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Charles Dickens > Little Dorrit > Chapter 15

Little Dorrit

Chapter 15

Mrs Flintwinch has another Dream

The debilitated old house in the city, wrapped in its mantle of
soot, and leaning heavily on the crutches that had partaken of its
decay and worn out with it, never knew a healthy or a cheerful
interval, let what would betide. If the sun ever touched it, it
was but with a ray, and that was gone in half an hour; if the
moonlight ever fell upon it, it was only to put a few patches on
its doleful cloak, and make it look more wretched. The stars, to
be sure, coldly watched it when the nights and the smoke were clear
enough; and all bad weather stood by it with a rare fidelity. You
should alike find rain, hail, frost, and thaw lingering in that
dismal enclosure when they had vanished from other places; and as
to snow, you should see it there for weeks, long after it had
changed from yellow to black, slowly weeping away its grimy life.
The place had no other adherents. As to street noises, the
rumbling of wheels in the lane merely rushed in at the gateway in
going past, and rushed out again: making the listening Mistress
Affery feel as if she were deaf, and recovered the sense of hearing
by instantaneous flashes. So with whistling, singing, talking,
laughing, and all pleasant human sounds. They leaped the gap in a
moment, and went upon their way.
The varying light of fire and candle in Mrs Clennam's room made the
greatest change that ever broke the dead monotony of the spot. In
her two long narrow windows, the fire shone sullenly all day, and
sullenly all night. On rare occasions it flashed up passionately,
as she did; but for the most part it was suppressed, like her, and
preyed upon itself evenly and slowly. During many hours of the
short winter days, however, when it was dusk there early in the
afternoon, changing distortions of herself in her wheeled chair, of
Mr Flintwinch with his wry neck, of Mistress Affery coming and
going, would be thrown upon the house wall that was over the
gateway, and would hover there like shadows from a great magic
lantern. As the room-ridden invalid settled for the night, these
would gradually disappear: Mistress Affery's magnified shadow
always flitting about, last, until it finally glided away into the
air, as though she were off upon a witch excursion. Then the
solitary light would burn unchangingly, until it burned pale before
the dawn, and at last died under the breath of Mrs Affery, as her
shadow descended on it from the witch-region of sleep.

Strange, if the little sick-room fire were in effect a beacon fire,
summoning some one, and that the most unlikely some one in the
world, to the spot that MUST be come to. Strange, if the little
sick-room light were in effect a watch-light, burning in that place
every night until an appointed event should be watched out! Which
of the vast multitude of travellers, under the sun and the stars,
climbing the dusty hills and toiling along the weary plains,
journeying by land and journeying by sea, coming and going so
strangely, to meet and to act and react on one another; which of
the host may, with no suspicion of the journey's end, be travelling
surely hither?

Time shall show us. The post of honour and the post of shame, the
general's station and the drummer's, a peer's statue in Westminster
Abbey and a seaman's hammock in the bosom of the deep, the mitre
and the workhouse, the woolsack and the gallows, the throne and the
guillotine--the travellers to all are on the great high road, but
it has wonderful divergencies, and only Time shall show us whither
each traveller is bound.

On a wintry afternoon at twilight, Mrs Flintwinch, having been
heavy all day, dreamed this dream:

She thought she was in the kitchen getting the kettle ready for
tea, and was warming herself with her feet upon the fender and the
skirt of her gown tucked up, before the collapsed fire in the
middle of the grate, bordered on either hand by a deep cold black
ravine. She thought that as she sat thus, musing upon the question
whether life was not for some people a rather dull invention, she
was frightened by a sudden noise behind her. She thought that she
had been similarly frightened once last week, and that the noise
was of a mysterious kind--a sound of rustling and of three or four
quick beats like a rapid step; while a shock or tremble was
communicated to her heart, as if the step had shaken the floor, or
even as if she had been touched by some awful hand. She thought
that this revived within her certain old fears of hers that the
house was haunted; and that she flew up the kitchen stairs without
knowing how she got up, to be nearer company.

Mistress Affery thought that on reaching the hall, she saw the door
of her liege lord's office standing open, and the room empty. That
she went to the ripped-up window in the little room by the street
door to connect her palpitating heart, through the glass, with
living things beyond and outside the haunted house. That she then
saw, on the wall over the gateway, the shadows of the two clever
ones in conversation above. That she then went upstairs with her
shoes in her hand, partly to be near the clever ones as a match for
most ghosts, and partly to hear what they were talking about.

'None of your nonsense with me,' said Mr Flintwinch. 'I won't take
it from you.'

