Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens

Chapter 10

The Dolls' Dressmaker Discovers a Word

A darkened and hushed room; the river outside the windows flowing on to the vast ocean; a figure on the bed, swathed and bandaged and bound, lying helpless on its back, with its two useless arms in splints at its sides. Only two days of usage so familiarized the little dressmaker with this scene, that it held the place occupied two days ago by the recollections of years.

He had scarcely moved since her arrival. Sometimes his eyes were open, sometimes closed. When they were open, there was no meaning in their unwinking stare at one spot straight before them, unless for a moment the brow knitted into a faint expression of anger, or surprise. Then, Mortimer Lightwood would speak to him, and on occasions he would be so far roused as to make an attempt to pronounce his friend’s name. But, in an instant consciousness was gone again, and no spirit of Eugene was in Eugene’s crushed outer form.

They provided Jenny with materials for plying her work, and she had a little table placed at the foot of his bed. Sitting there, with her rich shower of hair falling over the chair-back, they hoped she might attract his notice. With the same object, she would sing, just above her breath, when he opened his eyes, or she saw his brow knit into that faint expression, so evanescent that it was like a shape made in water. But as yet he had not heeded. The ‘they’ here mentioned were the medical attendant; Lizzie, who was there in all her intervals of rest; and Lightwood, who never left him.

The two days became three, and the three days became four. At length, quite unexpectedly, he said something in a whisper.

‘What was it, my dear Eugene?’

‘Will you, Mortimer —’

‘Will I—?

—‘Send for her?’

‘My dear fellow, she is here.’

Quite unconscious of the long blank, he supposed that they were still speaking together.

The little dressmaker stood up at the foot of the bed, humming her song, and nodded to him brightly. ‘I can’t shake hands, Jenny,’ said Eugene, with something of his old look; ‘but I am very glad to see you.’

Mortimer repeated this to her, for it could only be made out by bending over him and closely watching his attempts to say it. In a little while, he added:

‘Ask her if she has seen the children.’

Mortimer could not understand this, neither could Jenny herself, until he added:

‘Ask her if she has smelt the flowers.’

‘Oh! I know!’ cried Jenny. ‘I understand him now!’ Then, Lightwood yielded his place to her quick approach, and she said, bending over the bed, with that better look: ‘You mean my long bright slanting rows of children, who used to bring me ease and rest? You mean the children who used to take me up, and make me light?’

Eugene smiled, ‘Yes.’

‘I have not seen them since I saw you. I never see them now, but I am hardly ever in pain now.’

‘It was a pretty fancy,’ said Eugene.

‘But I have heard my birds sing,’ cried the little creature, ‘and I have smelt my flowers. Yes, indeed I have! And both were most beautiful and most Divine!’

‘Stay and help to nurse me,’ said Eugene, quietly. ‘I should like you to have the fancy here, before I die.’

She touched his lips with her hand, and shaded her eyes with that same hand as she went back to her work and her little low song. He heard the song with evident pleasure, until she allowed it gradually to sink away into silence.

‘Mortimer.’

‘My dear Eugene.’

‘If you can give me anything to keep me here for only a few minutes —’

To keep you here, Eugene?’

‘To prevent my wandering away I don’t know where — for I begin to be sensible that I have just come back, and that I shall lose myself again — do so, dear boy!’

Mortimer gave him such stimulants as could be given him with safety (they were always at hand, ready), and bending over him once more, was about to caution him, when he said:

‘Don’t tell me not to speak, for I must speak. If you knew the harassing anxiety that gnaws and wears me when I am wandering in those places — where are those endless places, Mortimer? They must be at an immense distance!’

He saw in his friend’s face that he was losing himself; for he added after a moment: ‘Don’t be afraid — I am not gone yet. What was it?’

‘You wanted to tell me something, Eugene. My poor dear fellow, you wanted to say something to your old friend — to the friend who has always loved you, admired you, imitated you, founded himself upon you, been nothing without you, and who, God knows, would be here in your place if he could!’

‘Tut, tut!’ said Eugene with a tender glance as the other put his hand before his face. ‘I am not worth it. I acknowledge that I like it, dear boy, but I am not worth it. This attack, my dear Mortimer; this murder —’

His friend leaned over him with renewed attention, saying: ‘You and I suspect some one.’

‘More than suspect. But, Mortimer, while I lie here, and when I lie here no longer, I trust to you that the perpetrator is never brought to justice.’

