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Charles Dickens > Little Dorrit > Chapter 7

Little Dorrit

Chapter 7

The Child of the Marshalsea

The baby whose first draught of air had been tinctured with Doctor
Haggage's brandy, was handed down among the generations of
collegians, like the tradition of their common parent. In the
earlier stages of her existence, she was handed down in a literal
and prosaic sense; it being almost a part of the entrance footing
of every new collegian to nurse the child who had been born in the

'By rights,' remarked the turnkey when she was first shown to him,
'I ought to be her godfather.'

The debtor irresolutely thought of it for a minute, and said,
'Perhaps you wouldn't object to really being her godfather?'

'Oh! _I_ don't object,' replied the turnkey, 'if you don't.'

Thus it came to pass that she was christened one Sunday afternoon,
when the turnkey, being relieved, was off the lock; and that the
turnkey went up to the font of Saint George's Church, and promised
and vowed and renounced on her behalf, as he himself related when
he came back, 'like a good 'un.'

This invested the turnkey with a new proprietary share in the
child, over and above his former official one. When she began to
walk and talk, he became fond of her; bought a little arm-chair and
stood it by the high fender of the lodge fire-place; liked to have
her company when he was on the lock; and used to bribe her with
cheap toys to come and talk to him. The child, for her part, soon
grew so fond of the turnkey that she would come climbing up the
lodge-steps of her own accord at all hours of the day. When she
fell asleep in the little armchair by the high fender, the turnkey
would cover her with his pocket-handkerchief; and when she sat in
it dressing and undressing a doll which soon came to be unlike
dolls on the other side of the lock, and to bear a horrible family
resemblance to Mrs Bangham--he would contemplate her from the top
of his stool with exceeding gentleness. Witnessing these things,
the collegians would express an opinion that the turnkey, who was
a bachelor, had been cut out by nature for a family man. But the
turnkey thanked them, and said, 'No, on the whole it was enough to
see other people's children there.'
At what period of her early life the little creature began to
perceive that it was not the habit of all the world to live locked
up in narrow yards surrounded by high walls with spikes at the top,
would be a difficult question to settle. But she was a very, very
little creature indeed, when she had somehow gained the knowledge
that her clasp of her father's hand was to be always loosened at
the door which the great key opened; and that while her own light
steps were free to pass beyond it, his feet must never cross that
line. A pitiful and plaintive look, with which she had begun to
regard him when she was still extremely young, was perhaps a part
of this discovery.

With a pitiful and plaintive look for everything, indeed, but with
something in it for only him that was like protection, this Child
of the Marshalsea and the child of the Father of the Marshalsea,
sat by her friend the turnkey in the lodge, kept the family room,
or wandered about the prison-yard, for the first eight years of her
life. With a pitiful and plaintive look for her wayward sister;
for her idle brother; for the high blank walls; for the faded crowd
they shut in; for the games of the prison children as they whooped
and ran, and played at hide-and-seek, and made the iron bars of the
inner gateway 'Home.'

Wistful and wondering, she would sit in summer weather by the high
fender in the lodge, looking up at the sky through the barred
window, until, when she turned her eyes away, bars of light would
arise between her and her friend, and she would see him through a
grating, too.
'Thinking of the fields,' the turnkey said once, after watching
her, 'ain't you?'

'Where are they?' she inquired.

'Why, they're--over there, my dear,' said the turnkey, with a vague
flourish of his key. 'Just about there.'

'Does anybody open them, and shut them? Are they locked?'

The turnkey was discomfited. 'Well,' he said. 'Not in general.'

'Are they very pretty, Bob?' She called him Bob, by his own
particular request and instruction.

'Lovely. Full of flowers. There's buttercups, and there's
daisies, and there's'--the turnkey hesitated, being short of floral
nomenclature--'there's dandelions, and all manner of games.'

'Is it very pleasant to be there, Bob?'

'Prime,' said the turnkey.

'Was father ever there?'

'Hem!' coughed the turnkey. 'O yes, he was there, sometimes.'

'Is he sorry not to be there now?'

'N-not particular,' said the turnkey.

