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Charles Dickens > Little Dorrit > Chapter 5

Little Dorrit

Chapter 5

Family Affairs

As the city clocks struck nine on Monday morning, Mrs Clennam was
wheeled by Jeremiah Flintwinch of the cut-down aspect to her tall
cabinet. When she had unlocked and opened it, and had settled
herself at its desk, Jeremiah withdrew--as it might be, to hang
himself more effectually--and her son appeared.

'Are you any better this morning, mother?'

She shook her head, with the same austere air of luxuriousness that
she had shown over-night when speaking of the weather.

'I shall never be better any more. It is well for me, Arthur, that
I know it and can bear it.'

Sitting with her hands laid separately upon the desk, and the tall
cabinet towering before her, she looked as if she were performing
on a dumb church organ. Her son thought so (it was an old thought
with him), while he took his seat beside it.

She opened a drawer or two, looked over some business papers, and
put them back again. Her severe face had no thread of relaxation
in it, by which any explorer could have been guided to the gloomy
labyrinth of her thoughts.

'Shall I speak of our affairs, mother? Are you inclined to enter
upon business?'

'Am I inclined, Arthur? Rather, are you? Your father has been
dead a year and more. I have been at your disposal, and waiting
your pleasure, ever since.'

'There was much to arrange before I could leave; and when I did
leave, I travelled a little for rest and relief.'

She turned her face towards him, as not having heard or understood
his last words.
'For rest and relief.'

She glanced round the sombre room, and appeared from the motion of
her lips to repeat the words to herself, as calling it to witness
how little of either it afforded her.

'Besides, mother, you being sole executrix, and having the
direction and management of the estate, there remained little
business, or I might say none, that I could transact, until you had
had time to arrange matters to your satisfaction.'

'The accounts are made out,' she returned. 'I have them here. The
vouchers have all been examined and passed. You can inspect them
when you like, Arthur; now, if you please.'

'It is quite enough, mother, to know that the business is
completed. Shall I proceed then?'

'Why not?' she said, in her frozen way.

'Mother, our House has done less and less for some years past, and
our dealings have been progressively on the decline. We have never
shown much confidence, or invited much; we have attached no people
to us; the track we have kept is not the track of the time; and we
have been left far behind. I need not dwell on this to you,
mother. You know it necessarily.'

'I know what you mean,' she answered, in a qualified tone.
'Even this old house in which we speak,' pursued her son, 'is an
instance of what I say. In my father's earlier time, and in his
uncle's time before him, it was a place of business--really a place
of business, and business resort. Now, it is a mere anomaly and
incongruity here, out of date and out of purpose. All our
consignments have long been made to Rovinghams' the commission-
merchants; and although, as a check upon them, and in the
stewardship of my father's resources, your judgment and
watchfulness have been actively exerted, still those qualities
would have influenced my father's fortunes equally, if you had
lived in any private dwelling: would they not?'

'Do you consider,' she returned, without answering his question,
'that a house serves no purpose, Arthur, in sheltering your infirm
and afflicted--justly infirm and righteously afflicted--mother?'

'I was speaking only of business purposes.'

'With what object?'

'I am coming to it.'

'I foresee,' she returned, fixing her eyes upon him, 'what it is.
But the Lord forbid that I should repine under any visitation. In
my sinfulness I merit bitter disappointment, and I accept it.'

'Mother, I grieve to hear you speak like this, though I have had my
apprehensions that you would--'

'You knew I would. You knew ME,' she interrupted.

Her son paused for a moment. He had struck fire out of her, and
was surprised.

'Well!' she said, relapsing into stone. 'Go on. Let me hear.'

'You have anticipated, mother, that I decide for my part, to
abandon the business. I have done with it. I will not take upon
myself to advise you; you will continue it, I see. If I had any
influence with you, I would simply use it to soften your judgment
of me in causing you this disappointment: to represent to you that
I have lived the half of a long term of life, and have never before
set my own will against yours. I cannot say that I have been able
to conform myself, in heart and spirit, to your rules; I cannot say
that I believe my forty years have been profitable or pleasant to
myself, or any one; but I have habitually submitted, and I only ask
you to remember it.'

Woe to the suppliant, if such a one there were or ever had been,
who had any concession to look for in the inexorable face at the
cabinet. Woe to the defaulter whose appeal lay to the tribunal
where those severe eyes presided. Great need had the rigid woman
of her mystical religion, veiled in gloom and darkness, with
lightnings of cursing, vengeance, and destruction, flashing through
the sable clouds. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,
was a prayer too poor in spirit for her. Smite Thou my debtors,
Lord, wither them, crush them; do Thou as I would do, and Thou
shalt have my worship: this was the impious tower of stone she
built up to scale Heaven.

