Little Dorrit 006


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He spoke to a handsome girl with lustrous dark hair and eyes, and very neatly dressed, who replied with a half curtsey as she passed off in the train of Mrs Meagles and Pet. They crossed the bare scorched terrace all three together, and disappeared through a staring white archway. Mr Meagles’s companion, a grave dark man of forty, still stood looking towards this archway after they were gone; until Mr Meagles tapped him on the arm.

‘I beg your pardon,’ said he, starting.

‘Not at all,’ said Mr Meagles.

They took one silent turn backward and forward in the shade of the wall, getting, at the height on which the quarantine barracks are placed, what cool refreshment of sea breeze there was at seven in the morning. Mr Meagles’s companion resumed the conversation.

‘May I ask you,’ he said, ‘what is the name of–’

‘Tattycoram?’ Mr Meagles struck in. ‘I have not the least idea.’

‘I thought,’ said the other, ‘that–’

‘Tattycoram?’ suggested Mr Meagles again.

‘Thank you–that Tattycoram was a name; and I have several times wondered at the oddity of it.’

‘Why, the fact is,’ said Mr Meagles, ‘Mrs Meagles and myself are, you see, practical people.’

‘That you have frequently mentioned in the course of the agreeable and interesting conversations we have had together, walking up and down on these stones,’ said the other, with a half smile breaking through the gravity of his dark face.

‘Practical people. So one day, five or six years ago now, when we took Pet to church at the Foundling–you have heard of the Foundling Hospital in London? Similar to the Institution for the Found Children in Paris?’

‘I have seen it.’

‘Well! One day when we took Pet to church there to hear the music–because, as practical people, it is the business of our lives to show her everything that we think can please her–Mother (my usual name for Mrs Meagles) began to cry so, that it was necessary to take her out. “What’s the matter, Mother?” said I, when we had brought her a little round: “you are frightening Pet, my dear.” “Yes, I know that, Father,” says Mother, “but I think it’s through my loving her so much, that it ever came into my head.” “That ever what came into your head, Mother?” “O dear, dear!” cried Mother, breaking out again, “when I saw all those children ranged tier above tier, and appealing from the father none of them has ever known on earth, to the great Father of us all in Heaven, I thought, does any wretched mother ever come here, and look among those young faces, wondering which is the poor child she brought into this forlorn world, never through all its life to know her love, her kiss, her face, her voice, even her name!” Now that was practical in Mother, and I told her so. I said, “Mother, that’s what I call practical in you, my dear.”’

The other, not unmoved, assented.

‘So I said next day: Now, Mother, I have a proposition to make that I think you’ll approve of. Let us take one of those same little children to be a little maid to Pet. We are practical people. So if we should find her temper a little defective, or any of her ways a little wide of ours, we shall know what we have to take into account. We shall know what an immense deduction must be made from all the influences and experiences that have formed us–no parents, no child-brother or sister, no individuality of home, no Glass Slipper, or Fairy Godmother. And that’s the way we came by Tattycoram.’

‘And the name itself–’

‘By George!’ said Mr Meagles, ‘I was forgetting the name itself. Why, she was called in the Institution, Harriet Beadle–an arbitrary name, of course. Now, Harriet we changed into Hattey, and then into Tatty, because, as practical people, we thought even a playful name might be a new thing to her, and might have a softening and affectionate kind of effect, don’t you see? As to Beadle, that I needn’t say was wholly out of the question. If there is anything that is not to be tolerated on any terms, anything that is a type of Jack-in-office insolence and absurdity, anything that represents in coats, waistcoats, and big sticks our English holding on by nonsense after every one has found it out, it is a beadle. You haven’t seen a beadle lately?’

‘As an Englishman who has been more than twenty years in China, no.’

‘Then,’ said Mr Meagles, laying his forefinger on his companion’s breast with great animation, ‘don’t you see a beadle, now, if you can help it. Whenever I see a beadle in full fig, coming down a street on a Sunday at the head of a charity school, I am obliged to turn and run away, or I should hit him. The name of Beadle being out of the question, and the originator of the Institution for these poor foundlings having been a blessed creature of the name of Coram, we gave that name to Pet’s little maid. At one time she was Tatty, and at one time she was Coram, until we got into a way of mixing the two names together, and now she is always Tattycoram.’

‘Your daughter,’ said the other, when they had taken another silent turn to and fro, and, after standing for a moment at the wall glancing down at the sea, had resumed their walk, ‘is your only child, I know, Mr Meagles. May I ask you–in no impertinent curiosity, but because I have had so much pleasure in your society, may never in this labyrinth of a world exchange a quiet word with you again, and wish to preserve an accurate remembrance of you and yours–may I ask you, if I have not gathered from your good wife that you have had other children?’

‘No. No,’ said Mr Meagles. ‘Not exactly other children. One other child.’

‘I am afraid I have inadvertently touched upon a tender theme.’

‘Never mind,’ said Mr Meagles. ‘If I am grave about it, I am not at all sorrowful. It quiets me for a moment, but does not make me unhappy. Pet had a twin sister who died when we could just see her eyes–exactly like Pet’s–above the table, as she stood on tiptoe holding by it.’

‘Ah! indeed, indeed!’

‘Yes, and being practical people, a result has gradually sprung up in the minds of Mrs Meagles and myself which perhaps you may–or perhaps you may not–understand. Pet and her baby sister were so exactly alike, and so completely one, that in our thoughts we have never been able to separate them since. It would be of no use to tell us that our dead child was a mere infant. We have changed that child according to the changes in the child spared to us and always with us. As Pet has grown, that child has grown; as Pet has become more sensible and womanly, her sister has become more sensible and womanly by just the same degrees. It would be as hard to convince me that if I was to pass into the other world to-morrow, I should not, through the mercy of God, be received there by a daughter, just like Pet, as to persuade me that Pet herself is not a reality at my side.’

‘I understand you,’ said the other, gently.

‘As to her,’ pursued her father, ‘the sudden loss of her little picture and playfellow, and her early association with that mystery in which we all have our equal share, but which is not often so forcibly presented to a child, has necessarily had some influence on her character. Then, her mother and I were not young when we married, and Pet has always had a sort of grown-up life with us, though we have tried to adapt ourselves to her. We have been advised more than once when she has been a little ailing, to change climate and air for her as often as we could–especially at about this time of her life–and to keep her amused. So, as I have no need to stick at a bank-desk now (though I have been poor enough in my time I assure you, or I should have married Mrs Meagles long before), we go trotting about the world. This is how you found us staring at the Nile, and the Pyramids, and the Sphinxes, and the Desert, and all the rest of it; and this is how Tattycoram will be a greater traveller in course of time than Captain Cook.’

‘I thank you,’ said the other, ‘very heartily for your confidence.’

‘Don’t mention it,’ returned Mr Meagles, ‘I am sure you are quite welcome. And now, Mr Clennam, perhaps I may ask you whether you have yet come to a decision where to go next?’


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