Little dorrit, p.20

Little Dorrit, page 20

 

Little Dorrit
 



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  CHAPTER 19. The Father of the Marshalsea in two or three Relations

  The brothers William and Frederick Dorrit, walking up and down theCollege-yard--of course on the aristocratic or Pump side, for the Fathermade it a point of his state to be chary of going among his childrenon the Poor side, except on Sunday mornings, Christmas Days, and otheroccasions of ceremony, in the observance whereof he was very punctual,and at which times he laid his hand upon the heads of their infants,and blessed those young insolvents with a benignity that was highlyedifying--the brothers, walking up and down the College-yard together,were a memorable sight. Frederick the free, was so humbled, bowed,withered, and faded; William the bond, was so courtly, condescending,and benevolently conscious of a position; that in this regard only, ifin no other, the brothers were a spectacle to wonder at.

  They walked up and down the yard on the evening of Little Dorrit'sSunday interview with her lover on the Iron Bridge. The cares of statewere over for that day, the Drawing Room had been well attended, severalnew presentations had taken place, the three-and-sixpence accidentallyleft on the table had accidentally increased to twelve shillings, andthe Father of the Marshalsea refreshed himself with a whiff of cigar. Ashe walked up and down, affably accommodating his step to the shuffle ofhis brother, not proud in his superiority, but considerate of that poorcreature, bearing with him, and breathing toleration of his infirmitiesin every little puff of smoke that issued from his lips and aspired toget over the spiked wall, he was a sight to wonder at.

  His brother Frederick of the dim eye, palsied hand, bent form, andgroping mind, submissively shuffled at his side, accepting his patronageas he accepted every incident of the labyrinthian world in which he hadgot lost. He held the usual screwed bit of whitey-brown paper in hishand, from which he ever and again unscrewed a spare pinch of snuff.That falteringly taken, he would glance at his brother not unadmiringly,put his hands behind him, and shuffle on so at his side until he tookanother pinch, or stood still to look about him--perchance suddenlymissing his clarionet.

  The College visitors were melting away as the shades of night drew on,but the yard was still pretty full, the Collegians being mostly out,seeing their friends to the Lodge. As the brothers paced the yard,William the bond looked about him to receive salutes, returned them bygraciously lifting off his hat, and, with an engaging air, preventedFrederick the free from running against the company, or being jostledagainst the wall. The Collegians as a body were not easily impressible,but even they, according to their various ways of wondering, appeared tofind in the two brothers a sight to wonder at.

  'You are a little low this evening, Frederick,' said the Father of theMarshalsea. 'Anything the matter?'

  'The matter?' He stared for a moment, and then dropped his head and eyesagain. 'No, William, no. Nothing is the matter.'

  'If you could be persuaded to smarten yourself up a little, Frederick--'

  'Aye, aye!' said the old man hurriedly. 'But I can't be. I can't be.Don't talk so. That's all over.'

  The Father of the Marshalsea glanced at a passing Collegian with whom hewas on friendly terms, as who should say, 'An enfeebled old man, this;but he is my brother, sir, my brother, and the voice of Nature ispotent!' and steered his brother clear of the handle of the pump by thethreadbare sleeve. Nothing would have been wanting to the perfection ofhis character as a fraternal guide, philosopher and friend, if he hadonly steered his brother clear of ruin, instead of bringing it upon him.

  'I think, William,' said the object of his affectionate consideration,'that I am tired, and will go home to bed.'

  'My dear Frederick,' returned the other, 'don't let me detain you; don'tsacrifice your inclination to me.'

  'Late hours, and a heated atmosphere, and years, I suppose,' saidFrederick, 'weaken me.'

  'My dear Frederick,' returned the Father of the Marshalsea, 'do youthink you are sufficiently careful of yourself? Do you think your habitsare as precise and methodical as--shall I say as mine are? Not to revertagain to that little eccentricity which I mentioned just now, I doubt ifyou take air and exercise enough, Frederick. Here is the parade, alwaysat your service. Why not use it more regularly than you do?'

  'Hah!' sighed the other. 'Yes, yes, yes, yes.'

  'But it is of no use saying yes, yes, my dear Frederick,' the Fatherof the Marshalsea in his mild wisdom persisted, 'unless you act on thatassent. Consider my case, Frederick. I am a kind of example. Necessityand time have taught me what to do. At certain stated hours of the day,you will find me on the parade, in my room, in the Lodge, reading thepaper, receiving company, eating and drinking. I have impressed upon Amyduring many years, that I must have my meals (for instance) punctually.Amy has grown up in a sense of the importance of these arrangements, andyou know what a good girl she is.'

