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Charles Dickens > Little Dorrit > Chapter 6

Little Dorrit

Chapter 6

The Father of the Marshalsea

Thirty years ago there stood, a few doors short of the church of
Saint George, in the borough of Southwark, on the left-hand side of
the way going southward, the Marshalsea Prison. It had stood there
many years before, and it remained there some years afterwards; but
it is gone now, and the world is none the worse without it.

It was an oblong pile of barrack building, partitioned into squalid
houses standing back to back, so that there were no back rooms;
environed by a narrow paved yard, hemmed in by high walls duly
spiked at top. Itself a close and confined prison for debtors, it
contained within it a much closer and more confined jail for
smugglers. Offenders against the revenue laws, and defaulters to
excise or customs who had incurred fines which they were unable to
pay, were supposed to be incarcerated behind an iron-plated door
closing up a second prison, consisting of a strong cell or two, and
a blind alley some yard and a half wide, which formed the
mysterious termination of the very limited skittle-ground in which
the Marshalsea debtors bowled down their troubles.

Supposed to be incarcerated there, because the time had rather
outgrown the strong cells and the blind alley. In practice they
had come to be considered a little too bad, though in theory they
were quite as good as ever; which may be observed to be the case at
the present day with other cells that are not at all strong, and
with other blind alleys that are stone-blind. Hence the smugglers
habitually consorted with the debtors (who received them with open
arms), except at certain constitutional moments when somebody came
from some Office, to go through some form of overlooking something
which neither he nor anybody else knew anything about. On these
truly British occasions, the smugglers, if any, made a feint of
walking into the strong cells and the blind alley, while this
somebody pretended to do his something: and made a reality of
walking out again as soon as he hadn't done it--neatly epitomising
the administration of most of the public affairs in our right
little, tight little, island.

There had been taken to the Marshalsea Prison, long before the day
when the sun shone on Marseilles and on the opening of this
narrative, a debtor with whom this narrative has some concern.

He was, at that time, a very amiable and very helpless middle-aged
gentleman, who was going out again directly. Necessarily, he was
going out again directly, because the Marshalsea lock never turned
upon a debtor who was not. He brought in a portmanteau with him,
which he doubted its being worth while to unpack; he was so
perfectly clear--like all the rest of them, the turnkey on the lock
said--that he was going out again directly.

He was a shy, retiring man; well-looking, though in an effeminate
style; with a mild voice, curling hair, and irresolute hands--rings
upon the fingers in those days--which nervously wandered to his
trembling lip a hundred times in the first half-hour of his
acquaintance with the jail. His principal anxiety was about his

'Do you think, sir,' he asked the turnkey, 'that she will be very
much shocked, if she should come to the gate to-morrow morning?'

The turnkey gave it as the result of his experience that some of
'em was and some of 'em wasn't. In general, more no than yes.
'What like is she, you see?' he philosophically asked: 'that's what
it hinges on.'

'She is very delicate and inexperienced indeed.'

'That,' said the turnkey, 'is agen her.'

'She is so little used to go out alone,' said the debtor, 'that I
am at a loss to think how she will ever make her way here, if she

'P'raps,' quoth the turnkey, 'she'll take a ackney coach.'

'Perhaps.' The irresolute fingers went to the trembling lip. 'I
hope she will. She may not think of it.'

'Or p'raps,' said the turnkey, offering his suggestions from the
the top of his well-worn wooden stool, as he might have offered
them to a child for whose weakness he felt a compassion, 'p'raps
she'll get her brother, or her sister, to come along with her.'

'She has no brother or sister.'

'Niece, nevy, cousin, serwant, young 'ooman, greengrocer.--Dash it!

One or another on 'em,' said the turnkey, repudiating beforehand
the refusal of all his suggestions.

'I fear--I hope it is not against the rules--that she will bring
the children.'

'The children?' said the turnkey. 'And the rules? Why, lord set
you up like a corner pin, we've a reg'lar playground o' children
here. Children! Why we swarm with 'em. How many a you got?'

'Two,' said the debtor, lifting his irresolute hand to his lip
again, and turning into the prison.

The turnkey followed him with his eyes. 'And you another,' he
observed to himself, 'which makes three on you. And your wife
another, I'll lay a crown. Which makes four on you. And another
coming, I'll lay half-a-crown. Which'll make five on you. And
I'll go another seven and sixpence to name which is the
helplessest, the unborn baby or you!'