'Have you finished, Arthur, or have you anything more to say to me?

I think there can be nothing else. You have been short, but full
of matter!'

'Mother, I have yet something more to say. It has been upon my
mind, night and day, this long time. It is far more difficult to
say than what I have said. That concerned myself; this concerns us

'Us all! Who are us all?'

'Yourself, myself, my dead father.'

She took her hands from the desk; folded them in her lap; and sat
looking towards the fire, with the impenetrability of an old
Egyptian sculpture.

'You knew my father infinitely better than I ever knew him; and his
reserve with me yielded to you. You were much the stronger,
mother, and directed him. As a child, I knew it as well as I know
it now. I knew that your ascendancy over him was the cause of his
going to China to take care of the business there, while you took
care of it here (though I do not even now know whether these were
really terms of separation that you agreed upon); and that it was
your will that I should remain with you until I was twenty, and
then go to him as I did. You will not be offended by my recalling
this, after twenty years?'

'I am waiting to hear why you recall it.'

He lowered his voice, and said, with manifest reluctance, and
against his will:

'I want to ask you, mother, whether it ever occurred to you to

At the word Suspect, she turned her eyes momentarily upon her son,
with a dark frown. She then suffered them to seek the fire, as
before; but with the frown fixed above them, as if the sculptor of
old Egypt had indented it in the hard granite face, to frown for

'--that he had any secret remembrance which caused him trouble of
mind--remorse? Whether you ever observed anything in his conduct
suggesting that; or ever spoke to him upon it, or ever heard him
hint at such a thing?'

'I do not understand what kind of secret remembrance you mean to
infer that your father was a prey to,' she returned, after a
silence. 'You speak so mysteriously.'

'Is it possible, mother,' her son leaned forward to be the nearer
to her while he whispered it, and laid his hand nervously upon her
desk, 'is it possible, mother, that he had unhappily wronged any
one, and made no reparation?'

Looking at him wrathfully, she bent herself back in her chair to
keep him further off, but gave him no reply.

'I am deeply sensible, mother, that if this thought has never at
any time flashed upon you, it must seem cruel and unnatural in me,
even in this confidence, to breathe it. But I cannot shake it off.

Time and change (I have tried both before breaking silence) do
nothing to wear it out. Remember, I was with my father. Remember,
I saw his face when he gave the watch into my keeping, and
struggled to express that he sent it as a token you would
understand, to you. Remember, I saw him at the last with the
pencil in his failing hand, trying to write some word for you to
read, but to which he could give no shape. The more remote and
cruel this vague suspicion that I have, the stronger the
circumstances that could give it any semblance of probability to
me. For Heaven's sake, let us examine sacredly whether there is
any wrong entrusted to us to set right. No one can help towards
it, mother, but you. '

Still so recoiling in her chair that her overpoised weight moved
it, from time to time, a little on its wheels, and gave her the
appearance of a phantom of fierce aspect gliding away from him, she
interposed her left arm, bent at the elbow with the back of her
hand towards her face, between herself and him, and looked at him
in a fixed silence.

'In grasping at money and in driving hard bargains--I have begun,
and I must speak of such things now, mother--some one may have been
grievously deceived, injured, ruined. You were the moving power of
all this machinery before my birth; your stronger spirit has been
infused into all my father's dealings for more than two score
years. You can set these doubts at rest, I think, if you will
really help me to discover the truth. Will you, mother?'

He stopped in the hope that she would speak. But her grey hair was
not more immovable in its two folds, than were her firm lips.

'If reparation can be made to any one, if restitution can be made
to any one, let us know it and make it. Nay, mother, if within my
means, let ME make it. I have seen so little happiness come of
money; it has brought within my knowledge so little peace to this
house, or to any one belonging to it, that it is worth less to me
than to another. It can buy me nothing that will not be a reproach
and misery to me, if I am haunted by a suspicion that it darkened
my father's last hours with remorse, and that it is not honestly
and justly mine.'
There was a bell-rope hanging on the panelled wall, some two or
three yards from the cabinet. By a swift and sudden action of her
foot, she drove her wheeled chair rapidly back to it and pulled it
violently--still holding her arm up in its shield-like posture, as
if he were striking at her, and she warding off the blow.

A girl came hurrying in, frightened.

