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    Chapter 31

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    Chapter 66
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    CHAPTER 31

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    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
    prison.'

    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
    me.'

    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.'

    'Yes.'

    '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
    that.'

    '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
    limbs.

    '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
    earthquake.'

    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
    street.

    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
    thunder.

    '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
    Flyntevynge.
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