He was right in all his particulars. She came next day with a
little boy of three years old, and a little girl of two, and he
stood entirely corroborated.

'Got a room now; haven't you?' the turnkey asked the debtor after
a week or two.

'Yes, I have got a very good room.'

'Any little sticks a coming to furnish it?' said the turnkey.

'I expect a few necessary articles of furniture to be delivered by
the carrier, this afternoon.'

'Missis and little 'uns a coming to keep you company?' asked the

'Why, yes, we think it better that we should not be scattered, even
for a few weeks.'

'Even for a few weeks, OF course,' replied the turnkey. And he
followed him again with his eyes, and nodded his head seven times
when he was gone.

The affairs of this debtor were perplexed by a partnership, of
which he knew no more than that he had invested money in it; by
legal matters of assignment and settlement, conveyance here and
conveyance there, suspicion of unlawful preference of creditors in
this direction, and of mysterious spiriting away of property in
that; and as nobody on the face of the earth could be more
incapable of explaining any single item in the heap of confusion
than the debtor himself, nothing comprehensible could be made of
his case. To question him in detail, and endeavour to reconcile
his answers; to closet him with accountants and sharp
practitioners, learned in the wiles of insolvency and bankruptcy;
was only to put the case out at compound interest and
incomprehensibility. The irresolute fingers fluttered more and
more ineffectually about the trembling lip on every such occasion,
and the sharpest practitioners gave him up as a hopeless job.

'Out?' said the turnkey, 'he'll never get out, unless his creditors
take him by the shoulders and shove him out.'

He had been there five or six months, when he came running to this
turnkey one forenoon to tell him, breathless and pale, that his
wife was ill.

'As anybody might a known she would be,' said the turnkey.

'We intended,' he returned, 'that she should go to a country
lodging only to-morrow. What am I to do! Oh, good heaven, what am
I to do!'

'Don't waste your time in clasping your hands and biting your
fingers,' responded the practical turnkey, taking him by the elbow,
'but come along with me.'

The turnkey conducted him--trembling from head to foot, and
constantly crying under his breath, What was he to do! while his
irresolute fingers bedabbled the tears upon his face--up one of the
common staircases in the prison to a door on the garret story.
Upon which door the turnkey knocked with the handle of his key.

'Come in!' cried a voice inside.

The turnkey, opening the door, disclosed in a wretched, ill-
smelling little room, two hoarse, puffy, red-faced personages
seated at a rickety table, playing at all-fours, smoking pipes, and
drinking brandy.
'Doctor,' said the turnkey, 'here's a gentleman's wife in want of
you without a minute's loss of time!'

The doctor's friend was in the positive degree of hoarseness,
puffiness, red-facedness, all-fours, tobacco, dirt, and brandy; the
doctor in the comparative--hoarser, puffier, more red-faced, more
all-fourey, tobaccoer, dirtier, and brandier. The doctor was
amazingly shabby, in a torn and darned rough-weather sea-jacket,
out at elbows and eminently short of buttons (he had been in his
time the experienced surgeon carried by a passenger ship), the
dirtiest white trousers conceivable by mortal man, carpet slippers,
and no visible linen. 'Childbed?' said the doctor. 'I'm the boy!'
With that the doctor took a comb from the chimney-piece and stuck
his hair upright--which appeared to be his way of washing himself--
produced a professional chest or case, of most abject appearance,
from the cupboard where his cup and saucer and coals were, settled
his chin in the frowsy wrapper round his neck, and became a ghastly
medical scarecrow.

The doctor and the debtor ran down-stairs, leaving the turnkey to
return to the lock, and made for the debtor's room. All the ladies
in the prison had got hold of the news, and were in the yard. Some
of them had already taken possession of the two children, and were
hospitably carrying them off; others were offering loans of little
comforts from their own scanty store; others were sympathising with
the greatest volubility. The gentlemen prisoners, feeling
themselves at a disadvantage, had for the most part retired, not to
say sneaked, to their rooms; from the open windows of which some of
them now complimented the doctor with whistles as he passed below,
while others, with several stories between them, interchanged
sarcastic references to the prevalent excitement.

