Little dorrit, p.60

Little Dorrit, page 60

 

Little Dorrit
 



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  CHAPTER 22. Who passes by this Road so late?

  Arthur Clennam had made his unavailing expedition to Calais in the midstof a great pressure of business. A certain barbaric Power with valuablepossessions on the map of the world, had occasion for the services ofone or two engineers, quick in invention and determined in execution:practical men, who could make the men and means their ingenuityperceived to be wanted out of the best materials they could findat hand; and who were as bold and fertile in the adaptation of suchmaterials to their purpose, as in the conception of their purposeitself. This Power, being a barbaric one, had no idea of stowing awaya great national object in a Circumlocution Office, as strong wine ishidden from the light in a cellar until its fire and youth are gone,and the labourers who worked in the vineyard and pressed the grapes aredust. With characteristic ignorance, it acted on the most decided andenergetic notions of How to do it; and never showed the least respectfor, or gave any quarter to, the great political science, How not to doit. Indeed it had a barbarous way of striking the latter art and mysterydead, in the person of any enlightened subject who practised it.

  Accordingly, the men who were wanted were sought out and found; whichwas in itself a most uncivilised and irregular way of proceeding. Beingfound, they were treated with great confidence and honour (which againshowed dense political ignorance), and were invited to come at once anddo what they had to do. In short, they were regarded as men who meant todo it, engaging with other men who meant it to be done.

  Daniel Doyce was one of the chosen. There was no foreseeing at that timewhether he would be absent months or years. The preparations for hisdeparture, and the conscientious arrangement for him of all the detailsand results of their joint business, had necessitated labour within ashort compass of time, which had occupied Clennam day and night. Hehad slipped across the water in his first leisure, and had slipped asquickly back again for his farewell interview with Doyce.

  Him Arthur now showed, with pains and care, the state of their gains andlosses, responsibilities and prospects. Daniel went through it allin his patient manner, and admired it all exceedingly. He audited theaccounts, as if they were a far more ingenious piece of mechanism thanhe had ever constructed, and afterwards stood looking at them, weighinghis hat over his head by the brims, as if he were absorbed in thecontemplation of some wonderful engine.

  'It's all beautiful, Clennam, in its regularity and order. Nothing canbe plainer. Nothing can be better.'

  'I am glad you approve, Doyce. Now, as to the management of your capitalwhile you are away, and as to the conversion of so much of it as thebusiness may need from time to time--' His partner stopped him.

  'As to that, and as to everything else of that kind, all rests with you.You will continue in all such matters to act for both of us, as youhave done hitherto, and to lighten my mind of a load it is much relievedfrom.'

  'Though, as I often tell you,' returned Clennam, 'you unreasonablydepreciate your business qualities.'

  'Perhaps so,' said Doyce, smiling. 'And perhaps not. Anyhow, I have acalling that I have studied more than such matters, and that I am betterfitted for. I have perfect confidence in my partner, and I am satisfiedthat he will do what is best. If I have a prejudice connected with moneyand money figures,' continued Doyce, laying that plastic workman's thumbof his on the lapel of his partner's coat, 'it is against speculating.I don't think I have any other. I dare say I entertain that prejudice,only because I have never given my mind fully to the subject.'

  'But you shouldn't call it a prejudice,' said Clennam. 'My dear Doyce,it is the soundest sense.'

  'I am glad you think so,' returned Doyce, with his grey eye looking kindand bright.

  'It so happens,' said Clennam, 'that just now, not half an hour beforeyou came down, I was saying the same thing to Pancks, who looked inhere. We both agreed that to travel out of safe investments is one ofthe most dangerous, as it is one of the most common, of those follieswhich often deserve the name of vices.'

  'Pancks?' said Doyce, tilting up his hat at the back, and nodding withan air of confidence. 'Aye, aye, aye! That's a cautious fellow.'

  'He is a very cautious fellow indeed,' returned Arthur. 'Quite aspecimen of caution.'

  They both appeared to derive a larger amount of satisfaction from thecautious character of Mr Pancks, than was quite intelligible, judged bythe surface of their conversation.

  'And now,' said Daniel, looking at his watch, 'as time and tide waitfor no man, my trusty partner, and as I am ready for starting, bag andbaggage, at the gate below, let me say a last word. I want you to granta request of mine.'

  'Any request you can make--Except,' Clennam was quick with hisexception, for his partner's face was quick in suggesting it, 'exceptthat I will abandon your invention.'

