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Charles Dickens > Little Dorrit > Chapter 59

Little Dorrit

Chapter 59

Mistress Affery makes a Conditional Promise,
     respecting her Dreams

Left alone, with the expressive looks and gestures of Mr Baptist,
otherwise Giovanni Baptista Cavalletto, vividly before him, Clennam
entered on a weary day. It was in vain that he tried to control
his attention by directing it to any business occupation or train
of thought; it rode at anchor by the haunting topic, and would hold
to no other idea. As though a criminal should be chained in a
stationary boat on a deep clear river, condemned, whatever
countless leagues of water flowed past him, always to see the body
of the fellow-creature he had drowned lying at the bottom,
immovable, and unchangeable, except as the eddies made it broad or
long, now expanding, now contracting its terrible lineaments; so
Arthur, below the shifting current of transparent thoughts and
fancies which were gone and succeeded by others as soon as come,
saw, steady and dark, and not to be stirred from its place, the one
subject that he endeavoured with all his might to rid himself of,
and that he could not fly from. The assurance he now had, that
Blandois, whatever his right name, was one of the worst of
characters, greatly augmented the burden of his anxieties. Though
the disappearance should be accounted for to-morrow, the fact that
his mother had been in communication with such a man, would remain
unalterable. That the communication had been of a secret kind, and
that she had been submissive to him and afraid of him, he hoped
might be known to no one beyond himself; yet, knowing it, how could
he separate it from his old vague fears, and how believe that there
was nothing evil in such relations?
Her resolution not to enter on the question with him, and his
knowledge of her indomitable character, enhanced his sense of
helplessness. It was like the oppression of a dream to believe
that shame and exposure were impending over her and his father's
memory, and to be shut out, as by a brazen wall, from the
possibility of coming to their aid. The purpose he had brought
home to his native country, and had ever since kept in view, was,
with her greatest determination, defeated by his mother herself, at
the time of all others when he feared that it pressed most. His
advice, energy, activity, money, credit, all his resources
whatsoever, were all made useless. If she had been possessed of
the old fabled influence, and had turned those who looked upon her
into stone, she could not have rendered him more completely
powerless (so it seemed to him in his distress of mind) than she
did, when she turned her unyielding face to his in her gloomy room.

But the light of that day's discovery, shining on these
considerations, roused him to take a more decided course of action.

Confident in the rectitude of his purpose, and impelled by a sense
of overhanging danger closing in around, he resolved, if his mother
would still admit of no approach, to make a desperate appeal to
Affery. If she could be brought to become communicative, and to do
what lay in her to break the spell of secrecy that enshrouded the
house, he might shake off the paralysis of which every hour that
passed over his head made him more acutely sensible. This was the
result of his day's anxiety, and this was the decision he put in
practice when the day closed in.

His first disappointment, on arriving at the house, was to find the
door open, and Mr Flintwinch smoking a pipe on the steps. If
circumstances had been commonly favourable, Mistress Affery would
have opened the door to his knock. Circumstances being uncommonly
unfavourable, the door stood open, and Mr Flintwinch was smoking
his pipe on the steps.

'Good evening,' said Arthur.

'Good evening,' said Mr Flintwinch.

The smoke came crookedly out of Mr Flintwinch's mouth, as if it
circulated through the whole of his wry figure and came back by his
wry throat, before coming forth to mingle with the smoke from the
crooked chimneys and the mists from the crooked river.

'Have you any news?' said Arthur.

'We have no news,' said Jeremiah.

'I mean of the foreign man,' Arthur explained.

_'I_ mean of the foreign man,' said Jeremiah.

He looked so grim, as he stood askew, with the knot of his cravat
under his ear, that the thought passed into Clennam's mind, and not
for the first time by many, could Flintwinch for a purpose of his
own have got rid of Blandois? Could it have been his secret, and
his safety, that were at issue? He was small and bent, and perhaps
not actively strong; yet he was as tough as an old yew-tree, and as
crusty as an old jackdaw. Such a man, coming behind a much younger
and more vigorous man, and having the will to put an end to him and
no relenting, might do it pretty surely in that solitary place at
a late hour.

