in and shut the door.

‘Your figure is filled out, and set,’ said the old man, turning to look at him with the light raised again, and shaking his head; ‘but you don’t come up to your father in my opinion. Nor yet your mother.’

‘How is my mother?’

‘She is as she always is now. Keeps her room when not actually bedridden, and hasn’t been out of it fifteen times in as many years, Arthur.’ They had walked into a spare, meagre dining-room. The old man had put the candlestick upon the table, and, supporting his right elbow with his left hand, was smoothing his leathern jaws while he looked at the visitor. The visitor offered his hand. The old man took it coldly enough, and seemed to prefer his jaws, to which he returned as soon as he could.

‘I doubt if your mother will approve of your coming home on the Sabbath, Arthur,’ he said, shaking his head warily.

‘You wouldn’t have me go away again?’

‘Oh! I? I? I am not the master. It’s not what _I_ would have. I have stood between your father and mother for a number of years. I don’t pretend to stand between your mother and you.’

‘Will you tell her that I have come home?’

‘Yes, Arthur, yes. Oh, to be sure! I’ll tell her that you have come home. Please to wait here. You won’t find the room changed.’ He took another candle from a cupboard, lighted it, left the first on the table, and went upon his errand. He was a short, bald old man, in a high-shouldered black coat and waistcoat, drab breeches, and long drab gaiters. He might, from his dress, have been either clerk or servant, and in fact had long been both. There was nothing about him in the way of decoration but a watch, which was lowered into the depths of its proper pocket by an old black ribbon, and had a tarnished copper key moored above it, to show where it was sunk. His head was awry, and he had a one-sided, crab-like way with him, as if his foundations had yielded at about the same time as those of the house, and he ought to have been propped up in a similar manner.

‘How weak am I,’ said Arthur Clennam, when he was gone, ‘that I could shed tears at this reception! I, who have never experienced anything else; who have never expected anything else.’

He not only could, but did. It was the momentary yielding of a nature that had been disappointed from the dawn of its perceptions, but had not quite given up all its hopeful yearnings yet. He subdued it, took up the candle, and examined the room. The old articles of furniture were in their old places; the Plagues of Egypt, much the dimmer for the fly and smoke plagues of London, were framed and glazed upon the walls. There was the old cellaret with nothing in it, lined with lead, like a sort of coffin in compartments; there was the old dark closet, also with nothing in it, of which he had been many a time the sole contents, in days of punishment, when he had regarded it as the veritable entrance to that bourne to which the tract had found him galloping. There was the large, hard-featured clock on the sideboard, which he used to see bending its figured brows upon him with a savage joy when he was behind-hand with his lessons, and which, when it was wound up once a week with an iron handle, used to sound as if it were growling in ferocious anticipation of the miseries into which it would bring him. But here was the old man come back, saying, ‘Arthur, I’ll go before and light you.’

Arthur followed him up the staircase, which was panelled off into spaces like so many mourning tablets, into a dim bed-chamber, the floor of which had gradually so sunk and settled, that the fire-place was in a dell. On a black bier-like sofa in this hollow, propped up behind with one great angular black bolster like the block at a state execution in the good old times, sat his mother in a widow’s dress.

She and his father had been at variance from his earliest remembrance. To sit speechless himself in the midst of rigid silence, glancing in dread from the one averted face to the other, had been the peacefullest occupation of his childhood. She gave him one glassy kiss, and four stiff fingers muffled in worsted. This embrace concluded, he sat down on the opposite side of her little table. There was a fire in the grate, as there had been night and day for fifteen years. There was a kettle on the hob, as there had been night and day for fifteen years. There was a little mound of damped ashes on the top of the fire, and another little mound swept together under the grate, as there had been night and day for fifteen years. There was a smell of black dye in the airless room, which the fire had been drawing out of the crape and stuff of the widow’s dress for fifteen months, and out of the bier-like sofa for fifteen years.

‘Mother, this is a change from your old active habits.’

‘The world has narrowed to these dimensions, Arthur,’ she replied, glancing round the room. ‘It is well for me that I never set my heart upon its hollow vanities.’

The old influence of her presence and her stern strong voice, so gathered about her son, that he felt conscious of a renewal of the timid chill and reserve of his childhood.

‘Do you never leave your room, mother?’

‘What with my rheumatic affection, and what with its attendant debility or nervous weakness–names are of no matter now–I have lost the use of my limbs. I never leave my room. I have not been outside this door for–tell him for how long,’ she said, speaking over her shoulder.

‘A dozen year next Christmas,’ returned a cracked voice out of the dimness behind.

‘Is that Affery?’ said Arthur, looking towards it.

The cracked voice replied that it was Affery: and an old woman came forward into what doubtful light there was, and kissed her hand once; then subsided again into the dimness.

‘I am able,’ said Mrs Clennam, with a slight motion of her worsted-muffled right hand toward a chair on wheels, standing before a tall writing cabinet close shut up, ‘I am able to attend to my business duties, and I am thankful for the privilege. It is a great privilege. But no more of business on this day. It is a bad night, is it not?’

‘Yes, mother.’

‘Does it snow?’

‘Snow, mother? And we only yet in September?’

‘All seasons are alike to me,’ she returned, with a grim kind of luxuriousness. ‘I know nothing of summer and winter, shut up here. The Lord has been pleased to put me beyond all that.’ With her cold grey eyes and her cold grey hair, and her immovable face, as stiff as the folds of her stony head-dress,–her being beyond the reach of the seasons seemed but a fit sequence to her being beyond the reach of all changing emotions.

On her little table lay two or three books, her handkerchief, a pair of steel spectacles newly taken off, and an old-fashioned gold watch in a heavy double case. Upon this last object her son’s eyes and her own now rested together.

‘I see that you received the packet I sent you on my father’s death, safely, mother.’


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