  'That's the request, and you know it is,' said Doyce.

  'I say, No, then. I say positively, No. Now that I have begun, I willhave some definite reason, some responsible statement, something in thenature of a real answer, from those people.'

  'You will not,' returned Doyce, shaking his head. 'Take my word for it,you never will.'

  'At least, I'll try,' said Clennam. 'It will do me no harm to try.'

  'I am not certain of that,' rejoined Doyce, laying his hand persuasivelyon his shoulder. 'It has done me harm, my friend. It has aged me, tiredme, vexed me, disappointed me. It does no man any good to have hispatience worn out, and to think himself ill-used. I fancy, even already,that unavailing attendance on delays and evasions has made you somethingless elastic than you used to be.'

  'Private anxieties may have done that for the moment,' said Clennam,'but not official harrying. Not yet. I am not hurt yet.'

  'Then you won't grant my request?'

  'Decidedly, No,' said Clennam. 'I should be ashamed if I submitted tobe so soon driven out of the field, where a much older and a much moresensitively interested man contended with fortitude so long.'

  As there was no moving him, Daniel Doyce returned the grasp of his hand,and, casting a farewell look round the counting-house, went down-stairswith him. Doyce was to go to Southampton to join the small staff ofhis fellow-travellers; and a coach was at the gate, well furnished andpacked, and ready to take him there. The workmen were at the gate to seehim off, and were mightily proud of him. 'Good luck to you, Mr Doyce!'said one of the number. 'Wherever you go, they'll find as they've got aman among 'em, a man as knows his tools and as his tools knows, a manas is willing and a man as is able, and if that's not a man, where isa man!' This oration from a gruff volunteer in the back-ground, notpreviously suspected of any powers in that way, was received with threeloud cheers; and the speaker became a distinguished character for everafterwards. In the midst of the three loud cheers, Daniel gave them alla hearty 'Good Bye, Men!' and the coach disappeared from sight, as ifthe concussion of the air had blown it out of Bleeding Heart Yard.

  Mr Baptist, as a grateful little fellow in a position of trust, wasamong the workmen, and had done as much towards the cheering as a mereforeigner could. In truth, no men on earth can cheer like Englishmen,who do so rally one another's blood and spirit when they cheer inearnest, that the stir is like the rush of their whole history, with allits standards waving at once, from Saxon Alfred's downwards. Mr Baptisthad been in a manner whirled away before the onset, and was taking hisbreath in quite a scared condition when Clennam beckoned him to followup-stairs, and return the books and papers to their places.

  In the lull consequent on the departure--in that first vacuity whichensues on every separation, foreshadowing the great separation thatis always overhanging all mankind--Arthur stood at his desk, lookingdreamily out at a gleam of sun. But his liberated attention soonreverted to the theme that was foremost in his thoughts, and began, forthe hundredth time, to dwell upon every circumstance that had impresseditself upon his mind on the mysterious night when he had seen the man athis mother's. Again the man jostled him in the crooked street, againhe followed the man and lost him, again he came upon the man in thecourt
-yard looking at the house, again he followed the man and stoodbeside him on the door-steps.

  'Who passes by this road so late? Compagnon de la Majolaine; Who passes by this road so late? Always gay!'

  It was not the first time, by many, that he had recalled the song of thechild's game, of which the fellow had hummed this verse while they stoodside by side; but he was so unconscious of having repeated it audibly,that he started to hear the next verse.

  'Of all the king's knights 'tis the flower, Compagnon de la Majolaine; Of all the king's knights 'tis the flower, Always gay!'

  Cavalletto had deferentially suggested the words and tune, supposing himto have stopped short for want of more.

  'Ah! You know the song, Cavalletto?'

  'By Bacchus, yes, sir! They all know it in France. I have heard it manytimes, sung by the little children. The last time when it I have heard,'said Mr Baptist, formerly Cavalletto, who usually went back to hisnative construction of sentences when his memory went near home, 'isfrom a sweet little voice. A little voice, very pretty, very innocent.Altro!'

  'The last time I heard it,' returned Arthur, 'was in a voice quite thereverse of pretty, and quite the reverse of innocent.' He said it moreto himself than to his companion, and added to himself, repeatingthe man's next words. 'Death of my life, sir, it's my character to beimpatient!'

  'EH!' cried Cavalletto, astounded, and with all his colour gone in amoment.

  'What is the matter?'

  'Sir! You know where I have heard that song the last time?'

