Little dorrit, p.26

Little Dorrit, page 26

 

Little Dorrit
 



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  CHAPTER 25. Conspirators and Others

  The private residence of Mr Pancks was in Pentonville, where he lodgedon the second-floor of a professional gentleman in an extremely smallway, who had an inner-door within the street door, poised on a springand starting open with a click like a trap; and who wrote up in thefan-light, RUGG, GENERAL AGENT, ACCOUNTANT, DEBTS RECOVERED.

  This scroll, majestic in its severe simplicity, illuminated a littleslip of front garden abutting on the thirsty high-road, where a fewof the dustiest of leaves hung their dismal heads and led a life ofchoking. A professor of writing occupied the first-floor, and enlivenedthe garden railings with glass-cases containing choice examples of whathis pupils had been before six lessons and while the whole of his youngfamily shook the table, and what they had become after six lessonswhen the young family was under restraint. The tenancy of Mr Pancks waslimited to one airy bedroom; he covenanting and agreeing with Mr Rugghis landlord, that in consideration of a certain scale of paymentsaccurately defined, and on certain verbal notice duly given, he shouldbe at liberty to elect to share the Sunday breakfast, dinner, tea, orsupper, or each or any or all of those repasts or meals of Mr and MissRugg (his daughter) in the back-parlour.

  Miss Rugg was a lady of a little property which she had acquired,together with much distinction in the neighbourhood, by having herheart severely lacerated and her feelings mangled by a middle-aged bakerresident in the vicinity, against whom she had, by the agency of MrRugg, found it necessary to proceed at law to recover damages for abreach of promise of marriage. The baker having been, by the counsel forMiss Rugg, witheringly denounced on that occasion up to the full amountof twenty guineas, at the rate of about eighteen-pence an epithet, andhaving been cast in corresponding damages, still suffered occasionalpersecution from the youth of Pentonville. But Miss Rugg, environed bythe majesty of the law, and having her damages invested in the publicsecurities, was regarded with consideration.

  In the society of Mr Rugg, who had a round white visage, as if all hisblushes had been drawn out of him long ago, and who had a ragged yellowhead like a worn-out hearth broom; and in the society of Miss Rugg, whohad little nankeen spots, like shirt buttons, all over her face, andwhose own yellow tresses were rather scrubby than luxuriant; Mr Panckshad usually dined on Sundays for some few years, and had twice a week,or so, enjoyed an evening collation of bread, Dutch cheese, and porter.Mr Pancks was one of the very few marriageable men for whom Miss Rugghad no terrors, the argument with which he reassured himself beingtwofold; that is to say, firstly, 'that it wouldn't do twice,' andsecondly, 'that he wasn't worth it.' Fortified within this doublearmour, Mr Pancks snorted at Miss Rugg on easy terms.

  Up to this time, Mr Pancks had transacted little or no business at hisquarters in Pentonville, except in the sleeping line; but now that hehad become a fortune-teller, he was often closeted after midnightwith Mr Rugg in his little front-parlour office, and even after thoseuntimely hours, burnt tallow in his bed-room. Though his duties as hisproprietor's grubber were in no wise lessened; and though that servicebore no greater resemblance to a bed of roses than was to be discoveredin its many thorns; some new branch of industry made a constant demandupon him. When he cast off the Patriarch at night, it was only to takean anonymous craft in tow, and labour away afresh in other waters.

  The advance from a personal acquaintance with the elder Mr Chivery toan introduction to his amiable wife and disconsolate son, may have beeneasy; but easy or not, Mr Pancks soon made it. He nestled in the bosomof the tobacco business within a week or two after his first appearancein the College, and particularly addressed himself to the cultivation ofa good understanding with Young John. In this endeavour he so prosperedas to lure that pining shepherd forth from the groves, and tempt himto undertake mysterious missions; on which he began to disappear atuncertain intervals for as long a space as two or three days together.The prudent Mrs Chivery, who wondered greatly at this change, would haveprotested against it as detrimental to the Highland typification on thedoorpost but for two forcible reasons; one, that her John was roused totake strong interest in the business which these starts were supposedto advance--and this she held to be good for his drooping spirits;the other, that Mr Pancks confidentially agreed to pay her, for theoccupation of her son's time, at the handsome rate of seven and sixpenceper day. The proposal originated with himself, and was couched in thepithy terms, 'If your John is weak enough, ma'am, not to take it,that is no reason why you should be, don't you see? So, quite betweenourselves, ma'am, business being business, here it is!'

