Little dorrit, p.8

Little Dorrit, page 8

 

Little Dorrit
 



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  CHAPTER 7. The Child of the Marshalsea

  The baby whose first draught of air had been tinctured with DoctorHaggage's brandy, was handed down among the generations of collegians,like the tradition of their common parent. In the earlier stages of herexistence, she was handed down in a literal and prosaic sense; it beingalmost a part of the entrance footing of every new collegian to nursethe child who had been born in the college.

  'By rights,' remarked the turnkey when she was first shown to him, 'Iought to be her godfather.'

  The debtor irresolutely thought of it for a minute, and said, 'Perhapsyou wouldn't object to really being her godfather?'

  'Oh! _I_ don't object,' replied the turnkey, 'if you don't.'

  Thus it came to pass that she was christened one Sunday afternoon, whenthe turnkey, being relieved, was off the lock; and that the turnkeywent up to the font of Saint George's Church, and promised and vowed andrenounced on her behalf, as he himself related when he came back, 'likea good 'un.'

  This invested the turnkey with a new proprietary share in the child,over and above his former official one. When she began to walk and talk,he became fond of her; bought a little arm-chair and stood it by thehigh fender of the lodge fire-place; liked to have her company when hewas on the lock; and used to bribe her with cheap toys to come and talkto him. The child, for her part, soon grew so fond of the turnkey thatshe would come climbing up the lodge-steps of her own accord at allhours of the day. When she fell asleep in the little armchair by thehigh fender, the turnkey would cover her with his pocket-handkerchief;and when she sat in it dressing and undressing a doll which soon cameto be unlike dolls on the other side of the lock, and to bear a horriblefamily resemblance to Mrs Bangham--he would contemplate her from thetop of his stool with exceeding gentleness. Witnessing these things,the collegians would express an opinion that the turnkey, who was abachelor, had been cut out by nature for a family man. But the turnkeythanked them, and said, 'No, on the whole it was enough to see otherpeople's children there.'

  At what period of her early life the little creature began to perceivethat it was not the habit of all the world to live locked up in narrowyards surrounded by high walls with spikes at the top, would be adifficult question to settle. But she was a very, very little creatureindeed, when she had somehow gained the knowledge that her clasp of herfather's hand was to be always loosened at the door which the great keyopened; and that while her own light steps were free to pass beyond it,his feet must never cross that line. A pitiful and plaintive look, withwhich she had begun to regard him when she was still extremely young,was perhaps a part of this discovery.

  With a pitiful and plaintive look for everything, indeed, but withsomething in it for only him that was like protection, this Child ofthe Marshalsea and the child of the Father of the Marshalsea, sat by herfriend the turnkey in the lodge, kept the family room, or wandered aboutthe prison-yard, for the first eight years of her life. With a pitifuland plaintive look for her wayward sister; for her idle brother; for thehigh blank walls; for the faded crowd they shut in; for the games of theprison children as they whooped and ran, and played at hide-and-seek,and made the iron bars of the inner gateway 'Home.'

  Wistful and wondering, she would sit in summer weather by the highfender in the lodge, looking up at the sky through the barred window,until, when she turned her eyes away, bars of light would arise betweenher and her friend, and she would see him through a grating, too.

  'Thinking of the fields,' the turnkey said once, after watching her,'ain't you?'

  'Where are they?' she inquired.

  'Why, they're--over there, my dear,' said the turnkey, with a vagueflourish of his key. 'Just about there.'

  'Does anybody open them, and shut them? Are they locked?'

  The turnkey was discomfited. 'Well,' he said. 'Not in general.'

  'Are they very pretty, Bob?' She called him Bob, by his own particularrequest and instruction.

  'Lovely. Full of flowers. There's buttercups, and there's daisies,and there's'--the turnkey hesitated, being short of floralnomenclature--'there's dandelions, and all manner of games.'

  'Is it very pleasant to be there, Bob?'

  'Prime,' said the turnkey.

  'Was father ever there?'

  'Hem!' coughed the turnkey. 'O yes, he was there, sometimes.'

  'Is he sorry not to be there now?'

  'N-not particular,' said the turnkey.

