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Charles Dickens > Little Dorrit > Chapter 29

Little Dorrit

Chapter 29

Mrs Flintwinch goes on Dreaming

The house in the city preserved its heavy dulness through all these
transactions, and the invalid within it turned the same unvarying
round of life. Morning, noon, and night, morning, noon, and night,
each recurring with its accompanying monotony, always the same
reluctant return of the same sequences of machinery, like a
dragging piece of clockwork.

The wheeled chair had its associated remembrances and reveries, one
may suppose, as every place that is made the station of a human
being has. Pictures of demolished streets and altered houses, as
they formerly were when the occupant of the chair was familiar with
them, images of people as they too used to be, with little or no
allowance made for the lapse of time since they were seen; of
these, there must have been many in the long routine of gloomy
days. To stop the clock of busy existence at the hour when we were
personally sequestered from it, to suppose mankind stricken
motionless when we were brought to a stand-still, to be unable to
measure the changes beyond our view by any larger standard than the
shrunken one of our own uniform and contracted existence, is the
infirmity of many invalids, and the mental unhealthiness of almost
all recluses.

What scenes and actors the stern woman most reviewed, as she sat
from season to season in her one dark room, none knew but herself.
Mr Flintwinch, with his wry presence brought to bear upon her daily
like some eccentric mechanical force, would perhaps have screwed it
out of her, if there had been less resistance in her; but she was
too strong for him. So far as Mistress Affery was concerned, to
regard her liege-lord and her disabled mistress with a face of
blank wonder, to go about the house after dark with her apron over
her head, always to listen for the strange noises and sometimes to
hear them, and never to emerge from her ghostly, dreamy, sleep-
waking state, was occupation enough for her.

There was a fair stroke of business doing, as Mistress Affery made
out, for her husband had abundant occupation in his little office,
and saw more people than had been used to come there for some
years. This might easily be, the house having been long deserted;
but he did receive letters, and comers, and keep books, and
correspond. Moreover, he went about to other counting-houses, and
to wharves, and docks, and to the Custom House,' and to Garraway's
Coffee House, and the Jerusalem Coffee House, and on 'Change; so
that he was much in and out. He began, too, sometimes of an
evening, when Mrs Clennam expressed no particular wish for his
society, to resort to a tavern in the neighbourhood to look at the
shipping news and closing prices in the evening paper, and even to
exchange Small socialities with mercantile Sea Captains who
frequented that establishment. At some period of every day, he and
Mrs Clennam held a council on matters of business; and it appeared
to Affery, who was always groping about, listening and watching,
that the two clever ones were making money.

The state of mind into which Mr Flintwinch's dazed lady had fallen,
had now begun to be so expressed in all her looks and actions that
she was held in very low account by the two clever ones, as a
person, never of strong intellect, who was becoming foolish.
Perhaps because her appearance was not of a commercial cast, or
perhaps because it occurred to him that his having taken her to
wife might expose his judgment to doubt in the minds of customers,
Mr Flintwinch laid his commands upon her that she should hold her
peace on the subject of her conjugal relations, and should no
longer call him Jeremiah out of the domestic trio. Her frequent
forgetfulness of this admonition intensified her startled manner,
since Mr Flintwinch's habit of avenging himself on her remissness
by making springs after her on the staircase, and shaking her,
occasioned her to be always nervously uncertain when she might be
thus waylaid next.

Little Dorrit had finished a long day's work in Mrs Clennam's room,
and was neatly gathering up her shreds and odds and ends before
going home. Mr Pancks, whom Affery had just shown in, was
addressing an inquiry to Mrs Clennam on the subject of her health,
coupled with the remark that, 'happening to find himself in that
direction,' he had looked in to inquire, on behalf of his
proprietor, how she found herself. Mrs Clennam, with a deep
contraction of her brows, was looking at him.

'Mr Casby knows,' said she, 'that I am not subject to changes. The
change that I await here is the great change.'

'Indeed, ma'am?' returned Mr Pancks, with a wandering eye towards
the figure of the little seamstress on her knee picking threads and
fraying of her work from the carpet. 'You look nicely, ma'am.'