  What Mr Chivery thought of these things, or how much or how little heknew about them, was never gathered from himself. It has been alreadyremarked that he was a man of few words; and it may be here observedthat he had imbibed a professional habit of locking everything up. Helocked himself up as carefully as he locked up the Marshalsea debtors.Even his custom of bolting his meals may have been a part of an uniformwhole; but there is no question, that, as to all other purposes, he kepthis mouth as he kept the Marshalsea door. He never opened it withoutoccasion. When it was necessary to let anything out, he opened it alittle way, held it open just as long as sufficed for the purpose, andlocked it again. Even as he would be sparing of his trouble at theMarshalsea door, and would keep a visitor who wanted to go out, waitingfor a few moments if he saw another visitor coming down the yard, sothat one turn of the key should suffice for both, similarly he wouldoften reserve a remark if he perceived another on its way to his lips,and would deliver himself of the two together. As to any key to hisinner knowledge being to be found in his face, the Marshalsea key was aslegible as an index to the individual characters and histories uponwhich it was turned.

  That Mr Pancks should be moved to invite any one to dinner atPentonville, was an unprecedented fact in his calendar. But he invitedYoung John to dinner, and even brought him within range of the dangerous(because expensive) fascinations of Miss Rugg. The banquet was appointedfor a Sunday, and Miss Rugg with her own hands stuffed a leg of muttonwith oysters on the occasion, and sent it to the baker's--not _the_baker's but an opposition establishment. Provision of oranges, apples,and nuts was also made. And rum was brought home by Mr Pancks onSaturday night, to gladden the visitor's heart.

  The store of creature comforts was not the chief part of the visitor'sreception. Its special feature was a foregone family confidence andsympathy. When Young John appeared at half-past one without the ivoryhand and waistcoat of golden sprigs, the sun shorn of his beams bydisastrous clouds, Mr Pancks presented him to the yellow-haired Ruggs asthe young man he had so often mentioned who loved Miss Dorrit.

  'I am glad,' said Mr Rugg, challenging him specially in that character,'to have the distinguished gratification of making your acquaintance,sir. Your feelings do you honour. You are young; may you never outliveyour feelings! If I was to outlive my own feelings, sir,' said Mr Rugg,who was a man of many words, and was considered to possess a remarkablygood address; 'if I was to outlive my own feelings, I'd leave fiftypound in my will to the man who would put me out of existence.'

  Miss Rugg heaved a sigh.

  'My daughter, sir,' said Mr Rugg. 'Anastatia, you are no stranger to thestate of this young man's affections. My daughter has had her trials,sir'--Mr Rugg might have used the word more pointedly in the singularnumber--'and she can feel for you.'

  Young John, almost overwhelmed by the touching nature of this greeting,professed himself to that effect.

  'What I envy you, sir, is,' said Mr Rugg, 'allow me to take your hat--weare rather short of pegs--I'll put it in the corner, nobody will treadon it there--What I envy you, sir, is the luxury of your own feelings. Ibelong to a profession in which that luxury is sometimes denied us.'

  Young John replied, with acknowledgments, that he only hoped he did whatwas right, and what showed how entirely he was devoted to Miss Dorrit.He wished to be unselfish; and he hoped he was. He wished to do anythingas laid in his power to serve Miss Dorrit, altogether putting himselfout of sight; and
he hoped he did. It was but little that he could do,but he hoped he did it.

  'Sir,' said Mr Rugg, taking him by the hand, 'you are a young man thatit does one good to come across. You are a young man that I shouldlike to put in the witness-box, to humanise the minds of the legalprofession. I hope you have brought your appetite with you, and intendto play a good knife and fork?'

  'Thank you, sir,' returned Young John, 'I don't eat much at present.'

  Mr Rugg drew him a little apart. 'My daughter's case, sir,' said he, 'atthe time when, in vindication of her outraged feelings and her sex, shebecame the plaintiff in Rugg and Bawkins. I suppose I could have put itin evidence, Mr Chivery, if I had thought it worth my while, that theamount of solid sustenance my daughter consumed at that period did notexceed ten ounces per week.'