While, in the morbid condition of his thoughts, these thoughts
drifted over the main one that was always in Clennam's mind, Mr
Flintwinch, regarding the opposite house over the gateway with his
neck twisted and one eye shut up, stood smoking with a vicious
expression upon him; more as if he were trying to bite off the stem
of his pipe, than as if he were enjoying it. Yet he was enjoying
it in his own way.

'You'll be able to take my likeness, the next time you call,
Arthur, I should think,' said Mr Flintwinch, drily, as he stooped
to knock the ashes out.

Rather conscious and confused, Arthur asked his pardon, if he had
stared at him unpolitely. 'But my mind runs so much upon this
matter,' he said, 'that I lose myself.'

'Hah! Yet I don't see,' returned Mr Flintwinch, quite at his
leisure, 'why it should trouble YOU, Arthur.'


'No,' said Mr Flintwinch, very shortly and decidedly: much as if he
were of the canine race, and snapped at Arthur's hand.

'Is it nothing to see those placards about? Is it nothing to me to
see my mother's name and residence hawked up and down in such an

'I don't see,' returned Mr Flintwinch, scraping his horny cheek,
'that it need signify much to you. But I'll tell you what I do
see, Arthur,' glancing up at the windows; 'I see the light of fire
and candle in your mother's room!'

'And what has that to do with it?'

'Why, sir, I read by it,' said Mr Flintwinch, screwing himself at
him, 'that if it's advisable (as the proverb says it is) to let
sleeping dogs lie, it's just as advisable, perhaps, to let missing
dogs lie. Let 'em be. They generally turn up soon enough.'

Mr Flintwinch turned short round when he had made this remark, and
went into the dark hall. Clennam stood there, following him with
his eyes, as he dipped for a light in the phosphorus-box in the
little room at the side, got one after three or four dips, and
lighted the dim lamp against the wall. All the while, Clennam was
pursuing the probabilities--rather as if they were being shown to
him by an invisible hand than as if he himself were conjuring them
up--of Mr Flintwinch's ways and means of doing that darker deed,
and removing its traces by any of the black avenues of shadow that
lay around them.

'Now, sir,' said the testy Jeremiah; 'will it be agreeable to walk

'My mother is alone, I suppose?'

'Not alone,' said Mr Flintwinch. 'Mr Casby and his daughter are
with her. They came in while I was smoking, and I stayed behind to
have my smoke out.'

This was the second disappointment. Arthur made no remark upon it,
and repaired to his mother's room, where Mr Casby and Flora had
been taking tea, anchovy paste, and hot buttered toast. The relics
of those delicacies were not yet removed, either from the table or
from the scorched countenance of Affery, who, with the kitchen
toasting-fork still in her hand, looked like a sort of allegorical
personage; except that she had a considerable advantage over the
general run of such personages in point of significant emblematical

Flora had spread her bonnet and shawl upon the bed, with a care
indicative of an intention to stay some time. Mr Casby, too, was
beaming near the hob, with his benevolent knobs shining as if the
warm butter of the toast were exuding through the patriarchal
skull, and with his face as ruddy as if the colouring matter of the
anchovy paste were mantling in the patriarchal visage. Seeing
this, as he exchanged the usual salutations, Clennam decided to
speak to his mother without postponement.

It had long been customary, as she never changed her room, for
those who had anything to say to her apart, to wheel her to her
desk; where she sat, usually with the back of her chair turned
towards the rest of the room, and the person who talked with her
seated in a corner, on a stool which was always set in that place
for that purpose. Except that it was long since the mother and son
had spoken together without the intervention of a third person, it
was an ordinary matter of course within the experience of visitors
for Mrs Clennam to be asked, with a word of apology for the
interruption, if she could be spoken with on a matter of business,
and, on her replying in the affirmative, to be wheeled into the
position described.

Therefore, when Arthur now made such an apology, and such a
request, and moved her to her desk and seated himself on the stool,
Mrs Finching merely began to talk louder and faster, as a delicate
hint that she could overhear nothing, and Mr Casby stroked his long
white locks with sleepy calmness.

'Mother, I have heard something to-day which I feel persuaded you
don't know, and which I think you should know, of the antecedents
of that man I saw here.'

'I know nothing of the antecedents of the man you saw here,

She spoke aloud. He had lowered his own voice; but she rejected
that advance towards confidence as she rejected every other, and
spoke in her usual key and in her usual stern voice.