'Send Flintwinch here!'

In a moment the girl had withdrawn, and the old man stood within
the door. 'What! You're hammer and tongs, already, you two?' he
said, coolly stroking his face. 'I thought you would be. I was
pretty sure of it.'

'Flintwinch!' said the mother, 'look at my son. Look at him!'

'Well, I AM looking at him,' said Flintwinch.

She stretched out the arm with which she had shielded herself, and
as she went on, pointed at the object of her anger.

'In the very hour of his return almost--before the shoe upon his
foot is dry--he asperses his father's memory to his mother! Asks
his mother to become, with him, a spy upon his father's
transactions through a lifetime! Has misgivings that the goods of
this world which we have painfully got together early and late,
with wear and tear and toil and self-denial, are so much plunder;
and asks to whom they shall be given up, as reparation and

Although she said this raging, she said it in a voice so far from
being beyond her control that it was even lower than her usual
tone. She also spoke with great distinctness.

'Reparation!' said she. 'Yes, truly! It is easy for him to talk
of reparation, fresh from journeying and junketing in foreign
lands, and living a life of vanity and pleasure. But let him look
at me, in prison, and in bonds here. I endure without murmuring,
because it is appointed that I shall so make reparation for my
sins. Reparation! Is there none in this room? Has there been
none here this fifteen years?'

Thus was she always balancing her bargains with the Majesty of
heaven, posting up the entries to her credit, strictly keeping her
set-off, and claiming her due. She was only remarkable in this,
for the force and emphasis with which she did it. Thousands upon
thousands do it, according to their varying manner, every day.

'Flintwinch, give me that book!'

The old man handed it to her from the table. She put two fingers
between the leaves, closed the book upon them, and held it up to
her son in a threatening way.
' In the days of old, Arthur, treated of in this commentary, there
were pious men, beloved of the Lord, who would have cursed their
sons for less than this: who would have sent them forth, and sent
whole nations forth, if such had supported them, to be avoided of
God and man, and perish, down to the baby at the breast. But I
only tell you that if you ever renew that theme with me, I will
renounce you; I will so dismiss you through that doorway, that you
had better have been motherless from your cradle. I will never see
or know you more. And if, after all, you were to come into this
darkened room to look upon me lying dead, my body should bleed, if
I could make it, when you came near me.'

In part relieved by the intensity of this threat, and in part
(monstrous as the fact is) by a general impression that it was in
some sort a religious proceeding, she handed back the book to the
old man, and was silent.

'Now,' said Jeremiah; 'premising that I'm not going to stand
between you two, will you let me ask (as I have been called in, and
made a third) what is all this about?'

'Take your version of it,' returned Arthur, finding it left to him
to speak, 'from my mother. Let it rest there. What I have said,
was said to my mother only.'
'Oh!' returned the old man. 'From your mother? Take it from your
mother? Well! But your mother mentioned that you had been
suspecting your father. That's not dutiful, Mr Arthur. Who will
you be suspecting next?'

'Enough,' said Mrs Clennam, turning her face so that it was
addressed for the moment to the old man only. 'Let no more be said
about this.'

'Yes, but stop a bit, stop a bit,' the old man persisted. 'Let us
see how we stand. Have you told Mr Arthur that he mustn't lay
offences at his father's door? That he has no right to do it?
That he has no ground to go upon?'

'I tell him so now.'

'Ah! Exactly,' said the old man. 'You tell him so now. You
hadn't told him so before, and you tell him so now. Ay, ay!
That's right! You know I stood between you and his father so long,
that it seems as if death had made no difference, and I was still
standing between you. So I will, and so in fairness I require to
have that plainly put forward. Arthur, you please to hear that you
have no right to mistrust your father, and have no ground to go

He put his hands to the back of the wheeled chair, and muttering to
himself, slowly wheeled his mistress back to her cabinet. 'Now,'
he resumed, standing behind her: 'in case I should go away leaving
things half done, and so should be wanted again when you come to
the other half and get into one of your flights, has Arthur told
you what he means to do about the business?'

'He has relinquished it.'

'In favour of nobody, I suppose?'

Mrs Clennam glanced at her son, leaning against one of the windows.

He observed the look and said, 'To my mother, of course. She does
what she pleases.'

'And if any pleasure,' she said after a short pause, 'could arise
for me out of the disappointment of my expectations that my son, in
the prime of his life, would infuse new youth and strength into it,
and make it of great profit and power, it would be in advancing an
old and faithful servant. Jeremiah, the captain deserts the ship,
but you and I will sink or float with it.'