'Nor any of the people?' she asked, glancing at the listless crowd
within. 'O are you quite sure and certain, Bob?'

At this difficult point of the conversation Bob gave in, and
changed the subject to hard-bake: always his last resource when he
found his little friend getting him into a political, social, or
theological corner. But this was the origin of a series of Sunday
excursions that these two curious companions made together. They
used to issue from the lodge on alternate Sunday afternoons with
great gravity, bound for some meadows or green lanes that had been
elaborately appointed by the turnkey in the course of the week; and
there she picked grass and flowers to bring home, while he smoked
his pipe. Afterwards, there were tea-gardens, shrimps, ale, and
other delicacies; and then they would come back hand in hand,
unless she was more than usually tired, and had fallen asleep on
his shoulder.

In those early days, the turnkey first began profoundly to consider
a question which cost him so much mental labour, that it remained
undetermined on the day of his death. He decided to will and
bequeath his little property of savings to his godchild, and the
point arose how could it be so 'tied up' as that only she should
have the benefit of it? His experience on the lock gave him such
an acute perception of the enormous difficulty of 'tying up' money
with any approach to tightness, and contrariwise of the remarkable
ease with which it got loose, that through a series of years he
regularly propounded this knotty point to every new insolvent agent
and other professional gentleman who passed in and out.

'Supposing,' he would say, stating the case with his key on the
professional gentleman's waistcoat; 'supposing a man wanted to
leave his property to a young female, and wanted to tie it up so
that nobody else should ever be able to make a grab at it; how
would you tie up that property?'

'Settle it strictly on herself,' the professional gentleman would
complacently answer.

'But look here,' quoth the turnkey. 'Supposing she had, say a
brother, say a father, say a husband, who would be likely to make
a grab at that property when she came into it--how about that?'

'It would be settled on herself, and they would have no more legal
claim on it than you,' would be the professional answer.

'Stop a bit,' said the turnkey. 'Supposing she was tender-hearted,
and they came over her. Where's your law for tying it up then?'

The deepest character whom the turnkey sounded, was unable to
produce his law for tying such a knot as that. So, the turnkey
thought about it all his life, and died intestate after all.

But that was long afterwards, when his god-daughter was past
sixteen. The first half of that space of her life was only just
accomplished, when her pitiful and plaintive look saw her father a
widower. From that time the protection that her wondering eyes had
expressed towards him, became embodied in action, and the Child of
the Marshalsea took upon herself a new relation towards the Father.

At first, such a baby could do little more than sit with him,
deserting her livelier place by the high fender, and quietly
watching him. But this made her so far necessary to him that he
became accustomed to her, and began to be sensible of missing her
when she was not there. Through this little gate, she passed out
of childhood into the care-laden world.

What her pitiful look saw, at that early time, in her father, in
her sister, in her brother, in the jail; how much, or how little of
the wretched truth it pleased God to make visible to her; lies
hidden with many mysteries. It is enough that she was inspired to
be something which was not what the rest were, and to be that
something, different and laborious, for the sake of the rest.
Inspired? Yes. Shall we speak of the inspiration of a poet or a
priest, and not of the heart impelled by love and self-devotion to
the lowliest work in the lowliest way of life!

With no earthly friend to help her, or so much as to see her, but
the one so strangely assorted; with no knowledge even of the common
daily tone and habits of the common members of the free community
who are not shut up in prisons; born and bred in a social
condition, false even with a reference to the falsest condition
outside the walls; drinking from infancy of a well whose waters had
their own peculiar stain, their own unwholesome and unnatural
taste; the Child of the Marshalsea began her womanly life.

No matter through what mistakes and discouragements, what ridicule
(not unkindly meant, but deeply felt) of her youth and little
figure, what humble consciousness of her own babyhood and want of
strength, even in the matter of lifting and carrying; through how
much weariness and hopelessness, and how many secret tears; she
drudged on, until recognised as useful, even indispensable. That
time came. She took the place of eldest of the three, in all
things but precedence; was the head of the fallen family; and bore,
in her own heart, its anxieties and shames.

