Little dorrit, p.16

Little Dorrit, page 16

 

Little Dorrit
 



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  CHAPTER 15. Mrs Flintwinch has another Dream

  The debilitated old house in the city, wrapped in its mantle of soot,and leaning heavily on the crutches that had partaken of its decay andworn out with it, never knew a healthy or a cheerful interval, let whatwould betide. If the sun ever touched it, it was but with a ray, andthat was gone in half an hour; if the moonlight ever fell upon it, itwas only to put a few patches on its doleful cloak, and make it lookmore wretched. The stars, to be sure, coldly watched it when the nightsand the smoke were clear enough; and all bad weather stood by it witha rare fidelity. You should alike find rain, hail, frost, and thawlingering in that dismal enclosure when they had vanished from otherplaces; and as to snow, you should see it there for weeks, long afterit had changed from yellow to black, slowly weeping away its grimy life.The place had no other adherents. As to street noises, the rumbling ofwheels in the lane merely rushed in at the gateway in going past, andrushed out again: making the listening Mistress Affery feel as if shewere deaf, and recovered the sense of hearing by instantaneous flashes.So with whistling, singing, talking, laughing, and all pleasant humansounds. They leaped the gap in a moment, and went upon their way.

  The varying light of fire and candle in Mrs Clennam's room made thegreatest change that ever broke the dead monotony of the spot. In hertwo long narrow windows, the fire shone sullenly all day, and sullenlyall night. On rare occasions it flashed up passionately, as she did;but for the most part it was suppressed, like her, and preyed uponitself evenly and slowly. During many hours of the short winter days,however, when it was dusk there early in the afternoon, changingdistortions of herself in her wheeled chair, of Mr Flintwinch with hiswry neck, of Mistress Affery coming and going, would be thrown upon thehouse wall that was over the gateway, and would hover there like shadowsfrom a great magic lantern. As the room-ridden invalid settled for thenight, these would gradually disappear: Mistress Affery's magnifiedshadow always flitting about, last, until it finally glided away intothe air, as though she were off upon a witch excursion. Then thesolitary light would burn unchangingly, until it burned pale before thedawn, and at last died under the breath of Mrs Affery, as her shadowdescended on it from the witch-region of sleep.

  Strange, if the little sick-room fire were in effect a beacon fire,summoning some one, and that the most unlikely some one in the world,to the spot that _must_ be come to. Strange, if the little sick-room lightwere in effect a watch-light, burning in that place every night untilan appointed event should be watched out! Which of the vast multitudeof travellers, under the sun and the stars, climbing the dusty hillsand toiling along the weary plains, journeying by land and journeying bysea, coming and going so strangely, to meet and to act and react on oneanother; which of the host may, with no suspicion of the journey's end,be travelling surely hither?

  Time shall show us. The post of honour and the post of shame, thegeneral's station and the drummer's, a peer's statue in WestminsterAbbey and a seaman's hammock in the bosom of the deep, the mitre andthe workhouse, the woolsack and the gallows, the throne and theguillotine--the travellers to all are on the great high road, but ithas wonderful divergencies, and only Time shall show us whither eachtraveller is bound.

  On a wintry afternoon at twilight, Mrs Flintwinch, having been heavy allday, dreamed this dream:

  She thought she was in the kitchen getting the kettle ready for tea, andwas warming herself with her feet upon the fender and the skirt of hergown tucked up, before the collapsed fire in the middle of the grate,bordered on either hand by a deep cold black ravine. She thought thatas she sat thus, musing upon the question whether life was not for somepeople a rather dull invention, she was frightened by a sudden noisebehind her. She thought that she had been similarly frightened once lastweek, and that the noise was of a mysterious kind--a sound of rustlingand of three or four quick beats like a rapid step; while a shock ortremble was communicated to her heart, as if the step had shaken thefloor, or even as if she had been touched by some awful hand. Shethought that this revived within her certain old fears of hers thatthe house was haunted; and that she flew up the kitchen stairs withoutknowing how she got up, to be nearer company.

  Mistress Affery thought that on reaching the hall, she saw the door ofher liege lord's office standing open, and the room empty. That she wentto the ripped-up window in the little room by the street door to connecther palpitating heart, through the glass, with living things beyondand outside the haunted house. That she then saw, on the wall over thegateway, the shadows of the two clever ones in conversation above. Thatshe then went upstairs with her shoes in her hand, partly to be nearthe clever ones as a match for most ghosts, and partly to hear what theywere talking about.

  'None of your nonsense with me,' said Mr Flintwinch. 'I won't take itfrom you.'