Jeremiah, whose eyes glistened as if they saw money, darted a
sudden look at the son, which seemed to say, 'I owe YOU no thanks
for this; YOU have done nothing towards it!' and then told the
mother that he thanked her, and that Affery thanked her, and that
he would never desert her, and that Affery would never desert her.
Finally, he hauled up his watch from its depths, and said, 'Eleven.
Time for your oysters!' and with that change of subject, which
involved no change of expression or manner, rang the bell.

But Mrs Clennam, resolved to treat herself with the greater rigour
for having been supposed to be unacquainted with reparation,
refused to eat her oysters when they were brought. They looked
tempting; eight in number, circularly set out on a white plate on
a tray covered with a white napkin, flanked by a slice of buttered
French roll, and a little compact glass of cool wine and water; but
she resisted all persuasions, and sent them down again--placing the
act to her credit, no doubt, in her Eternal Day-Book.

This refection of oysters was not presided over by Affery, but by
the girl who had appeared when the bell was rung; the same who had
been in the dimly-lighted room last night. Now that he had an
opportunity of observing her, Arthur found that her diminutive
figure, small features, and slight spare dress, gave her the
appearance of being much younger than she was. A woman, probably
of not less than two-and-twenty, she might have been passed in the
street for little more than half that age. Not that her face was
very youthful, for in truth there was more consideration and care
in it than naturally belonged to her utmost years; but she was so
little and light, so noiseless and shy, and appeared so conscious
of being out of place among the three hard elders, that she had all
the manner and much of the appearance of a subdued child.

In a hard way, and in an uncertain way that fluctuated between
patronage and putting down, the sprinkling from a watering-pot and
hydraulic pressure, Mrs Clennam showed an interest in this
dependent. Even in the moment of her entrance, upon the violent
ringing of the bell, when the mother shielded herself with that
singular action from the son, Mrs Clennam's eyes had had some
individual recognition in them, which seemed reserved for her. As
there are degrees of hardness in the hardest metal, and shades of
colour in black itself, so, even in the asperity of Mrs Clennam's
demeanour towards all the rest of humanity and towards Little
Dorrit, there was a fine gradation.

Little Dorrit let herself out to do needlework. At so much a day--
or at so little--from eight to eight, Little Dorrit was to be
hired. Punctual to the moment, Little Dorrit appeared; punctual to
the moment, Little Dorrit vanished. What became of Little Dorrit
between the two eights was a mystery.

Another of the moral phenomena of Little Dorrit. Besides her
consideration money, her daily contract included meals. She had an
extraordinary repugnance to dining in company; would never do so,
if it were possible to escape. Would always plead that she had
this bit of work to begin first, or that bit of work to finish
first; and would, of a certainty, scheme and plan--not very
cunningly, it would seem, for she deceived no one--to dine alone.
Successful in this, happy in carrying off her plate anywhere, to
make a table of her lap, or a box, or the ground, or even as was
supposed, to stand on tip-toe, dining moderately at a mantel-shelf;
the great anxiety of Little Dorrit's day was set at rest.

It was not easy to make out Little Dorrit's face; she was so
retiring, plied her needle in such removed corners, and started
away so scared if encountered on the stairs. But it seemed to be
a pale transparent face, quick in expression, though not beautiful
in feature, its soft hazel eyes excepted. A delicately bent head,
a tiny form, a quick little pair of busy hands, and a shabby
dress--it must needs have been very shabby to look at all so, being
so neat--were Little Dorrit as she sat at work.

For these particulars or generalities concerning Little Dorrit, Mr
Arthur was indebted in the course of the day to his own eyes and to
Mrs Affery's tongue. If Mrs Affery had had any will or way of her
own, it would probably have been unfavourable to Little Dorrit.
But as 'them two clever ones'--Mrs Affery's perpetual reference, in
whom her personality was swallowed up--were agreed to accept Little
Dorrit as a matter of course, she had nothing for it but to follow
suit. Similarly, if the two clever ones had agreed to murder
Little Dorrit by candlelight, Mrs Affery, being required to hold
the candle, would no doubt have done it.

In the intervals of roasting the partridge for the invalid chamber,
and preparing a baking-dish of beef and pudding for the dining-
room, Mrs Affery made the communications above set forth;
invariably putting her head in at the door again after she had
taken it out, to enforce resistance to the two clever ones. It
appeared to have become a perfect passion with Mrs Flintwinch, that
the only son should be pitted against them.