  'Nor any of the people?' she asked, glancing at the listless crowdwithin. 'O are you quite sure and certain, Bob?'

  At this difficult point of the conversation Bob gave in, and changed thesubject to hard-bake: always his last resource when he found his littlefriend getting him into a political, social, or theological corner.But this was the origin of a series of Sunday excursions that these twocurious companions made together. They used to issue from the lodge onalternate Sunday afternoons with great gravity, bound for some meadowsor green lanes that had been elaborately appointed by the turnkey inthe course of the week; and there she picked grass and flowers to bringhome, while he smoked his pipe. Afterwards, there were tea-gardens,shrimps, ale, and other delicacies; and then they would come back handin hand, unless she was more than usually tired, and had fallen asleepon his shoulder.

  In those early days, the turnkey first began profoundly to considera question which cost him so much mental labour, that it remainedundetermined on the day of his death. He decided to will and bequeathhis little property of savings to his godchild, and the point arose howcould it be so 'tied up' as that only she should have the benefit ofit? His experience on the lock gave him such an acute perception of theenormous difficulty of 'tying up' money with any approach to tightness,and contrariwise of the remarkable ease with which it got loose, thatthrough a series of years he regularly propounded this knotty point toevery new insolvent agent and other professional gentleman who passed inand out.

  'Supposing,' he would say, stating the case with his key on theprofessional gentleman's waistcoat; 'supposing a man wanted to leave hisproperty to a young female, and wanted to tie it up so that nobody elseshould ever be able to make a grab at it; how would you tie up thatproperty?'

  'Settle it strictly on herself,' the professional gentleman wouldcomplacently answer.

  'But look here,' quoth the turnkey. 'Supposing she had, say a brother,say a father, say a husband, who would be likely to make a grab at thatproperty when she came into it--how about that?'

  'It would be settled on herself, and they would have no more legal claimon it than you,' would be the professional answer.

  'Stop a bit,' said the turnkey. 'Supposing she was tender-hearted, andthey came over her. Where's your law for tying it up then?'

  The deepest character whom the turnkey sounded, was unable to producehis law for tying such a knot as that. So, the turnkey thought about itall his life, and died intestate after all.

  But that was long afterwards, when his god-daughter was past sixteen.The first half of that space of her life was only just accomplished,when her pitiful and plaintive look saw her father a widower. From thattime the protection that her wondering eyes had expressed towards him,became embodied in action, and the Child of the Marshalsea took uponherself a new relation towards the Father.

  At first, such a baby could do little more than sit with him, desertingher livelier place by the high fender, and quietly watching him. Butthis made her so far necessary to him that he became accustomed to her,and began to be sensible of missing her when she was not there. Throughthis little gate, she passed out of childhood into the care-laden world.

  What her pitiful look saw, at that early time, in her father, in hersister, in her brother, in the jail; how much, or how little of thewretched truth it pleased God to make visible to her; lies hidden withmany mysteries. It is enough that she was inspired to be something whichwas not what the rest were, and to be that something, different andlaborious, for the sake of the rest. Inspired? Yes. Shall we speak ofthe inspiration of a poet or a priest, and
not of the heart impelled bylove and self-devotion to the lowliest work in the lowliest way of life!

  With no earthly friend to help her, or so much as to see her, but theone so strangely assorted; with no knowledge even of the common dailytone and habits of the common members of the free community who are notshut up in prisons; born and bred in a social condition, false even witha reference to the falsest condition outside the walls; drinking frominfancy of a well whose waters had their own peculiar stain, their ownunwholesome and unnatural taste; the Child of the Marshalsea began herwomanly life.

  No matter through what mistakes and discouragements, what ridicule (notunkindly meant, but deeply felt) of her youth and little figure, whathumble consciousness of her own babyhood and want of strength, evenin the matter of lifting and carrying; through how much wearinessand hopelessness, and how many secret tears; she drudged on, untilrecognised as useful, even indispensable. That time came. She took theplace of eldest of the three, in all things but precedence; was thehead of the fallen family; and bore, in her own heart, its anxieties andshames.