  'I think I go a little beyond that, sir,' returned the other,hesitating, as if he confessed it with some shame.

  'But in your case there's no fiend in human form,' said Mr Rugg, withargumentative smile and action of hand. 'Observe, Mr Chivery!No fiend in human form!'

  'No, sir, certainly,' Young John added with simplicity, 'I should bevery sorry if there was.'

  'The sentiment,' said Mr Rugg, 'is what I should have expected from yourknown principles. It would affect my daughter greatly, sir, if she heardit. As I perceive the mutton, I am glad she didn't hear it. Mr Pancks,on this occasion, pray face me. My dear, face Mr Chivery. For what weare going to receive, may we (and Miss Dorrit) be truly thankful!'

  But for a grave waggishness in Mr Rugg's manner of delivering thisintroduction to the feast, it might have appeared that Miss Dorrit wasexpected to be one of the company. Pancks recognised the sally inhis usual way, and took in his provender in his usual way. Miss Rugg,perhaps making up some of her arrears, likewise took very kindly tothe mutton, and it rapidly diminished to the bone. A bread-and-butterpudding entirely disappeared, and a considerable amount of cheese andradishes vanished by the same means. Then came the dessert.

  Then also, and before the broaching of the rum and water, came MrPancks's note-book. The ensuing business proceedings were brief butcurious, and rather in the nature of a conspiracy. Mr Pancks looked overhis note-book, which was now getting full, studiously; and picked outlittle extracts, which he wrote on separate slips of paper on the table;Mr Rugg, in the meanwhile, looking at him with close attention, andYoung John losing his uncollected eye in mists of meditation. When MrPancks, who supported the character of chief conspirator, had completedhis extracts, he looked them over, corrected them, put up his note-book,and held them like a hand at cards.

  'Now, there's a churchyard in Bedfordshire,' said Pancks. 'Who takesit?'

  'I'll take it, sir,' returned Mr Rugg, 'if no one bids.'

  Mr Pancks dealt him his card, and looked at his hand again.

  'Now, there's an Enquiry in York,' said Pancks. 'Who takes it?'

  'I'm not good for York,' said Mr Rugg.

  'Then perhaps,' pursued Pancks, 'you'll be so obliging, John Chivery?'

  Young John assenting, Pancks dealt him his card, and consulted his handagain.

  'There's a Church in London; I may as well take that. And a FamilyBible; I may as well take that, too. That's two to me. Two to me,'repeated Pancks, breathing hard over his cards. 'Here's a Clerk atDurham for you, John, and an old seafaring gentleman at Dunstable foryou, Mr Rugg. Two to me, was it? Yes, two to me. Here's a Stone; threeto me. And a Still-born Baby; four to me. And all, for the present,told.'

  When he had thus disposed of his cards, all being done very quietly andin a suppressed tone, Mr Pancks puffed his way into his ownbreast-pocket and tugged out a canvas bag; from which, with a sparinghand, he told forth money for travelling expenses in two littleportions. 'Cash goes out fast,' he said anxiously, as he pushed aportion to each of his male companions, 'very fast.'

  'I can only assure you, Mr Pancks,' said Young John, 'that I deeplyregret my circumstances being such that I can't afford to pay my owncharges, or that it's not advisable to allow me the time necessary formy doing the distances on foot; because nothing would give me greatersatisfaction than to walk myself off my legs without fee or reward.'

  This young man's disinterestedness appeared so very ludicrous inthe eyes of Miss Rugg, that she was obliged to effect a precipitateretirement from the company, and to sit upon the stairs until she hadhad her laugh out. Meanwhile Mr Pancks, looking, not without some pity,at Young John, slowly and thoughtfully twisted up his canvas bag as ifhe were wringing its neck. The lady, returning as he restored it to hispocket, mixed rum and water for the party, not forgetting her fair self,and handed to every one his glass. When all were supplied, Mr Rugg rose,and silently holding out his glass at arm's length above the centre ofthe table, by that gesture invited the other three to add theirs, and tounite in a general conspiratorial clink. The ceremony was effective upto a certain point, and would have been wholly so throughout, if MissRugg, as she raised her glass to her lips in completion of it, had nothappened to look at Young John; when she was again so overcome by thecontemptible comicality of his disinterestedness as to splutter someambrosial drops of rum and water around, and withdraw in confusion.

