Speaking Out

By Laura Schiller

Based on: Little Dorrit

Copyright: BBC/Charles Dickens' estate

If Harriet Beadle had not been especially bored and restless one cloudy afternoon, her story and the stories around her might have ended very differently. Bored and restless, however, she was – and so she rolled across the bed, limp as a rag doll, got to her feet and began to idly investigate a wooden box sitting on a chair. The box contained some sort of legal documents, and she was just about to replace them when the name Clennam caught her eye. She sat up straight, the paper trembling in her hands.

It took several readings for her to make sense of all the legal circumlocution, but once she found the other letter underneath, in a shaky woman's hand addressed to "my beloved son", she understood. She felt a fire coursing through her blood which she'd believed Miss Wade had extinguished forever – this time, not for herself, but for someone else.

This was about Mr. Clennam, who treated every woman with the same quiet respect, even a Negro servant. Mr. Clennam with his wistful blue eyes and disappointed smile, his face that spoke of so much outlived pain. Mr. Clennam, who had called her by her Christian name, redeeming the sound of it for her just when she feared Miss Wade had tainted it forever.

He was an orphan just like her. So that was where the look in his eyes came from.

And then there was the girl, Amy Dorrit, whom Harriet had never even met, but could imagine as vividly as if they stood face to face. Mr. Clennam had so enjoyed talking about his friend at the Meagles' tea table; about Miss Dorrit's kindness, the innocence she maintained in spite of growing up in a debtor's prison. Miss Dorrit, defrauded of a fortune that was rightfully hers, belittled and exploited by her ungrateful family instead of living in the comfort and independence she deserved.

Harriet's pulse was pounding in her ears like the drums of war. She could have clawed Mrs. Clennam's eyes out if she knew the woman's address.

When Miss Wade came back from her shopping errand and found her with the young mother's letter still in her hands, Harriet barely flinched. Even Miss Wade's coldest look could no longer quench the fire. Far from it, since her so-called protector was so obviously complicitous in this scheme.

"What are you doing?" asked Miss Wade, with her customary frozen calm. "Those are nothing to do with you."

"They're nothing to do with you either." Harriet met her eyes straight on, embarrassed to find her voice so close to tears of anger, but determined not to show it. "You've done a wicked thing."

Why, wondered a distant voice at the back of her mind, was it easier to defend Mr. Clennam, or even a complete stranger, than herself? Was it not an equally wicked thing Miss Wade had done to her?

"All I have done was to uphold my bargain with Monsieur Blandois," Miss Wade replied, with a smooth shrug of her black-gowned shoulders. "The contents of these papers need not concern us."

Us. She still spoke as if they were together, the equal partnership Harriet had dreamed of, instead of what they really were. Harriet packed the papers back into the box, rose to her feet with it under one arm, wiped her eyes, and glared back at her mistress for the first time in weeks: fire meeting ice.

"They concern Mr. Clennam," she snarled. "If you knew what's been done to him, and to his friend Miss Dorrit – everything that was stolen from them - "

Miss Wade interrupted her with a short bark of a laugh. "That tiresome friend of Mr. Meagles? Do you think I care?"

Harriet clenched her fists. The last time she had been this angry, during her last confrontation with her foster-father, she had felt strangely split in two: one part blazing with hatred and defiance, the other vaguely concerned, like a bystander looking through the window wondering if this strange, savage girl was about to give herself (or Mr. Meagles) an apoplectic fit. At this moment, however, she felt more at one with herself than she had for all her life. Every cell of her brain and body demanded to leave this woman's rooms.

"No," she replied, "You don't care for anyone, do you, Miss Wade? Not for me, perhaps not even for yourself. You've forgotten how it feels – if you ever knew."

Miss Wade's ivory face turned even whiter, her pale lips pressed together.

"You have no right to speak to me in this manner, Harriet." A harsher note came into her elegant voice, like a porcelain vase with a slowly widening crack, as she took a step closer.

"I'll speak to you as I please!" Harriet forced herself to stand still. If she were backed up against the bed, she'd be in trouble. "I shall quit this house, indeed I will. You cannot force me to stay here – "

"Oh, and I suppose you have plenty of places to go?" Miss Wade sneered. "Shall you go crawling back to the Meagles, then, Tattycoram? Shall you count to five-and-twenty, follow their pretty daughter like an obedient dog?"

"Better than following you!" Harriet moved to the left, without breaking eye contact. "I may never find the freedom I hoped for – " She swallowed hard, refusing to cry. "But I will be damned if I cannot choose my own masters. The Meagleses may be foolish and pompous and – and infuriating, but at least they know what kindness is."

