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Charles Dickens > Little Dorrit > Chapter 67

Little Dorrit

Chapter 67


The sun had set, and the streets were dim in the dusty twilight,
when the figure so long unused to them hurried on its way. In the
immediate neighbourhood of the old house it attracted little
attention, for there were only a few straggling people to notice
it; but, ascending from the river by the crooked ways that led to
London Bridge, and passing into the great main road, it became
surrounded by astonishment.

Resolute and wild of look, rapid of foot and yet weak and
uncertain, conspicuously dressed in its black garments and with its
hurried head-covering, gaunt and of an unearthly paleness, it
pressed forward, taking no more heed of the throng than a sleep-
walker. More remarkable by being so removed from the crowd it was
among than if it had been lifted on a pedestal to be seen, the
figure attracted all eyes. Saunterers pricked up their attention
to observe it; busy people, crossing it, slackened their pace and
turned their heads; companions pausing and standing aside,
whispered one another to look at this spectral woman who was coming
by; and the sweep of the figure as it passed seemed to create a
vortex, drawing the most idle and most curious after it.

Made giddy by the turbulent irruption of this multitude of staring
faces into her cell of years, by the confusing sensation of being
in the air, and the yet more confusing sensation of being afoot, by
the unexpected changes in half-remembered objects, and the want of
likeness between the controllable pictures her imagination had
often drawn of the life from which she was secluded and the
overwhelming rush of the reality, she held her way as if she were
environed by distracting thoughts, rather than by external humanity
and observation. But, having crossed the bridge and gone some
distance straight onward, she remembered that she must ask for a
direction; and it was only then, when she stopped and turned to
look about her for a promising place of inquiry, that she found
herself surrounded by an eager glare of faces.

'Why are you encircling me?' she asked, trembling.

None of those who were nearest answered; but from the outer ring
there arose a shrill cry of ''Cause you're mad!'

'I am sure as sane as any one here. I want to find the Marshalsea

The shrill outer circle again retorted, 'Then that 'ud show you was
mad if nothing else did, 'cause it's right opposite!'

A short, mild, quiet-looking young man made his way through to her,
as a whooping ensued on this reply, and said: 'Was it the
Marshalsea you wanted? I'm going on duty there. Come across with

She laid her hand upon his arm, and he took her over the way; the
crowd, rather injured by the near prospect of losing her, pressing
before and behind and on either side, and recommending an
adjournment to Bedlam. After a momentary whirl in the outer court-
yard, the prison-door opened, and shut upon them. In the Lodge,
which seemed by contrast with the outer noise a place of refuge and
peace, a yellow lamp was already striving with the prison shadows.

'Why, John!' said the turnkey who admitted them. 'What is it?'

'Nothing, father; only this lady not knowing her way, and being
badgered by the boys. Who did you want, ma'am?'

'Miss Dorrit. Is she here?'

The young man became more interested. 'Yes, she is here. What
might your name be?'

'Mrs Clennam.'

'Mr Clennam's mother?' asked the young man.

She pressed her lips together, and hesitated. 'Yes. She had
better be told it is his mother.'

'You see,' said the young man,'the Marshal's family living in the
country at present, the Marshal has given Miss Dorrit one of the
rooms in his house to use when she likes. Don't you think you had
better come up there, and let me bring Miss Dorrit?'

She signified her assent, and he unlocked a door and conducted her
up a side staircase into a dwelling-house above. He showed her
into a darkening room, and left her. The room looked down into the
darkening prison-yard, with its inmates strolling here and there,
leaning out of windows communing as much apart as they could with
friends who were going away, and generally wearing out their
imprisonment as they best might that summer evening. The air was
heavy and hot; the closeness of the place, oppressive; and from
without there arose a rush of free sounds, like the jarring memory
of such things in a headache and heartache. She stood at the
window, bewildered, looking down into this prison as it were out of
her own different prison, when a soft word or two of surprise made
her start, and Little Dorrit stood before her.

'Is it possible, Mrs Clennam, that you are so happily
recovered as--'

Little Dorrit stopped, for there was neither happiness nor health
in the face that turned to her.
'This is not recovery; it is not strength; I don't know what it
is.' With an agitated wave of her hand, she put all that aside.
'You have a packet left with you which you were to give to Arthur,
if it was not reclaimed before this place closed to-night.'


'I reclaim it.'

Little Dorrit took it from her bosom, and gave it into her hand,
which remained stretched out after receiving it.