'I bear what I have to bear,' she answered. 'Do you what you have
to do.'
'Thank you, ma'am,' said Mr Pancks, 'such is my endeavour.'

'You are often in this direction, are you not?' asked Mrs Clennam.

'Why, yes, ma'am,' said Pancks, 'rather so lately; I have lately
been round this way a good deal, owing to one thing and another.'
'Beg Mr Casby and his daughter not to trouble themselves, by
deputy, about me. When they wish to see me, they know I am here to
see them. They have no need to trouble themselves to send. You
have no need to trouble yourself to come.'
'Not the least trouble, ma'am,' said Mr Pancks. 'You really are
looking uncommonly nicely, ma'am.'

'Thank you. Good evening.'

The dismissal, and its accompanying finger pointed straight at the
door, was so curt and direct that Mr Pancks did not see his way to
prolong his visit. He stirred up his hair with his sprightliest
expression, glanced at the little figure again, said 'Good evening,
ma 'am; don't come down, Mrs Affery, I know the road to the door,'
and steamed out. Mrs Clennam, her chin resting on her hand,
followed him with attentive and darkly distrustful eyes; and Affery
stood looking at her as if she were spell-bound.

Slowly and thoughtfully, Mrs Clennam's eyes turned from the door by
which Pancks had gone out, to Little Dorrit, rising from the
carpet. With her chin drooping more heavily on her hand, and her
eyes vigilant and lowering, the sick woman sat looking at her until
she attracted her attention. Little Dorrit coloured under such a
gaze, and looked down. Mrs Clennam still sat intent.

'Little Dorrit,' she said, when she at last broke silence, 'what do
you know of that man?'

'I don't know anything of him, ma'am, except that I have seen him
about, and that he has spoken to me.'

'What has he said to you?'

'I don't understand what he has said, he is so strange. But
nothing rough or disagreeable.'

'Why does he come here to see you?'

'I don't know, ma'am,' said Little Dorrit, with perfect frankness.

'You know that he does come here to see you?'

'I have fancied so,' said Little Dorrit. 'But why he should come
here or anywhere for that, ma'am, I can't think.'

Mrs Clennam cast her eyes towards the ground, and with her strong,
set face, as intent upon a subject in her mind as it had lately
been upon the form that seemed to pass out of her view, sat
absorbed. Some minutes elapsed before she came out of this
thoughtfulness, and resumed her hard composure.

Little Dorrit in the meanwhile had been waiting to go, but afraid
to disturb her by moving. She now ventured to leave the spot where
she had been standing since she had risen, and to pass gently round
by the wheeled chair. She stopped at its side to say 'Good night,

Mrs Clennam put out her hand, and laid it on her arm. Little
Dorrit, confused under the touch, stood faltering. Perhaps some
momentary recollection of the story of the Princess may have been
in her mind.

'Tell me, Little Dorrit,' said Mrs Clennam, 'have you many friends

'Very few, ma'am. Besides you, only Miss Flora and--one more.'

'Meaning,' said Mrs Clennam, with her unbent finger again pointing
to the door, 'that man?'

'Oh no, ma'am!'

'Some friend of his, perhaps?'

'No ma'am.' Little Dorrit earnestly shook her head. 'Oh no! No
one at all like him, or belonging to him.'

'Well!' said Mrs Clennam, almost smiling. 'It is no affair of
mine. I ask, because I take an interest in you; and because I
believe I was your friend when you had no other who could serve
you. Is that so?'

'Yes, ma'am; indeed it is. I have been here many a time when, but
for you and the work you gave me, we should have wanted

'We,' repeated Mrs Clennam, looking towards the watch, once her
dead husband's, which always lay upon her table. 'Are there many
of you?'

'Only father and I, now. I mean, only father and I to keep
regularly out of what we get.'

'Have you undergone many privations? You and your father and who
else there may be of you?' asked Mrs Clennam, speaking
deliberately, and meditatively turning the watch over and over.