"It is a false kindness," Miss Wade hissed, her porcelain voice cracking at last. "You know that. They used you as a tool to gratify their vanity, nothing more."

"Perhaps, but it was more than that. You twisted my thoughts to make them appear worse to me than they are." Harriet remembered the genuine affection in Mr. Meagles' tired gray eyes at their last meeting. You will always have a home, Tattycoram All I ask, my child, is that you count to five-and-twenty. He had never meant to hurt her, she realized it now; the nickname was a term of endearment, like calling his daughter "Pet", and the counting was only his well-intentioned, clumsy way of getting her to think twice about her impulsive words and actions. To clear her mind.

Her mind had never been clearer than it was now.

"I will not let you go," said Miss Wade, moving to block the door with a panther's prowl.

Harriet grinned and gathered up her skirt in one hand, her other arm still holding the box of papers. "Try and stop me."

The older woman was tall and strong, but Harriet was faster, and her childhood games and squabbles with Pet had given her plenty of practice at avoiding obstacles. She dodged right, then left, and was out the door as swiftly as one of the Meagles' canaries escaped from its cage.

She thundered down the stairs and almost ran into Miss Wade's astonished landlady. The sounds behind her as she ran – a rustle of skirts; Miss Wade's curse; the old woman's stammered apology – implied that God was finally on Harriet's side. Miss Wade was far too dignified to run in the street. She would never catch up now.

- LD –

By the time she finally arrived at the Meagles' garden gate, it was nighttime and her feet were killing her. Having no cab fare, she had walked the entire way. She leaned against the fence, catching her breath, longing for bed and a hot meal warring with her pride. She did not relish having to explain herself to her foster-family, to apologize, and especially to listen to the lectures she was sure would be forthcoming. She began to count under her breath as she limped toward the cottage.

"One, two, three, four … " She could just picture Mr. Meagles' round, red, self-satisfied face.

"Five, six, seven, eight, nine." Mrs. Meagles' fluffy white bonnet nodding in agreement. Pet's inevitable order to fetch or mend or clean something as soon as the fuss died down.

"Ten. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen." We must make allowances for Tattycoram … she might have been lost and ruined if she were not among practical people.

"Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen." Miss Wade's cold smile and invasive fingers. You have no right to speak to me in this manner.

"Nineteen – twenty – twenty-one – " The papers in the box. Miss Dorrit's stolen fortune. Mr. Clennam's legacy. Miss Wade keeping it all hidden away, without a thought of the happiness she was helping to destroy.

"Twenty-two … twenty-three … twenty-four … " How would those cloud-colored eyes of Mr. Clennam's look when he read his mother's letter?

"Twenty-five." You will always have a home.

She rang the bell.

It was Mrs. Tickit, the housekeeper, who opened the door. Harriet's ambiguous social position had often made things awkward between them, but Mrs. Tickit's gasp of delighted surprise, followed by a flurry of commands to put down her box, sit down and take a cup of tea, showed Harriet clearly that at least one member of this household welcomed her. Soon enough, though, their tea in the parlor was interrupted by Mr. and Mrs. Meagles, who were already in their nightclothes and paused in the doorway with blinking eyes, as if they might be witnessing a dream.

Harriet stood up and smoothed her dress, suddenly tongue-tied. She had thought of so many things to say to them – insults, accusations, apologies, regrets – but now they were here, in the flesh, all she could do was stare at them. They looked older than she remembered, worn and tired.

"Tattycoram?" asked Mr. Meagles.

"Harriet." Smiling tearfully, Mrs. Meagles placed a hand on her husband's shoulder so he would let her pass through the door first. She crossed the room and wrapped her foster-daughter in a motherly embrace.

"I've been a fool," said Harriet, her face buried in Mrs. Meagles' practical flannel nightgown. "I misjudged you … I misjudged her … can you forgive me?"

"Why, my dear girl," said Mr. Meagles, "Of course we can. The question is, can you forgive us?"

"Me?" Harriet exclaimed. For once, neither of them corrected her grammar.

"We've had a great deal of time to think since Pet was married," added Mrs. Meagles, stepping away to look anxiously into Harriet's face. "We haven't been quite fair to you, have we? No wonder you were so restless. You might have said something earlier, before letting it come to a crisis!"

"I did try," she pointed out.

"But really, Tatty – excuse me, Harriet," grumbled Mr, meagles, "If you didn't like our nickname, you could have just asked us to stop! It's a little late by now, you see – old dogs, new tricks, eh?"

Harriet felt like laughing and crying at once. Yes, she was definitely home. Her eyes fell on the box she had carried all the way from Miss Wade's rooms.

Just you wait, Mr. Clennam … you'll find your own family soon.