At thirteen, she could read and keep accounts, that is, could put
down in words and figures how much the bare necessaries that they
wanted would cost, and how much less they had to buy them with.
She had been, by snatches of a few weeks at a time, to an evening
school outside, and got her sister and brother sent to day-schools
by desultory starts, during three or four years. There was no
instruction for any of them at home; but she knew well--no one
better--that a man so broken as to be the Father of the Marshalsea,
could be no father to his own children.

To these scanty means of improvement, she added another of her own
contriving. Once, among the heterogeneous crowd of inmates there
appeared a dancing-master. Her sister had a great desire to learn
the dancing-master's art, and seemed to have a taste that way. At
thirteen years old, the Child of the Marshalsea presented herself
to the dancing-master, with a little bag in her hand, and preferred
her humble petition.

'If you please, I was born here, sir.'

'Oh! You are the young lady, are you?' said the dancing-master,
surveying the small figure and uplifted face.

'Yes, sir.'

'And what can I do for you?' said the dancing-master.

'Nothing for me, sir, thank you,' anxiously undrawing the strings
of the little bag; 'but if, while you stay here, you could be so
kind as to teach my sister cheap--'

'My child, I'll teach her for nothing,' said the dancing-master,
shutting up the bag. He was as good-natured a dancing-master as
ever danced to the Insolvent Court, and he kept his word. The
sister was so apt a pupil, and the dancing-master had such abundant
leisure to bestow upon her (for it took him a matter of ten weeks
to set to his creditors, lead off, turn the Commissioners, and
right and left back to his professional pursuits), that wonderful
progress was made. Indeed the dancing-master was so proud of it,
and so wishful to display it before he left to a few select friends
among the collegians, that at six o'clock on a certain fine
morning, a minuet de la cour came off in the yard--the college-
rooms being of too confined proportions for the purpose--in which
so much ground was covered, and the steps were so conscientiously
executed, that the dancing-master, having to play the kit besides,
was thoroughly blown.

The success of this beginning, which led to the dancing-master's
continuing his instruction after his release, emboldened the poor
child to try again. She watched and waited months for a
seamstress. In the fulness of time a milliner came in, and to her
she repaired on her own behalf.

'I beg your pardon, ma'am,' she said, looking timidly round the
door of the milliner, whom she found in tears and in bed: 'but I
was born here.'

Everybody seemed to hear of her as soon as they arrived; for the
milliner sat up in bed, drying her eyes, and said, just as the
dancing-master had said:

'Oh! You are the child, are you?'

'Yes, ma'am.'

'I am sorry I haven't got anything for you,' said the milliner,
shaking her head.

'It's not that, ma'am. If you please I want to learn needle-work.'

'Why should you do that,' returned the milliner, 'with me before
you? It has not done me much good.'

'Nothing--whatever it is--seems to have done anybody much good who
comes here,' she returned in all simplicity; 'but I want to learn
just the same.'

'I am afraid you are so weak, you see,' the milliner objected.

'I don't think I am weak, ma'am.'

'And you are so very, very little, you see,' the milliner objected.

'Yes, I am afraid I am very little indeed,' returned the Child of
the Marshalsea; and so began to sob over that unfortunate defect of
hers, which came so often in her way. The milliner--who was not
morose or hard-hearted, only newly insolvent--was touched, took her
in hand with goodwill, found her the most patient and earnest of
pupils, and made her a cunning work-woman in course of time.

In course of time, and in the very self-same course of time, the
Father of the Marshalsea gradually developed a new flower of
character. The more Fatherly he grew as to the Marshalsea, and the
more dependent he became on the contributions of his changing
family, the greater stand he made by his forlorn gentility. With
the same hand that he pocketed a collegian's half-crown half an
hour ago, he would wipe away the tears that streamed over his
cheeks if any reference were made to his daughters' earning their
bread. So, over and above other daily cares, the Child of the
Marshalsea had always upon her the care of preserving the genteel
fiction that they were all idle beggars together.