  The brother only sighed again, as he plodded dreamily along, 'Hah! Yes,yes, yes, yes.'

  'My dear fellow,' said the Father of the Marshalsea, laying his handupon his shoulder, and mildly rallying him--mildly, because of hisweakness, poor dear soul; 'you said that before, and it does not expressmuch, Frederick, even if it means much. I wish I could rouse you, mygood Frederick; you want to be roused.'

  'Yes, William, yes. No doubt,' returned the other, lifting his dim eyesto his face. 'But I am not like you.'

  The Father of the Marshalsea said, with a shrug of modestself-depreciation, 'Oh! You might be like me, my dear Frederick;you might be, if you chose!' and forbore, in the magnanimity of hisstrength, to press his fallen brother further.

  There was a great deal of leave-taking going on in corners, as was usualon Sunday nights; and here and there in the dark, some poor woman, wifeor mother, was weeping with a new Collegian. The time had been when theFather himself had wept, in the shades of that yard, as his ownpoor wife had wept. But it was many years ago; and now he was likea passenger aboard ship in a long voyage, who has recovered fromsea-sickness, and is impatient of that weakness in the fresherpassengers taken aboard at the last port. He was inclined toremonstrate, and to express his opinion that people who couldn't get onwithout crying, had no business there. In manner, if not in words, healways testified his displeasure at these interruptions of the generalharmony; and it was so well understood, that delinquents usuallywithdrew if they were aware of him.

  On this Sunday evening, he accompanied his brother to the gate with anair of endurance and clemency; being in a bland temper and graciouslydisposed to overlook the tears. In the flaring gaslight of the Lodge,several Collegians were basking; some taking leave of visitors, andsome who had no visitors, watching the frequent turning of the key, andconversing with one another and with Mr Chivery. The paternal entrancemade a sensation of course; and Mr Chivery, touching his hat (in a shortmanner though) with his key, hoped he found himself tolerable.

  'Thank you, Chivery, quite well. And you?'

  Mr Chivery said in a low growl, 'Oh! _he_ was all right.' Which was hisgeneral way of acknowledging inquiries after his health when a littlesullen.

  'I had a visit from Young John to-day, Chivery. And very smart helooked, I assure you.'

  So Mr Chivery had heard. Mr Chivery must confess, however, that his wishwas that the boy didn't lay out so much money upon it. For what did itbring him in? It only brought him in wexation. And he could get thatanywhere for nothing.

  'How vexation, Chivery?' asked the benignant father.

  'No odds,' returned Mr Chivery. 'Never mind. Mr Frederick going out?'

  'Yes, Chivery, my brother is going home to bed. He is tired, andnot quite well. Take care, Frederick, take care. Good night, my dearFrederick!'

  Shaking hands with his brother, and touching his greasy hat to thecompany in the Lodge, Frederick slowly shuffled out of the door whichMr Chivery unlocked for him. The Father of the Marshalsea showed theamiable solicitude of a superior being that he should come to no harm.

  'Be so kind as to keep the door open a moment, Chivery, that I may seehim go along the passage and down the steps. Take care, Frederick! (Heis very
infirm.) Mind the steps! (He is so very absent.) Be carefulhow you cross, Frederick. (I really don't like the notion of his goingwandering at large, he is so extremely liable to be run over.)'

  With these words, and with a face expressive of many uneasy doubts andmuch anxious guardianship, he turned his regards upon the assembledcompany in the Lodge: so plainly indicating that his brother was to bepitied for not being under lock and key, that an opinion to that effectwent round among the Collegians assembled.

  But he did not receive it with unqualified assent; on the contrary, hesaid, No, gentlemen, no; let them not misunderstand him. His brotherFrederick was much broken, no doubt, and it might be more comfortable tohimself (the Father of the Marshalsea) to know that he was safe withinthe walls. Still, it must be remembered that to support an existencethere during many years, required a certain combination of qualities--hedid not say high qualities, but qualities--moral qualities. Now, had hisbrother Frederick that peculiar union of qualities? Gentlemen, he was amost excellent man, a most gentle, tender, and estimable man, with thesimplicity of a child; but would he, though unsuited for most otherplaces, do for that place? No; he said confidently, no! And, he said,Heaven forbid that Frederick should be there in any other characterthan in his present voluntary character! Gentlemen, whoever came tothat College, to remain there a length of time, must have strength ofcharacter to go through a good deal and to come out of a good deal. Washis beloved brother Frederick that man? No. They saw him, even as itwas, crushed. Misfortune crushed him. He had not power of recoil enough,not elasticity enough, to be a long time in such a place, and yetpreserve his self-respect and feel conscious that he was a gentleman.Frederick had not (if he might use the expression) Power enough to seein any delicate little attentions and--and--Testimonials that he mightunder such circumstances receive, the goodness of human nature, the finespirit animating the Collegians as a community, and at the same timeno degradation to himself, and no depreciation of his claims as agentleman. Gentlemen, God bless you!

