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Chapter 17


CHAPTER 17

Missing


The term of Mr Dorrit's visit was within two days of being out, and
he was about to dress for another inspection by the Chief Butler
(whose victims were always dressed expressly for him), when one of
the servants of the hotel presented himself bearing a card.  Mr
Dorrit, taking it, read:


'Mrs Finching.'


The servant waited in speechless deference.

'Man, man,' said Mr Dorrit, turning upon him with grievous
indignation, 'explain your motive in bringing me this ridiculous
name.  I am wholly unacquainted with it.  Finching, sir?' said Mr
Dorrit, perhaps avenging himself on the Chief Butler by Substitute.

'ha!  What do you mean by Finching?'

The man, man, seemed to mean Flinching as much as anything else,
for he backed away from Mr Dorrit's severe regard, as he replied,
'A lady, sir.'

'I know no such lady, sir,' said Mr Dorrit.  'Take this card away.
I know no Finching of either sex.'

'Ask your pardon, sir.  The lady said she was aware she might be
unknown by name.  But she begged me to say, sir, that she had
formerly the honour of being acquainted with Miss Dorrit.  The lady
said, sir, the youngest Miss Dorrit.'

Mr Dorrit knitted his brows and rejoined, after a moment or two,
'Inform Mrs Finching, sir,' emphasising the name as if the innocent
man were solely responsible for it, 'that she can come up.'

He had reflected, in his momentary pause, that unless she were
admitted she might leave some message, or might say something
below, having a disgraceful reference to that former state of
existence.  Hence the concession, and hence the appearance of
Flora, piloted in by the man, man.

'I have not the pleasure,' said Mr Dorrit, standing with the card
in his hand, and with an air which imported that it would scarcely
have been a first-class pleasure if he had had it, 'of knowing
either this name, or yourself, madam.  Place a chair, sir.'  The
responsible man, with a start, obeyed, and went out on tiptoe.
Flora, putting aside her veil with a bashful tremor upon her,
proceeded to introduce herself.  At the same time a singular
combination of perfumes was diffused through the room, as if some
brandy had been put by mistake in a lavender-water bottle, or as if
some lavender-water had been put by mistake in a brandy-bottle.

'I beg Mr Dorrit to offer a thousand apologies and indeed they
would be far too few for such an intrusion which I know must appear
extremely bold in a lady and alone too, but I thought it best upon
the whole however difficult and even apparently improper though Mr
F.'s Aunt would have willingly accompanied me and as a character of
great force and spirit would probably have struck one possessed of
such a knowledge of life as no doubt with so many changes must have
been acquired, for Mr F. himself said frequently that although well
educated in the neighbourhood of Blackheath at as high as eighty
guineas which is a good deal for parents and the plate kept back
too on going away but that is more a meanness than its value that
he had learnt more in his first years as a commercial traveller
with a large commission on the sale of an article that nobody would
hear of much less buy which preceded the wine trade a long time
than in the whole six years in that academy conducted by a college
Bachelor, though why a Bachelor more clever than a married man I do
not see and never did but pray excuse me that is not the point.'

Mr Dorrit stood rooted to the carpet, a statue of mystification.

'I must openly admit that I have no pretensions,' said Flora, 'but
having known the dear little thing which under altered
circumstances appears a liberty but is not so intended and Goodness
knows there was no favour in half-a-crown a-day to such a needle as
herself but quite the other way and as to anything lowering in it
far from it the labourer is worthy of his hire and I am sure I only
wish he got it oftener and more animal food and less rheumatism in
the back and legs poor soul.'

'Madam,' said Mr Dorrit, recovering his breath by a great effort,
as the relict of the late Mr Finching stopped to take hers;
'madam,' said Mr Dorrit, very red in the face, 'if I understand you
to refer to--ha--to anything in the antecedents of--hum--a daughter
of mine, involving--ha hum--daily compensation, madam, I beg to
observe that the--ha--fact, assuming it--ha--to be fact, never was
within my knowledge.  Hum.  I should not have permitted it.  Ha.
Never!  Never!'