  Such was the dinner without precedent, given by Pancks at Pentonville;and such was the busy and strange life Pancks led. The only wakingmoments at which he appeared to relax from his cares, and to recreatehimself by going anywhere or saying anything without a pervading object,were when he showed a dawning interest in the lame foreigner with thestick, down Bleeding Heart Yard.

  The foreigner, by name John Baptist Cavalletto--they called him MrBaptist in the Yard--was such a chirping, easy, hopeful little fellow,that his attraction for Pancks was probably in the force of contrast.Solitary, weak, and scantily acquainted with the most necessary wordsof the only language in which he could communicate with the people abouthim, he went with the stream of his fortunes, in a brisk way that wasnew in those parts. With little to eat, and less to drink, and nothingto wear but what he wore upon him, or had brought tied up in one of thesmallest bundles that ever were seen, he put as bright a face upon it asif he were in the most flourishing circumstances when he first hobbledup and down the Yard, humbly propitiating the general good-will with hiswhite teeth.

  It was uphill work for a foreigner, lame or sound, to make his way withthe Bleeding Hearts. In the first place, they were vaguely persuadedthat every foreigner had a knife about him; in the second, they held itto be a sound constitutional national axiom that he ought to go home tohis own country. They never thought of inquiring how many of their owncountrymen would be returned upon their hands from divers parts of theworld, if the principle were generally recognised; they considered itparticularly and peculiarly British. In the third place, they had anotion that it was a sort of Divine visitation upon a foreigner that hewas not an Englishman, and that all kinds of calamities happened tohis country because it did things that England did not, and did not dothings that England did. In this belief, to be sure, they had long beencarefully trained by the Barnacles and Stiltstalkings, who were alwaysproclaiming to them, officially, that no country which failed to submititself to those two large families could possibly hope to be under theprotection of Providence; and who, when they believed it, disparagedthem in private as the most prejudiced people under the sun.

  This, therefore, might be called a political position of the BleedingHearts; but they entertained other objections to having foreignersin the Yard. They believed that foreigners were always badly off; andthough they were as ill off themselves as they could desire to be,that did not diminish the force of the objection. They believed thatforeigners were dragooned and bayoneted; and though they certainly gottheir own skulls promptly fractured if they showed any ill-humour, stillit was with a blunt instrument, and that didn't count. They believedthat foreigners were always immoral; and though they had an occasionalassize at home, and now and then a divorce case or so, that had nothingto do with it. They believed that foreigners had no independent spirit,as never being esco
rted to the poll in droves by Lord Decimus TiteBarnacle, with colours flying and the tune of Rule Britannia playing.Not to be tedious, they had many other beliefs of a similar kind.

  Against these obstacles, the lame foreigner with the stick had to makehead as well as he could; not absolutely single-handed, because MrArthur Clennam had recommended him to the Plornishes (he lived at thetop of the same house), but still at heavy odds. However, the BleedingHearts were kind hearts; and when they saw the little fellow cheerilylimping about with a good-humoured face, doing no harm, drawing noknives, committing no outrageous immoralities, living chiefly onfarinaceous and milk diet, and playing with Mrs Plornish's children ofan evening, they began to think that although he could never hope to bean Englishman, still it would be hard to visit that affliction on hishead. They began to accommodate themselves to his level, calling him 'MrBaptist,' but treating him like a baby, and laughing immoderately at hislively gestures and his childish English--more, because he didn't mindit, and laughed too. They spoke to him in very loud voices as if hewere stone deaf. They constructed sentences, by way of teaching him thelanguage in its purity, such as were addressed by the savages to CaptainCook, or by Friday to Robinson Crusoe. Mrs Plornish was particularlyingenious in this art; and attained so much celebrity for saying 'Me opeyou leg well soon,' that it was considered in the Yard but a very shortremove indeed from speaking Italian. Even Mrs Plornish herself began tothink that she had a natural call towards that language. As he becamemore popular, household objects were brought into requisition for hisinstruction in a copious vocabulary; and whenever he appeared in theYard ladies would fly out at their doors crying 'Mr Baptist--tea-pot!''Mr Baptist--dust-pan!' 'Mr Baptist--flour-dredger!' 'MrBaptist--coffee-biggin!' At the same time exhibiting those articles,and penetrating him with a sense of the appalling difficulties of theAnglo-Saxon tongue.