'Sometimes it has been rather hard to live,' said Little Dorrit, in
her soft voice, and timid uncomplaining way; 'but I think not
harder--as to that--than many people find it.'

'That's well said!' Mrs Clennam quickly returned. 'That's the
truth! You are a good, thoughtful girl. You are a grateful girl
too, or I much mistake you.'

'It is only natural to be that. There is no merit in being that,'
said Little Dorrit. 'I am indeed.'
Mrs Clennam, with a gentleness of which the dreaming Affery had
never dreamed her to be capable, drew down the face of her little
seamstress, and kissed her on the forehead. 'Now go, Little
Dorrit,' said she,'or you will be late, poor child!'

In all the dreams Mistress Affery had been piling up since she
first became devoted to the pursuit, she had dreamed nothing more
astonishing than this. Her head ached with the idea that she would
find the other clever one kissing Little Dorrit next, and then the
two clever ones embracing each other and dissolving into tears of
tenderness for all mankind. The idea quite stunned her, as she
attended the light footsteps down the stairs, that the house door
might be safely shut.

On opening it to let Little Dorrit out, she found Mr Pancks,
instead of having gone his way, as in any less wonderful place and
among less wonderful phenomena he might have been reasonably
expected to do, fluttering up and down the court outside the house.

The moment he saw Little Dorrit, he passed her briskly, said with
his finger to his nose (as Mrs Affery distinctly heard), 'Pancks
the gipsy, fortune-telling,' and went away. 'Lord save us, here's
a gipsy and a fortune-teller in it now!' cried Mistress Affery.
'What next! She stood at the open door, staggering herself with
this enigma, on a rainy, thundery evening. The clouds were flying
fast, and the wind was coming up in gusts, banging some
neighbouring shutters that had broken loose, twirling the rusty
chimney-cowls and weather-cocks, and rushing round and round a
confined adjacent churchyard as if it had a mind to blow the dead
citizens out of their graves. The low thunder, muttering in all
quarters of the sky at once, seemed to threaten vengeance for this
attempted desecration, and to mutter, 'Let them rest! Let them

Mistress Affery, whose fear of thunder and lightning was only to be
equalled by her dread of the haunted house with a premature and
preternatural darkness in it, stood undecided whether to go in or
not, until the question was settled for her by the door blowing
upon her in a violent gust of wind and shutting her out. 'What's
to be done now, what's to be done now!' cried Mistress Affery,
wringing her hands in this last uneasy dream of all; 'when she's
all alone by herself inside, and can no more come down to open it
than the churchyard dead themselves!'

In this dilemma, Mistress Affery, with her apron as a hood to keep
the rain off, ran crying up and down the solitary paved enclosure
several times. Why she should then stoop down and look in at the
keyhole of the door as if an eye would open it, it would be
difficult to say; but it is none the less what most people would
have done in the same situation, and it is what she did.

From this posture she started up suddenly, with a half scream,
feeling something on her shoulder. It was the touch of a hand; of
a man's hand.

The man was dressed like a traveller, in a foraging cap with fur
about it, and a heap of cloak. He looked like a foreigner. He had
a quantity of hair and moustache--jet black, except at the shaggy
ends, where it had a tinge of red--and a high hook nose. He
laughed at Mistress Affery's start and cry; and as he laughed, his
moustache went up under his nose, and his nose came down over his

'What's the matter?' he asked in plain English. 'What are you
frightened at?'

'At you,' panted Affery.

'Me, madam?'

'And the dismal evening, and--and everything,' said Affery. 'And
here! The wind has been and blown the door to, and I can't get

'Hah!' said the gentleman, who took that very coolly. 'Indeed! Do
you know such a name as Clennam about here?'

'Lord bless us, I should think I did, I should think I did!' cried
Affery, exasperated into a new wringing of hands by the inquiry.

'Where about here?'

'Where!' cried Affery, goaded into another inspection of the
keyhole. 'Where but here in this house? And she's all alone in
her room, and lost the use of her limbs and can't stir to help
herself or me, and t'other clever one's out, and Lord forgive me!'
cried Affery, driven into a frantic dance by these accumulated
considerations, 'if I ain't a-going headlong out of my mind!'