It was a hot summer day, and the prison rooms were baking between
the high walls. In the debtor's confined chamber, Mrs Bangham,
charwoman and messenger, who was not a prisoner (though she had
been once), but was the popular medium of communication with the
outer world, had volunteered her services as fly-catcher and
general attendant. The walls and ceiling were blackened with
flies. Mrs Bangham, expert in sudden device, with one hand fanned
the patient with a cabbage leaf, and with the other set traps of
vinegar and sugar in gallipots; at the same time enunciating
sentiments of an encouraging and congratulatory nature, adapted to
the occasion.

'The flies trouble you, don't they, my dear?' said Mrs Bangham.
'But p'raps they'll take your mind off of it, and do you good.
What between the buryin ground, the grocer's, the waggon-stables,
and the paunch trade, the Marshalsea flies gets very large. P'raps
they're sent as a consolation, if we only know'd it. How are you
now, my dear? No better? No, my dear, it ain't to be expected;
you'll be worse before you're better, and you know it, don't you?
Yes. That's right! And to think of a sweet little cherub being
born inside the lock! Now ain't it pretty, ain't THAT something to
carry you through it pleasant? Why, we ain't had such a thing
happen here, my dear, not for I couldn't name the time when. And
you a crying too?' said Mrs Bangham, to rally the patient more and
more. 'You! Making yourself so famous! With the flies a falling
into the gallipots by fifties! And everything a going on so well!
And here if there ain't,' said Mrs Bangham as the door opened, 'if
there ain't your dear gentleman along with Dr Haggage! And now
indeed we ARE complete, I THINK!'

The doctor was scarcely the kind of apparition to inspire a patient
with a sense of absolute completeness, but as he presently
delivered the opinion, 'We are as right as we can be, Mrs Bangham,
and we shall come out of this like a house afire;' and as he and
Mrs Bangham took possession of the poor helpless pair, as everybody
else and anybody else had always done, the means at hand were as
good on the whole as better would have been. The special feature
in Dr Haggage's treatment of the case, was his determination to
keep Mrs Bangham up to the mark. As thus:

'Mrs Bangham,' said the doctor, before he had been there twenty
minutes, 'go outside and fetch a little brandy, or we shall have
you giving in.'

'Thank you, sir. But none on my accounts,' said Mrs Bangham.

'Mrs Bangham,' returned the doctor, 'I am in professional
attendance on this lady, and don't choose to allow any discussion
on your part. Go outside and fetch a little brandy, or I foresee
that you'll break down.'

'You're to be obeyed, sir,' said Mrs Bangham, rising. 'If you was
to put your own lips to it, I think you wouldn't be the worse, for
you look but poorly, sir.'

'Mrs Bangham,' returned the doctor, 'I am not your business, thank
you, but you are mine. Never you mind ME, if you please. What you
have got to do, is, to do as you are told, and to go and get what
I bid you.'

Mrs Bangham submitted; and the doctor, having administered her
potion, took his own. He repeated the treatment every hour, being
very determined with Mrs Bangham. Three or four hours passed; the
flies fell into the traps by hundreds; and at length one little
life, hardly stronger than theirs, appeared among the multitude of
lesser deaths.

'A very nice little girl indeed,' said the doctor; 'little, but
well-formed. Halloa, Mrs Bangham! You're looking queer! You be
off, ma'am, this minute, and fetch a little more brandy, or we
shall have you in hysterics.'

By this time, the rings had begun to fall from the debtor's
irresolute hands, like leaves from a wintry tree. Not one was left
upon them that night, when he put something that chinked into the
doctor's greasy palm. In the meantime Mrs Bangham had been out on
an errand to a neighbouring establishment decorated with three
golden balls, where she was very well known.

'Thank you,' said the doctor, 'thank you. Your good lady is quite
composed. Doing charmingly.'

