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by Charles Dickens
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes
'Little Dorrit' was written at a time when the author was busying himself not only with other literary work, but also with theatre projects. Domestic troubles, culminating a year later in the separation from his wife, also explain the restlessness and general dissatisfaction which affected the great novelist in the years 1855-57, when this story appeared.
For more works by Dickens, see The Index
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.
A debtor had been taken to the Marshalsea Prison, a very amiable and very helpless middle-aged gentleman who was perfectly clear--"like all the rest of them," the turnkey on the lock said--that he was going out again directly.
The affairs of this debtor, a shy, retiring man, with a mild voice and irresolute hands, were perplexed by a partnership, of which he knew no more than that he had invested money in it.
"Out?" said the turnkey. "He'll never get out unless his creditors take him by the shoulders and shove him out!"
The next day the debtor's wife came to the Marshalsea, bringing with her a little boy of three, and a little girl of two.
"Two children," the turnkey observed to himself. "And you another, which makes three; and your wife another, which makes four."
Six months later a little girl was born to the debtor, and when this child was eight years old, her mother, who had long been languishing, died.
The debtor had long grown accustomed to the place. Crushed at first by his imprisonment, he had soon found a dull relief in it. His elder children played regularly about the yard. If he had been a man with strength of purpose, he might have broken the net that held him, or broken his heart; but being what he was, he slipped easily into this smooth descent, and never more took one step upward.
The shabby old debtor with the soft manners and the white hair became the Father of the Marshalsea. And he grew to be proud of the title. All newcomers were presented to him. He was punctilious in the exaction of this ceremony. They were welcome to the Marshalsea, he would tell them.
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 to a public character.
Later he established the custom of attending collegians of a certain standing to the gate, and taking leave of them there. The collegian under treatment would often wrap up something in a paper and give it to him, "For the Father of the Marshalsea."
The youngest child of the Father of the Marshalsea, born within the jail, was a very, very little creature indeed when she gained the knowledge that while her own light steps were free to pass beyond the prison gate, her father's feet must never cross that line.
At thirteen she could read and keep accounts--that is, could put down in words and figures how much the bare necessaries they needed would cost, and how much less they had to buy them with. From the first she was inspired to be something which was not what the rest were, and to be that something for the sake of the rest. Recognised as useful, even indispensable, she took the place of eldest of the three in all but precedence; was the head of the fallen family, and bore, in her own heart, its anxieties and shames. 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 others. Her sister Fanny, having a great desire to learn dancing, the Child of the Marshalsea persuaded a dancing-master, detained for a short time, to teach her. And Fanny 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, on whom Fanny's protection devolved. Naturally a retired and simple man, he had shown no particular sense of being ruined, further than that he left off washing when the shock was announced, and never took to that luxury any more. Having been a very indifferent musical amateur in his better days, when he fell with his brother he resorted for support to playing a clarionet in a small theatre orchestra. It was the theatre in which his niece became a dancer, and he accepted the task of serving as her escort and guardian.
To get her brother--christened Edward, but called Tip--out of the prison was a more difficult task. Every post she obtained for him he always gave up, returning with the announcement that he was tired of it, and had cut it.
One day he came back, and said he was in for good, that he had been taken for forty pounds odd. For the first time in all those years, she sank under her cares. It was so hard to make Tip understand that the Father of the Marshalsea must not know the truth about his son.
For, the Father of the Marshalsea, as he grew more dependent on the contributions of his changing family, made the greater stand by his forlorn gentility. So the pretence had to be kept up that neither of his daughters earned their bread.
The Child of the Marshalsea learned needlework of an insolvent milliner, and went out daily to work for a Mrs. Clennam.
This was the life and this the history of the Child of the Marshalsea at twenty-two. Worldly wise in hard and poor necessities, she was innocent in all things else. This was the life, and this the history of Little Dorrit, now going home upon a dull September evening, and observed at a distance by Arthur Clennam. Arthur Clennam had returned to his mother's house--a dark and gloomy place--from the Far East. He had noticed that Little Dorrit appeared at eight, and left at eight. She let herself out to do needlework, he was told. What became of her between the two eights was a mystery.
It was not easy for Arthur Clennam to make out Little Dorrit's face; she plied her needle in such retired corners. But it seemed to be a pale, transparent face, quick in expression, though not beautiful in feature. A delicately bent head, a tiny form, a quick little pair of busy hands, and a shabby dress--shabby but very neat--were Little Dorrit as she sat at work.
Arthur Clennam watched Little Dorrit disappear within the outer gate of the Marshalsea, and presently stopped an old man to ask what place it was.
"This is the Marshalsea, sir."
"Can anyone go in here?"
"Anyone can go in," replied the old man, plainly implying, "but it is not everyone who can go out."
"Pardon me once more. I am not impertinently curious. But are you familiar with the place? Do you know the name of Dorrit here?"
"My name, sir," replied the old man, "is Dorrit."
Clennam explained that he had seen a young woman working at his mother's, spoken of as Little Dorrit, and had noticed her come in here, and that he was sincerely interested in her, and wanted to know something about her.
