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Charles Dickens > Little Dorrit > Chapter 19

Little Dorrit

Chapter 19

The Father of the Marshalsea in two or three Relations

The brothers William and Frederick Dorrit, walking up and down the
College-yard--of course on the aristocratic or Pump side, for the
Father made it a point of his state to be chary of going among his
children on the Poor side, except on Sunday mornings, Christmas
Days, and other occasions of ceremony, in the observance whereof he
was very punctual, and at which times he laid his hand upon the
heads of their infants, and blessed those young insolvents with a
benignity that was highly edifying--the brothers, walking up and
down the College-yard together, were a memorable sight. Frederick
the free, was so humbled, bowed, withered, and faded; William the
bond, was so courtly, condescending, and benevolently conscious of
a position; that in this regard only, if in no other, the brothers
were a spectacle to wonder at.

They walked up and down the yard on the evening of Little Dorrit's
Sunday interview with her lover on the Iron Bridge. The cares of
state were over for that day, the Drawing Room had been well
attended, several new presentations had taken place, the three-and-
sixpence accidentally left on the table had accidentally increased
to twelve shillings, and the Father of the Marshalsea refreshed
himself with a whiff of cigar. As he walked up and down, affably
accommodating his step to the shuffle of his brother, not proud in
his superiority, but considerate of that poor creature, bearing
with him, and breathing toleration of his infirmities in every
little puff of smoke that issued from his lips and aspired to get
over the spiked wall, he was a sight to wonder at.

His brother Frederick of the dim eye, palsied hand, bent form, and
groping mind, submissively shuffled at his side, accepting his
patronage as he accepted every incident of the labyrinthian world
in which he had got lost. He held the usual screwed bit of whitey-
brown paper in his hand, from which he ever and again unscrewed a
spare pinch of snuff. That falteringly taken, he would glance at
his brother not unadmiringly, put his hands behind him, and shuffle
on so at his side until he took another pinch, or stood still to
look about him--perchance suddenly missing his clarionet.
The College visitors were melting away as the shades of night drew
on, but the yard was still pretty full, the Collegians being mostly
out, seeing their friends to the Lodge. As the brothers paced the
yard, William the bond looked about him to receive salutes,
returned them by graciously lifting off his hat, and, with an
engaging air, prevented Frederick the free from running against the
company, or being jostled against the wall. The Collegians as a
body were not easily impressible, but even they, according to their
various ways of wondering, appeared to find in the two brothers a
sight to wonder at.

'You are a little low this evening, Frederick,' said the Father of
the Marshalsea. 'Anything the matter?'

'The matter?' He stared for a moment, and then dropped his head
and eyes again. 'No, William, no. Nothing is the matter.'

'If you could be persuaded to smarten yourself up a little,

'Aye, aye!' said the old man hurriedly. 'But I can't be. I can't
be. Don't talk so. That's all over.'

The Father of the Marshalsea glanced at a passing Collegian with
whom he was on friendly terms, as who should say, 'An enfeebled old
man, this; but he is my brother, sir, my brother, and the voice of
Nature is potent!' and steered his brother clear of the handle of
the pump by the threadbare sleeve. Nothing would have been wanting
to the perfection of his character as a fraternal guide,
philosopher and friend, if he had only steered his brother clear of
ruin, instead of bringing it upon him.

'I think, William,' said the object of his affectionate
consideration, 'that I am tired, and will go home to bed.'

'My dear Frederick,' returned the other, 'don't let me detain you;
don't sacrifice your inclination to me.'

'Late hours, and a heated atmosphere, and years, I suppose,' said
Frederick, 'weaken me.'

'My dear Frederick,' returned the Father of the Marshalsea, 'do you
think you are sufficiently careful of yourself? Do you think your
habits are as precise and methodical as--shall I say as mine are?
Not to revert again to that little eccentricity which I mentioned
just now, I doubt if you take air and exercise enough, Frederick.
Here is the parade, always at your service. Why not use it more
regularly than you do?'

'Hah!' sighed the other. 'Yes, yes, yes, yes.'

'But it is of no use saying yes, yes, my dear Frederick,' the
Father of the Marshalsea in his mild wisdom persisted, 'unless you
act on that assent. Consider my case, Frederick. I am a kind of
example. Necessity and time have taught me what to do. At certain
stated hours of the day, you will find me on the parade, in my
room, in the Lodge, reading the paper, receiving company, eating
and drinking. I have impressed upon Amy during many years, that I
must have my meals (for instance) punctually. Amy has grown up in
a sense of the importance of these arrangements, and you know what
a good girl she is.'