'I have received it on no circuitous information; it has come to me
She asked him, exactly as before, if he were there to tell her what
it was?

'I thought it right that you should know it.'

'And what is it?'

'He has been a prisoner in a French gaol.'

She answered with composure, 'I should think that very likely.'

' But in a gaol for criminals, mother. On an accusation of

She started at the word, and her looks expressed her natural
horror. Yet she still spoke aloud, when she demanded:--

'Who told you so?'

'A man who was his fellow-prisoner.'

'That man's antecedents, I suppose, were not known to you, before
he told you?'


'Though the man himself was?'


'My case and Flintwinch's, in respect of this other man! I dare
say the resemblance is not so exact, though, as that your informant
became known to you through a letter from a correspondent with whom
he had deposited money? How does that part of the parallel stand?'

Arthur had no choice but to say that his informant had not become
known to him through the agency of any such credentials, or indeed
of any credentials at all. Mrs Clennam's attentive frown expanded
by degrees into a severe look of triumph, and she retorted with
emphasis, 'Take care how you judge others, then. I say to you,
Arthur, for your good, take care how you judge!'
Her emphasis had been derived from her eyes quite as much as from
the stress she laid upon her words. She continued to look at him;
and if, when he entered the house, he had had any latent hope of
prevailing in the least with her, she now looked it out of his

'Mother, shall I do nothing to assist you?'


'Will you entrust me with no confidence, no charge, no explanation?

Will you take no counsel with me? Will you not let me come near

'How can you ask me? You separated yourself from my affairs. It
was not my act; it was yours. How can you consistently ask me such
a question? You know that you left me to Flintwinch, and that he
occupies your place.'

Glancing at Jeremiah, Clennam saw in his very gaiters that his
attention was closely directed to them, though he stood leaning
against the wall scraping his jaw, and pretended to listen to Flora
as she held forth in a most distracting manner on a chaos of
subjects, in which mackerel, and Mr F.'s Aunt in a swing, had
become entangled with cockchafers and the wine trade.

'A prisoner, in a French gaol, on an accusation of murder,'
repeated Mrs Clennam, steadily going over what her son had said.
'That is all you know of him from the fellow-prisoner?'

'In substance, all.'

'And was the fellow-prisoner his accomplice and a murderer, too?
But, of course, he gives a better account of himself than of his
friend; it is needless to ask. This will supply the rest of them
here with something new to talk about. Casby, Arthur tells me--'

'Stay, mother! Stay, stay!' He interrupted her hastily, for it
had not entered his imagination that she would openly proclaim what
he had told her.

'What now?' she said with displeasure. 'What more?'

'I beg you to excuse me, Mr Casby--and you, too, Mrs Finching--for
one other moment with my mother--'

He had laid his hand upon her chair, or she would otherwise have
wheeled it round with the touch of her foot upon the ground. They
were still face to face. She looked at him, as he ran over the
possibilities of some result he had not intended, and could not
foresee, being influenced by Cavalletto's disclosure becoming a
matter of notoriety, and hurriedly arrived at the conclusion that
it had best not be talked about; though perhaps he was guided by no
more distinct reason than that he had taken it for granted that his
mother would reserve it to herself and her partner.

'What now?' she said again, impatiently. 'What is it?'

'I did not mean, mother, that you should repeat what I have
communicated. I think you had better not repeat it.'

'Do you make that a condition with me?'

'Well! Yes.'

'Observe, then! It is you who make this a secret,' said she,
holding up her hand, 'and not I. It is you, Arthur, who bring here
doubts and suspicions and entreaties for explanations, and it is
you, Arthur, who bring secrets here. What is it to me, do you
think, where the man has been, or what he has been? What can it be
to me? The whole world may know it, if they care to know it; it is
nothing to me. Now, let me go.'

He yielded to her imperious but elated look, and turned her chair
back to the place from which he had wheeled it. In doing so he saw
elation in the face of Mr Flintwinch, which most assuredly was not
inspired by Flora. this turning of his intelligence and of his
whole attempt and design against himself, did even more than his
mother's fixedness and firmness to convince him that his efforts
with her were idle. Nothing remained but the appeal to his old
friend Affery.