  With his rapid native action, his hands made the outline of a high hooknose, pushed his eyes near together, dishevelled his hair, puffed outhis upper lip to represent a thick moustache, and threw the heavy endof an ideal cloak over his shoulder. While doing this, with a swiftnessincredible to one who has not watched an Italian peasant, he indicated avery remarkable and sinister smile. The whole change passed over himlike a flash of light, and he stood in the same instant, pale andastonished, before his patron.

  'In the name of Fate and wonder,' said Clennam, 'what do you mean? Doyou know a man of the name of Blandois?'

  'No!' said Mr Baptist, shaking his head.

  'You have just now described a man who was by when you heard that song;have you not?'

  'Yes!' said Mr Baptist, nodding fifty times.

  'And was he not called Blandois?'

  'No!' said Mr Baptist. 'Altro, Altro, Altro, Altro!' He could not rejectthe name sufficiently, with his head and his right forefinger going atonce.

  'Stay!' cried Clennam, spreading out the handbill on his desk. 'Was thisthe man? You can understand what I read aloud?'

  'Altogether. Perfectly.'

  'But look at it, too. Come here and look over me, while I read.'

  Mr Baptist approached, followed every word with his quick eyes, sawand heard it all out with the greatest impatience, then clapped histwo hands flat upon the bill as if he had fiercely caught some noxiouscreature, and cried, looking eagerly at Clennam, 'It is the man! Beholdhim!'

  'This is of far greater moment to me' said Clennam, in great agitation,'than you can imagine. Tell me where you knew the man.'

  Mr Baptist, releasing the paper very slowly and with much discomfiture,and drawing himself back two or three paces, and making as though hedusted his hands, returned, very much against his will:

  'At Marsiglia--Marseilles.'

  'What was he?'

  'A prisoner, and--Altro! I believe yes!--an,' Mr Baptist crept closeragain to whisper it, 'Assassin!'

  Clennam fell back as if the word had struck him a blow: so terribledid it make his mother's communication with the man appear.Cavalletto dropped on one knee, and implored him, with a redundancy ofgesticulation, to hear what had brought himself into such foul company.

  He told with perfect truth how it had come of a little contrabandtrading, and how he had in time been released from prison, and how hehad gone away from those antecedents. How, at the house of entertainmentcalled the Break of Day at Chalons on the Saone, he had been awakenedin his bed at night by the same assassin, then assuming the name ofLagnier, though his name had formerly been Rigaud; how the assassin hadproposed that they should join their fortunes together; how he heldthe assassin in such dread and aversion that he had fled from him atdaylight, and how he had ever since been haunted by the fear of seeingthe assassin again and being claimed by him as an acquaintance. When hehad related this, with an emphasis and poise on the word, 'assassin,'peculiarly belonging to his own language, and which did not serve torender it less terrible to Clennam, he suddenly sprang to his feet,pounced upon the bill again, and with a vehemence that would have beenabsolute madness in any man of Northern origin, cried 'Behold the sameassassin! Here he is!'

  In his passionate raptures, he at first forgot the fact that he hadlately seen the assassin in London. On his remembering it, it suggestedhope to Clennam that the recognition might be of later date than thenight of the visit at his mother's; but Cavalletto was too exact andclear about time and place, to leave any opening for doubt that it hadpreceded that occasion.

  'Listen,' said Arthur, very seriously. 'This man, as we have read here,has wholly disappeared.'

  'Of it I am well content!' said Cavalletto, raising his eyes piously. 'Athousand thanks to Heaven! Accursed assassin!'

  'Not so,' returned Clennam; 'for until something more is heard of him, Ican never know an hour's peace.'

  'Enough, Benefactor; that is quite another thing. A million of excuses!'

  'Now, Cavalletto,' said Clennam, gently turning him by the arm, so thatthey looked into each other's eyes. 'I am certain that for the littleI have been able to do for you, you are the most sincerely grateful ofmen.'

  'I swear it!' cried the other.

  'I know it. If you could find this man, or discover what has become ofhim, or gain any later intelligence whatever of him, you would renderme a service above any other service I could receive in the world, andwould make me (with far greater reason) as grateful to you as you are tome.'

  'I know not where to look,' cried the little man, kissing Arthur'shand in a transport. 'I know not where to begin. I know not where to go.But, courage! Enough! It matters not! I go, in this instant of time!'

  'Not a word to any one but me, Cavalletto.'

  'Al-tro!' cried Cavalletto. And was gone with great speed.

 
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