  Such was the homily with which he improved and pointed the occasion tothe company in the Lodge before turning into the sallow yard again,and going with his own poor shabby dignity past the Collegian in thedressing-gown who had no coat, and past the Collegian in the sea-sideslippers who had no shoes, and past the stout greengrocer Collegian inthe corduroy knee-breeches who had no cares, and past the lean clerkCollegian in buttonless black who had no hopes, up his own poor shabbystaircase to his own poor shabby room.

  There, the table was laid for his supper, and his old grey gown wasready for him on his chair-back at the fire. His daughter put herlittle prayer-book in her pocket--had she been praying for pity on allprisoners and captives!--and rose to welcome him.

  Uncle had gone home, then? she asked him, as she changed his coat andgave him his black velvet cap. Yes, uncle had gone home. Had her fatherenjoyed his walk? Why, not much, Amy; not much. No! Did he not feelquite well?

  As she stood behind him, leaning over his chair so lovingly, he lookedwith downcast eyes at the fire. An uneasiness stole over him that waslike a touch of shame; and when he spoke, as he presently did, it was inan unconnected and embarrassed manner.

  'Something, I--hem!--I don't know what, has gone wrong with Chivery.He is not--ha!--not nearly so obliging and attentive as usual to-night.It--hem!--it's a little thing, but it puts me out, my love. It'simpossible to forget,' turning his hands over and over and lookingclosely at them, 'that--hem!--that in such a life as mine, I amunfortunately dependent on these men for something every hour in theday.'

  Her arm was on his shoulder, but she did not look in his face while hespoke. Bending her head she looked another way.

  'I--hem!--I can't think, Amy, what has given Chivery offence. He isgenerally so--so very attentive and respectful. And to-night he wasquite--quite short with me. Other people there too! Why, good Heaven!if I was to lose the support and recognition of Chivery and his brotherofficers, I might starve to death here.' While he spoke, he was openingand shutting his hands like valves; so conscious all the time of thattouch of shame, that he shrunk before his own knowledge of his meaning.

  'I--ha!--I can't think what it's owing to. I am sure I cannot imaginewhat the cause of it is. There was a certain Jackson here once, aturnkey of the name of Jackson (I don't think you can remember him,my dear, you were very young), and--hem!--and he had a--brother, andthis--young brother paid his addresses to--at least, did not go so faras to pay his addresses to--but admired--respectfully admired--the--notdaughter, the sister--of one of us; a rather distinguished Collegian; Imay say, very much so. His name was Captain Martin; and heconsulted me on the question whether it was necessary that hisdaughter--sister--should hazard offending the turnkey brother bybeing too--ha!--too plain with the other brother. Captain Martin wasa gentleman and a man of honour, and I put it to him first to give mehis--his own opinion. Captain Martin (highly respected in the army) thenunhesitatingly said that it appeared to him that his--hem!--sister wasnot called upon to understand the young man too distinctly, and thatshe might lead him on--I am doubtful whether "lead him on" was CaptainMartin's exact expression: indeed I think he said tolerate him--on herfather's--I should say, brother's--account. I hardly know how I havestrayed into this story. I suppose it has been through being unable toaccount for Chivery; but as to the connection between the two, I don'tsee--'

  His voice died away, as if she could not bear the pain of hearing him,and her hand had gradually crept to his lips. For a little while therewas a dead silence and stillness; and he remained shrunk in his chair,and she remained with her arm round his neck and her head bowed downupon his shoulder.

  His supper was cooking in a saucepan on the fire, and, when she moved,it was to make it ready for him on the table. He took his usual seat,she took hers, and he began his meal. They did not, as yet, look at oneanother. By little and little he began; laying down his knife and forkwith a noise, taking things up sharply, biting at his bread as if hewere offended with it, and in other similar ways showing that he was outof sorts. At length he pushed his plate from him, and spoke aloud; withthe strangest inconsistency.

  'What does it matter whether I eat or starve? What does it matterwhether such a blighted life as mine comes to an end, now, next week, ornext year? What am I worth to anyone? A poor prisoner, fed on alms andbroken victuals; a squalid, disgraced wretch!'