Mrs Flintwinch dreamed that she stood behind the door, which was
just ajar, and most distinctly heard her husband say these bold

'Flintwinch,' returned Mrs Clennam, in her usual strong low voice,
'there is a demon of anger in you. Guard against it.'

'I don't care whether there's one or a dozen,' said Mr Flintwinch,
forcibly suggesting in his tone that the higher number was nearer
the mark. 'If there was fifty, they should all say, None of your
nonsense with me, I won't take it from you--I'd make 'em say it,
whether they liked it or not.'

'What have I done, you wrathful man?' her strong voice asked.

'Done?' said Mr Flintwinch. 'Dropped down upon me.'

'If you mean, remonstrated with you--'

'Don't put words into my mouth that I don't mean,' said Jeremiah,
sticking to his figurative expression with tenacious and
impenetrable obstinacy: 'I mean dropped down upon me.'

'I remonstrated with you,' she began again, 'because--'

'I won't have it!' cried Jeremiah. 'You dropped down upon me.'

'I dropped down upon you, then, you ill-conditioned man,' (Jeremiah
chuckled at having forced her to adopt his phrase,) 'for having
been needlessly significant to Arthur that morning. I have a right
to complain of it as almost a breach of confidence. You did not
mean it--'

'I won't have it!' interposed the contradictory Jeremiah, flinging
back the concession. 'I did mean it.'

'I suppose I must leave you to speak in soliloquy if you choose,'
she replied, after a pause that seemed an angry one. 'It is
useless my addressing myself to a rash and headstrong old man who
has a set purpose not to hear me.'

'Now, I won't take that from you either,' said Jeremiah. 'I have
no such purpose. I have told you I did mean it. Do you wish to
know why I meant it, you rash and headstrong old woman?'

'After all, you only restore me my own words,' she said, struggling
with her indignation. 'Yes.'

'This is why, then. Because you hadn't cleared his father to him,
and you ought to have done it. Because, before you went into any
tantrum about yourself, who are--'

'Hold there, Flintwinch!' she cried out in a changed voice: 'you
may go a word too far.'

The old man seemed to think so. There was another pause, and he
had altered his position in the room, when he spoke again more

'I was going to tell you why it was. Because, before you took your
own part, I thought you ought to have taken the part of Arthur's
father. Arthur's father! I had no particular love for Arthur's
father. I served Arthur's father's uncle, in this house, when
Arthur's father was not much above me--was poorer as far as his
pocket went--and when his uncle might as soon have left me his heir
as have left him. He starved in the parlour, and I starved in the
kitchen; that was the principal difference in our positions; there
was not much more than a flight of breakneck stairs between us. I
never took to him in those times; I don't know that I ever took to
him greatly at any time. He was an undecided, irresolute chap, who
had everything but his orphan life scared out of him when he was
young. And when he brought you home here, the wife his uncle had
named for him, I didn't need to look at you twice (you were a good-
looking woman at that time) to know who'd be master. You have
stood of your own strength ever since. Stand of your own strength
now. Don't lean against the dead.'

'I do not--as you call it--lean against the dead.'

'But you had a mind to do it, if I had submitted,' growled
Jeremiah, 'and that's why you drop down upon me. You can't forget
that I didn't submit. I suppose you are astonished that I should
consider it worth my while to have justice done to Arthur's father?

Hey? It doesn't matter whether you answer or not, because I know
you are, and you know you are. Come, then, I'll tell you how it
is. I may be a bit of an oddity in point of temper, but this is my
temper--I can't let anybody have entirely their own way. You are
a determined woman, and a clever woman; and when you see your
purpose before you, nothing will turn you from it. Who knows that
better than I do?'

'Nothing will turn me from it, Flintwinch, when I have justified it
to myself. Add that.'

'Justified it to yourself? I said you were the most determined
woman on the face of the earth (or I meant to say so), and if you
are determined to justify any object you entertain, of course
you'll do it.'

'Man! I justify myself by the authority of these Books,' she
cried, with stern emphasis, and appearing from the sound that
followed to strike the dead-weight of her arm upon the table.

'Never mind that,' returned Jeremiah calmly, 'we won't enter into
that question at present. However that may be, you carry out your
purposes, and you make everything go down before them. Now, I
won't go down before them. I have been faithful to you, and useful
to you, and I am attached to you. But I can't consent, and I won't
consent, and I never did consent, and I never will consent to be
lost in you. Swallow up everybody else, and welcome. The
peculiarity of my temper is, ma'am, that I won't be swallowed up

Perhaps this had Originally been the mainspring of the
understanding between them. Descrying thus much of force of
character in Mr Flintwinch, perhaps Mrs Clennam had deemed alliance
with him worth her while.