‘Eugene?’

‘Her innocent reputation would be ruined, my friend. She would be punished, not he. I have wronged her enough in fact; I have wronged her still more in intention. You recollect what pavement is said to be made of good intentions. It is made of bad intentions too. Mortimer, I am lying on it, and I know!’

‘Be comforted, my dear Eugene.’

‘I will, when you have promised me. Dear Mortimer, the man must never be pursued. If he should be accused, you must keep him silent and save him. Don’t think of avenging me; think only of hushing the story and protecting her. You can confuse the case, and turn aside the circumstances. Listen to what I say to you. It was not the schoolmaster, Bradley Headstone. Do you hear me? Twice; it was not the schoolmaster, Bradley Headstone. Do you hear me? Three times; it was not the schoolmaster, Bradley Headstone.’

He stopped, exhausted. His speech had been whispered, broken, and indistinct; but by a great effort he had made it plain enough to be unmistakeable.

‘Dear fellow, I am wandering away. Stay me for another moment, if you can.’

Lightwood lifted his head at the neck, and put a wine-glass to his lips. He rallied.

‘I don’t know how long ago it was done, whether weeks, days, or hours. No matter. There is inquiry on foot, and pursuit. Say! Is there not?’

‘Yes.’

‘Check it; divert it! Don’t let her be brought in question. Shield her. The guilty man, brought to justice, would poison her name. Let the guilty man go unpunished. Lizzie and my reparation before all! Promise me!’

‘Eugene, I do. I promise you!’

In the act of turning his eyes gratefully towards his friend, he wandered away. His eyes stood still, and settled into that former intent unmeaning stare.

Hours and hours, days and nights, he remained in this same condition. There were times when he would calmly speak to his friend after a long period of unconsciousness, and would say he was better, and would ask for something. Before it could he given him, he would be gone again.

The dolls’ dressmaker, all softened compassion now, watched him with an earnestness that never relaxed. She would regularly change the ice, or the cooling spirit, on his head, and would keep her ear at the pillow betweenwhiles, listening for any faint words that fell from him in his wanderings. It was amazing through how many hours at a time she would remain beside him, in a crouching attitude, attentive to his slightest moan. As he could not move a hand, he could make no sign of distress; but, through this close watching (if through no secret sympathy or power) the little creature attained an understanding of him that Lightwood did not possess. Mortimer would often turn to her, as if she were an interpreter between this sentient world and the insensible man; and she would change the dressing of a wound, or ease a ligature, or turn his face, or alter the pressure of the bedclothes on him, with an absolute certainty of doing right. The natural lightness and delicacy of touch which had become very refined by practice in her miniature work, no doubt was involved in this; but her perception was at least as fine.

The one word, Lizzie, he muttered millions of times. In a certain phase of his distressful state, which was the worst to those who tended him, he would roll his head upon the pillow, incessantly repeating the name in a hurried and impatient manner, with the misery of a disturbed mind, and the monotony of a machine. Equally, when he lay still and staring, he would repeat it for hours without cessation, but then, always in a tone of subdued warning and horror. Her presence and her touch upon his breast or face would often stop this, and then they learned to expect that he would for some time remain still, with his eyes closed, and that he would be conscious on opening them. But, the heavy disappointment of their hope — revived by the welcome silence of the room — was, that his spirit would glide away again and be lost, in the moment of their joy that it was there.

This frequent rising of a drowning man from the deep, to sink again, was dreadful to the beholders. But, gradually the change stole upon him that it became dreadful to himself. His desire to impart something that was on his mind, his unspeakable yearning to have speech with his friend and make a communication to him, so troubled him when he recovered consciousness, that its term was thereby shortened. As the man rising from the deep would disappear the sooner for fighting with the water, so he in his desperate struggle went down again.

One afternoon when he had been lying still, and Lizzie, unrecognized, had just stolen out of the room to pursue her occupation, he uttered Lightwood’s name.

‘My dear Eugene, I am here.’

‘How long is this to last, Mortimer?’

Lightwood shook his head. ‘Still, Eugene, you are no worse than you were.’

‘But I know there’s no hope. Yet I pray it may last long enough for you to do me one last service, and for me to do one last action. Keep me here a few moments, Mortimer. Try, try!’

His friend gave him what aid he could, and encouraged him to believe that he was more composed, though even then his eyes were losing the expression they so rarely recovered.