'I am very happy and very thankful to know it,' said the debtor,
'though I little thought once, that--'

'That a child would be born to you in a place like this?' said the
doctor. 'Bah, bah, sir, what does it signify? A little more
elbow-room is all we want here. We are quiet here; we don't get
badgered here; there's no knocker here, sir, to be hammered at by
creditors and bring a man's heart into his mouth. Nobody comes
here to ask if a man's at home, and to say he'll stand on the door
mat till he is. Nobody writes threatening letters about money to
this place. It's freedom, sir, it's freedom! I have had to-day's
practice at home and abroad, on a march, and aboard ship, and I'll
tell you this: I don't know that I have ever pursued it under such
quiet circumstances as here this day. Elsewhere, people are
restless, worried, hurried about, anxious respecting one thing,
anxious respecting another. Nothing of the kind here, sir. We
have done all that--we know the worst of it; we have got to the
bottom, we can't fall, and what have we found? Peace. That's the
word for it. Peace.' With this profession of faith, the doctor,
who was an old jail-bird, and was more sodden than usual, and had
the additional and unusual stimulus of money in his pocket,
returned to his associate and chum in hoarseness, puffiness, red-
facedness, all-fours, tobacco, dirt, and brandy.

Now, the debtor was a very different man from the doctor, but he
had already begun to travel, by his opposite segment of the circle,
to the same point. Crushed at first by his imprisonment, he had
soon found a dull relief in it. He was under lock and key; but the
lock and key that kept him in, kept numbers of his troubles out.
If he had been a man with strength of purpose to face those
troubles and fight them, he might have broken the net that held
him, or broken his heart; but being what he was, he languidly
slipped into this smooth descent, and never more took one step

When he was relieved of the perplexed affairs that nothing would
make plain, through having them returned upon his hands by a dozen
agents in succession who could make neither beginning, middle, nor
end of them or him, he found his miserable place of refuge a
quieter refuge than it had been before. He had unpacked the
portmanteau long ago; and his elder children now played regularly
about the yard, and everybody knew the baby, and claimed a kind of
proprietorship in her.

'Why, I'm getting proud of you,' said his friend the turnkey, one
day. 'You'll be the oldest inhabitant soon. The Marshalsea
wouldn't be like the Marshalsea now, without you and your family.'

The turnkey really was proud of him. He would mention him in
laudatory terms to new-comers, when his back was turned. 'You took
notice of him,' he would say, 'that went out of the lodge just

New-comer would probably answer Yes.

'Brought up as a gentleman, he was, if ever a man was. Ed'cated at
no end of expense. Went into the Marshal's house once to try a new
piano for him. Played it, I understand, like one o'clock--
beautiful! As to languages--speaks anything. We've had a
Frenchman here in his time, and it's my opinion he knowed more
French than the Frenchman did. We've had an Italian here in his
time, and he shut him up in about half a minute. You'll find some
characters behind other locks, I don't say you won't; but if you
want the top sawyer in such respects as I've mentioned, you must
come to the Marshalsea.'

When his youngest child was eight years old, his wife, who had long
been languishing away--of her own inherent weakness, not that she
retained any greater sensitiveness as to her place of abode than he
did--went upon a visit to a poor friend and old nurse in the
country, and died there. He remained shut up in his room for a
fortnight afterwards; and an attorney's clerk, who was going
through the Insolvent Court, engrossed an address of condolence to
him, which looked like a Lease, and which all the prisoners signed.

When he appeared again he was greyer (he had soon begun to turn
grey); and the turnkey noticed that his hands went often to his
trembling lips again, as they had used to do when he first came in.

But he got pretty well over it in a month or two; and in the
meantime the children played about the yard as regularly as ever,
but in black.

Then Mrs Bangham, long popular medium of communication with the
outer world, began to be infirm, and to be found oftener than usual
comatose on pavements, with her basket of purchases spilt, and the
change of her clients ninepence short. His son began to supersede
Mrs Bangham, and to execute commissions in a knowing manner, and to
be of the prison prisonous, of the streets streety.

Time went on, and the turnkey began to fail. His chest swelled,
and his legs got weak, and he was short of breath. The well-worn
wooden stool was 'beyond him,' he complained. He sat in an arm-
chair with a cushion, and sometimes wheezed so, for minutes
together, that he couldn't turn the key. When he was overpowered
by these fits, the debtor often turned it for him.
'You and me,' said the turnkey, one snowy winter's night when the
lodge, with a bright fire in it, was pretty full of company, 'is
the oldest inhabitants. I wasn't here myself above seven year
before you. I shan't last long. When I'm off the lock for good
and all, you'll be the Father of the Marshalsea.'

