‘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 come home to England after a long absence. I have seen at my mother’s–Mrs Clennam in the city–a young woman working at her needle, whom I have only heard addressed or spoken of as Little Dorrit. I have felt sincerely interested in her, and have had a great desire to know something more about her. I saw her, not a minute before you came up, pass in at that door.’
The old man looked at him attentively. ‘Are you a sailor, sir?’ he asked. He seemed a little disappointed by the shake of the head that replied to him. ‘Not a sailor? I judged from your sunburnt face that you might be. Are you in earnest, sir?’
‘I do assure you that I am, and do entreat you to believe that I am, in plain earnest.’
‘I know very little of the world, sir,’ returned the other, who had a weak and quavering voice. ‘I am merely passing on, like the shadow over the sun-dial. It would be worth no man’s while to mislead me; it would really be too easy–too poor a success, to yield any satisfaction. The young woman whom you saw go in here is my brother’s child. My brother is William Dorrit; I am Frederick. You say you have seen her at your mother’s (I know your mother befriends her), you have felt an interest in her, and you wish to know what she does here. Come and see.’
He went on again, and Arthur accompanied him.
‘My brother,’ said the old man, pausing on the step and slowly facing round again, ‘has been here many years; and much that happens even among ourselves, out of doors, is kept from him for reasons that I needn’t enter upon now. Be so good as to say nothing of my niece’s working at her needle. Be so good as to say nothing that goes beyond what is said among us. If you keep within our bounds, you cannot well be wrong. Now! Come and see.’
Arthur followed him down a narrow entry, at the end of which a key was turned, and a strong door was opened from within. It admitted them into a lodge or lobby, across which they passed, and so through another door and a grating into the prison. The old man always plodding on before, turned round, in his slow, stiff, stooping manner, when they came to the turnkey on duty, as if to present his companion. The turnkey nodded; and the companion passed in without being asked whom he wanted.
The night was dark; and the prison lamps in the yard, and the candles in the prison windows faintly shining behind many sorts of wry old curtain and blind, had not the air of making it lighter. A few people loitered about, but the greater part of the population was within doors. The old man, taking the right-hand side of the yard, turned in at the third or fourth doorway, and began to ascend the stairs. ‘They are rather dark, sir, but you will not find anything in the way.’
He paused for a moment before opening a door on the second story. He had no sooner turned the handle than the visitor saw Little Dorrit, and saw the reason of her setting so much store by dining alone.
She had brought the meat home that she should have eaten herself, and was already warming it on a gridiron over the fire for her father, clad in an old grey gown and a black cap, awaiting his supper at the table. A clean cloth was spread before him, with knife, fork, and spoon, salt-cellar, pepper-box, glass, and pewter ale-pot. Such zests as his particular little phial of cayenne pepper and his pennyworth of pickles in a saucer, were not wanting.
She started, coloured deeply, and turned white. The visitor, more with his eyes than by the slight impulsive motion of his hand, entreated her to be reassured and to trust him.
‘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, but hesitating whether to come in or not. This is my brother William, sir.’
‘I hope,’ said Arthur, very doubtful what to say, ‘that my respect for your daughter may explain and justify my desire to be presented to you, sir.’
‘Mr Clennam,’ returned the other, rising, taking his cap off in the flat of his hand, and so holding it, ready to put on again, ‘you do me honour. You are welcome, sir;’ with a low bow. ‘Frederick, a chair. Pray sit down, Mr Clennam.’
He put his black cap on again as he had taken it off, and resumed his own seat. There was a wonderful air of benignity and patronage in his manner. These were the ceremonies with which he received the collegians.
‘You are welcome to the Marshalsea, sir. I have welcomed many gentlemen to these walls. Perhaps you are aware–my daughter Amy may have mentioned that I am the Father of this place.’
‘I–so I have understood,’ said Arthur, dashing at the assertion.
‘You know, I dare say, that my daughter Amy was born here. A good girl, sir, a dear girl, and long a comfort and support to me. Amy, my dear, put this dish on; Mr Clennam will excuse the primitive customs to which we are reduced here. Is it a compliment to ask you if you would do me the honour, sir, to–’
‘Thank you,’ returned Arthur. ‘Not a morsel.’
He felt himself quite lost in wonder at the manner of the man, and that the probability of his daughter’s having had a reserve as to her family history, should be so far out of his mind.