  Mrs Flintwinch dreamed that she stood behind the door, which was justajar, and most distinctly heard her husband say these bold words.

  'Flintwinch,' returned Mrs Clennam, in her usual strong low voice,'there is a demon of anger in you. Guard against it.'

  'I don't care whether there's one or a dozen,' said Mr Flintwinch,forcibly suggesting in his tone that the higher number was nearer themark. 'If there was fifty, they should all say, None of your nonsensewith me, I won't take it from you--I'd make 'em say it, whether theyliked it or not.'

  'What have I done, you wrathful man?' her strong voice asked.

  'Done?' said Mr Flintwinch. 'Dropped down upon me.'

  'If you mean, remonstrated with you--'

  'Don't put words into my mouth that I don't mean,' said Jeremiah,sticking to his figurative expression with tenacious and impenetrableobstinacy: 'I mean dropped down upon me.'

  'I remonstrated with you,' she began again, 'because--'

  'I won't have it!' cried Jeremiah. 'You dropped down upon me.'

  'I dropped down upon you, then, you ill-conditioned man,' (Jeremiahchuckled at having forced her to adopt his phrase,) 'for having beenneedlessly significant to Arthur that morning. I have a right tocomplain of it as almost a breach of confidence. You did not mean it--'

  'I won't have it!' interposed the contradictory Jeremiah, flinging backthe concession. 'I did mean it.'

  'I suppose I must leave you to speak in soliloquy if you choose,' shereplied, after a pause that seemed an angry one. 'It is useless myaddressing myself to a rash and headstrong old man who has a set purposenot to hear me.'

  'Now, I won't take that from you either,' said Jeremiah. 'I have no suchpurpose. I have told you I did mean it. Do you wish to know why I meantit, you rash and headstrong old woman?'

  'After all, you only restore me my own words,' she said, struggling withher indignation. 'Yes.'

  'This is why, then. Because you hadn't cleared his father to him, andyou ought to have done it. Because, before you went into any tantrumabout yourself, who are--'

  'Hold there, Flintwinch!' she cried out in a changed voice: 'you may goa word too far.'

  The old man seemed to think so. There was another pause, and he hadaltered his position in the room, when he spoke again more mildly:

  'I was going to tell you why it was. Because, before you took your ownpart, I thought you ought to have taken the part of Arthur's father.Arthur's father! I had no particular love for Arthur's father. I servedArthur's father's uncle, in this house, when Arthur's father was notmuch above me--was poorer as far as his pocket went--and when his unclemight as soon have left me his heir as have left him. He starved in theparlour, and I starved in the kitchen; that was the principal differencein our positions; there was not much more than a flight of breakneckstairs between us. I never took to him in those times; I don't know thatI ever took to him greatly at any time. He was an undecided, irresolutechap, who had everything but his orphan life scared out of him when hewas young. And when he brought you home here, the wife his unclehad named for him, I didn't need to look at you twice (you were agood-looking woman at that time) to know who'd be master. You have stoodof your own strength ever since. Stand of
your own strength now. Don'tlean against the dead.'

  'I do _not_--as you call it--lean against the dead.'

  'But you had a mind to do it, if I had submitted,' growled Jeremiah,'and that's why you drop down upon me. You can't forget that I didn'tsubmit. I suppose you are astonished that I should consider it worth mywhile to have justice done to Arthur's father? Hey? It doesn't matterwhether you answer or not, because I know you are, and you know you are.Come, then, I'll tell you how it is. I may be a bit of an oddity inpoint of temper, but this is my temper--I can't let anybody haveentirely their own way. You are a determined woman, and a clever woman;and when you see your purpose before you, nothing will turn you from it.Who knows that better than I do?'

  'Nothing will turn me from it, Flintwinch, when I have justified it tomyself. Add that.'

  'Justified it to yourself? I said you were the most determined woman onthe face of the earth (or I meant to say so), and if you are determinedto justify any object you entertain, of course you'll do it.'

  'Man! I justify myself by the authority of these Books,' she cried, withstern emphasis, and appearing from the sound that followed to strike thedead-weight of her arm upon the table.

  'Never mind that,' returned Jeremiah calmly, 'we won't enter into thatquestion at present. However that may be, you carry out your purposes,and you make everything go down before them. Now, I won't go down beforethem. I have been faithful to you, and useful to you, and I am attachedto you. But I can't consent, and I won't consent, and I never didconsent, and I never will consent to be lost in you. Swallow upeverybody else, and welcome. The peculiarity of my temper is, ma'am,that I won't be swallowed up alive.'