The brother only sighed again, as he plodded dreamily along, 'Hah!
Yes, yes, yes, yes.'

'My dear fellow,' said the Father of the Marshalsea, laying his
hand upon his shoulder, and mildly rallying him--mildly, because of
his weakness, poor dear soul; 'you said that before, and it does
not express much, Frederick, even if it means much. I wish I could
rouse you, my good Frederick; you want to be roused.'

'Yes, William, yes. No doubt,' returned the other, lifting his dim
eyes to his face. 'But I am not like you.'

The Father of the Marshalsea said, with a shrug of modest self-
depreciation, 'Oh! You might be like me, my dear Frederick; you
might be, if you chose!' and forbore, in the magnanimity of his
strength, to press his fallen brother further.

There was a great deal of leave-taking going on in corners, as was
usual on Sunday nights; and here and there in the dark, some poor
woman, wife or mother, was weeping with a new Collegian. The time
had been when the Father himself had wept, in the shades of that
yard, as his own poor wife had wept. But it was many years ago;
and now he was like a passenger aboard ship in a long voyage, who
has recovered from sea-sickness, and is impatient of that weakness
in the fresher passengers taken aboard at the last port. He was
inclined to remonstrate, and to express his opinion that people who
couldn't get on without crying, had no business there. In manner,
if not in words, he always testified his displeasure at these
interruptions of the general harmony; and it was so well
understood, that delinquents usually withdrew if they were aware of

On this Sunday evening, he accompanied his brother to the gate with
an air of endurance and clemency; being in a bland temper and
graciously disposed to overlook the tears. In the flaring gaslight
of the Lodge, several Collegians were basking; some taking leave of
visitors, and some who had no visitors, watching the frequent
turning of the key, and conversing with one another and with Mr
Chivery. The paternal entrance made a sensation of course; and Mr
Chivery, touching his hat (in a short manner though) with his key,
hoped he found himself tolerable.

'Thank you, Chivery, quite well. And you?'

Mr Chivery said in a low growl, 'Oh! he was all right.' Which was
his general way of acknowledging inquiries after his health when a
little sullen.

'I had a visit from Young John to-day, Chivery. And very smart he
looked, I assure you.'

So Mr Chivery had heard. Mr Chivery must confess, however, that
his wish was that the boy didn't lay out so much money upon it.
For what did it bring him in? It only brought him in wexation.
And he could get that anywhere for nothing.

'How vexation, Chivery?' asked the benignant father.

'No odds,' returned Mr Chivery. 'Never mind. Mr Frederick going

'Yes, Chivery, my brother is going home to bed. He is tired, and
not quite well. Take care, Frederick, take care. Good night, my
dear Frederick!'

Shaking hands with his brother, and touching his greasy hat to the
company in the Lodge, Frederick slowly shuffled out of the door
which Mr Chivery unlocked for him. The Father of the Marshalsea
showed the amiable solicitude of a superior being that he should
come to no harm.

'Be so kind as to keep the door open a moment, Chivery, that I may
see him go along the passage and down the steps. Take care,
Frederick! (He is very infirm.) Mind the steps! (He is so very
absent.) Be careful how you cross, Frederick. (I really don't like
the notion of his going wandering at large, he is so extremely
liable to be run over.)'

With these words, and with a face expressive of many uneasy doubts
and much anxious guardianship, he turned his regards upon the
assembled company in the Lodge: so plainly indicating that his
brother was to be pitied for not being under lock and key, that an
opinion to that effect went round among the Collegians assembled.

But he did not receive it with unqualified assent; on the contrary,
he said, No, gentlemen, no; let them not misunderstand him. His
brother Frederick was much broken, no doubt, and it might be more
comfortable to himself (the Father of the Marshalsea) to know that
he was safe within the walls. Still, it must be remembered that to
support an existence there during many years, required a certain
combination of qualities--he did not say high qualities, but
qualities--moral qualities. Now, had his brother Frederick that
peculiar union of qualities? Gentlemen, he was a most excellent
man, a most gentle, tender, and estimable man, with the simplicity
of a child; but would he, though unsuited for most other places, do
for that place? No; he said confidently, no! And, he said, Heaven
forbid that Frederick should be there in any other character than
in his present voluntary character! Gentlemen, whoever came to
that College, to remain there a length of time, must have strength
of character to go through a good deal and to come out of a good
deal. Was his beloved brother Frederick that man? No. They saw
him, even as it was, crushed. Misfortune crushed him. He had not
power of recoil enough, not elasticity enough, to be a long time in
such a place, and yet preserve his self-respect and feel conscious
that he was a gentleman. Frederick had not (if he might use the
expression) Power enough to see in any delicate little attentions
and--and --Testimonials that he might under such circumstances
receive, the goodness of human nature, the fine spirit animating
the Collegians as a community, and at the same time no degradation
to himself, and no depreciation of his claims as a gentleman.
Gentlemen, God bless you!