‘Hold me here, dear fellow, if you can. Stop my wandering away. I am going!’

‘Not yet, not yet. Tell me, dear Eugene, what is it I shall do?’

‘Keep me here for only a single minute. I am going away again. Don’t let me go. Hear me speak first. Stop me — stop me!’

‘My poor Eugene, try to be calm.’

‘I do try. I try so hard. If you only knew how hard! Don’t let me wander till I have spoken. Give me a little more wine.’

Lightwood complied. Eugene, with a most pathetic struggle against the unconsciousness that was coming over him, and with a look of appeal that affected his friend profoundly, said:

‘You can leave me with Jenny, while you speak to her and tell her what I beseech of her. You can leave me with Jenny, while you are gone. There’s not much for you to do. You won’t be long away.’

‘No, no, no. But tell me what it is that I shall do, Eugene!’

‘I am going! You can’t hold me.’

‘Tell me in a word, Eugene!’

His eyes were fixed again, and the only word that came from his lips was the word millions of times repeated. Lizzie, Lizzie, Lizzie.

But, the watchful little dressmaker had been vigilant as ever in her watch, and she now came up and touched Lightwood’s arm as he looked down at his friend, despairingly.

‘Hush!’ she said, with her finger on her lips. ‘His eyes are closing. He’ll be conscious when he next opens them. Shall I give you a leading word to say to him?’

‘O Jenny, if you could only give me the right word!’

‘I can. Stoop down.’

He stooped, and she whispered in his ear. She whispered in his ear one short word of a single syllable. Lightwood started, and looked at her.

‘Try it,’ said the little creature, with an excited and exultant face. She then bent over the unconscious man, and, for the first time, kissed him on the cheek, and kissed the poor maimed hand that was nearest to her. Then, she withdrew to the foot of the bed.

Some two hours afterwards, Mortimer Lightwood saw his consciousness come back, and instantly, but very tranquilly, bent over him.

‘Don’t speak, Eugene. Do no more than look at me, and listen to me. You follow what I say.’

He moved his head in assent.

‘I am going on from the point where we broke off. Is the word we should soon have come to — is it — Wife?’

‘O God bless you, Mortimer!’

‘Hush! Don’t be agitated. Don’t speak. Hear me, dear Eugene. Your mind will be more at peace, lying here, if you make Lizzie your wife. You wish me to speak to her, and tell her so, and entreat her to be your wife. You ask her to kneel at this bedside and be married to you, that your reparation may be complete. Is that so?’

‘Yes. God bless you! Yes.’

‘It shall be done, Eugene. Trust it to me. I shall have to go away for some few hours, to give effect to your wishes. You see this is unavoidable?’

‘Dear friend, I said so.’

‘True. But I had not the clue then. How do you think I got it?’

Glancing wistfully around, Eugene saw Miss Jenny at the foot of the bed, looking at him with her elbows on the bed, and her head upon her hands. There was a trace of his whimsical air upon him, as he tried to smile at her.

‘Yes indeed,’ said Lightwood, ‘the discovery was hers. Observe my dear Eugene; while I am away you will know that I have discharged my trust with Lizzie, by finding her here, in my present place at your bedside, to leave you no more. A final word before I go. This is the right course of a true man, Eugene. And I solemnly believe, with all my soul, that if Providence should mercifully restore you to us, you will be blessed with a noble wife in the preserver of your life, whom you will dearly love.’

‘Amen. I am sure of that. But I shall not come through it, Mortimer.’

‘You will not be the less hopeful or less strong, for this, Eugene.’

‘No. Touch my face with yours, in case I should not hold out till you come back. I love you, Mortimer. Don’t be uneasy for me while you are gone. If my dear brave girl will take me, I feel persuaded that I shall live long enough to be married, dear fellow.’

Miss Jenny gave up altogether on this parting taking place between the friends, and sitting with her back towards the bed in the bower made by her bright hair, wept heartily, though noiselessly. Mortimer Lightwood was soon gone. As the evening light lengthened the heavy reflections of the trees in the river, another figure came with a soft step into the sick room.

‘Is he conscious?’ asked the little dressmaker, as the figure took its station by the pillow. For, Jenny had given place to it immediately, and could not see the sufferer’s face, in the dark room, from her new and removed position.

‘He is conscious, Jenny,’ murmured Eugene for himself. ‘He knows his wife.’

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30