'Unnecessary to pursue the subject,' returned Flora, 'and would not
have mentioned it on any account except as supposing it a
favourable and only letter of introduction but as to being fact no
doubt whatever and you may set your mind at rest for the very dress
I have on now can prove it and sweetly made though there is no
denying that it would tell better on a better figure for my own is
much too fat though how to bring it down I know not, pray excuse me
I am roving off again.'
Mr Dorrit backed to his chair in a stony way, and seated himself,
as Flora gave him a softening look and played with her parasol.

'The dear little thing,' said Flora, 'having gone off perfectly
limp and white and cold in my own house or at least papa's for
though not a freehold still a long lease at a peppercorn on the
morning when Arthur--foolish habit of our youthful days and Mr
Clennam far more adapted to existing circumstances particularly
addressing a stranger and that stranger a gentleman in an elevated
station--communicated the glad tidings imparted by a person of name
of Pancks emboldens me.'

At the mention of these two names, Mr Dorrit frowned, stared,
frowned again, hesitated with his fingers at his lips, as he had
hesitated long ago, and said, 'Do me the favour to--ha--state your
pleasure, madam.'

'Mr Dorrit,' said Flora, 'you are very kind in giving me permission
and highly natural it seems to me that you should be kind for
though more stately I perceive a likeness filled out of course but
a likeness still, the object of my intruding is my own without the
slightest consultation with any human being and most decidedly not
with Arthur--pray excuse me Doyce and Clennam I don't know what I
am saying Mr Clennam solus--for to put that individual linked by a
golden chain to a purple time when all was ethereal out of any
anxiety would be worth to me the ransom of a monarch not that I
have the least idea how much that would come to but using it as the
total of all I have in the world and more.'

Mr Dorrit, without greatly regarding the earnestness of these
latter words, repeated, 'State your pleasure, madam.'

'It's not likely I well know,' said Flora, 'but it's possible and
being possible when I had the gratification of reading in the
papers that you had arrived from Italy and were going back I made
up my mind to try it for you might come across him or hear
something of him and if so what a blessing and relief to all!'

'Allow me to ask, madam,' said Mr Dorrit, with his ideas in wild
confusion, 'to whom--ha--To whom,' he repeated it with a raised
voice in mere desperation, 'you at present allude?'

'To the foreigner from Italy who disappeared in the City as no
doubt you have read in the papers equally with myself,' said Flora,
'not referring to private sources by the name of Pancks from which
one gathers what dreadfully ill-natured things some people are
wicked enough to whisper most likely judging others by themselves
and what the uneasiness and indignation of Arthur--quite unable to
overcome it Doyce and Clennam--cannot fail to be.'

It happened, fortunately for the elucidation of any intelligible
result, that Mr Dorrit had heard or read nothing about the matter.
This caused Mrs Finching, with many apologies for being in great
practical difficulties as to finding the way to her pocket among
the stripes of her dress at length to produce a police handbill,
setting forth that a foreign gentleman of the name of Blandois,
last from Venice, had unaccountably disappeared on such a night in
such a part of the city of London; that he was known to have
entered such a house, at such an hour; that he was stated by the
inmates of that house to have left it, about so many minutes before
midnight; and that he had never been beheld since.  This, with
exact particulars of time and locality, and with a good detailed
description of the foreign gentleman who had so mysteriously
vanished, Mr Dorrit read at large.

'Blandois!' said Mr Dorrit.  'Venice!  And this description!  I
know this gentleman.  He has been in my house.  He is intimately
acquainted with a gentleman of good family (but in indifferent
circumstances), of whom I am a--hum--patron.'

'Then my humble and pressing entreaty is the more,' said Flora,
'that in travelling back you will have the kindness to look for
this foreign gentleman along all the roads and up and down all the
turnings and to make inquiries for him at all the hotels and
orange-trees and vineyards and volcanoes and places for he must be
somewhere and why doesn't he come forward and say he's there and
clear all parties up?'

'Pray, madam,' said Mr Dorrit, referring to the handbill again,
'who is Clennam and Co.?  Ha.  I see the name mentioned here, in
connection with the occupation of the house which Monsieur Blandois
was seen to enter: who is Clennam and Co.?  Is it the individual of
whom I had formerly--hum--some--ha--slight transitory knowledge,
and to whom I believe you have referred?  Is it--ha--that person?'