But even to get the very doubtful and preliminary stage of making
the appeal, seemed one of the least promising of human
undertakings. She was so completely under the thrall of the two
clever ones, was so systematically kept in sight by one or other of
them, and was so afraid to go about the house besides, that every
opportunity of speaking to her alone appeared to be forestalled.
Over and above that, Mistress Affery, by some means (it was not
very difficult to guess, through the sharp arguments of her liege
lord), had acquired such a lively conviction of the hazard of
saying anything under any circumstances, that she had remained all
this time in a corner guarding herself from approach with that
symbolical instrument of hers; so that, when a word or two had been
addressed to her by Flora, or even by the bottle-green patriarch
himself, she had warded off conversation with the toasting-fork
like a dumb woman.

After several abortive attempts to get Affery to look at him while
she cleared the table and washed the tea-service, Arthur thought of
an expedient which Flora might originate. To whom he therefore
whispered, 'Could you say you would like to go through the house?'

Now, poor Flora, being always in fluctuating expectation of the
time when Clennam would renew his boyhood and be madly in love with
her again, received the whisper with the utmost delight; not only
as rendered precious by its mysterious character, but as preparing
the way for a tender interview in which he would declare the state
of his affections. She immediately began to work out the hint.

'Ah dear me the poor old room,' said Flora, glancing round, 'looks
just as ever Mrs Clennam I am touched to see except for being
smokier which was to be expected with time and which we must all
expect and reconcile ourselves to being whether we like it or not
as I am sure I have had to do myself if not exactly smokier
dreadfully stouter which is the same or worse, to think of the days
when papa used to bring me here the least of girls a perfect mass
of chilblains to be stuck upon a chair with my feet on the rails
and stare at Arthur--pray excuse me--Mr Clennam--the least of boys
in the frightfullest of frills and jackets ere yet Mr F. appeared
a misty shadow on the horizon paying attentions like the well-known
spectre of some place in Germany beginning with a B is a moral
lesson inculcating that all the paths in life are similar to the
paths down in the North of England where they get the coals and
make the iron and things gravelled with ashes!'

Having paid the tribute of a sigh to the instability of human
existence, Flora hurried on with her purpose.

'Not that at any time,' she proceeded, 'its worst enemy could have
said it was a cheerful house for that it was never made to be but
always highly impressive, fond memory recalls an occasion in youth
ere yet the judgment was mature when Arthur--confirmed habit--Mr
Clennam--took me down into an unused kitchen eminent for mouldiness
and proposed to secrete me there for life and feed me on what he
could hide from his meals when he was not at home for the holidays
and on dry bread in disgrace which at that halcyon period too
frequently occurred, would it be inconvenient or asking too much to
beg to be permitted to revive those scenes and walk through the

Mrs Clennam, who responded with a constrained grace to Mrs
Finching's good nature in being there at all, though her visit
(before Arthur's unexpected arrival) was undoubtedly an act of pure
good nature and no self-gratification, intimated that all the house
was open to her. Flora rose and looked to Arthur for his escort.
'Certainly,' said he, aloud; 'and Affery will light us, I dare

Affery was excusing herself with 'Don't ask nothing of me, Arthur!'
when Mr Flintwinch stopped her with 'Why not? Affery, what's the
matter with you, woman? Why not, jade!' Thus expostulated with,
she came unwillingly out of her corner, resigned the toasting-fork
into one of her husband's hands, and took the candlestick he
offered from the other.

'Go before, you fool!' said Jeremiah. 'Are you going up, or down,
Mrs Finching?'

Flora answered, 'Down.'

'Then go before, and down, you Affery,' said Jeremiah. 'And do it
properly, or I'll come rolling down the banisters, and tumbling
over you!'

Affery headed the exploring party; Jeremiah closed it. He had no
intention of leaving them. Clennam looking back, and seeing him
following three stairs behind, in the coolest and most methodical
manner exclaimed in a low voice, 'Is there no getting rid of him!'
Flora reassured his mind by replying promptly, 'Why though not
exactly proper Arthur and a thing I couldn't think of before a
younger man or a stranger still I don't mind him if you so
particularly wish it and provided you'll have the goodness not to
take me too tight.'