The sister became a dancer. There was a ruined uncle in the family
group--ruined by his brother, the Father of the Marshalsea, and
knowing no more how than his ruiner did, but accepting the fact as
an inevitable certainty--on whom her protection devolved.
Naturally a retired and simple man, he had shown no particular
sense of being ruined at the time when that calamity fell upon him,
further than that he left off washing himself when the shock was
announced, and never took to that luxury any more. He had been a
very indifferent musical amateur in his better days; and when he
fell with his brother, resorted for support to playing a clarionet
as dirty as himself in a small Theatre Orchestra. It was the
theatre in which his niece became a dancer; he had been a fixture
there a long time when she took her poor station in it; and he
accepted the task of serving as her escort and guardian, just as he
would have accepted an illness, a legacy, a feast, starvation--
anything but soap.

To enable this girl to earn her few weekly shillings, it was
necessary for the Child of the Marshalsea to go through an
elaborate form with the Father.

'Fanny is not going to live with us just now, father. She will be
here a good deal in the day, but she is going to live outside with

'You surprise me. Why?'

'I think uncle wants a companion, father. He should be attended
to, and looked after.'

'A companion? He passes much of his time here. And you attend to
him and look after him, Amy, a great deal more than ever your
sister will. You all go out so much; you all go out so much.'

This was to keep up the ceremony and pretence of his having no idea
that Amy herself went out by the day to work.

'But we are always glad to come home, father; now, are we not? And
as to Fanny, perhaps besides keeping uncle company and taking care
of him, it may be as well for her not quite to live here, always.
She was not born here as I was, you know, father.'

'Well, Amy, well. I don't quite follow you, but it's natural I
suppose that Fanny should prefer to be outside, and even that you
often should, too. So, you and Fanny and your uncle, my dear,
shall have your own way. Good, good. I'll not meddle; don't mind

To get her brother out of the prison; out of the succession to Mrs
Bangham in executing commissions, and out of the slang interchange
with very doubtful companions consequent upon both; was her hardest
task. At eighteen he would have dragged on from hand to mouth,
from hour to hour, from penny to penny, until eighty. Nobody got
into the prison from whom he derived anything useful or good, and
she could find no patron for him but her old friend and godfather.

'Dear Bob,' said she, 'what is to become of poor Tip?' His name
was Edward, and Ted had been transformed into Tip, within the

The turnkey had strong private opinions as to what would become of
poor Tip, and had even gone so far with the view of averting their
fulfilment, as to sound Tip in reference to the expediency of
running away and going to serve his country. But Tip had thanked
him, and said he didn't seem to care for his country.

'Well, my dear,' said the turnkey, 'something ought to be done with
him. Suppose I try and get him into the law?'

'That would be so good of you, Bob!'

The turnkey had now two points to put to the professional gentlemen
as they passed in and out. He put this second one so perseveringly
that a stool and twelve shillings a week were at last found for Tip
in the office of an attorney in a great National Palladium called
the Palace Court; at that time one of a considerable list of
everlasting bulwarks to the dignity and safety of Albion, whose
places know them no more.

Tip languished in Clifford's Inns for six months, and at the
expiration of that term sauntered back one evening with his hands
in his pockets, and incidentally observed to his sister that he was
not going back again.

'Not going back again?' said the poor little anxious Child of the
Marshalsea, always calculating and planning for Tip, in the front
rank of her charges.

'I am so tired of it,' said Tip, 'that I have cut it.'

Tip tired of everything. With intervals of Marshalsea lounging,
and Mrs Bangham succession, his small second mother, aided by her
trusty friend, got him into a warehouse, into a market garden, into
the hop trade, into the law again, into an auctioneers, into a
brewery, into a stockbroker's, into the law again, into a coach
office, into a waggon office, into the law again, into a general
dealer's, into a distillery, into the law again, into a wool house,
into a dry goods house, into the Billingsgate trade, into the
foreign fruit trade, and into the docks. But whatever Tip went
into, he came out of tired, announcing that he had cut it.
Wherever he went, this foredoomed Tip appeared to take the prison
walls with him, and to set them up in such trade or calling; and to
prowl about within their narrow limits in the old slip-shod,
purposeless, down-at-heel way; until the real immovable Marshalsea
walls asserted their fascination over him, and brought him back.