Such was the homily with which he improved and pointed the occasion
to the company in the Lodge before turning into the sallow yard
again, and going with his own poor shabby dignity past the
Collegian in the dressing-gown who had no coat, and past the
Collegian in the sea-side slippers who had no shoes, and past the
stout greengrocer Collegian in the corduroy knee-breeches who had
no cares, and past the lean clerk Collegian in buttonless black who
had no hopes, up his own poor shabby staircase to his own poor
shabby room.

There, the table was laid for his supper, and his old grey gown was
ready for him on his chair-back at the fire. His daughter put her
little prayer-book in her pocket--had she been praying for pity on
all prisoners and captives!--and rose to welcome him.

Uncle had gone home, then? she asked @ as she changed his coat and
gave him his black velvet cap. Yes, uncle had gone home. Had her
father enjoyed his walk? Why, not much, Amy; not much. No! Did
he not feel quite well?

As she stood behind him, leaning over his chair so lovingly, he
looked with downcast eyes at the fire. An uneasiness stole over
him that was like a touch of shame; and when he spoke, as he
presently did, it was in an unconnected and embarrassed manner.

'Something, I--hem!--I don't know what, has gone wrong with
Chivery. He is not--ha!--not nearly so obliging and attentive as
usual to-night. It--hem!--it's a little thing, but it puts me out,
my love. It's impossible to forget,' turning his hands over and
over and looking closely at them, 'that--hem!--that in such a life
as mine, I am unfortunately dependent on these men for something
every hour in the day.'

Her arm was on his shoulder, but she did not look in his face while
he spoke. Bending her head she looked another way.

'I--hem!--I can't think, Amy, what has given Chivery offence. He
is generally so--so very attentive and respectful. And to-night he
was quite--quite short with me. Other people there too! Why, good
Heaven! if I was to lose the support and recognition of Chivery
and his brother officers, I might starve to death here.' While he
spoke, he was opening and shutting his hands like valves; so
conscious all the time of that touch of shame, that he shrunk
before his own knowledge of his meaning.

'I--ha!--I can't think what it's owing to. I am sure I cannot
imagine what the cause of it is. There was a certain Jackson here
once, a turnkey of the name of Jackson (I don't think you can
remember him, my dear, you were very young), and--hem!--and he had
a--brother, and this--young brother paid his addresses to--at
least, did not go so far as to pay his addresses to--but admired--
respectfully admired--the--not daughter, the sister--of one of us;
a rather distinguished Collegian; I may say, very much so. His
name was Captain Martin; and he consulted me on the question
whether It was necessary that his daughter--sister--should hazard
offending the turnkey brother by being too--ha!--too plain with the
other brother. Captain Martin was a gentleman and a man of honour,
and I put it to him first to give me his--his own opinion. Captain
Martin (highly respected in the army) then unhesitatingly said that
it appeared to him that his--hem!--sister was not called upon to
understand the young man too distinctly, and that she might lead
him on--I am doubtful whether "lead him on" was Captain Martin's
exact expression: indeed I think he said tolerate him--on her
father's--I should say, brother's--account. I hardly know how I
have strayed into this story. I suppose it has been through being
unable to account for Chivery; but as to the connection between the
two, I don't see--'

His voice died away, as if she could not bear the pain of hearing
him, and her hand had gradually crept to his lips. For a little
while there was a dead silence and stillness; and he remained
shrunk in his chair, and she remained with her arm round his neck
and her head bowed down upon his shoulder.

His supper was cooking in a saucepan on the fire, and, when she
moved, it was to make it ready for him on the table. He took his
usual seat, she took hers, and he began his meal. They did not, as
yet, look at one another. By little and little he began; laying
down his knife and fork with a noise, taking things up sharply,
biting at his bread as if he were offended with it, and in other
similar ways showing that he was out of sorts. At length he pushed
his plate from him, and spoke aloud; with the strangest

'What does it matter whether I eat or starve? What does it matter
whether such a blighted life as mine comes to an end, now, next
week, or next year? What am I worth to anyone? A poor prisoner,
fed on alms and broken victuals; a squalid, disgraced wretch!'