The turnkey went off the lock of this world next day. His words
were remembered and repeated; and tradition afterwards handed down
from generation to generation--a Marshalsea generation might be
calculated as about three months--that the shabby old debtor with
the soft manner and the white hair, was the Father of the

And he grew to be proud of the title. If any impostor had arisen
to claim it, he would have shed tears in resentment of the attempt
to deprive him of his rights. A disposition began to be perceived
in him to exaggerate the number of years he had been there; it was
generally understood that you must deduct a few from his account;
he was vain, the fleeting generations of debtors said.

All new-comers were presented to him. He was punctilious in the
exaction of this ceremony. The wits would perform the office of
introduction with overcharged pomp and politeness, but they could
not easily overstep his sense of its gravity. He received them in
his poor room (he disliked an introduction in the mere yard, as
informal--a thing that might happen to anybody), with a kind of
bowed-down beneficence. They were welcome to the Marshalsea, he
would tell them. Yes, he was the Father of the place. So the
world was kind enough to call him; and so he was, if more than
twenty years of residence gave him a claim to the title. It looked
small at first, but there was very good company there--among a
mixture--necessarily a mixture--and very good air.

It became a not unusual circumstance for letters to be put under
his door at night, enclosing half-a-crown, two half-crowns, now and
then at long intervals even half-a-sovereign, for the Father of the
Marshalsea. 'With the compliments of a collegian taking leave.'
He received the gifts as tributes, from admirers, to a public
character. Sometimes these correspondents assumed facetious names,
as the Brick, Bellows, Old Gooseberry, Wideawake, Snooks, Mops,
Cutaway, the Dogs-meat Man; but he considered this in bad taste,
and was always a little hurt by it.

In the fulness of time, this correspondence showing signs of
wearing out, and seeming to require an effort on the part of the
correspondents to which in the hurried circumstances of departure
many of them might not be equal, he established the custom of
attending collegians of a certain standing, to the gate, and taking
leave of them there. The collegian under treatment, after shaking
hands, would occasionally stop to wrap up something in a bit of
paper, and would come back again calling 'Hi!'

He would look round surprised.'Me?' he would say, with a smile.
By this time the collegian would be up with him, and he would
paternally add,'What have you forgotten? What can I do for you?'

'I forgot to leave this,' the collegian would usually return, 'for
the Father of the Marshalsea.'

'My good sir,' he would rejoin, 'he is infinitely obliged to you.'
But, to the last, the irresolute hand of old would remain in the
pocket into which he had slipped the money during two or three
turns about the yard, lest the transaction should be too
conspicuous to the general body of collegians.

One afternoon he had been doing the honours of the place to a
rather large party of collegians, who happened to be going out,
when, as he was coming back, he encountered one from the poor side
who had been taken in execution for a small sum a week before, had
'settled' in the course of that afternoon, and was going out too.
The man was a mere Plasterer in his working dress; had his wife
with him, and a bundle; and was in high spirits.

'God bless you, sir,' he said in passing.

'And you,' benignantly returned the Father of the Marshalsea.

They were pretty far divided, going their several ways, when the
Plasterer called out, 'I say!--sir!' and came back to him.

'It ain't much,' said the Plasterer, putting a little pile of
halfpence in his hand, 'but it's well meant.'

The Father of the Marshalsea had never been offered tribute in
copper yet. His children often had, and with his perfect
acquiescence it had gone into the common purse to buy meat that he
had eaten, and drink that he had drunk; but fustian splashed with
white lime, bestowing halfpence on him, front to front, was new.

'How dare you!' he said to the man, and feebly burst into tears.

The Plasterer turned him towards the wall, that his face might not
be seen; and the action was so delicate, and the man was so
penetrated with repentance, and asked pardon so honestly, that he
could make him no less acknowledgment than, 'I know you meant it
kindly. Say no more.'

'Bless your soul, sir,' urged the Plasterer, 'I did indeed. I'd do
more by you than the rest of 'em do, I fancy.'

'What would you do?' he asked.

'I'd come back to see you, after I was let out.'

'Give me the money again,' said the other, eagerly, 'and I'll keep
it, and never spend it. Thank you for it, thank you! I shall see
you again?'
'If I live a week you shall.'

They shook hands and parted. The collegians, assembled in
Symposium in the Snuggery that night, marvelled what had happened
to their Father; he walked so late in the shadows of the yard, and
seemed so downcast.

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