Little Dorrit HTML version

8. The Lock
Arthur Clennam stood in the street, waiting to ask some passer-by what place
that was. He suffered a few people to pass him in whose face there was no
encouragement to make the inquiry, and still stood pausing in the street, when an
old man came up and turned into the courtyard.
He stooped a good deal, and plodded along in a slow pre-occupied manner,
which made the bustling London thoroughfares no very safe resort for him. He
was dirtily and meanly dressed, in a threadbare coat, once blue, reaching to his
ankles and buttoned to his chin, where it vanished in the pale ghost of a velvet
collar. A piece of red cloth with which that phantom had been stiffened in its
lifetime was now laid bare, and poked itself up, at the back of the old man's neck,
into a confusion of grey hair and rusty stock and buckle which altogether nearly
poked his hat off. A greasy hat it was, and a napless; impending over his eyes,
cracked and crumpled at the brim, and with a wisp of pocket-handkerchief
dangling out below it. His trousers were so long and loose, and his shoes so
clumsy and large, that he shuffled like an elephant; though how much of this was
gait, and how much trailing cloth and leather, no one could have told. Under one
arm he carried a limp and worn-out case, containing some wind instrument; in
the same hand he had a pennyworth of snuff in a little packet of whitey-brown
paper, from which he slowly comforted his poor blue old nose with a lengthened-
out pinch, as Arthur Clennam looked at him. To this old man crossing the court-
yard, he preferred his inquiry, touching him on the shoulder. The old man
stopped and looked round, with the expression in his weak grey eyes of one
whose thoughts had been far off, and who was a little dull of hearing also.
'Pray, sir,' said Arthur, repeating his question, 'what is this place?'
'Ay! This place?' returned the old man, staying his pinch of snuff on its road, and
pointing at the place without looking at it. 'This is the Marshalsea, sir.'
'The debtors' prison?'
'Sir,' said the old man, with the air of deeming it not quite necessary to insist
upon that designation, 'the debtors' prison.'
He turned himself about, and went on.
'I beg your pardon,' said Arthur, stopping him once more, 'but will you allow me to
ask you another question? Can any one go in here?'
'Any one can go IN,' replied the old man; plainly adding by the significance of his
emphasis, 'but it is not every one who can go out.'
'Pardon me once more. Are you familiar with the place?'
'Sir,' returned the old man, squeezing his little packet of snuff in his hand, and
turning upon his interrogator as if such questions hurt him. 'I am.'
'I beg you to excuse me. I am not impertinently curious, but have a good object.
Do you know the name of Dorrit here?'
'My name, sir,' replied the old man most unexpectedly, 'is Dorrit.'
Arthur pulled off his hat to him. 'Grant me the favour of half-a- dozen words. I was
wholly unprepared for your announcement, and hope that assurance is my
sufficient apology for having taken the liberty of addressing you. I have recently