"I know very little of the world, sir," replied the old man, "it would not be worth while to mislead me. The young woman whom you saw go in is my brother's child. You say you have seen her at your mother's, and have felt an interest in her, and wish to know what she does here. Come and see."
Arthur Clennam followed his guide to the room of the Father of the Marshalsea.
"I found this gentleman," said the uncle--"Mr. Clennam, William, son of Amy's friend--at the outer gate, wishful, as he was going by, of paying his respects. This is my brother William, sir."
"Mr. Clennam," said William Dorrit, "you are welcome, sir; pray sit down. I have welcomed many visitors here."
The Father of the Marshalsea went on to mention that he had been gratified by the testimonials of his visitors--the "very acceptable testimonials."
When Clennam left he presented his testimonial, and the next morning found him there again. He went out with Little Dorrit alone; asked her if she had ever heard his mother's name before.
"I am not asking from any reason that can cause you anxiety. You think that at no time of your father's life was my name of Clennam ever familiar to him?"
"No, sir. And, oh, I hope you will not misunderstand my father! Don't judge him, sir, as you would judge others outside the gates. He has been there so long."
They had walked some way before they returned. She was not working at Mrs. Clennam's that day.
The courtyard received them at last, and there he said good-bye to Little Dorrit. Little as she had always looked, she looked less than ever when he saw her going into the Marshalsea Lodge passage.
Aware that his mother might have once averted the ruin of the Dorrit family, Clennam returned more than once to the Marshalsea. No word of love crossed his lips; he told Little Dorrit to think of him as an old man, old enough to be her father, and he besought her only to let him know if at any time he could do her service. "I press for no confidence now. I only ask you to repose unhesitating trust in me," he said.
"Can I do less than that when you are so good?"
"Then you will trust me fully? Will have no secret unhappiness or anxiety concealed from me?"
But if Arthur Clennam kept silent, Little Dorrit was not without a lover. Years ago young John Chivery, the sentimental son of the turnkey, had eyed her with admiring wonder. There seemed to young John a fitness in the attachment. She, the Child of the Marshalsea; he, the lock-keeper. Every Sunday young John presented cigars to the Father of the Marshalsea--who was glad to get them--and one particular Sunday afternoon he mustered up courage to urge his suit.
Little Dorrit was out, walking on the Iron Bridge, when young John found her.
"Miss Amy," he stammered, "I have had for a long time--ages they seem to me--a heart-cherished wish to say something to you. May I say it? May I, Miss Amy? I but ask the question humbly--may I say it? I know very well your family is far above mine. It were vain to conceal it. I know very well that your high-souled brother, and likewise your spirited sister, spurn me from a height."
"If you please, John Chivery," Little Dorrit answered, in a quiet way, "since you are so considerate as to ask me whether you shall say any more--if you please, no."
"Never, Miss Amy?"
"No, if you please. Never."
"Oh, Lord!" gasped young John.
"When you think of us, John--I mean, my brother and sister and me--don't think of us as being any different from the rest; for whatever we once were we ceased to be long ago, and never can be any more. And, good-bye, John. And I hope you will have a good wife one day, and be a happy man. I am sure you will deserve to be happy, and you will be, John."
"Good-bye, Miss Amy. Good-bye!"
It turned out that Mr. Dorrit, being of the Dorrits of Dorsetshire, was heir-at-law to a great fortune. Inquiries and investigations confirmed it.
Arthur Clennam broke the news to Little Dorrit, and together they went to the, Marshalsea. William Dorrit was sitting in his old grey gown and his old black cap in the sunlight by the window when they entered. "Father, Mr. Clennam has brought me such joyful and wonderful intelligence about you!"
Her agitation was great, and the old man put his hand suddenly to his heart, and looked at Clennam.
"Tell me, Mr. Dorrit, what surprise would be the most unlocked for and the most acceptable to you. Do not be afraid to imagine it, or to say what it would be."
He looked steadfastly at Clennam, and, so looking at him, seemed to change into a very old, haggard man. The sun was bright upon the wall beyond the window, and on the spikes at the top. He slowly stretched out the hand that had been upon his heart, and pointed at the wall.
"It is down," said Clennam. "Gone! And in its place are the means to possess and enjoy the utmost that they have so long shut out. Mr. Dorrit, there is not the smallest doubt that within a few days you will be free and highly prosperous."
They had to fetch wine for the old man, and when he had swallowed a little he leaned back in his chair and cried. But he quickly recovered, and announced that everybody concerned should be nobly rewarded.
"No one, my dear sir, shall say that he has an unsatisfied claim against me. Everybody shall be remembered. I will not go away from here in anybody's debt. I particularly wish to act munificently, Mr. Clennam."
Clennam's offer of money for present contingencies was at once accepted.
"I am obliged to you for the temporary accommodation, sir. Exceedingly temporary, but well timed--well timed. Be so kind, sir, as to add the amount to former advances."