  At thirteen, she could read and keep accounts, that is, could put downin words and figures how much the bare necessaries that they wantedwould cost, and how much less they had to buy them with. She had been,by snatches of a few weeks at a time, to an evening school outside,and got her sister and brother sent to day-schools by desultory starts,during three or four years. There was no instruction for any of them athome; but she knew well--no one better--that a man so broken as to bethe Father of the Marshalsea, could be no father to his own children.

  To these scanty means of improvement, she added another of her owncontriving. Once, among the heterogeneous crowd of inmates thereappeared a dancing-master. Her sister had a great desire to learn thedancing-master's art, and seemed to have a taste that way. At thirteenyears old, the Child of the Marshalsea presented herself to thedancing-master, with a little bag in her hand, and preferred her humblepetition.

  'If you please, I was born here, sir.'

  'Oh! You are the young lady, are you?' said the dancing-master,surveying the small figure and uplifted face.

  'Yes, sir.'

  'And what can I do for you?' said the dancing-master.

  'Nothing for me, sir, thank you,' anxiously undrawing the strings ofthe little bag; 'but if, while you stay here, you could be so kind as toteach my sister cheap--'

  'My child, I'll teach her for nothing,' said the dancing-master,shutting up the bag. He was as good-natured a dancing-master as everdanced to the Insolvent Court, and he kept his word. The sister was soapt a pupil, and the dancing-master had such abundant leisure to bestowupon her (for it took him a matter of ten weeks to set to his creditors,lead off, turn the Commissioners, and right and left back to hisprofessional pursuits), that wonderful progress was made. Indeed thedancing-master was so proud of it, and so wishful to display it beforehe left to a few select friends among the collegians, that at sixo'clock on a certain fine morning, a minuet de la cour came off inthe yard--the college-rooms being of too confined proportions for thepurpose--in which so much ground was covered, and the steps were soconscientiously executed, that the dancing-master, having to play thekit besides, was thoroughly blown.

  The success of this beginning, which led to the dancing-master'scontinuing his instruction after his release, emboldened the poor childto try again. She watched and waited months for a seamstress. In thefulness of time a milliner came in, and to her she repaired on her ownbehalf.

  'I beg your pardon, ma'am,' she said, looking timidly round the door ofthe milliner, whom she found in tears and in bed: 'but I was born here.'

  Everybody seemed to hear of her as soon as they arrived; for themilliner sat up in bed, drying her eyes, and said, just as thedancing-master had said:

  'Oh! _You_ are the child, are you?'

  'Yes, ma'am.'

  'I am sorry I haven't got anything for you,' said the milliner, shakingher head.

  'It's not that, ma'am. If you please I want to learn needle-work.'

  'Why should you do that,' returned the milliner, 'with me before you? Ithas not done me much good.'

  'Nothing--whatever it is--seems to have done anybody much good who comeshere,' she returned in all simplicity; 'but I want to learn just thesame.'

  'I am afraid you are so weak, you see,' the milliner objected.

  'I don't think I am weak, ma'am.'

  'And you are so very, very little, you see,' the milliner objected.

  'Yes, I am afraid I am very little indeed,' returned the Child of theMarshalsea; and so began to sob over that unfortunate defect of hers,which came so often in her way. The milliner--who was not morose orhard-hearted, only newly insolvent--was touched, took her in hand withgoodwill, found her the most patient and earnest of pupils, and made hera cunning work-woman in course of time.

  In course of time, and in the very self-same course of time, the Fatherof the Marshalsea gradually developed a new flower of character. Themore Fatherly he grew as to the Marshalsea, and the more dependent hebecame on the contributions of his changing family, the greater standhe made by his forlorn gentility. With the same hand that he pocketeda collegian's half-crown half an hour ago, he would wipe away thetears that streamed over his cheeks if any reference were made to hisdaughters' earning their bread. So, over and above other daily cares,the Child of the Marshalsea had always upon her the care of preservingthe genteel fiction that they were all idle beggars together.