  'Father, father!' As he rose she went on her knees to him, and held upher hands to him.

  'Amy,' he went on in a suppressed voice, trembling violently, andlooking at her as wildly as if he had gone mad. 'I tell you, if youcould see me as your mother saw me, you wouldn't believe it to be thecreature you have only looked at through the bars of this cage. I wasyoung, I was accomplished, I was good-looking, I was independent--by GodI was, child!--and people sought me out, and envied me. Envied me!'

  'Dear father!' She tried to take down the shaking arm that he flourishedin the air, but he resisted, and put her hand away.

  'If I had but a picture of myself in those days, though it was ever soill done, you would be proud of it, you would be proud of it. But I haveno such thing. Now, let me be a warning! Let no man,' he cried, lookinghaggardly about, 'fail to preserve at least that little of the times ofhis prosperity and respect. Let his children have that clue to what hewas. Unless my face, when I am dead, subsides into the long departedlook--they say such things happen, I don't know--my children will havenever seen me.'

  'Father, father!'

  'O despise me, despise me! Look away from me, don't listen to me, stopme, blush for me, cry for me--even you, Amy! Do it, do it! I do it tomyself! I am hardened now, I have sunk too low to care long even forthat.'

  'Dear father, loved father, darling of my heart!' She was clinging tohim with her arms, and she got him to drop into his chair again, andcaught at the raised arm, and tried to put it round her neck.

  'Let it lie there, father. Look at me, father, kiss me, father! Onlythink of me, father, for one little moment!'

  Stil
l he went on in the same wild way, though it was gradually breakingdown into a miserable whining.

  'And yet I have some respect here. I have made some stand against it. Iam not quite trodden down. Go out and ask who is the chief person in theplace. They'll tell you it's your father. Go out and ask who is nevertrifled with, and who is always treated with some delicacy. They'll say,your father. Go out and ask what funeral here (it must be here, I knowit can be nowhere else) will make more talk, and perhaps more grief,than any that has ever gone out at the gate. They'll say your father's.Well then. Amy! Amy! Is your father so universally despised? Is therenothing to redeem him? Will you have nothing to remember him by but hisruin and decay? Will you be able to have no affection for him when he isgone, poor castaway, gone?'

  He burst into tears of maudlin pity for himself, and at length sufferingher to embrace him and take charge of him, let his grey head restagainst her cheek, and bewailed his wretchedness. Presently he changedthe subject of his lamentations, and clasping his hands about her as sheembraced him, cried, O Amy, his motherless, forlorn child! O the daysthat he had seen her careful and laborious for him! Then he reverted tohimself, and weakly told her how much better she would have loved himif she had known him in his vanished character, and how he would havemarried her to a gentleman who should have been proud of her as hisdaughter, and how (at which he cried again) she should first have riddenat his fatherly side on her own horse, and how the crowd (by which hemeant in effect the people who had given him the twelve shillingshe then had in his pocket) should have trudged the dusty roadsrespectfully.

  Thus, now boasting, now despairing, in either fit a captive with thejail-rot upon him, and the impurity of his prison worn into the grain ofhis soul, he revealed his degenerate state to his affectionate child.No one else ever beheld him in the details of his humiliation. Littlerecked the Collegians who were laughing in their rooms over his lateaddress in the Lodge, what a serious picture they had in their obscuregallery of the Marshalsea that Sunday night.

  There was a classical daughter once--perhaps--who ministered to herfather in his prison as her mother had ministered to her. Little Dorrit,though of the unheroic modern stock and mere English, did much more,in comforting her father's wasted heart upon her innocent breast, andturning to it a fountain of love and fidelity that never ran dry orwaned through all his years of famine.

  She soothed him; asked him for his forgiveness if she had been, orseemed to have been, undutiful; told him, Heaven knows truly, that shecould not honour him more if he were the favourite of Fortune and thewhole world acknowledged him. When his tears were dried, and he sobbedin his weakness no longer, and was free from that touch of shame, andhad recovered his usual bearing, she prepared the remains of his supperafresh, and, sitting by his side, rejoiced to see him eat and drink. Fornow he sat in his black velvet cap and old grey gown, magnanimous again;and would have comported himself towards any Collegian who might havelooked in to ask his advice, like a great moral Lord Chesterfield, orMaster of the ethical ceremonies of the Marshalsea.