'Have you any idea of its contents?'

Frightened by her being there with that new power Of Movement in
her, which, as she said herself, was not strength, and which was
unreal to look upon, as though a picture or statue had been
animated, Little Dorrit answered 'No.'

'Read them.'

Little Dorrit took the packet from the still outstretched hand, and
broke the seal. Mrs Clennam then gave her the inner packet that
was addressed to herself, and held the other. The shadow of the
wall and of the prison buildings, which made the room sombre at
noon, made it too dark to read there, with the dusk deepening
apace, save in the window. In the window, where a little of the
bright summer evening sky could shine upon her, Little Dorrit
stood, and read. After a broken exclamation or so of wonder and of
terror, she read in silence. When she had finished, she looked
round, and her old mistress bowed herself before her.

'You know, now, what I have done.'

'I think so. I am afraid so; though my mind is so hurried, and so
sorry, and has so much to pity that it has not been able to follow
all I have read,' said Little Dorrit tremulously.

'I will restore to you what I have withheld from you. Forgive me.
Can you forgive me?'

'I can, and Heaven knows I do! Do not kiss my dress and kneel to
me; you are too old to kneel to me; I forgive you freely without

'I have more yet to ask.'

'Not in that posture,' said Little Dorrit. 'It is unnatural to see
your grey hair lower than mine. Pray rise; let me help you.' With
that she raised her up, and stood rather shrinking from her, but
looking at her earnestly.

'The great petition that I make to you (there is another which
grows out of it), the great supplication that I address to your
merciful and gentle heart, is, that you will not disclose this to
Arthur until I am dead. If you think, when you have had time for
consideration, that it can do him any good to know it while I am
yet alive, then tell him. But you will not think that; and in such
case, will you promise me to spare me until I am dead?'

'I am so sorry, and what I have read has so confused my thoughts,'
returned Little Dorrit, 'that I can scarcely give you a steady
answer. If I should be quite sure that to be acquainted with it
will do Mr Clennam no good--'

'I know you are attached to him, and will make him the first
consideration. It is right that he should be the first
consideration. I ask that. But, having regarded him, and still
finding that you may spare me for the little time I shall remain on
earth, will you do it?'

'I will.'

'GOD bless you!'

She stood in the shadow so that she was only a veiled form to
Little Dorrit in the light; but the sound of her voice, in saying
those three grateful words, was at once fervent and broken--broken
by emotion as unfamiliar to her frozen eyes as action to her frozen

'You will wonder, perhaps,' she said in a stronger tone, 'that I
can better bear to be known to you whom I have wronged, than to the
son of my enemy who wronged me.--For she did wrong me! She not
only sinned grievously against the Lord, but she wronged me. What
Arthur's father was to me, she made him. From our marriage day I
was his dread, and that she made me. I was the scourge of both,
and that is referable to her. You love Arthur (I can see the blush
upon your face; may it be the dawn of happier days to both of
you!), and you will have thought already that he is as merciful and
kind as you, and why do I not trust myself to him as soon as to
you. Have you not thought so?'

'No thought,' said Little Dorrit, 'can be quite a stranger to my
heart, that springs out of the knowledge that Mr Clennam is always
to be relied upon for being kind and generous and good.'

'I do not doubt it. Yet Arthur is, of the whole world, the one
person from whom I would conceal this, while I am in it. I kept
over him as a child, in the days of his first remembrance, my
restraining and correcting hand. I was stern with him, knowing
that the transgressions of the parents are visited on their
offspring, and that there was an angry mark upon him at his birth.
I have sat with him and his father, seeing the weakness of his
father yearning to unbend to him; and forcing it back, that the
child might work out his release in bondage and hardship. I have
seen him, with his mother's face, looking up at me in awe from his
little books, and trying to soften me with his mother's ways that
hardened me.'

The shrinking of her auditress stopped her for a moment in her flow
of words, delivered in a retrospective gloomy voice.

