She filled his glass, put all the little matters on the table ready to his hand, and then sat beside him while he ate his supper. Evidently in observance of their nightly custom, she put some bread before herself, and touched his glass with her lips; but Arthur saw she was troubled and took nothing. Her look at her father, half admiring him and proud of him, half ashamed for him, all devoted and loving, went to his inmost heart.
The Father of the Marshalsea condescended towards his brother as an amiable, well-meaning man; a private character, who had not arrived at distinction. ‘Frederick,’ said he, ‘you and Fanny sup at your lodgings to-night, I know. What have you done with Fanny, Frederick?’
‘She is walking with Tip.’
‘Tip–as you may know–is my son, Mr Clennam. He has been a little wild, and difficult to settle, but his introduction to the world was rather’–he shrugged his shoulders with a faint sigh, and looked round the room–‘a little adverse. Your first visit here, sir?’
‘You could hardly have been here since your boyhood without my knowledge. It very seldom happens that anybody–of any pretensions–any pretensions–comes here without being presented to me.’
‘As many as forty or fifty in a day have been introduced to my brother,’ said Frederick, faintly lighting up with a ray of pride.
‘Yes!’ the Father of the Marshalsea assented. ‘We have even exceeded that number. On a fine Sunday in term time, it is quite a Levee–quite a Levee. Amy, my dear, I have been trying half the day to remember the name of the gentleman from Camberwell who was introduced to me last Christmas week by that agreeable coal-merchant who was remanded for six months.’
‘I don’t remember his name, father.’
‘Frederick, do _you_ remember his name?’
Frederick doubted if he had ever heard it. No one could doubt that Frederick was the last person upon earth to put such a question to, with any hope of information.
‘I mean,’ said his brother, ‘the gentleman who did that handsome action with so much delicacy. Ha! Tush! The name has quite escaped me. Mr Clennam, as I have happened to mention handsome and delicate action, you may like, perhaps, to know what it was.’
‘Very much,’ said Arthur, withdrawing his eyes from the delicate head beginning to droop and the pale face with a new solicitude stealing over it.
‘It is so generous, and shows so much fine feeling, that it is almost a duty to mention it. I said at the time that I always would mention it on every suitable occasion, without regard to personal sensitiveness. A–well–a–it’s of no use to disguise the fact–you must know, Mr Clennam, that it does sometimes occur that people who come here desire to offer some little–Testimonial–to the Father of the place.’
To see her hand upon his arm in mute entreaty half-repressed, and her timid little shrinking figure turning away, was to see a sad, sad sight.
‘Sometimes,’ he went on in a low, soft voice, agitated, and clearing his throat every now and then; ‘sometimes–hem–it takes one shape and sometimes another; but it is generally–ha–Money. And it is, I cannot but confess it, it is too often–hem–acceptable. This gentleman that I refer to, was presented to me, Mr Clennam, in a manner highly gratifying to my feelings, and conversed not only with great politeness, but with great–ahem–information.’ All this time, though he had finished his supper, he was nervously going about his plate with his knife and fork, as if some of it were still before him. ‘It appeared from his conversation that he had a garden, though he was delicate of mentioning it at first, as gardens are–hem–are not accessible to me. But it came out, through my admiring a very fine cluster of geranium–beautiful cluster of geranium to be sure–which he had brought from his conservatory. On my taking notice of its rich colour, he showed me a piece of paper round it, on which was written, “For the Father of the Marshalsea,” and presented it to me. But this was–hem–not all. He made a particular request, on taking leave, that I would remove the paper in half an hour. I–ha–I did so; and I found that it contained–ahem–two guineas. I assure you, Mr Clennam, I have received–hem–Testimonials in many ways, and of many degrees of value, and they have always been–ha–unfortunately acceptable; but I never was more pleased than with this–ahem–this particular Testimonial.’
Arthur was in the act of saying the little he could say on such a theme, when a bell began to ring, and footsteps approached the door. A pretty girl of a far better figure and much more developed than Little Dorrit, though looking much younger in the face when the two were observed together, stopped in the doorway on seeing a stranger; and a young man who was with her, stopped too.
‘Mr Clennam, Fanny. My eldest daughter and my son, Mr Clennam. The bell is a signal for visitors to retire, and so they have come to say good night; but there is plenty of time, plenty of time. Girls, Mr Clennam will excuse any household business you may have together. He knows, I dare say, that I have but one room here.’
‘I only want my clean dress from Amy, father,’ said the second girl.
‘And I my clothes,’ said Tip.
Amy opened a drawer in an old piece of furniture that was a chest of drawers above and a bedstead below, and produced two little bundles, which she handed to her brother and sister. ‘Mended and made up?’ Clennam heard the sister ask in a whisper. To which Amy answered ‘Yes.’ He had risen now, and took the opportunity of glancing round the room. The bare walls had been coloured green, evidently by an unskilled hand, and were poorly decorated with a few prints. The window was curtained, and the floor carpeted; and there were shelves and pegs, and other such conveniences, that had accumulated in the course of years. It was a close, confined room, poorly furnished; and the chimney smoked to boot, or the tin screen at the top of the fireplace was superfluous; but constant pains and care had made it neat, and even, after its kind, comfortable.
All the while the bell was ringing, and the uncle was anxious to go. ‘Come, Fanny, come, Fanny,’ he said, with his ragged clarionet case under his arm; ‘the lock, child, the lock!’
Fanny bade her father good night, and whisked off airily. Tip had already clattered down-stairs. ‘Now, Mr Clennam,’ said the uncle, looking back as he shuffled out after them, ‘the lock, sir, the lock.’
Mr Clennam had two things to do before he followed; one, to offer his testimonial to the Father of the Marshalsea, without giving pain to his child; the other to say something to that child, though it were but a word, in explanation of his having come there.
‘Allow me,’ said the Father, ‘to see you down-stairs.’
She had slipped out after the rest, and they were alone. ‘Not on any account,’ said the visitor, hurriedly. ‘Pray allow me to–’ chink, chink, chink.
‘Mr Clennam,’ said the Father, ‘I am deeply, deeply–’ But his visitor had shut up his hand to stop the clinking, and had gone down-stairs with great speed.
He saw no Little Dorrit on his way down, or in the yard. The last two or three stragglers were hurrying to the lodge, and he was following, when he caught sight of her in the doorway of the first house from the entrance. He turned back hastily.
‘Pray forgive me,’ he said, ‘for speaking to you here; pray forgive me for coming here at all! I followed you to-night. I did so, that I might endeavour to render you and your family some service. You know the terms on which I and my mother are, and may not be surprised that I have preserved our distant relations at her house, lest I should unintentionally make her jealous, or resentful, or do you any injury in her estimation. What I have seen here, in this short time, has greatly increased my heartfelt wish to be a friend to you. It would recompense me for much disappointment if I could hope to gain your confidence.’
She was scared at first, but seemed to take courage while he spoke to her.