'Father, father!' As he rose she went on her knees to him, and held
up her hands to him.

'Amy,' he went on in a suppressed voice, trembling violently, and
looking at her as wildly as if he had gone mad. 'I tell you, if
you could see me as your mother saw me, you wouldn't believe it to
be the creature you have only looked at through the bars of this
cage. I was young, I was accomplished, I was good-looking, I was
independent--by God I was, child!--and people sought me out, and
envied me. Envied me!'

'Dear father!' She tried to take down the shaking arm that he
flourished in the air, but he resisted, and put her hand away.

'If I had but a picture of myself in those days, though it was ever
so ill done, you would be proud of it, you would be proud of it.
But I have no such thing. Now, let me be a warning! Let no man,'
he cried, looking haggardly about, 'fail to preserve at least that
little of the times of his prosperity and respect. Let his
children have that clue to what he was. Unless my face, when I am
dead, subsides into the long departed look--they say such things
happen, I don't know--my children will have never seen me.'

'Father, father!'

'O despise me, despise me! Look away from me, don't listen to me,
stop me, blush for me, cry for me--even you, Amy! Do it, do it!
I do it to myself! I am hardened now, I have sunk too low to care
long even for that.'

'Dear father, loved father, darling of my heart!' She was clinging
to him with her arms, and she got him to drop into his chair again,
and caught at the raised arm, and tried to put it round her neck.

'Let it lie there, father. Look at me, father, kiss me, father!
Only think of me, father, for one little moment!'

Still he went on in the same wild way, though it was gradually
breaking down into a miserable whining.

'And yet I have some respect here. I have made some stand against
it. I am not quite trodden down. Go out and ask who is the chief
person in the place. They'll tell you it's your father. Go out
and ask who is never trifled with, and who is always treated with
some delicacy. They'll say, your father. Go out and ask what
funeral here (it must be here, I know it can be nowhere else) will
make more talk, and perhaps more grief, than any that has ever gone
out at the gate. They'll say your father's. Well then. Amy!
Amy! Is your father so universally despised? Is there nothing to
redeem him? Will you have nothing to remember him by but his ruin
and decay? Will you be able to have no affection for him when he
is gone, poor castaway, gone?'

He burst into tears of maudlin pity for himself, and at length
suffering her to embrace him and take charge of him, let his grey
head rest against her cheek, and bewailed his wretchedness.
Presently he changed the subject of his lamentations, and clasping
his hands about her as she embraced him, cried, O Amy, his
motherless, forlorn child! O the days that he had seen her careful
and laborious for him! Then he reverted to himself, and weakly
told her how much better she would have loved him if she had known
him in his vanished character, and how he would have married her to
a gentleman who should have been proud of her as his daughter, and
how (at which he cried again) she should first have ridden at his
fatherly side on her own horse, and how the crowd (by which he
meant in effect the people who had given him the twelve shillings
he then had in his pocket) should have trudged the dusty roads

Thus, now boasting, now despairing, in either fit a captive with
the jail-rot upon him, and the impurity of his prison worn into the
grain of his soul, he revealed his degenerate state to his
affectionate child. No one else ever beheld him in the details of
his humiliation. Little recked the Collegians who were laughing in
their rooms over his late address in the Lodge, what a serious
picture they had in their obscure gallery of the Marshalsea that
Sunday night.

There was a classical daughter once--perhaps--who ministered to her
father in his prison as her mother had ministered to her. Little
Dorrit, though of the unheroic modern stock and mere English, did
much more, in comforting her father's wasted heart upon her
innocent breast, and turning to it a fountain of love and fidelity
that never ran dry or waned through all his years of famine.

She soothed him; asked him for his forgiveness if she had been, or
seemed to have been, undutiful; told him, Heaven knows truly, that
she could not honour him more if he were the favourite of Fortune
and the whole world acknowledged him. When his tears were dried,
and he sobbed in his weakness no longer, and was free from that
touch of shame, and had recovered his usual bearing, she prepared
the remains of his supper afresh, and, sitting by his side,
rejoiced to see him eat and drink. For now he sat in his black
velvet cap and old grey gown, magnanimous again; and would have
comported himself towards any Collegian who might have looked in to
ask his advice, like a great moral Lord Chesterfield, or Master of
the ethical ceremonies of the Marshalsea.

