Little Dorrit, page 55
CHAPTER 17. Missing
The term of Mr Dorrit's visit was within two days of being out, and hewas about to dress for another inspection by the Chief Butler (whosevictims were always dressed expressly for him), when one of the servantsof the hotel presented himself bearing a card. Mr Dorrit, taking it,read:
The servant waited in speechless deference.
'Man, man,' said Mr Dorrit, turning upon him with grievous indignation,'explain your motive in bringing me this ridiculous name. I am whollyunacquainted with it. Finching, sir?' said Mr Dorrit, perhaps avenginghimself on the Chief Butler by Substitute. 'Ha! What do you mean byFinching?'
The man, man, seemed to mean Flinching as much as anything else, forhe backed away from Mr Dorrit's severe regard, as he replied, 'A lady,sir.'
'I know no such lady, sir,' said Mr Dorrit. 'Take this card away. I knowno Finching of either sex.'
'Ask your pardon, sir. The lady said she was aware she might be unknownby name. But she begged me to say, sir, that she had formerly the honourof being acquainted with Miss Dorrit. The lady said, sir, the youngestMiss Dorrit.'
Mr Dorrit knitted his brows and rejoined, after a moment or two, 'InformMrs Finching, sir,' emphasising the name as if the innocent man weresolely responsible for it, 'that she can come up.'
He had reflected, in his momentary pause, that unless she were admittedshe might leave some message, or might say something below, havinga disgraceful reference to that former state of existence. Hence theconcession, and hence the appearance of Flora, piloted in by the man,man.
'I have not the pleasure,' said Mr Dorrit, standing with the card in hishand, and with an air which imported that it would scarcely have been afirst-class pleasure if he had had it, 'of knowing either this name, oryourself, madam. Place a chair, sir.'
The responsible man, with a start, obeyed, and went out on tiptoe.Flora, putting aside her veil with a bashful tremor upon her, proceededto introduce herself. At the same time a singular combination ofperfumes was diffused through the room, as if some brandy had been putby mistake in a lavender-water bottle, or as if some lavender-water hadbeen put by mistake in a brandy-bottle.
'I beg Mr Dorrit to offer a thousand apologies and indeed they wouldbe far too few for such an intrusion which I know must appear extremelybold in a lady and alone too, but I thought it best upon the wholehowever difficult and even apparently improper though Mr F.'s Aunt wouldhave willingly accompanied me and as a character of great force andspirit would probably have struck one possessed of such a knowledge oflife as no doubt with so many changes must have been acquired, for Mr F.himself said frequently that although well educated in the neighbourhoodof Blackheath at as high as eighty guineas which is a good deal forparents and the plate kept back too on going away but that is more ameanness than its value that he had learnt more in his first years as acommercial traveller with a large commission on the sale of an articlethat nobody would hear of much less buy which preceded the wine tradea long time than in the whole six years in that academy conducted by acollege Bachelor, though why a Bachelor more clever than a married man Ido not see and never did but pray excuse me that is not the point.'
Mr Dorrit stood rooted to the carpet, a statue of mystification.
'I must openly admit that I have no pretensions,' said Flora, 'buthaving known the dear little thing which under altered circumstancesappears a liberty but is not so intended and Goodness knows there was nofavour in half-a-crown a-day to such a needle as herself but quite theother way and as to anything lowering in it far from it the labourer isworthy of his hire and I am sure I only wish he got it oftener and moreanimal food and less rheumatism in the back and legs poor soul.'
'Madam,' said Mr Dorrit, recovering his breath by a great effort, as therelict of the late Mr Finching stopped to take hers; 'madam,' said MrDorrit, very red in the face, 'if I understand you to refer to--ha--toanything in the antecedents of--hum--a daughter of mine, involving--hahum--daily compensation, madam, I beg to observe that the--ha--fact,assuming it--ha--to be fact, never was within my knowledge. Hum. Ishould not have permitted it. Ha. Never! Never!'