'It's a very different person indeed,' replied Flora, 'with no
limbs and wheels instead and the grimmest of women though his
mother.'

'Clennam and Co.  a--hum--a mother!' exclaimed Mr Dorrit.

'And an old man besides,' said Flora.

Mr Dorrit looked as if he must immediately be driven out of his
mind by this account.  Neither was it rendered more favourable to
sanity by Flora's dashing into a rapid analysis of Mr Flintwinch's
cravat, and describing him, without the lightest boundary line of
separation between his identity and Mrs Clennam's, as a rusty screw
in gaiters.  Which compound of man and woman, no limbs, wheels,
rusty screw, grimness, and gaiters, so completely stupefied Mr
Dorrit, that he was a spectacle to be pitied.
'But I would not detain you one moment longer,' said Flora, upon
whom his condition wrought its effect, though she was quite
unconscious of having produced it, 'if you would have the goodness
to give your promise as a gentleman that both in going back to
Italy and in Italy too you would look for this Mr Blandois high and
low and if you found or heard of him make him come forward for the
clearing of all parties.'
By that time Mr Dorrit had so far recovered from his bewilderment,
as to be able to say, in a tolerably connected manner, that he
should consider that his duty.  Flora was delighted with her
success, and rose to take her leave.

'With a million thanks,' said she, 'and my address upon my card in
case of anything to be communicated personally, I will not send my
love to the dear little thing for it might not be acceptable, and
indeed there is no dear little thing left in the transformation so
why do it but both myself and Mr F.'s Aunt ever wish her well and
lay no claim to any favour on our side you may be sure of that but
quite the other way for what she undertook to do she did and that
is more than a great many of us do, not to say anything of her
doing it as Well as it could be done and I myself am one of them
for I have said ever since I began to recover the blow of Mr F's
death that I would learn the Organ of which I am extremely fond but
of which I am ashamed to say I do not yet know a note, good
evening!'

When Mr Dorrit, who attended her to the room-door, had had a little
time to collect his senses, he found that the interview had
summoned back discarded reminiscences which jarred with the Merdle
dinner-table.  He wrote and sent off a brief note excusing himself
for that day, and ordered dinner presently in his own rooms at the
hotel.  He had another reason for this.  His time in London was
very nearly out, and was anticipated by engagements; his plans were
made for returning; and he thought it behoved his importance to
pursue some direct inquiry into the Blandois disappearance, and be
in a condition to carry back to Mr Henry Gowan the result of his
own personal investigation.  He therefore resolved that he would
take advantage of that evening's freedom to go down to Clennam and
Co.'s, easily to be found by the direction set forth in the
handbill; and see the place, and ask a question or two there
himself.

Having dined as plainly as the establishment and the Courier would
let him, and having taken a short sleep by the fire for his better
recovery from Mrs Finching, he set out in a hackney-cabriolet
alone.  The deep bell of St Paul's was striking nine as he passed
under the shadow of Temple Bar, headless and forlorn in these
degenerate days.

As he approached his destination through the by-streets and water-
side ways, that part of London seemed to him an uglier spot at such
an hour than he had ever supposed it to be.  Many long years had
passed since he had seen it; he had never known much of it; and it
wore a mysterious and dismal aspect in his eyes.  So powerfully was
his imagination impressed by it, that when his driver stopped,
after having asked the way more than once, and said to the best of
his belief this was the gateway they wanted, Mr Dorrit stood
hesitating, with the coach-door in his hand, half afraid of the
dark look of the place.

Truly, it looked as gloomy that night as even it had ever looked.
Two of the handbills were posted on the entrance wall, one on
either side, and as the lamp flickered in the night air, shadows
passed over them, not unlike the shadows of fingers following the
lines.  A watch was evidently kept upon the place.  As Mr Dorrit
paused, a man passed in from over the way, and another man passed
out from some dark corner within; and both looked at him in
passing, and both remained standing about.

