‘That I hope you will not misunderstand my father. Don’t judge him, sir, as you would judge others outside the gates. He has been there so long! I never saw him outside, but I can understand that he must have grown different in some things since.’
‘My thoughts will never be unjust or harsh towards him, believe me.’
‘Not,’ she said, with a prouder air, as the misgiving evidently crept upon her that she might seem to be abandoning him, ‘not that he has anything to be ashamed of for himself, or that I have anything to be ashamed of for him. He only requires to be understood. I only ask for him that his life may be fairly remembered. All that he said was quite true. It all happened just as he related it. He is very much respected. Everybody who comes in, is glad to know him. He is more courted than anyone else. He is far more thought of than the Marshal is.’
If ever pride were innocent, it was innocent in Little Dorrit when she grew boastful of her father.
‘It is often said that his manners are a true gentleman’s, and quite a study. I see none like them in that place, but he is admitted to be superior to all the rest. This is quite as much why they make him presents, as because they know him to be needy. He is not to be blamed for being in need, poor love. Who could be in prison a quarter of a century, and be prosperous!’
What affection in her words, what compassion in her repressed tears, what a great soul of fidelity within her, how true the light that shed false brightness round him!
‘If I have found it best to conceal where my home is, it is not because I am ashamed of him. God forbid! Nor am I so much ashamed of the place itself as might be supposed. People are not bad because they come there. I have known numbers of good, persevering, honest people come there through misfortune. They are almost all kind-hearted to one another. And it would be ungrateful indeed in me, to forget that I have had many quiet, comfortable hours there; that I had an excellent friend there when I was quite a baby, who was very very fond of me; that I have been taught there, and have worked there, and have slept soundly there. I think it would be almost cowardly and cruel not to have some little attachment for it, after all this.’
She had relieved the faithful fulness of her heart, and modestly said, raising her eyes appealingly to her new friend’s, ‘I did not mean to say so much, nor have I ever but once spoken about this before. But it seems to set it more right than it was last night. I said I wished you had not followed me, sir. I don’t wish it so much now, unless you should think–indeed I don’t wish it at all, unless I should have spoken so confusedly, that–that you can scarcely understand me, which I am afraid may be the case.’
He told her with perfect truth that it was not the case; and putting himself between her and the sharp wind and rain, sheltered her as well as he could.
‘I feel permitted now,’ he said, ‘to ask you a little more concerning your father. Has he many creditors?’
‘Oh! a great number.’
‘I mean detaining creditors, who keep him where he is?’
‘Oh yes! a great number.’
‘Can you tell me–I can get the information, no doubt, elsewhere, if you cannot–who is the most influential of them?’
Little Dorrit said, after considering a little, that she used to hear long ago of Mr Tite Barnacle as a man of great power. He was a commissioner, or a board, or a trustee, ‘or something.’ He lived in Grosvenor Square, she thought, or very near it. He was under Government–high in the Circumlocution Office. She appeared to have acquired, in her infancy, some awful impression of the might of this formidable Mr Tite Barnacle of Grosvenor Square, or very near it, and the Circumlocution Office, which quite crushed her when she mentioned him.
‘It can do no harm,’ thought Arthur, ‘if I see this Mr Tite Barnacle.’
The thought did not present itself so quietly but that her quickness intercepted it. ‘Ah!’ said Little Dorrit, shaking her head with the mild despair of a lifetime. ‘Many people used to think once of getting my poor father out, but you don’t know how hopeless it is.’
She forgot to be shy at the moment, in honestly warning him away from the sunken wreck he had a dream of raising; and looked at him with eyes which assuredly, in association with her patient face, her fragile figure, her spare dress, and the wind and rain, did not turn him from his purpose of helping her.
‘Even if it could be done,’ said she–‘and it never can be done now–where could father live, or how could he live? I have often thought that if such a change could come, it might be anything but a service to him now. People might not think so well of him outside as they do there. He might not be so gently dealt with outside as he is there. He might not be so fit himself for the life outside as he is for that.’
Here for the first time she could not restrain her tears from falling; and the little thin hands he had watched when they were so busy, trembled as they clasped each other.
‘It would be a new distress to him even to know that I earn a little money, and that Fanny earns a little money. He is so anxious about us, you see, feeling helplessly shut up there. Such a good, good father!’
He let the little burst of feeling go by before he spoke. It was soon gone. She was not accustomed to think of herself, or to trouble any one with her emotions. He had but glanced away at the piles of city roofs and chimneys among which the smoke was rolling heavily, and at the wilderness of masts on the river, and the wilderness of steeples on the shore, indistinctly mixed together in the stormy haze, when she was again as quiet as if she had been plying her needle in his mother’s room.
‘You would be glad to have your brother set at liberty?’
‘Oh very, very glad, sir!’
‘Well, we will hope for him at least. You told me last night of a friend you had?’
His name was Plornish, Little Dorrit said.
And where did Plornish live? Plornish lived in Bleeding Heart Yard. He was ‘only a plasterer,’ Little Dorrit said, as a caution to him not to form high social expectations of Plornish. He lived at the last house in Bleeding Heart Yard, and his name was over a little gateway.
Arthur took down the address and gave her his. He had now done all he sought to do for the present, except that he wished to leave her with a reliance upon him, and to have something like a promise from her that she would cherish it.
‘There is one friend!’ he said, putting up his pocketbook. ‘As I take you back–you are going back?’
‘Oh yes! going straight home.’