  To keep his attention engaged, she talked with him about his wardrobe;when he was pleased to say, that Yes, indeed, those shirts she proposedwould be exceedingly acceptable, for those he had were worn out, and,being ready-made, had never fitted him. Being conversational, and in areasonable flow of spirits, he then invited her attention to his coatas it hung behind the door: remarking that the Father of the placewould set an indifferent example to his children, already disposed to beslovenly, if he went among them out at elbows. He was jocular, too,as to the heeling of his shoes; but became grave on the subject of hiscravat, and promised her that, when she could afford it, she should buyhim a new one.

  While he smoked out his cigar in peace, she made his bed, and put thesmall room in order for his repose. Being weary then, owing to theadvanced hour and his emotions, he came out of his chair to bless herand wish her Good night. All this time he had never once thought of _her_dress, her shoes, her need of anything. No other person upon earth, saveherself, could have been so unmindful of her wants.

  He kissed her many times with 'Bless you, my love. Good night, my dear!'

  But her gentle breast had been so deeply wounded by what she had seen ofhim that she was unwilling to leave him alone, lest he should lamentand despair again. 'Father, dear, I am not tired; let me come backpresently, when you are in bed, and sit by you.'

  He asked her, with an air of protection, if she felt solitary?

  'Yes, father.'

  'Then come back by all means, my love.'

  'I shall be very quiet, father.'

  'Don't think of me, my dear,' he said, giving her his kind permissionfully. 'Come back by all means.'

  He seemed to be dozing when she returned, and she put the low firetogether very softly lest she should awake him. But he overheard her,and called out who was that?

  'Only Amy, father.'

  'Amy, my child, come here. I want to say a word to you.'

  He raised himself a little in his low bed, as she kneeled beside it tobring her face near him; and put his hand between hers. O! Both theprivate father and the Father of the Marshalsea were strong within himthen.

  'My love, you have had a life of hardship here. No companions, norecreations, many cares I am afraid?'

  'Don't think of that, dear. I never do.'

  'You know my position, Amy. I have not been able to do much for you; butall I have been able to do, I have done.'

  'Yes, my dear father,' she rejoined, kissing him. 'I know, I know.'

  'I am in the twenty-third year of my life here,' he said, with a catchin his breath that was not so much a sob as an irrepressible sound ofself-approval, the momentary outburst of a noble consciousness. 'It isall I could do for my children--I have done it. Amy, my love, you areby far the best loved of the three; I have had you principally in mymind--whatever I have done for your sake, my dear child, I have donefreely and without murmuring.'

  Only the wisdom that holds the clue to all hearts and all mysteries, cansurely know to what extent a man, especially a man brought down as thisman had been, can impose upon himself. Enough, for the present place,that he lay down with wet eyelashes, serene, in a manner majestic, afterbestowing his life of degradation as a sort of portion on the devotedchild upon whom its miseries had fallen so heavily, and whose love alonehad saved him to be even what he was.

  That child had no doubts, asked herself no question, for she was but toocontent to see him with a lustre round his head. Poor dear, good dear,truest, kindest, dearest, were the only words she had for him, as shehushed him to rest.

  She never left him all that night. As if she had done him a wrong whichher tenderness could hardly repair, she sat by him in his sleep, attimes softly kissing him with suspended breath, and calling him in awhisper by some endearing name. At times she stood aside so as not tointercept the low fire-light, and, watching him when it fell upon hissleeping face, wondered did he look now at all as he had looked when hewas prosperous and happy; as he had so touched her by imagining that hemight look once more in that awful time. At the thought of that time,she kneeled beside his bed again, and prayed, 'O spare his life! Osave him to me! O look down upon my dear, long-suffering, unfortunate,much-changed, dear dear father!'

  Not until the morning came to protect him and encourage him, did shegive him a last kiss and leave the small room. When she had stolendown-stairs, and along the empty yard, and had crept up to her ownhigh garret, the smokeless housetops and the distant country hills werediscernible over the wall in the clear morning. As she gently opened thewindow, and looked eastward down the prison yard, the spikes upon thewall were tipped with red, then made a sullen purple pattern on the sunas it came flaming up into the heavens. The spikes had never looked sosharp and cruel, nor the bars so heavy, nor the prison space so gloomyand contracted. She thought of the sunrise on rolling rivers, of thesunrise on wide seas, of the sunrise on rich landscapes, of thesunrise on great forests where the birds were waking and the trees we
rerustling; and she looked down into the living grave on which the sunhad risen, with her father in it three-and-twenty years, and said, ina burst of sorrow and compassion, 'No, no, I have never seen him in mylife!'

 

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