  The sister became a dancer. There was a ruined uncle in the familygroup--ruined by his brother, the Father of the Marshalsea, and knowingno more how than his ruiner did, but accepting the fact as an inevitablecertainty--on whom her protection devolved. Naturally a retired andsimple man, he had shown no particular sense of being ruined at the timewhen that calamity fell upon him, further than that he left off washinghimself when the shock was announced, and never took to that luxury anymore. He had been a very indifferent musical amateur in his better days;and when he fell with his brother, resorted for support to playing aclarionet as dirty as himself in a small Theatre Orchestra. It was thetheatre in which his niece became a dancer; he had been a fixture therea long time when she took her poor station in it; and he acceptedthe task of serving as her escort and guardian, just as he would haveaccepted an illness, a legacy, a feast, starvation--anything but soap.

  To enable this girl to earn her few weekly shillings, it was necessaryfor the Child of the Marshalsea to go through an elaborate form with theFather.

  'Fanny is not going to live with us just now, father. She will be here agood deal in the day, but she is going to live outside with uncle.'

  'You surprise me. Why?'

  'I think uncle wants a companion, father. He should be attended to, andlooked after.'

  'A companion? He passes much of his time here. And you attend to him andlook after him, Amy, a great deal more than ever your sister will. Youall go out so much; you all go out so much.'

  This was to keep up the ceremony and pretence of his having no idea thatAmy herself went out by the day to work.

  'But we are always glad to come home, father; now, are we not? And as toFanny, perhaps besides keeping uncle company and taking care of him, itmay be as well for her not quite to live here, always. She was not bornhere as I was, you know, father.'

  'Well, Amy, well. I don't quite follow you, but it's natural I supposethat Fanny should prefer to be outside, and even that you often should,too. So, you and Fanny and your uncle, my dear, shall have your own way.Good, good. I'll not meddle; don't mind me.'

  To get her brother out of the prison; out of the succession to MrsBangham in executing commissions, and out of the slang interchange withvery doubtful companions consequent upon both; was her hardest task. Ateighteen he would have dragged on from hand to mouth, from hour to hour,from penny to penny, until eighty. Nobody got into the prison from whomhe derived anything useful or good, and she could find no patron for himbut her old friend and godfather.

  'Dear Bob,' said
she, 'what is to become of poor Tip?' His name wasEdward, and Ted had been transformed into Tip, within the walls.

  The turnkey had strong private opinions as to what would become ofpoor Tip, and had even gone so far with the view of averting theirfulfilment, as to sound Tip in reference to the expediency of runningaway and going to serve his country. But Tip had thanked him, and saidhe didn't seem to care for his country.

  'Well, my dear,' said the turnkey, 'something ought to be done with him.Suppose I try and get him into the law?'

  'That would be so good of you, Bob!'

  The turnkey had now two points to put to the professional gentlemen asthey passed in and out. He put this second one so perseveringly thata stool and twelve shillings a week were at last found for Tip in theoffice of an attorney in a great National Palladium called the PalaceCourt; at that time one of a considerable list of everlasting bulwarksto the dignity and safety of Albion, whose places know them no more.

  Tip languished in Clifford's Inns for six months, and at the expirationof that term sauntered back one evening with his hands in his pockets,and incidentally observed to his sister that he was not going backagain.

  'Not going back again?' said the poor little anxious Child of theMarshalsea, always calculating and planning for Tip, in the front rankof her charges.

  'I am so tired of it,' said Tip, 'that I have cut it.'

  Tip tired of everything. With intervals of Marshalsea lounging, and MrsBangham succession, his small second mother, aided by her trusty friend,got him into a warehouse, into a market garden, into the hop trade,into the law again, into an auctioneers, into a brewery, into astockbroker's, into the law again, into a coach office, into a waggonoffice, into the law again, into a general dealer's, into a distillery,into the law again, into a wool house, into a dry goods house, into theBillingsgate trade, into the foreign fruit trade, and into the docks.But whatever Tip went into, he came out of tired, announcing that hehad cut it. Wherever he went, this foredoomed Tip appeared to take theprison walls with him, and to set them up in such trade or calling;and to prowl about within their narrow limits in the old slip-shod,purposeless, down-at-heel way; until the real immovable Marshalsea wallsasserted their fascination over him, and brought him back.

