‘Mr Clennam, Amy,’ said her uncle, ‘has been expecting you some time.’
‘I took the liberty of sending you a message.’
‘I received the message, sir.’
‘Are you going to my mother’s this morning? I think not, for it is past your usual hour.’
‘Not to-day, sir. I am not wanted to-day.’
‘Will you allow Me to walk a little way in whatever direction you may be going? I can then speak to you as we walk, both without detaining you here, and without intruding longer here myself.’
She looked embarrassed, but said, if he pleased. He made a pretence of having mislaid his walking-stick, to give her time to set the bedstead right, to answer her sister’s impatient knock at the wall, and to say a word softly to her uncle. Then he found it, and they went down-stairs; she first, he following; the uncle standing at the stair-head, and probably forgetting them before they had reached the ground floor.
Mr Cripples’s pupils, who were by this time coming to school, desisted from their morning recreation of cuffing one another with bags and books, to stare with all the eyes they had at a stranger who had been to see Dirty Dick. They bore the trying spectacle in silence, until the mysterious visitor was at a safe distance; when they burst into pebbles and yells, and likewise into reviling dances, and in all respects buried the pipe of peace with so many savage ceremonies, that, if Mr Cripples had been the chief of the Cripplewayboo tribe with his war-paint on, they could scarcely have done greater justice to their education.
In the midst of this homage, Mr Arthur Clennam offered his arm to Little Dorrit, and Little Dorrit took it. ‘Will you go by the Iron Bridge,’ said he, ‘where there is an escape from the noise of the street?’ Little Dorrit answered, if he pleased, and presently ventured to hope that he would ‘not mind’ Mr Cripples’s boys, for she had herself received her education, such as it was, in Mr Cripples’s evening academy. He returned, with the best will in the world, that Mr Cripples’s boys were forgiven out of the bottom of his soul. Thus did Cripples unconsciously become a master of the ceremonies between them, and bring them more naturally together than Beau Nash might have done if they had lived in his golden days, and he had alighted from his coach and six for the purpose.
The morning remained squally, and the streets were miserably muddy, but no rain fell as they walked towards the Iron Bridge. The little creature seemed so young in his eyes, that there were moments when he found himself thinking of her, if not speaking to her, as if she were a child. Perhaps he seemed as old in her eyes as she seemed young in his.
‘I am sorry to hear you were so inconvenienced last night, sir, as to be locked in. It was very unfortunate.’
It was nothing, he returned. He had had a very good bed.
‘Oh yes!’ she said quickly; ‘she believed there were excellent beds at the coffee-house.’ He noticed that the coffee-house was quite a majestic hotel to her, and that she treasured its reputation.
‘I believe it is very expensive,’ said Little Dorrit, ‘but my father has told me that quite beautiful dinners may be got there. And wine,’ she added timidly.
‘Were you ever there?’
‘Oh no! Only into the kitchen to fetch hot water.’
To think of growing up with a kind of awe upon one as to the luxuries of that superb establishment, the Marshalsea Hotel!
‘I asked you last night,’ said Clennam, ‘how you had become acquainted with my mother. Did you ever hear her name before she sent for you?’
‘Do you think your father ever did?’
He met her eyes raised to his with so much wonder in them (she was scared when the encounter took place, and shrunk away again), that he felt it necessary to say:
‘I have a reason for asking, which I cannot very well explain; but you must, on no account, suppose it to be of a nature to cause you the least alarm or anxiety. Quite the reverse. And you think that at no time of your father’s life was my name of Clennam ever familiar to him?’
He felt, from the tone in which she spoke, that she was glancing up at him with those parted lips; therefore he looked before him, rather than make her heart beat quicker still by embarrassing her afresh.
Thus they emerged upon the Iron Bridge, which was as quiet after the roaring streets as though it had been open country. The wind blew roughly, the wet squalls came rattling past them, skimming the pools on the road and pavement, and raining them down into the river. The clouds raced on furiously in the lead-coloured sky, the smoke and mist raced after them, the dark tide ran fierce and strong in the same direction. Little Dorrit seemed the least, the quietest, and weakest of Heaven’s creatures.
‘Let me put you in a coach,’ said Clennam, very nearly adding ‘my poor child.’
She hurriedly declined, saying that wet or dry made little difference to her; she was used to go about in all weathers. He knew it to be so, and was touched with more pity; thinking of the slight figure at his side, making its nightly way through the damp dark boisterous streets to such a place of rest.
‘You spoke so feelingly to me last night, sir, and I found afterwards that you had been so generous to my father, that I could not resist your message, if it was only to thank you; especially as I wished very much to say to you–’ she hesitated and trembled, and tears rose in her eyes, but did not fall.
‘To say to me–?’