Taking a warmer view of the matter now that it concerned himself,
the gentleman stepped back to glance at the house, and his eye soon
rested on the long narrow window of the little room near the hall-

'Where may the lady be who has lost the use of her limbs, madam?'
he inquired, with that peculiar smile which Mistress Affery could
not choose but keep her eyes upon.

'Up there!' said Affery. 'Them two windows.'

'Hah! I am of a fair size, but could not have the honour of
presenting myself in that room without a ladder. Now, madam,
frankly --frankness is a part of my character--shall I open the
door for you?'

'Yes, bless you, sir, for a dear creetur, and do it at once,' cried
Affery, 'for she may be a-calling to me at this very present
minute, or may be setting herself a fire and burning herself to
death, or there's no knowing what may be happening to her, and me
a-going out of my mind at thinking of it!'

'Stay, my good madam!' He restrained her impatience with a smooth
white hand. 'Business-hours, I apprehend, are over for the day?'
'Yes, yes, yes,' cried Affery. 'Long ago.'

'Let me make, then, a fair proposal. Fairness is a part of my
character. I am just landed from the packet-boat, as you may see.'

He showed her that his cloak was very wet, and that his boots were
saturated with water; she had previously observed that he was
dishevelled and sallow, as if from a rough voyage, and so chilled
that he could not keep his teeth from chattering. 'I am just
landed from the packet-boat, madam, and have been delayed by the
weather: the infernal weather! In consequence of this, madam, some
necessary business that I should otherwise have transacted here
within the regular hours (necessary business because money-
business), still remains to be done. Now, if you will fetch any
authorised neighbouring somebody to do it in return for my opening
the door, I'll open the door. If this arrangement should be
objectionable, I'll--' and with the same smile he made a
significant feint of backing away.

Mistress Affery, heartily glad to effect the proposed compromise,
gave in her willing adhesion to it. The gentleman at once
requested her to do him the favour of holding his cloak, took a
short run at the narrow window, made a leap at the sill, clung his
way up the bricks, and in a moment had his hand at the sash,
raising it. His eyes looked so very sinister, as he put his leg
into the room and glanced round at Mistress Affery, that she
thought with a sudden coldness, if he were to go straight up-stairs
to murder the invalid, what could she do to prevent him?

Happily he had no such purpose; for he reappeared, in a moment, at
the house door. 'Now, my dear madam,' he said, as he took back his
cloak and threw it on, 'if you have the goodness to--what the
Devil's that!'

The strangest of sounds. Evidently close at hand from the peculiar
shock it communicated to the air, yet subdued as if it were far
off. A tremble, a rumble, and a fall of some light dry matter.

'What the Devil is it?'

'I don't know what it is, but I've heard the like of it over and
over again,' said Affery, who had caught his arm.
He could hardly be a very brave man, even she thought in her dreamy
start and fright, for his trembling lips had turned colourless.
After listening a few moments, he made light of it.

'Bah! Nothing! Now, my dear madam, I think you spoke of some
clever personage. Will you be so good as to confront me with that
genius?' He held the door in his hand, as though he were quite
ready to shut her out again if she failed.

'Don't you say anything about the door and me, then,' whispered

'Not a word.'

'And don't you stir from here, or speak if she calls, while I run
round the corner.'

'Madam, I am a statue.'

Affery had so vivid a fear of his going stealthily up-stairs the
moment her back was turned, that after hurrying out of sight, she
returned to the gateway to peep at him. Seeing him still on the
threshold, more out of the house than in it, as if he had no love
for darkness and no desire to probe its mysteries, she flew into
the next street, and sent a message into the tavern to Mr
Flintwinch, who came out directly. The two returning together--the
lady in advance, and Mr Flintwinch coming up briskly behind,
animated with the hope of shaking her before she could get housed--
saw the gentleman standing in the same place in the dark, and heard
the strong voice of Mrs Clennam calling from her room, 'Who is it?
What is it? Why does no one answer? Who is that, down there?'

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