  Nevertheless, the brave little creature did so fix her heart on herbrother's rescue, that while he was ringing out these doleful changes,she pinched and scraped enough together to ship him for Canada. When hewas tired of nothing to do, and disposed in its turn to cut even that,he graciously consented to go to Canada. And there was grief in herbosom over parting with him, and joy in the hope of his being put in astraight course at last.

  'God bless you, dear Tip. Don't be too proud to come and see us, whenyou have made your fortune.'

  'All right!' said Tip, and went.

  But not all the way to Canada; in fact, not further than Liverpool.After making the voyage to that port from London, he found himselfso strongly impelled to cut the vessel, that he resolved to walk backagain. Carrying out which intention, he presented himself before her atthe expiration of a month, in rags, without shoes, and much more tiredthan ever.

  At length, after another interval of successorship to Mrs Bangham, hefound a pursuit for himself, and announced it.

  'Amy, I have got a situation.'

  'Have you really and truly, Tip?'

  'All right. I shall do now. You needn't look anxious about me any more,old girl.'

  'What is it, Tip?'

  'Why, you know Slingo by sight?'

  'Not the man they call the dealer?'

  'That's the chap. He'll be out on Monday, and he's going to give me aberth.'

  'What is he a dealer in, Tip?'

  'Horses. All right! I shall do now, Amy.'

  She lost sight of him for months afterwards, and only heard from himonce. A whisper passed among the elder collegians that he had been seenat a mock auction in Moorfields, pretending to buy plated articles formassive silver, and paying for them with the greatest liberality inbank notes; but it never reached her ears. One evening she was alone atwork--standing up at the window, to save the twilight lingering abovethe wall--when he opened the door and walked in.

  She kissed and welcomed him; but was afraid to ask him any questions. Hesaw how anxious and timid she was, and appeared sorry.

  'I am afraid, Amy, you'll be vexed this time. Upon my life I am!'

  'I am very sorry to hear you say so, Tip. Have you come back?'

  'Why--yes.'

  'Not expecting this time that what you had found would answer very well,I am less surprised and sorry than I might have been, Tip.'

  'Ah! But that's not the worst of it.'

  'Not the worst of it?'

  'Don't look so startled. No, Amy, not the worst of it. I have come back,you see; but--_don't_ look so startled--I have come back in what I maycall a new way. I am off the volunteer list altogether. I am in now, asone of the regulars.'

  'Oh! Don't say you are a prisoner, Tip! Don't, don't!'

  'Well, I don't want to say it,' he returned in a reluctant tone; 'but ifyou can't understand me without my saying it, what am I to do? I am infor forty pound odd.'

  For the first time in all those years, she sunk under her cares. Shecried, with her clasped hands lifted above her head, that it would killtheir father if he ever knew it; and fell down at Tip's graceless feet.

  It was easier for Tip to bring her to her senses than for her to bring_him_ to understand that the Father of the Marshalsea would be besidehimself if he knew the truth. The thing was incomprehensible to Tip, andaltogether a fanciful notion. He yielded to it in that light only, whenhe submitted to her entreaties, backed by those of his uncle and sister.There was no want of precedent for his return; it was accounted forto the father in the usual way; and the collegians, with a bettercomprehension of the pious fraud than Tip, supported it loyally.

  This was the life, and this the history, of the child of the Marshalseaat twenty-two. With a still surviving attachment to the one miserableyard and block of houses as her birthplace and home, she passed to andfro in it shrinkingly now, with a womanly consciousness that she waspointed out to every one. Since she had begun to work beyond the walls,she had found it necessary to conceal where she lived, and to come andgo as secretly as she could, between the free city and the iron gates,outside of which she had never slept in her life. Her original timidityhad grown with this concealment, and her light step and her littlefigure shunned the thronged streets while they passed along them.

  Worldly wise in hard and poor necessities, she was innocent in allthings else. Innocent, in the mist through which she saw her father,and the prison, and the turbid living river that flowed through it andflowed on.

  This was the life, and this the history, of Little Dorrit; now goinghome upon a dull September evening, observed at a distance by ArthurClennam. This was the life, and this the history, of Little Dorrit;turning at the end of London Bridge, recrossing it, going back again,passing on to Saint George's Church, turning back suddenly once more,and flitting in at the open outer gate and little court-yard of theMarshalsea.

 

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