Wanting the heart to explain that this was not at all what he
meant, Arthur extended his supporting arm round Flora's figure.
'Oh my goodness me,' said she. 'You are very obedient indeed
really and it's extremely honourable and gentlemanly in you I am
sure but still at the same time if you would like to be a little
tighter than that I shouldn't consider it intruding.'

In this preposterous attitude, unspeakably at variance with his
anxious mind, Clennam descended to the basement of the house;
finding that wherever it became darker than elsewhere, Flora became
heavier, and that when the house was lightest she was too.
Returning from the dismal kitchen regions, which were as dreary as
they could be, Mistress Affery passed with the light into his
father's old room, and then into the old dining-room; always
passing on before like a phantom that was not to be overtaken, and
neither turning nor answering when he whispered, 'Affery! I want
to speak to you!'

In the dining-room, a sentimental desire came over Flora to look
into the dragon closet which had so often swallowed Arthur in the
days of his boyhood--not improbably because, as a very dark closet,
it was a likely place to be heavy in. Arthur, fast subsiding into
despair, had opened it, when a knock was heard at the outer door.

Mistress Affery, with a suppressed cry, threw her apron over her

'What? You want another dose!' said Mr Flintwinch. 'You shall
have it, my woman, you shall have a good one! Oh! You shall have
a sneezer, you shall have a teaser!'

'In the meantime is anybody going to the door?' said Arthur.

'In the meantime, I am going to the door, sir,' returned the old
man so savagely, as to render it clear that in a choice of
difficulties he felt he must go, though he would have preferred not
to go. 'Stay here the while, all! Affery, my woman, move an inch,
or speak a word in your foolishness, and I'll treble your dose!'

The moment he was gone, Arthur released Mrs Finching: with some
difficulty, by reason of that lady misunderstanding his intentions,
and making arrangements with a view to tightening instead of

'Affery, speak to me now!'

'Don't touch me, Arthur!' she cried, shrinking from him. 'Don't
come near me. He'll see you. Jeremiah will. Don't.'

'He can't see me,' returned Arthur, suiting the action to the word,
'if I blow the candle out.'

'He'll hear you,' cried Affery.

'He can't hear me,' returned Arthur, suiting the action to the
words again, 'if I draw you into this black closet, and speak here.

Why do you hide your face?'

'Because I am afraid of seeing something.'

'You can't be afraid of seeing anything in this darkness, Affery.'

'Yes I am. Much more than if it was light.'

'Why are you afraid?'

'Because the house is full of mysteries and secrets; because it's
full of whisperings and counsellings; because it's full of noises.
There never was such a house for noises. I shall die of 'em, if
Jeremiah don't strangle me first. As I expect he will.'

'I have never heard any noises here, worth speaking of.'

'Ah! But you would, though, if you lived in the house, and was
obliged to go about it as I am,' said Affery; 'and you'd feel that
they was so well worth speaking of, that you'd feel you was nigh
bursting through not being allowed to speak of 'em. Here's
Jeremiah! You'll get me killed.'

'My good Affery, I solemnly declare to you that I can see the light
of the open door on the pavement of the hall, and so could you if
you would uncover your face and look.'

'I durstn't do it,' said Affery, 'I durstn't never, Arthur. I'm
always blind-folded when Jeremiah an't a looking, and sometimes
even when he is.'

'He cannot shut the door without my seeing him,' said Arthur. 'You
are as safe with me as if he was fifty miles away.'

('I wish he was!' cried Affery.)

'Affery, I want to know what is amiss here; I want some light
thrown on the secrets of this house.'
'I tell you, Arthur,' she interrupted, 'noises is the secrets,
rustlings and stealings about, tremblings, treads overhead and
treads underneath.'

'But those are not all the secrets.'

'I don't know,' said Affery. 'Don't ask me no more. Your old
sweetheart an't far off, and she's a blabber.'

His old sweetheart, being in fact so near at hand that she was then
reclining against him in a flutter, a very substantial angle of
forty-five degrees, here interposed to assure Mistress Affery with
greater earnestness than directness of asseveration, that what she
heard should go no further, but should be kept inviolate, 'if on no
other account on Arthur's--sensible of intruding in being too
familiar Doyce and Clennam's.'