'For his good. Not for the satisfaction of my injury. What was I,
and what was the worth of that, before the curse of Heaven! I have
seen that child grow up; not to be pious in a chosen way (his
mother's influence lay too heavy on him for that), but still to be
just and upright, and to be submissive to me. He never loved me,
as I once half-hoped he might--so frail we are, and so do the
corrupt affections of the flesh war with our trusts and tasks; but
he always respected me and ordered himself dutifully to me. He
does to this hour. With an empty place in his heart that he has
never known the meaning of, he has turned away from me and gone his
separate road; but even that he has done considerately and with
deference. These have been his relations towards me. Yours have
been of a much slighter kind, spread over a much shorter time.
When you have sat at your needle in my room, you have been in fear
of me, but you have supposed me to have been doing you a kindness;
you are better informed now, and know me to have done you an
injury. Your misconstruction and misunderstanding of the cause in
which, and the motives with which, I have worked out this work, is
lighter to endure than his would be. I would not, for any worldly
recompense I can imagine, have him in a moment, however blindly,
throw me down from the station I have held before him all his life,
and change me altogether into something he would cast out of his
respect, and think detected and exposed. Let him do it, if it must
be done, when I am not here to see it. Let me never feel, while I
am still alive, that I die before his face, and utterly perish away
from him, like one consumed by lightning and swallowed by an

Her pride was very strong in her, the pain of it and of her old
passions was very sharp with her, when she thus expressed herself.
Not less so, when she added:

'Even now, I see YOU shrink from me, as if I had been cruel.'

Little Dorrit could not gainsay it. She tried not to show it, but
she recoiled with dread from the state of mind that had burnt so
fiercely and lasted so long. It presented itself to her, with no
sophistry upon it, in its own plain nature.

'I have done,' said Mrs Clennam,'what it was given to me to do. I
have set myself against evil; not against good. I have been an
instrument of severity against sin. Have not mere sinners like
myself been commissioned to lay it low in all time?'

'In all time?' repeated Little Dorrit.

'Even if my own wrong had prevailed with me, and my own vengeance
had moved me, could I have found no justification? None in the old
days when the innocent perished with the guilty 2 a thousand to
one? When the wrath of the hater of the unrighteous was not slaked
even in blood, and yet found favour?'

'O, Mrs Clennam, Mrs Clennam,' said Little Dorrit, 'angry feelings
and unforgiving deeds are no comfort and no guide to you and me.
My life has been passed in this poor prison, and my teaching has
been very defective; but let me implore you to remember later and
better days. Be guided only by the healer of the sick, the raiser
of the dead, the friend of all who were afflicted and forlorn, the
patient Master who shed tears of compassion for our infirmities.
We cannot but be right if we put all the rest away, and do
everything in remembrance of Him. There is no vengeance and no
infliction of suffering in His life, I am sure. There can be no
confusion in following Him, and seeking for no other footsteps, I
am certain.'

In the softened light of the window, looking from the scene of her
early trials to the shining sky, she was not in stronger opposition
to the black figure in the shade than the life and doctrine on
which she rested were to that figure's history. It bent its head
low again, and said not a word. It remained thus, until the first
warning bell began to ring.

'Hark!' cried Mrs Clennam starting, 'I said I had another petition.

It is one that does not admit of delay. The man who brought you
this packet and possesses these proofs, is now waiting at my house
to be bought off. I can keep this from Arthur, only by buying him
off. He asks a large sum; more than I can get together to pay him
without having time. He refuses to make any abatement, because his
threat is, that if he fails with me, he will come to you. Will you
return with me and show him that you already know it? Will you
return with me and try to prevail with him? Will you come and help
me with him? Do not refuse what I ask in Arthur's name, though I
dare not ask it for Arthur's sake!'

Little Dorrit yielded willingly. She glided away into the prison
for a few moments, returned, and said she was ready to go. They
went out by another staircase, avoiding the lodge; and coming into
the front court-yard, now all quiet and deserted, gained the

It was one of those summer evenings when there is no greater
darkness than a long twilight. The vista of street and bridge was
plain to see, and the sky was serene and beautiful. People stood
and sat at their doors, playing with children and enjoying the
evening; numbers were walking for air; the worry of the day had
almost worried itself out, and few but themselves were hurried. As
they crossed the bridge, the clear steeples of the many churches
looked as if they had advanced out of the murk that usually
enshrouded them, and come much nearer. The smoke that rose into
the sky had lost its dingy hue and taken a brightness upon it. The
beauties of the sunset had not faded from the long light films of
cloud that lay at peace in the horizon. From a radiant centre,
over the whole length and breadth of the tranquil firmament, great
shoots of light streamed among the early stars, like signs of the
blessed later covenant of peace and hope that changed the crown of
thorns into a glory.

Less remarkable, now that she was not alone and it was darker, Mrs
Clennam hurried on at Little Dorrit's side, unmolested. They left
the great thoroughfare at the turning by which she had entered it,
and wound their way down among the silent, empty, cross-streets.
Their feet were at the gateway, when there was a sudden noise like

'What was that! Let us make haste in,' cried Mrs Clennam.