To keep his attention engaged, she talked with him about his
wardrobe; when he was pleased to say, that Yes, indeed, those
shirts she proposed would be exceedingly acceptable, for those he
had were worn out, and, being ready-made, had never fitted him.
Being conversational, and in a reasonable flow of spirits, he then
invited her attention to his coat as it hung behind the door:
remarking that the Father of the place would set an indifferent
example to his children, already disposed to be slovenly, if he
went among them out at elbows. He was jocular, too, as to the
heeling of his shoes; but became grave on the subject of his
cravat, and promised her that, when she could afford it, she should
buy him a new one.

While he smoked out his cigar in peace, she made his bed, and put
the small room in order for his repose. Being weary then, owing to
the advanced hour and his emotions, he came out of his chair to
bless her and wish her Good night. All this time he had never once
thought of HER dress, her shoes, her need of anything. No other
person upon earth, save herself, could have been so unmindful of
her wants.

He kissed her many times with 'Bless you, my love. Good night, MY

But her gentle breast had been so deeply wounded by what she had
seen of him that she was unwilling to leave him alone, lest he
should lament and despair again. 'Father, dear, I am not tired;
let me come back presently, when you are in bed, and sit by you.'

He asked her, with an air of protection, if she felt solitary?

'Yes, father.'

'Then come back by all means, my love.'

'I shall be very quiet, father.'

'Don't think of me, my dear,' he said, giving her his kind
permission fully. 'Come back by all means.'

He seemed to be dozing when she returned, and she put the low fire
together very softly lest she should awake him. But he overheard
her, and called out who was that?

'Only Amy, father.'

'Amy, my child, come here. I want to say a word to you.' He
raised himself a little in his low bed, as she kneeled beside it to
bring her face near him; and put his hand between hers. O! Both
the private father and the Father of the Marshalsea were strong
within him then.

'My love, you have had a life of hardship here. No companions, no
recreations, many cares I am afraid?'

'Don't think of that, dear. I never do.'

'You know my position, Amy. I have not been able to do much for
you; but all I have been able to do, I have done.'

'Yes, my dear father,' she rejoined, kissing him. 'I know, I

'I am in the twenty-third year of my life here,' he said, with a
catch in his breath that was not so much a sob as an irrepressible
sound of self-approval, the momentary outburst of a noble
consciousness. 'It is all I could do for my children--I have done
it. Amy, my love, you are by far the best loved of the three; I
have had you principally in my mind--whatever I have done for your
sake, my dear child, I have done freely and without murmuring.'

Only the wisdom that holds the clue to all hearts and all
mysteries, can surely know to what extent a man, especially a man
brought down as this man had been, can impose upon himself.
Enough, for the present place, that he lay down with wet eyelashes,
serene, in a manner majestic, after bestowing his life of
degradation as a sort of portion on the devoted child upon whom its
miseries had fallen so heavily, and whose love alone had saved him
to be even what he was.

That child had no doubts, asked herself no question, for she was
but too content to see him with a lustre round his head. Poor
dear, good dear, truest, kindest, dearest, were the only words she
had for him, as she hushed him to rest.

She never left him all that night. As if she had done him a wrong
which her tenderness could hardly repair, she sat by him in his
sleep, at times softly kissing him with suspended breath, and
calling him in a whisper by some endearing name. At times she
stood aside so as not to intercept the low fire-light, and,
watching him when it fell upon his sleeping face, wondered did he
look now at all as he had looked when he was prosperous and happy;
as he had so touched her by imagining that he might look once more
in that awful time. At the thought of that time, she kneeled
beside his bed again, and prayed, 'O spare his life! O save him to
me! O look down upon my dear, long-suffering, unfortunate, much-
changed, dear dear father!'

Not until the morning came to protect him and encourage him, did
she give him a last kiss and leave the small room. When she had
stolen down-stairs, and along the empty yard, and had crept up to
her own high garret, the smokeless housetops and the distant
country hills were discernible over the wall in the clear morning.
As she gently opened the window, and looked eastward down the
prison yard, the spikes upon the wall were tipped with red, then
made a sullen purple pattern on the sun as it came flaming up into
the heavens. The spikes had never looked so sharp and cruel, nor
the bars so heavy, nor the prison space so gloomy and contracted.
She thought of the sunrise on rolling rivers, of the sunrise on
wide seas, of the sunrise on rich landscapes, of the sunrise on
great forests where the birds were waking and the trees were
rustling; and she looked down into the living grave on which the
sun had risen, with her father in it three-and-twenty years, and
said, in a burst of sorrow and compassion, 'No, no, I have never
seen him in my life!'

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