'I make an imploring appeal to you, Affery, to you, one of the few
agreeable early remembrances I have, for my mother's sake, for your
husband's sake, for my own, for all our sakes. I am sure you can
tell me something connected with the coming here of this man, if
you will.'

'Why, then I'll tell you, Arthur,' returned Affery--'Jeremiah's

'No, indeed he is not. The door is open, and he is standing
outside, talking.'

'I'll tell you then,' said Affery, after listening, 'that the first
time he ever come he heard the noises his own self. "What's that?"
he said to me. "I don't know what it is," I says to him, catching
hold of him, "but I have heard it over and over again." While I
says it, he stands a looking at me, all of a shake, he do.'

'Has he been here often?'

'Only that night, and the last night.'

'What did you see of him on the last night, after I was gone?'

'Them two clever ones had him all alone to themselves. Jeremiah
come a dancing at me sideways, after I had let you out (he always
comes a dancing at me sideways when he's going to hurt me), and he
said to me, "Now, Affery," he said, "I am a coming behind you, my
woman, and a going to run you up." So he took and squeezed the
back of my neck in his hand, till it made me open MY mouth, and
then he pushed me before him to bed, squeezing all the way. That's
what he calls running me up, he do. Oh, he's a wicked one!'

'And did you hear or see no more, Affery?'

'Don't I tell you I was sent to bed, Arthur! Here he is!'

'I assure you he is still at the door. Those whisperings and
counsellings, Affery, that you have spoken of. What are they?'

'How should I know? Don't ask me nothing about 'em, Arthur. Get

'But my dear Affery; unless I can gain some insight into these
hidden things, in spite of your husband and in spite of my mother,
ruin will come of it.'

'Don't ask me nothing,' repeated Affery. 'I have been in a dream
for ever so long. Go away, go away!'

'You said that before,' returned Arthur. 'You used the same
expression that night, at the door, when I asked you what was going
on here. What do you mean by being in a dream?'

'I an't a going to tell you. Get away! I shouldn't tell you, if
you was by yourself; much less with your old sweetheart here.'

It was equally vain for Arthur to entreat, and for Flora to
protest. Affery, who had been trembling and struggling the whole
time, turned a deaf ear to all adjuration, and was bent on forcing
herself out of the closet.

'I'd sooner scream to Jeremiah than say another word! I'll call
out to him, Arthur, if you don't give over speaking to me. Now
here's the very last word I'll say afore I call to him--If ever you
begin to get the better of them two clever ones your own self (you
ought to it, as I told you when you first come home, for you
haven't been a living here long years, to be made afeared of your
life as I have), then do you get the better of 'em afore my face;
and then do you say to me, Affery tell your dreams! Maybe, then
I'll tell 'em!'

The shutting of the door stopped Arthur from replying. They glided
into the places where Jeremiah had left them; and Clennam, stepping
forward as that old gentleman returned, informed him that he had
accidentally extinguished the candle. Mr Flintwinch looked on as
he re-lighted it at the lamp in the hall, and preserved a profound
taciturnity respecting the person who had been holding him in
conversation. Perhaps his irascibility demanded compensation for
some tediousness that the visitor had expended on him; however that
was, he took such umbrage at seeing his wife with her apron over
her head, that he charged at her, and taking her veiled nose
between his thumb and finger, appeared to throw the whole screw-
power of his person into the wring he gave it.

Flora, now permanently heavy, did not release Arthur from the
survey of the house, until it had extended even to his old garret
bedchamber. His thoughts were otherwise occupied than with the
tour of inspection; yet he took particular notice at the time, as
he afterwards had occasion to remember, of the airlessness and
closeness of the house; that they left the track of their footsteps
in the dust on the upper floors; and that there was a resistance to
the opening of one room door, which occasioned Affery to cry out
that somebody was hiding inside, and to continue to believe so,
though somebody was sought and not discovered. When they at last
returned to his mother's room, they found her shading her face with
her muffled hand, and talking in a low voice to the Patriarch as he
stood before the fire, whose blue eyes, polished head, and silken
locks, turning towards them as they came in, imparted an
inestimable value and inexhaustible love of his species to his

'So you have been seeing the premises, seeing the premises--
premises--seeing the premises!'

it was not in itself a jewel of benevolence or wisdom, yet he made
it an exemplar of both that one would have liked to have a copy of.

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