'Enough and more than enough of the subject,' said she gloomily.

'Unless you drop down upon me again,' returned the persistent
Flintwinch, 'and then you must expect to hear of it again.'

Mistress Affery dreamed that the figure of her lord here began
walking up and down the room, as if to cool his spleen, and that
she ran away; but that, as he did not issue forth when she had
stood listening and trembling in the shadowy hall a little time,
she crept up-stairs again, impelled as before by ghosts and
curiosity, and once more cowered outside the door.

'Please to light the candle, Flintwinch,' Mrs Clennam was saying,
apparently wishing to draw him back into their usual tone. 'It is
nearly time for tea. Little Dorrit is coming, and will find me in
the dark.'

Mr Flintwinch lighted the candle briskly, and said as he put it
down upon the table:

'What are you going to do with Little Dorrit? Is she to come to
work here for ever? To come to tea here for ever? To come
backwards and forwards here, in the same way, for ever?'
'How can you talk about "for ever" to a maimed creature like me?
Are we not all cut down like the grass of the field, and was not I
shorn by the scythe many years ago: since when I have been lying
here, waiting to be gathered into the barn?'

'Ay, ay! But since you have been lying here--not near dead--
nothing like it--numbers of children and young people, blooming
women, strong men, and what not, have been cut down and carried;
and still here are you, you see, not much changed after all. Your
time and mine may be a long one yet. When I say for ever, I mean
(though I am not poetical) through all our time.' Mr Flintwinch
gave this explanation with great calmness, and calmly waited for an

'So long as Little Dorrit is quiet and industrious, and stands in
need of the slight help I can give her, and deserves it; so long,
I suppose, unless she withdraws of her own act, she will continue
to come here, I being spared.'

'Nothing more than that?' said Flintwinch, stroking his mouth and

'What should there be more than that! What could there be more
than that!' she ejaculated in her sternly wondering way.

Mrs Flintwinch dreamed, that, for the space of a minute or two,
they remained looking at each other with the candle between them,
and that she somehow derived an impression that they looked at each
other fixedly.

'Do you happen to know, Mrs Clennam,' Affery's liege lord then
demanded in a much lower voice, and with an amount of expression
that seemed quite out of proportion to the simple purpose of his
words, 'where she lives?'


'Would you--now, would you like to know?' said Jeremiah with a
pounce as if he had sprung upon her.

'If I cared to know, I should know already. Could I not have asked
her any day?'

'Then you don't care to know?'

'I do not.'

Mr Flintwinch, having expelled a long significant breath said, with
his former emphasis, 'For I have accidentally--mind!--found out.'

'Wherever she lives,' said Mrs Clennam, speaking in one unmodulated
hard voice, and separating her words as distinctly as if she were
reading them off from separate bits of metal that she took up one
by one, 'she has made a secret of it, and she shall always keep her
secret from me.'

'After all, perhaps you would rather not have known the fact, any
how?' said Jeremiah; and he said it with a twist, as if his words
had come out of him in his own wry shape.

'Flintwinch,' said his mistress and partner, flashing into a sudden
energy that made Affery start, 'why do you goad me? Look round
this room. If it is any compensation for my long confinement
within these narrow limits--not that I complain of being afflicted;
you know I never complain of that--if it is any compensation to me
for long confinement to this room, that while I am shut up from all
pleasant change I am also shut up from the knowledge of some things
that I may prefer to avoid knowing, why should you, of all men,
grudge me that belief?'

'I don't grudge it to you,' returned Jeremiah.

'Then say no more. Say no more. Let Little Dorrit keep her secret
from me, and do you keep it from me also. Let her come and go,
unobserved and unquestioned. Let me suffer, and let me have what
alleviation belongs to my condition. Is it so much, that you
torment me like an evil spirit?'

'I asked you a question. That's all.'

'I have answered it. So, say no more. Say no more.' Here the
sound of the wheeled chair was heard upon the floor, and Affery's
bell rang with a hasty jerk.

More afraid of her husband at the moment than of the mysterious
sound in the kitchen, Affery crept away as lightly and as quickly
as she could, descended the kitchen stairs almost as rapidly as she
had ascended them, resumed her seat before the fire, tucked up her
skirt again, and finally threw her apron over her head. Then the
bell rang once more, and then once more, and then kept on ringing;
in despite of which importunate summons, Affery still sat behind
her apron, recovering her breath.