He grew more composed presently, and then when he seemed to be falling asleep unexpectedly sat up and said, "Mr. Clennam, am I to understand, my dear sir, that I could pass through the lodge at this moment, and take a walk?"
"I think not, Mr. Dorrit," was the unwilling reply. "There are certain forms to be completed. It is but a few hours now."
"A few hours, sir!" he returned in a sudden passion. "You talk very easily of hours, sir! How long do you suppose, sir, that an hour is to a man who is choking; for want of air?"
It was his last demonstration for that time, but in the interval before the day of his departure he was very imperious with the lawyers concerned in his release, and a good deal of business was transacted.
Mr. Arthur Clennam received a cheque for £24 93. 8d. from the solicitors of Edward Dorrit, Esq.--once "Tip"--with a note that the favour of the advance now repaid had not been asked of him.
To the applications made by collegians within the so-soon-to-be-orphaned Marshalsea for small sums of money, Mr. Dorrit responded with the greatest liberality. He also invited the whole College to a comprehensive entertainment in the yard, and went about among the company on that occasion, and took notice of individuals, like a baron of the olden time, in a rare good humour.
And now the final hour arrived when he and his family were to leave the prison for ever. The carriage was reported ready in the outer courtyard. Mr. Dorrit and his brother proceeded arm in arm, Edward Dorrit, Esq., and his sister Fanny followed, also arm in arm.
There was not a collegian within doors, nor a turnkey absent, as they crossed the yard. Mr. Dorrit--whose meat and drink had many a time been bought with money presented by some of those who stood to watch him go--yielding to the vast speculation how the poor creatures were to get on without him, was great, and sad, but not absorbed. He patted children on the head like Sir Roger de Coverley going to church, spoke to people in the background by their Christian names, and condescended to all present.
At last three honest cheers announced that he had passed the gate, and that the Marshalsea was an orphan.
Only when the family had got into their carriage, and not before, Miss Fanny exclaimed, "Good gracious I Where's Amy?"
Her father had thought she was with her sister. Her sister had thought she was somewhere or other. They had all trusted to find her, as they had always done, quietly in the right place at the right moment. This going away was, perhaps, the very first action of their joint lives that they had got through without her.
"Now I do say, Pa," cried Miss Fanny, flushed and indignant, "that this is disgraceful! Here is that child, Amy, in her ugly old shabby dress. Disgracing us at the last moment by being carried out in that dress after all. And by that Mr. Clennam too!"
Clennam appeared at the carriage-door, bearing the little insensible figure in his arms.
"She has been forgotten," he said. "I ran up to her room, and found the door open, and that she had fainted on the floor."
They received her in the carriage, and the attendant, getting between Clennam and the carriage-door, with a sharp "By your leave, sir!" bundled up the steps, and drove away.
The Dorrit family travelled abroad in handsome style, and in due time Miss Fanny married.
A sudden seizure carried off old Mr. Dorrit, and he died thinking himself back in the Marshalsea. His brother Frederick, stricken with grief, did not long survive him.
Arthur Clennam, who had gone into partnership with a friend named Doyce, unfortunately invested his money in the financial schemes of Mr. Merdle, the greatest swindler of the day, and when the crash came and Merdle committed suicide, Clennam with hundreds of other innocent persons was involved in the general ruin.
Doyce was working at the time in Germany, and it was some weeks before he could be found; in the meantime, Clennam, being insolvent, was taken to the Marshalsea.
Mr. Chivery was on the lock and young John was in the lodge when the Marshalsea was reached. The elder Mr. Chivery shook hands with him in a shamefaced kind of way, and said, "I don't call to mind, sir, as I was ever less glad to see you."
The prisoner followed young John up the old staircase into the old room. "I thought you'd like the room, and here it is for you," said young John.
Young John waited upon him; and it was young John who explained that he did this not on the ground of the prisoner's merits, but because of the merits of another, of one who loved the prisoner. Clennam tried to argue to himself the improbability of Little Dorrit loving him, but he wasn't altogether successful.
He fell ill, and it was Little Dorrit whose living presence first cheered him when he returned from the world of feverish dreams and shadows.
He did his best to dissuade her from coming. He was a ruined man, and the time when Little Dorrit and the prison had anything in common had long gone by.
But still she came and often read to him. And one day she told him that all her money had gone as his had gone, lost in the Merdle whirlpool, and that her sister Fanny's was lost, too, in the same way.
"I have nothing in the world. I am as poor as when I lived here. When papa came over to England, just before his death, he confided everything he had to the same hands, and it is all swept away. Oh, my dearest and best, are you quite sure you will not share my fortune with me?"
Locked in his arms, held to his heart, she drew the slight hand round his neck, and clasped it in its fellow-hand.
Of course, when Doyce, who was a thoroughly good fellow, and successful to boot, found out his partner's plight, he came back and put things right, and the business was soon set going again.
And on the very day of his release, Arthur Clennam and Little Dorrit went into the neighbouring church of St. George, and were married, Doyce giving the bride away.
Little Dorrit and her husband walked out of the church alone when the signing of the register was done.
They paused for a moment on the steps of the portico, and then went down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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