Nevertheless, the brave little creature did so fix her heart on her
brother's rescue, that while he was ringing out these doleful
changes, she pinched and scraped enough together to ship him for
Canada. When he was tired of nothing to do, and disposed in its
turn to cut even that, he graciously consented to go to Canada.
And there was grief in her bosom over parting with him, and joy in
the hope of his being put in a straight course at last.

'God bless you, dear Tip. Don't be too proud to come and see us,
when you have made your fortune.'

'All right!' said Tip, and went.

But not all the way to Canada; in fact, not further than Liverpool.

After making the voyage to that port from London, he found himself
so strongly impelled to cut the vessel, that he resolved to walk
back again. Carrying out which intention, he presented himself
before her at the expiration of a month, in rags, without shoes,
and much more tired than ever.
At length, after another interval of successorship to Mrs Bangham,
he found a pursuit for himself, and announced it.

'Amy, I have got a situation.'

'Have you really and truly, Tip?'

'All right. I shall do now. You needn't look anxious about me any
more, old girl.'

'What is it, Tip?'

'Why, you know Slingo by sight?'

'Not the man they call the dealer?'

'That's the chap. He'll be out on Monday, and he's going to give
me a berth.'

'What is he a dealer in, Tip?'

'Horses. All right! I shall do now, Amy.'

She lost sight of him for months afterwards, and only heard from
him once. A whisper passed among the elder collegians that he had
been seen at a mock auction in Moorfields, pretending to buy plated
articles for massive silver, and paying for them with the greatest
liberality in bank notes; but it never reached her ears. One
evening she was alone at work--standing up at the window, to save
the twilight lingering above the wall--when he opened the door and
walked in.

She kissed and welcomed him; but was afraid to ask him any
questions. He saw how anxious and timid she was, and appeared

'I am afraid, Amy, you'll be vexed this time. Upon my life I am!'

'I am very sorry to hear you say so, Tip. Have you come back?'


'Not expecting this time that what you had found would answer very
well, I am less surprised and sorry than I might have been, Tip.'

'Ah! But that's not the worst of it.'

'Not the worst of it?'

'Don't look so startled. No, Amy, not the worst of it. I have
come back, you see; but--DON'T look so startled--I have come back
in what I may call a new way. I am off the volunteer list
altogether. I am in now, as one of the regulars.'

'Oh! Don't say you are a prisoner, Tip! Don't, don't!'

'Well, I don't want to say it,' he returned in a reluctant tone;
'but if you can't understand me without my saying it, what am I to
do? I am in for forty pound odd.'

For the first time in all those years, she sunk under her cares.
She cried, with her clasped hands lifted above her head, that it
would kill their father if he ever knew it; and fell down at Tip's
graceless feet.

It was easier for Tip to bring her to her senses than for her to
bring him to understand that the Father of the Marshalsea would be
beside himself if he knew the truth. The thing was
incomprehensible to Tip, and altogether a fanciful notion. He
yielded to it in that light only, when he submitted to her
entreaties, backed by those of his uncle and sister. There was no
want of precedent for his return; it was accounted for to the
father in the usual way; and the collegians, with a better
comprehension of the pious fraud than Tip, supported it loyally.

This was the life, and this the history, of the child of the
Marshalsea at twenty-two. With a still surviving attachment to the
one miserable yard and block of houses as her birthplace and home,
she passed to and fro in it shrinkingly now, with a womanly
consciousness that she was pointed out to every one. Since she had
begun to work beyond the walls, she had found it necessary to
conceal where she lived, and to come and go as secretly as she
could, between the free city and the iron gates, outside of which
she had never slept in her life. Her original timidity had grown
with this concealment, and her light step and her little figure
shunned the thronged streets while they passed along them.

Worldly wise in hard and poor necessities, she was innocent in all
things else. Innocent, in the mist through which she saw her
father, and the prison, and the turbid living river that flowed
through it and flowed on.

This was the life, and this the history, of Little Dorrit; now
going home upon a dull September evening, observed at a distance by
Arthur Clennam. This was the life, and this the history, of Little
Dorrit; turning at the end of London Bridge, recrossing it, going
back again, passing on to Saint George's Church, turning back
suddenly once more, and flitting in at the open outer gate and
little court-yard of the Marshalsea.

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