'Unnecessary to pursue the subject,' returned Flora, 'and would not havementioned it on any account except as supposing it a favourable and onlyletter of introduction but as to being fact no doubt whatever and youmay set your mind at rest for the very dress I have on now can prove itand sweetly made though there is no denying that it would tell better ona better figure for my own is much too fat though how to bring it down Iknow not, pray excuse me I am roving off again.'
Mr Dorrit backed to his chair in a stony way, and seated himself, asFlora gave him a softening look and played with her parasol.
'The dear little thing,' said Flora, 'having gone off perfectly limpand white and cold in my own house or at least papa's for though nota freehold still a long lease at a peppercorn on the morning whenArthur--foolish habit of our youthful days and Mr Clennam far moreadapted to existing circumstances particularly addressing a stranger andthat stranger a gentleman in an elevated station--communicated the gladtidings imparted by a person of name of Pancks emboldens me.'
At the mention of these two names, Mr Dorrit frowned, stared, frownedagain, hesitated with his fingers at his lips, as he had hesitated longago, and said, 'Do me the favour to--ha--state your pleasure, madam.'
'Mr Dorrit,' said Flora, 'you are very kind in giving me permission andhighly natural it seems to me that you should be kind for though morestately I perceive a likeness filled out of course but a likeness still,the object of my intruding is my own without the slightest consultationwith any human being and most decidedly not with Arthur--pray excuse meDoyce and Clennam I don't know what I am saying Mr Clennam solus--for toput that individual linked by a golden chain to a purple time when allwas ethereal out of any anxiety would be worth to me the ransom of amonarch not that I have the least idea how much that would come to butusing it as the total of all I have in the world and more.'
Mr Dorrit, without greatly regarding the earnestness of these latterwords, repeated, 'State your pleasure, madam.'
'It's not likely I well know,' said Flora, 'but it's possible and beingpossible when I had the gratification of reading in the papers that youhad arrived from Italy and were going back I made up my mind to try itfor you might come across him or hear something of him and if so what ablessing and relief to all!'
'Allow me to ask, madam,' said Mr Dorrit, with his ideas in wildconfusion, 'to whom--ha--TO WHOM,' he repeated it with a raised voice inmere desperation, 'you at present allude?'
'To the foreigner from Italy who disappeared in the City as no doubt youhave read in the papers equally with myself,' said Flora, 'not referringto private sources by the name of Pancks from which one gathers whatdreadfully ill-natured things some people are wicked enough to whispermost likely judging others by themselves and what the uneasinessand indignation of Arthur--quite unable to overcome it Doyce andClennam--cannot fail to be.'
It happened, fortunately for the elucidation of any intelligible result,that Mr Dorrit had heard or read nothing about the matter. Thiscaused Mrs Finching, with many apologies for being in great practicaldifficulties as to finding the way to her pocket among the stripes ofher dress at length to produce a police handbill, setting forth thata foreign gentleman of the name of Blandois, last from Venice, hadunaccountably disappeared on such a night in such a part of the city ofLondon; that he was known to have entered such a house, at such an hour;that he was stated by the inmates of that house to have left it, aboutso many minutes before midnight; and that he had never been beheldsince. This, with exact particulars of time and locality, and witha good detailed description of the foreign gentleman who had somysteriously vanished, Mr Dorrit read at large.
'Blandois!' said Mr Dorrit. 'Venice! And this description! I know thisgentleman. He has been in my house. He is intimately acquainted with agentleman of good family (but in indifferent circumstances), of whom Iam a--hum--patron.'
'Pray, madam,' said Mr Dorrit, referring to the handbill again, 'who isClennam and Co.? Ha. I see the name mentioned here, in connection withthe occupation of the house which Monsieur Blandois was seen toenter: who is Clennam and Co.? Is it the individual of whom I hadformerly--hum--some--ha--slight transitory knowledge, and to whom Ibelieve you have referred? Is it--ha--that person?'