  Perhaps this had originally been the mainspring of the understandingbetween them. Descrying thus much of force of character in MrFlintwinch, perhaps Mrs Clennam had deemed alliance with him worth herwhile.

  'Enough and more than enough of the subject,' said she gloomily.

  'Unless you drop down upon me again,' returned the persistentFlintwinch, 'and then you must expect to hear of it again.'

  Mistress Affery dreamed that the figure of her lord here began walkingup and down the room, as if to cool his spleen, and that she ran away;but that, as he did not issue forth when she had stood listening andtrembling in the shadowy hall a little time, she crept up-stairs again,impelled as before by ghosts and curiosity, and once more coweredoutside the door.

  'Please to light the candle, Flintwinch,' Mrs Clennam was saying,apparently wishing to draw him back into their usual tone. 'It is nearlytime for tea. Little Dorrit is coming, and will find me in the dark.'

  Mr Flintwinch lighted the candle briskly, and said as he put it downupon the table:

  'What are you going to do with Little Dorrit? Is she to come to workhere for ever? To come to tea here for ever? To come backwards andforwards here, in the same way, for ever?'

  'How can you talk about "for ever" to a maimed creature like me? Are wenot all cut down like the grass of the field, and was not I shorn by thescythe many years ago: since when I have been lying here, waiting to begathered into the barn?'

  'Ay, ay! But since you have been lying here--not near dead--nothing likeit--numbers of children and young people, blooming women, strong men,and what not, have been cut down and carried; and still here are you,you see, not much changed after all. Your time and mine may be a longone yet. When I say for ever, I mean (though I am not poetical) throughall our time.' Mr Flintwinch gave this explanation with great calmness,and calmly waited for an answer.

  'So long as Little Dorrit is quiet and industrious, and stands in needof the slight help I can give her, and deserves it; so long, I suppose,unless she withdraws of her own act, she will continue to come here, Ibeing spared.'

  'Nothing more than that?' said Flintwinch, stroking his mouth and chin.

  'What should there be more than that! What could there be more thanthat!' she ejaculated in her sternly wondering way.

  Mrs Flintwinch dreamed, that, for the space of a minute or two, theyremained looking at each other with the candle between them, andthat she somehow derived an impression that they looked at each otherfixedly.

  'Do you happen to know, Mrs Clennam,' Affery's liege lord then demandedin a much lower voice, and with an amount of expression that seemedquite out of proportion to the simple purpose of his words, 'where shelives?'

  'No.'

  'Would you--now, would you like to know?' said Jeremiah with a pounce asif he had sprung upon her.

  'If I cared to know, I should know already. Could I not have asked herany day?'

  'Then you don't care to know?'

  'I do not.'

  Mr Flintwinch, having expelled a long significant breath said, with hisformer emphasis, 'For I have accidentally--mind!--found out.'

  'Wherever she lives,' said Mrs Clennam, speaking in one unmodulated hardvoice, and separating her words as distinctly as if she were readingthem off from separate bits of metal that she took up one by one, 'shehas made a secret of it, and she shall always keep her secret from me.'

  'After all, perhaps you would rather not have known the fact, any how?'said Jeremiah; and he said it with a twist, as if his words had come outof him in his own wry shape.

  'Flintwinch,' said his mistress and partner, flashing into a suddenenergy that made Affery start, 'why do you goad me? Look round thisroom. If it is any compensation for my long confinement within thesenarrow limits--not that I complain of being afflicted; you know I nevercomplain of that--if it is any compensation to me for long confinementto this room, that while I am shut up from all pleasant change I am alsoshut up from the knowledge of some things that I may prefer to avoidknowing, why should you, of all men, grudge me that belief?'

  'I don't grudge it to you,' returned Jeremiah.

  'Then say no more. Say no more. Let Little Dorrit keep her secret fromme, and do you keep it from me also. Let her come and go, unobserved andunquestioned. Let me suffer, and let me have what alleviation belongs tomy condition. Is it so much, that you torment me like an evil spirit?'

  'I asked you a question. That's all.'

  'I have answered it. So, say no more. Say no more.' Here the sound ofthe wheeled chair was heard upon the floor, and Affery's bell rang witha hasty jerk.

  More afraid of her husband at the moment than of the mysterious sound inthe kitchen, Affery crept away as lightly and as quickly as she could,descended the kitchen stairs almost as rapidly as she had ascended them,resumed her seat before the fire, tucked up her skirt again, and finallythrew her apron over her head. Then the bell rang once more, and thenonce more, and then kept on ringing; in despite of which importunatesummons, Affery still sat behind her apron, recovering her breath.