They were in the gateway. Little Dorrit, with a piercing cry, held
her back.

In one swift instant the old house was before them, with the man
lying smoking in the window; another thundering sound, and it
heaved, surged outward, opened asunder in fifty places, collapsed,
and fell. Deafened by the noise, stifled, choked, and blinded by
the dust, they hid their faces and stood rooted to the spot. The
dust storm, driving between them and the placid sky, parted for a
moment and showed them the stars. As they looked up, wildly crying
for help, the great pile of chimneys, which was then alone left
standing like a tower in a whirlwind, rocked, broke, and hailed
itself down upon the heap of ruin, as if every tumbling fragment
were intent on burying the crushed wretch deeper.

So blackened by the flying particles of rubbish as to be
unrecognisable, they ran back from the gateway into the street,
crying and shrieking. There, Mrs Clennam dropped upon the stones;
and she never from that hour moved so much as a finger again, or
had the power to speak one word. For upwards of three years she
reclined in a wheeled chair, looking attentively at those about her
and appearing to understand what they said; but the rigid silence
she had so long held was evermore enforced upon her, and except
that she could move her eyes and faintly express a negative and
affirmative with her head, she lived and died a statue.

Affery had been looking for them at the prison, and had caught
sight of them at a distance on the bridge. She came up to receive
her old mistress in her arms, to help to carry her into a
neighbouring house, and to be faithful to her. The mystery of the
noises was out now; Affery, like greater people, had always been
right in her facts, and always wrong in the theories she deduced
from them.

When the storm of dust had cleared away and the summer night was
calm again, numbers of people choked up every avenue of access, and
parties of diggers were formed to relieve one another in digging
among the ruins. There had been a hundred people in the house at
the time of its fall, there had been fifty, there had been fifteen,
there had been two. Rumour finally settled the number at two; the
foreigner and Mr Flintwinch.
The diggers dug all through the short night by flaring pipes of
gas, and on a level with the early sun, and deeper and deeper below
it as it rose into its zenith, and aslant of it as it declined, and
on a level with it again as it departed. Sturdy digging, and
shovelling, and carrying away, in carts, barrows, and baskets, went
on without intermission, by night and by day; but it was night for
the second time when they found the dirty heap of rubbish that had
been the foreigner before his head had been shivered to atoms, like
so much glass, by the great beam that lay upon him, crushing him.

Still, they had not come upon Flintwinch yet; so the sturdy digging
and shovelling and carrying away went on without intermission by
night and by day. It got about that the old house had had famous
cellarage (which indeed was true), and that Flintwinch had been in
a cellar at the moment, or had had time to escape into one, and
that he was safe under its strong arch, and even that he had been
heard to cry, in hollow, subterranean, suffocated notes, 'Here I
am!' At the opposite extremity of the town it was even known that
the excavators had been able to open a communication with him
through a pipe, and that he had received both soup and brandy by
that channel, and that he had said with admirable fortitude that he
was All right, my lads, with the exception of his collar-bone. But
the digging and shovelling and carrying away went on without
intermission, until the ruins were all dug out, and the cellars
opened to the light; and still no Flintwinch, living or dead, all
right or all wrong, had been turned up by pick or spade.

It began then to be perceived that Flintwinch had not been there at
the time of the fall; and it began then to be perceived that he had
been rather busy elsewhere, converting securities into as much
money as could be got for them on the shortest notice, and turning
to his own exclusive account his authority to act for the Firm.
Affery, remembering that the clever one had said he would explain
himself further in four-and-twenty hours' time, determined for her
part that his taking himself off within that period with all he
could get, was the final satisfactory sum and substance of his
promised explanation; but she held her peace, devoutly thankful to
be quit of him. As it seemed reasonable to conclude that a man who
had never been buried could not be unburied, the diggers gave him
up when their task was done, and did not dig down for him into the
depths of the earth.

This was taken in ill part by a great many people, who persisted in
believing that Flintwinch was lying somewhere among the London
geological formation. Nor was their belief much shaken by repeated
intelligence which came over in course of time, that an old man who
wore the tie of his neckcloth under one ear, and who was very well
known to be an Englishman, consorted with the Dutchmen on the
quaint banks of the canals of the Hague and in the drinking-shops
of Amsterdam, under the style and designation of Mynheer von

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