'It's a very different person indeed,' replied Flora, 'with no limbs andwheels instead and the grimmest of women though his mother.'
'Clennam and Co. a--hum--a mother!' exclaimed Mr Dorrit.
'And an old man besides,' said Flora.
Mr Dorrit looked as if he must immediately be driven out of his mindby this account. Neither was it rendered more favourable to sanity byFlora's dashing into a rapid analysis of Mr Flintwinch's cravat, anddescribing him, without the lightest boundary line of separation betweenhis identity and Mrs Clennam's, as a rusty screw in gaiters. Whichcompound of man and woman, no limbs, wheels, rusty screw, grimness, andgaiters, so completely stupefied Mr Dorrit, that he was a spectacle tobe pitied.
'But I would not detain you one moment longer,' said Flora, upon whomhis condition wrought its effect, though she was quite unconscious ofhaving produced it, 'if you would have the goodness to give your promiseas a gentleman that both in going back to Italy and in Italy too youwould look for this Mr Blandois high and low and if you found or heardof him make him come forward for the clearing of all parties.'
By that time Mr Dorrit had so far recovered from his bewilderment, as tobe able to say, in a tolerably connected manner, that he should considerthat his duty. Flora was delighted with her success, and rose to takeher leave.
'With a million thanks,' said she, 'and my address upon my card in caseof anything to be communicated personally, I will not send my love tothe dear little thing for it might not be acceptable, and indeed thereis no dear little thing left in the transformation so why do it butboth myself and Mr F.'s Aunt ever wish her well and lay no claim to anyfavour on our side you may be sure of that but quite the other way forwhat she undertook to do she did and that is more than a great many ofus do, not to say anything of her doing it as well as it could bedone and I myself am one of them for I have said ever since I began torecover the blow of Mr F's death that I would learn the Organ of whichI am extremely fond but of which I am ashamed to say I do not yet know anote, good evening!'
When Mr Dorrit, who attended her to the room-door, had had a little timeto collect his senses, he found that the interview had summoned backdiscarded reminiscences which jarred with the Merdle dinner-table.He wrote and sent off a brief note excusing himself for that day, andordered dinner presently in his own rooms at the hotel. He had anotherreason for this. His time in London was very nearly out, and wasanticipated by engagements; his plans were made for returning; and hethought it behoved his importance to pursue some direct inquiry into theBlandois disappearance, and be in a condition to carry back to MrHenry Gowan the result of his own personal investigation. He thereforeresolved that he would take advantage of that evening's freedom to godown to Clennam and Co.'s, easily to be found by the direction set forthin the handbill; and see the place, and ask a question or two therehimself.
Having dined as plainly as the establishment and the Courier would lethim, and having taken a short sleep by the fire for his better recoveryfrom Mrs Finching, he set out in a hackney-cabriolet alone. The deepbell of St Paul's was striking nine as he passed under the shadow ofTemple Bar, headless and forlorn in these degenerate days.
As he approached his destination through the by-streets and water-sideways, that part of London seemed to him an uglier spot at such an hourthan he had ever supposed it to be. Many long years had passed since hehad seen it; he had never known much of it; and it wore a mysterious anddismal aspect in his eyes. So powerfully was his imagination impressedby it, that when his driver stopped, after having asked the way morethan once, and said to the best of his belief this was the gateway theywanted, Mr Dorrit stood hesitating, with the coach-door in his hand,half afraid of the dark look of the place.
Truly, it looked as gloomy that night as even it had ever looked. Two ofthe handbills were posted on the entrance wall, one on either side, andas the lamp flickered in the night air, shadows passed over them, notunlike the shadows of fingers following the lines. A watch was evidentlykept upon the place. As Mr Dorrit paused, a man passed in from over theway, and another man passed out from some dark corner within; and bothlooked at him in passing, and both remained standing about.