  It was in this stage of his progress, and in about the third week of hisoccupation, that Mr Pancks's fancy became attracted by the little man.Mounting to his attic, attended by Mrs Plornish as interpreter, he foundMr Baptist with no furniture but his bed on the ground, a table, and achair, carving with the aid of a few simple tools, in the blithest waypossible.

  'Now, old chap,' said Mr Pancks, 'pay up!'

  He had his money ready, folded in a scrap of paper, and laughinglyhanded it in; then with a free action, threw out as many fingers of hisright hand as there were shillings, and made a cut crosswise in the airfor an odd sixpence.

  'Oh!' said Mr Pancks, watching him, wonderingly. 'That's it, is it?You're a quick customer. It's all right. I didn't expect to receive it,though.'

  Mrs Plornish here interposed with great condescension, and explained toMr Baptist. 'E please. E glad get money.'

  The little man smiled and nodded. His bright face seemed uncommonlyattractive to Mr Pancks. 'How's he getting on in his limb?' he asked MrsPlornish.

  'Oh, he's a deal better, sir,' said Mrs Plornish. 'We expect next weekhe'll be able to leave off his stick entirely.' (The opportunitybeing too favourable to be lost, Mrs Plornish displayed her greataccomplishment by explaining with pardonable pride to Mr Baptist, 'E opeyou leg well soon.')

  'He's a merry fellow, too,' said Mr Pancks, admiring him as if he were amechanical toy. 'How does he live?'

  'Why, sir,' rejoined Mrs Plornish, 'he turns out to have quite a powerof carving them flowers that you see him at now.' (Mr Baptist, watchingtheir faces as they spoke, held up his work. Mrs Plornish interpreted inher Italian manner, on behalf of Mr Pancks, 'E please. Double good!')

  'Can he live by that?' asked Mr Pancks.

  'He can live on very little, sir, and it is expected as he will be able,in time, to make a very good living. Mr Clennam got it him to do, andgives him odd jobs besides in at the Works next door--makes 'em for him,in short, when he knows he wants 'em.'

  'And what does he do with himself, now, when he ain't hard at it?' saidMr Pancks.

  'Why, not much as yet, sir, on accounts I suppose of not being able towalk much; but he goes about the Yard, and he chats without particularunderstanding or being understood, and he plays with the children,and he sits in the sun--he'll sit down anywhere, as if it was anarm-chair--and he'll sing, and he'll laugh!'

  'Laugh!' echoed Mr Pancks. 'He looks to me as if every tooth in his headwas always laughing.'

  'But whenever he gets to the top of the steps at t'other end of theYard,' said Mrs Plornish, 'he'll peep out in the curiousest way! So thatsome of us thinks he's peeping out towards where his own country is, andsome of us thinks he's looking for somebody he don't want to see, andsome of us don't know what to think.'

  Mr Baptist seemed to have a general understanding of what she said; orperhaps his quickness caught and applied her slight action of peeping.In any case he closed his eyes and tossed his head with the air of a manwho had sufficient reasons for what he did, and said in his own tongue,it didn't matter. Altro!

  'What's Altro?' said Pancks.

  'Hem! It's a sort of a general kind of expression, sir,' said MrsPlornish.

  'Is it?' said Pancks. 'Why, then Altro to you, old chap. Good afternoon.Altro!'

  Mr Baptist in his vivacious way repeating the word several times, MrPancks in his duller way gave it him back once. From that time it becamea frequent custom with Pancks the gipsy, as he went home jaded at night,to pass round by Bleeding Heart Yard, go quietly up the stairs, look inat Mr Baptist's door, and, finding him in his room, to say, 'Hallo, oldchap! Altro!' To which Mr Baptist would reply with innumerable brightnods and smiles, 'Altro, signore, altro, altro, altro!' After thishighly condensed conversation, Mr Pancks would go his way with anappearance of being lightened and refreshed.

 
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