  At last Mr Flintwinch came shuffling down the staircase into thehall, muttering and calling 'Affery woman!' all the way. Affery stillremaining behind her apron, he came stumbling down the kitchen stairs,candle in hand, sidled up to her, twitched her apron off, and rousedher.

  'Oh Jeremiah!' cried Affery, waking. 'What a start you gave me!'

  'What have you been doing, woman?' inquired Jeremiah. 'You've been rungfor fifty times.'

  'Oh Jeremiah,' said Mistress Affery, 'I have been a-dreaming!'

  Reminded of her former achievement in that way, Mr Flintwinch held thecandle to her head, as if he had some idea of lighting her up for theillumination of the kitchen.

  'Don't you know it's her tea-time?' he demanded with a vicious grin, andgiving one of the legs of Mistress Affery's chair a kick.

  'Jeremiah? Tea-time? I don't know what's come to me. But I got such adreadful turn, Jeremiah, before I went--off a-dreaming, that I think itmust be that.'

  'Yoogh! Sleepy-Head!' said Mr Flintwinch, 'what are you talking about?'

  'Such a strange noise, Jeremiah, and such a curious movement. In thekitchen here--just here.'

  Jeremiah held up his light and looked at the blackened ceiling, helddown his light and looked at the damp stone floor, turned round with hislight and looked about at t
he spotted and blotched walls.

  'Rats, cats, water, drains,' said Jeremiah.

  Mistress Affery negatived each with a shake of her head. 'No, Jeremiah;I have felt it before. I have felt it up-stairs, and once on thestaircase as I was going from her room to ours in the night--a rustleand a sort of trembling touch behind me.'

  'Affery, my woman,' said Mr Flintwinch grimly, after advancing his noseto that lady's lips as a test for the detection of spirituous liquors,'if you don't get tea pretty quick, old woman, you'll become sensibleof a rustle and a touch that'll send you flying to the other end of thekitchen.'

  This prediction stimulated Mrs Flintwinch to bestir herself, and tohasten up-stairs to Mrs Clennam's chamber. But, for all that, she nowbegan to entertain a settled conviction that there was something wrongin the gloomy house. Henceforth, she was never at peace in it afterdaylight departed; and never went up or down stairs in the dark withouthaving her apron over her head, lest she should see something.

  What with these ghostly apprehensions and her singular dreams, MrsFlintwinch fell that evening into a haunted state of mind, from whichit may be long before this present narrative descries any trace of herrecovery. In the vagueness and indistinctness of all her new experiencesand perceptions, as everything about her was mysterious to herself shebegan to be mysterious to others: and became as difficult to be made outto anybody's satisfaction as she found the house and everything in itdifficult to make out to her own.

  She had not yet finished preparing Mrs Clennam's tea, when the softknock came to the door which always announced Little Dorrit. MistressAffery looked on at Little Dorrit taking off her homely bonnet in thehall, and at Mr Flintwinch scraping his jaws and contemplating her insilence, as expecting some wonderful consequence to ensue which wouldfrighten her out of her five wits or blow them all three to pieces.

  After tea there came another knock at the door, announcing Arthur.Mistress Affery went down to let him in, and he said on entering,'Affery, I am glad it's you. I want to ask you a question.' Afferyimmediately replied, 'For goodness sake don't ask me nothing, Arthur! Iam frightened out of one half of my life, and dreamed out of theother. Don't ask me nothing! I don't know which is which, or what iswhat!'--and immediately started away from him, and came near him nomore.

  Mistress Affery having no taste for reading, and no sufficient light forneedlework in the subdued room, supposing her to have the inclination,now sat every night in the dimness from which she had momentarilyemerged on the evening of Arthur Clennam's return, occupied with crowdsof wild speculations and suspicions respecting her mistress and herhusband and the noises in the house. When the ferocious devotionalexercises were engaged in, these speculations would distract MistressAffery's eyes towards the door, as if she expected some dark form toappear at those propitious moments, and make the party one too many.

  Otherwise, Affery never said or did anything to attract the attention ofthe two clever ones towards her in any marked degree, except on certainoccasions, generally at about the quiet hour towards bed-time, when shewould suddenly dart out of her dim corner, and whisper with a face ofterror to Mr Flintwinch, reading the paper near Mrs Clennam's littletable:

  'There, Jeremiah! Now! What's that noise?'

  Then the noise, if there were any, would have ceased, and Mr Flintwinchwould snarl, turning upon her as if she had cut him down that momentagainst his will, 'Affery, old woman, you shall have a dose, old woman,such a dose! You have been dreaming again!'

 

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