As there was only one house in the enclosure, there was no room foruncertainty, so he went up the steps of that house and knocked. Therewas a dim light in two windows on the first-floor. The door gave backa dreary, vacant sound, as though the house were empty; but it was not,for a light was visible, and a step was audible, almost directly. Theyboth came to the door, and a chain grated, and a woman with her apronthrown over her face and head stood in the aperture.
'Who is it?' said the woman.
Mr Dorrit, much amazed by this appearance, replied that he was fromItaly, and that he wished to ask a question relative to the missingperson, whom he knew.
'Hi!' cried the woman, raising a cracked voice. 'Jeremiah!'
Upon this, a dry old man appeared, whom Mr Dorrit thought he identifiedby his gaiters, as the rusty screw. The woman was under apprehensionsof the dry old man, for she whisked her apron away as he approached, anddisclosed a pale affrighted face. 'Open the door, you fool,' said theold man; 'and let the gentleman in.'
Mr Dorrit, not without a glance over his shoulder towards his driver andthe cabriolet, walked into the dim hall. 'Now, sir,' said Mr Flintwinch,'you can ask anything here you think proper; there are no secrets here,sir.'
Before a reply could be made, a strong stern voice, though a woman's,called from above, 'Who is it?'
'Who is it?' returned Jeremiah. 'More inquiries. A gentleman fromItaly.'
'Bring him up here!'
Mr Flintwinch muttered, as if he deemed that unnecessary; but, turningto Mr Dorrit, said, 'Mrs Clennam. She _will_ do as she likes. I'll showyou the way.' He then preceded Mr Dorrit up the blackened staircase;that gentleman, not unnaturally looking behind him on the road, saw thewoman following, with her apron thrown over her head again in her formerghastly manner.
Mrs Clennam had her books open on her little table. 'Oh!' said sheabruptly, as she eyed her visitor with a steady look. 'You are fromItaly, sir, are you. Well?'
Mr Dorrit was at a loss for any more distinct rejoinder at the momentthan 'Ha--well?'
'Where is this missing man? Have you come to give us information wherehe is? I hope you have?'
'So far from it, I--hum--have come to seek information.'
'Unfortunately for us, there is none to be got here. Flintwinch, showthe gentleman the handbill. Give him several to take away. Hold thelight for him to read it.'
Mr Flintwinch did as he was directed, and Mr Dorrit read it through,as if he had not previously seen it; glad enough of the opportunity ofcollecting his presence of mind, which the air of the house and of thepeople in it had a little disturbed. While his eyes were on the paper,he felt that the eyes of Mr Flintwinch and of Mrs Clennam were on him.He found, when he looked up, that this sensation was not a fanciful one.
'Now you know as much,' said Mrs Clennam, 'as we know, sir. Is MrBlandois a friend of yours?'
'No--a--hum--an acquaintance,' answered Mr Dorrit.
'You have no commission from him, perhaps?'
'I? Ha. Certainly not.'
The searching look turned gradually to the floor, after taking MrFlintwinch's face in its way
'I am--ha--a gentleman of property, at present residing in Italy with myfamily, my servants, and--hum--my rather large establishment. Being inLondon for a short time on affairs connected with--ha--my estate,and hearing of this strange disappearance, I wished to make myselfacquainted with the circumstances at first-hand, because there is--hahum--an English gentleman in Italy whom I shall no doubt see on myreturn, who has been in habits of close and daily intimacy with MonsieurBlandois. Mr Henry Gowan. You may know the name.'
'Never heard of it.'
Mrs Clennam said it, and Mr Flintwinch echoed it.
'Wishing to--ha--make the narrative coherent and consecutive to him,'said Mr Dorrit, 'may I ask--say, three questions?'
'Thirty, if you choose.'
'Have you known Monsieur Blandois long?'
'Not a twelvemonth. Mr Flintwinch here, will refer to the books and tellyou when, and by whom at Paris he was introduced to us. If that,'Mrs Clennam added, 'should be any satisfaction to you. It is poorsatisfaction to us.'
'Have you seen him often?'
'No. Twice. Once before, and--'
'That once,' suggested Mr Flintwinch.