As there was only one house in the enclosure, there was no room for
uncertainty, so he went up the steps of that house and knocked.
There was a dim light in two windows on the first-floor.  The door
gave back a dreary, vacant sound, as though the house were empty;
but it was not, for a light was visible, and a step was audible,
almost directly.  They both came to the door, and a chain grated,
and a woman with her apron thrown over her face and head stood in
the aperture.

'Who is it?' said the woman.

Mr Dorrit, much amazed by this appearance, replied that he was from
Italy, and that he wished to ask a question relative to the missing
person, whom he knew.

'Hi!' cried the woman, raising a cracked voice.  'Jeremiah!'

Upon this, a dry old man appeared, whom Mr Dorrit thought he
identified by his gaiters, as the rusty screw.  The woman was Under
apprehensions of the dry old man, for she whisked her apron away as
he approached, and disclosed a pale affrighted face.  'Open the
door, you fool,' said the old man; 'and let the gentleman in.'

Mr Dorrit, not without a glance over his shoulder towards his
driver and the cabriolet, walked into the dim hall.  'Now, sir,'
said Mr Flintwinch, 'you can ask anything here you think proper;
there are no secrets here, sir.'

Before a reply could be made, a strong stern voice, though a
woman's, called from above, 'Who is it?'

'Who is it?' returned Jeremiah.  'More inquiries.  A gentleman from
Italy.'

'Bring him up here!'

Mr Flintwinch muttered, as if he deemed that unnecessary; but,
turning to Mr Dorrit, said, 'Mrs Clennam.  She will do as she
likes.  I'll show you the way.'  He then preceded Mr Dorrit up the
blackened staircase; that gentleman, not unnaturally looking behind
him on the road, saw the woman following, with her apron thrown
over her head again in her former ghastly manner.

Mrs Clennam had her books open on her little table.  'Oh!' said she
abruptly, as she eyed her visitor with a steady look.  'You are
from Italy, sir, are you.  Well?'
Mr Dorrit was at a loss for any more distinct rejoinder at the
moment than 'Ha--well?'

'Where is this missing man?  Have you come to give us information
where he is?  I hope you have?'

'So far from it, I--hum--have come to seek information.'
'Unfortunately for us, there is none to be got here.  Flintwinch,
show the gentleman the handbill.  Give him several to take away.
Hold the light for him to read it.'

Mr Flintwinch did as he was directed, and Mr Dorrit read it
through, as if he had not previously seen it; glad enough of the
opportunity of collecting his presence of mind, which the air of
the house and of the people in it had a little disturbed.  While
his eyes were on the paper, he felt that the eyes of Mr Flintwinch
and of Mrs Clennam were on him.  He found, when he looked up, that
this sensation was not a fanciful one.

'Now you know as much,' said Mrs Clennam, 'as we know, sir.  Is Mr
Blandois a friend of yours?'

'No--a--hum--an acquaintance,' answered Mr Dorrit.

'You have no commission from him, perhaps?'

'I?  Ha.  Certainly not.'

The searching look turned gradually to the floor, after taking Mr
Flintwinch's face in its way.  Mr Dorrit, discomfited by finding
that he was the questioned instead of the questioner, applied
himself to the reversal of that unexpected order of things.

'I am--ha--a gentleman of property, at present residing in Italy
with my family, my servants, and--hum--my rather large
establishment.  Being in London for a short time on affairs
connected with--ha--my estate, and hearing of this strange
disappearance, I wished to make myself acquainted with the
circumstances at first-hand, because there is--ha hum--an English
gentleman in Italy whom I shall no doubt see on my return, who has
been in habits of close and daily intimacy with Monsieur Blandois.
Mr Henry Gowan.  You may know the name.'

'Never heard of it.'
Mrs Clennam said it, and Mr Flintwinch echoed it.

'Wishing to--ha--make the narrative coherent and consecutive to
him,' said Mr Dorrit, 'may I ask--say, three questions?'

'Thirty, if you choose.'

'Have you known Monsieur Blandois long?'

'Not a twelvemonth.  Mr Flintwinch here, will refer to the books
and tell you when, and by whom at Paris he was introduced to us.
If that,' Mrs Clennam added, 'should be any satisfaction to you.
It is poor satisfaction to us.'

'Have you seen him often?'