At last Mr Flintwinch came shuffling down the staircase into the
hall, muttering and calling 'Affery woman!' all the way. Affery
still remaining behind her apron, he came stumbling down the
kitchen stairs, candle in hand, sidled up to her, twitched her
apron off, and roused her.

'Oh Jeremiah!' cried Affery, waking. 'What a start you gave me!'

'What have you been doing, woman?' inquired Jeremiah. 'You've been
rung for fifty times.'

'Oh Jeremiah,' said Mistress Affery, 'I have been a-dreaming!'

Reminded of her former achievement in that way, Mr Flintwinch held
the candle to her head, as if he had some idea of lighting her up
for the illumination of the kitchen.

'Don't you know it's her tea-time?' he demanded with a vicious
grin, and giving one of the legs of Mistress Affery's chair a kick.

'Jeremiah? Tea-time? I don't know what's come to me. But I got
such a dreadful turn, Jeremiah, before I went--off a-dreaming, that
I think it must be that.'

'Yoogh! Sleepy-Head!' said Mr Flintwinch, 'what are you talking

'Such a strange noise, Jeremiah, and such a curious movement. In
the kitchen here--just here.'

Jeremiah held up his light and looked at the blackened ceiling,
held down his light and looked at the damp stone floor, turned
round with his light and looked about at the spotted and blotched

'Rats, cats, water, drains,' said Jeremiah.

Mistress Affery negatived each with a shake of her head. 'No,
Jeremiah; I have felt it before. I have felt it up-stairs, and
once on the staircase as I was going from her room to ours in the
night--a rustle and a sort of trembling touch behind me.'

'Affery, my woman,' said Mr Flintwinch grimly, after advancing his
nose to that lady's lips as a test for the detection of spirituous
liquors, 'if you don't get tea pretty quick, old woman, you'll
become sensible of a rustle and a touch that'll send you flying to
the other end of the kitchen.'

This prediction stimulated Mrs Flintwinch to bestir herself, and to
hasten up-stairs to Mrs Clennam's chamber. But, for all that, she
now began to entertain a settled conviction that there was
something wrong in the gloomy house. Henceforth, she was never at
peace in it after daylight departed; and never went up or down
stairs in the dark without having her apron over her head, lest she
should see something.

What with these ghostly apprehensions and her singular dreams, Mrs
Flintwinch fell that evening into a haunted state of mind, from
which it may be long before this present narrative descries any
trace of her recovery. In the vagueness and indistinctness of all
her new experiences and perceptions, as everything about her was
mysterious to herself she began to be mysterious to others: and
became as difficult to be made out to anybody's satisfaction as she
found the house and everything in it difficult to make out to her

She had not yet finished preparing Mrs Clennam's tea, when the soft
knock came to the door which always announced Little Dorrit.
Mistress Affery looked on at Little Dorrit taking off her homely
bonnet in the hall, and at Mr Flintwinch scraping his jaws and
contemplating her in silence, as expecting some wonderful
consequence to ensue which would frighten her out of her five wits
or blow them all three to pieces.

After tea there came another knock at the door, announcing Arthur.
Mistress Affery went down to let him in, and he said on entering,
'Affery, I am glad it's you. I want to ask you a question.'
Affery immediately replied, 'For goodness sake don't ask me
nothing, Arthur! I am frightened out of one half of my life, and
dreamed out of the other. Don't ask me nothing! I don't know
which is which, or what is what!'--and immediately started away
from him, and came near him no more.

Mistress Affery having no taste for reading, and no sufficient
light for needlework in the subdued room, supposing her to have the
inclination, now sat every night in the dimness from which she had
momentarily emerged on the evening of Arthur Clennam's return,
occupied with crowds of wild speculations and suspicions respecting
her mistress and her husband and the noises in the house. When the
ferocious devotional exercises were engaged in, these speculations
would distract Mistress Affery's eyes towards the door, as if she
expected some dark form to appear at those propitious moments, and
make the party one too many.

Otherwise, Affery never said or did anything to attract the
attention of the two clever ones towards her in any marked degree,
except on certain occasions, generally at about the quiet hour
towards bed-time, when she would suddenly dart out of her dim
corner, and whisper with a face of terror to Mr Flintwinch, reading
the paper near Mrs Clennam's little table: 'There, jeremiah! Now!
What's that noise?'

Then the noise, if there were any, would have ceased, and Mr
Flintwinch would snarl, turning upon her as if she had cut him down
that moment against his will, 'Affery, old woman, you shall have a
dose, old woman, such a dose! You have been dreaming again!'

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