'And that once.'
'Pray, madam,' said Mr Dorrit, with a growing fancy upon him as herecovered his importance, that he was in some superior way in theCommission of the Peace; 'pray, madam, may I inquire, for the greatersatisfaction of the gentleman whom I have the honour to--ha--retain, orprotect or let me say to--hum--know--to know--Was Monsieur Blandois hereon business on the night indicated in this present sheet?'
'On what he called business,' returned Mrs Clennam.
'Is--ha--excuse me--is its nature to be communicated?'
It was evidently impracticable to pass the barrier of that reply.
'The question has been asked before,' said Mrs Clennam, 'and the answerhas been, No. We don't choose to publish our transactions, howeverunimportant, to all the town. We say, No.'
'I mean, he took away no money with him, for example,' said Mr Dorrit.
'He took away none of ours, sir, and got none here.'
'I suppose,' observed Mr Dorrit, glancing from Mrs Clennam to MrFlintwinch, and from Mr Flintwinch to Mrs Clennam, 'you have no way ofaccounting to yourself for this mystery?'
'Why do you suppose so?' rejoined Mrs Clennam.
Disconcerted by the cold and hard inquiry, Mr Dorrit was unable toassign any reason for his supposing so.
'I account for it, sir,' she pursued after an awkward silence on MrDorrit's part, 'by having no doubt that he is travelling somewhere, orhiding somewhere.'
'Do you know--ha--why he should hide anywhere?'
It was exactly the same No as before, and put another barrier up.
'You asked me if I accounted for the disappearance to myself,' MrsClennam sternly reminded him, 'not if I accounted for it to you. I donot pretend to account for it to you, sir. I understand it to be no moremy business to do that, than it is yours to require that.'
Mr Dorrit answered with an apologetic bend of his head. As he steppedback, preparatory to saying he had no more to ask, he could not butobserve how gloomily and fixedly she sat with her eyes fastened onthe ground, and a certain air upon her of resolute waiting; also,how exactly the self-same expression was reflected in Mr Flintwinch,standing at a little distance from her chair, with his eyes also on theground, and his right hand softly rubbing his chin.
At that moment, Mistress Affery (of course, the woman with the apron)dropped the candlestick she held, and cried out, 'There! O good Lord!there it is again. Hark, Jeremiah! Now!'
If there were any sound at all, it was so slight that she must havefallen into a confirmed habit of listening for sounds; but Mr Dorritbelieved he did hear a something, like the falling of dry leaves. Thewoman's terror, for a very short space, seemed to touch the three; andthey all listened.
Mr Flintwinch was the first to stir. 'Affery, my woman,' said he,sidling at her with his fists clenched, and his elbows quivering withimpatience to shake her, 'you are at your old tricks. You'll be walkingin your sleep next, my woman, and playing the whole round of yourdistempered antics. You must have some physic. When I have shown thisgentleman out, I'll make you up such a comfortable dose, my woman; sucha comfortable dose!'
It did not appear altogether comfortable in expectation to MistressAffery; but Jeremiah, without further reference to his healing medicine,took another candle from Mrs Clennam's table, and said, 'Now, sir; shallI light you down?'
Mr Dorrit professed himself obliged, and went down. Mr Flintwinch shuthim out, and chained him out, without a moment's loss of time.He was again passed by the two men, one going out and the other comingin; got into the vehicle he had left waiting, and was driven away.
Before he had gone far, the driver stopped to let him know that hehad given his name, number, and address to the two men, on their jointrequisition; and also the address at which he had taken Mr Dorrit up,the hour at which he had been called from his stand and the way by whichhe had come. This did not make the night's adventure run any less hotlyin Mr Dorrit's mind, either when he sat down by his fire again, orwhen he went to bed. All night he haunted the dismal house, saw the twopeople resolutely waiting, heard the woman with her apron over her facecry out about the noise, and found the body of the missing Blandois, nowburied in the cellar, and now bricked up in a wall.
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