In the course of the day, too, Arthur looked through the whole
house. Dull and dark he found it. The gaunt rooms, deserted for
years upon years, seemed to have settled down into a gloomy
lethargy from which nothing could rouse them again. The furniture,
at once spare and lumbering, hid in the rooms rather than furnished
them, and there was no colour in all the house; such colour as had
ever been there, had long ago started away on lost sunbeams--got
itself absorbed, perhaps, into flowers, butterflies, plumage of
birds, precious stones, what not. There was not one straight floor
from the foundation to the roof; the ceilings were so fantastically
clouded by smoke and dust, that old women might have told fortunes
in them better than in grouts of tea; the dead-cold hearths showed
no traces of having ever been warmed but in heaps of soot that had
tumbled down the chimneys, and eddied about in little dusky
whirlwinds when the doors were opened. In what had once been a
drawing-room, there were a pair of meagre mirrors, with dismal
processions of black figures carrying black garlands, walking round
the frames; but even these were short of heads and legs, and one
undertaker-like Cupid had swung round on its own axis and got
upside down, and another had fallen off altogether. The room
Arthur Clennam's deceased father had occupied for business
purposes, when he first remembered him, was so unaltered that he
might have been imagined still to keep it invisibly, as his visible
relict kept her room up-stairs; Jeremiah Flintwinch still going
between them negotiating. His picture, dark and gloomy, earnestly
speechless on the wall, with the eyes intently looking at his son
as they had looked when life departed from them, seemed to urge him
awfully to the task he had attempted; but as to any yielding on the
part of his mother, he had now no hope, and as to any other means
of setting his distrust at rest, he had abandoned hope a long time.

Down in the cellars, as up in the bed-chambers, old objects that he
well remembered were changed by age and decay, but were still in
their old places; even to empty beer-casks hoary with cobwebs, and
empty wine-bottles with fur and fungus choking up their throats.
There, too, among unusual bottle-racks and pale slants of light
from the yard above, was the strong room stored with old ledgers,
which had as musty and corrupt a smell as if they were regularly
balanced, in the dead small hours, by a nightly resurrection of old

The baking-dish was served up in a penitential manner on a shrunken
cloth at an end of the dining-table, at two o'clock, when he dined
with Mr Flintwinch, the new partner. Mr Flintwinch informed him
that his mother had recovered her equanimity now, and that he need
not fear her again alluding to what had passed in the morning.
'And don't you lay offences at your father's door, Mr Arthur,'
added Jeremiah, 'once for all, don't do it! Now, we have done with
the subject.'

Mr Flintwinch had been already rearranging and dusting his own
particular little office, as if to do honour to his accession to
new dignity. He resumed this occupation when he was replete with
beef, had sucked up all the gravy in the baking-dish with the flat
of his knife, and had drawn liberally on a barrel of small beer in
the scullery. Thus refreshed, he tucked up his shirt-sleeves and
went to work again; and Mr Arthur, watching him as he set about it,
plainly saw that his father's picture, or his father's grave, would
be as communicative with him as this old man.

'Now, Affery, woman,' said Mr Flintwinch, as she crossed the hall.
'You hadn't made Mr Arthur's bed when I was up there last. Stir
yourself. Bustle.'

But Mr Arthur found the house so blank and dreary, and was so
unwilling to assist at another implacable consignment of his
mother's enemies (perhaps himself among them) to mortal
disfigurement and immortal ruin, that he announced his intention of
lodging at the coffee-house where he had left his luggage. Mr
Flintwinch taking kindly to the idea of getting rid of him, and his
mother being indifferent, beyond considerations of saving, to most
domestic arrangements that were not bounded by the walls of her own
chamber, he easily carried this point without new offence. Daily
business hours were agreed upon, which his mother, Mr Flintwinch,
and he, were to devote together to a necessary checking of books
and papers; and he left the home he had so lately found, with
depressed heart.

But Little Dorrit?

The business hours, allowing for intervals of invalid regimen of
oysters and partridges, during which Clennam refreshed himself with
a walk, were from ten to six for about a fortnight. Sometimes
Little Dorrit was employed at her needle, sometimes not, sometimes
appeared as a humble visitor: which must have been her character on
the occasion of his arrival. His original curiosity augmented
every day, as he watched for her, saw or did not see her, and
speculated about her. Influenced by his predominant idea, he even
fell into a habit of discussing with himself the possibility of her
being in some way associated with it. At last he resolved to watch
Little Dorrit and know more of her story.

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