'No.  Twice.  Once before, and--'
'That once,' suggested Mr Flintwinch.

'And that once.'

'Pray, madam,' said Mr Dorrit, with a growing fancy upon him as he
recovered his importance, that he was in some superior way in the
Commission of the Peace; 'pray, madam, may I inquire, for the
greater satisfaction of the gentleman whom I have the honour to--
ha--retain, or protect or let me say to--hum--know--to know--Was
Monsieur Blandois here on business on the night indicated in this
present sheet?'

'On what he called business,' returned Mrs Clennam.

'Is--ha--excuse me--is its nature to be communicated?'

'No.'

It was evidently impracticable to pass the barrier of that reply.

'The question has been asked before,' said Mrs Clennam, 'and the
answer has been, No.  We don't choose to publish our transactions,
however unimportant, to all the town.  We say, No.'

'I mean, he took away no money with him, for example,' said Mr
Dorrit.

'He took away none of ours, sir, and got none here.'

'I suppose,' observed Mr Dorrit, glancing from Mrs Clennam to Mr
Flintwinch, and from Mr Flintwinch to Mrs Clennam, 'you have no way
of accounting to yourself for this mystery?'

'Why do you suppose so?' rejoined Mrs Clennam.

Disconcerted by the cold and hard inquiry, Mr Dorrit was unable to
assign any reason for his supposing so.

'I account for it, sir,' she pursued after an awkward silence on Mr
Dorrit's part, 'by having no doubt that he is travelling somewhere,
or hiding somewhere.'

'Do you know--ha--why he should hide anywhere?'

'No.'

It was exactly the same No as before, and put another barrier up.
'You asked me if I accounted for the disappearance to myself,' Mrs
Clennam sternly reminded him, 'not if I accounted for it to you.
I do not pretend to account for it to you, sir.  I understand it to
be no more my business to do that, than it is yours to require
that.'

Mr Dorrit answered with an apologetic bend of his head.  As he
stepped back, preparatory to saying he had no more to ask, he could
not but observe how gloomily and fixedly she sat with her eyes
fastened on the ground, and a certain air upon her of resolute
waiting; also, how exactly the self-same expression was reflected
in Mr Flintwinch, standing at a little distance from her chair,
with his eyes also on the ground, and his right hand softly rubbing
his chin.

At that moment, Mistress Affery (of course, the woman with the
apron) dropped the candlestick she held, and cried out, 'There!  O
good Lord!  there it is again.  Hark, Jeremiah!  Now!'

If there were any sound at all, it was so slight that she must have
fallen into a confirmed habit of listening for sounds; but Mr
Dorrit believed he did hear a something, like the falling of dry
leaves.  The woman's terror, for a very short space, seemed to
touch the three; and they all listened.

Mr Flintwinch was the first to stir.  'Affery, my woman,' said he,
sidling at her with his fists clenched, and his elbows quivering
with impatience to shake her, 'you are at your old tricks.  You'll
be walking in your sleep next, my woman, and playing the whole
round of your distempered antics.  You must have some physic.  When
I have shown this gentleman out, I'll make you up such a
comfortable dose, my woman; such a comfortable dose!'

It did not appear altogether comfortable in expectation to Mistress
Affery; but Jeremiah, without further reference to his healing
medicine, took another candle from Mrs Clennam's table, and said,
'Now, sir; shall I light you down?'

Mr Dorrit professed himself obliged, and went down.  Mr Flintwinch
shut him out, and chained him out, without a moment's loss of time.

He was again passed by the two men, one going out and the other
coming in; got into the vehicle he had left waiting, and was driven
away.

Before he had gone far, the driver stopped to let him know that he
had given his name, number, and address to the two men, on their
joint requisition; and also the address at which he had taken Mr
Dorrit up, the hour at which he had been called from his stand and
the way by which he had come.  This did not make the night's
adventure run any less hotly in Mr Dorrit's mind, either when he
sat down by his fire again, or when he went to bed.  All night he
haunted the dismal house, saw the two people resolutely waiting,
heard the woman with her apron over her face cry out about the
noise, and found the body of the missing Blandois, now buried in
the cellar, and now bricked up in a wall.

Charles Dickens