Little Dorrit had put his hand to her lips, and would have kneeled to him, but he gently prevented her, and replaced her in her chair. Her eyes, and the tones of her voice, had thanked him far better than she thought. He was not able to say, quite as composedly as usual, ‘There, Little Dorrit, there, there, there! We will suppose that you did know this person, and that you might do all this, and that it was all done. And now tell me, Who am quite another person–who am nothing more than the friend who begged you to trust him–why you are out at midnight, and what it is that brings you so far through the streets at this late hour, my slight, delicate,’ child was on his lips again, ‘Little Dorrit!’
‘Maggy and I have been to-night,’ she answered, subduing herself with the quiet effort that had long been natural to her, ‘to the theatre where my sister is engaged.’
‘And oh ain’t it a Ev’nly place,’ suddenly interrupted Maggy, who seemed to have the power of going to sleep and waking up whenever she chose. ‘Almost as good as a hospital. Only there ain’t no Chicking in it.’
Here she shook herself, and fell asleep again.
‘We went there,’ said Little Dorrit, glancing at her charge, ‘because I like sometimes to know, of my own knowledge, that my sister is doing well; and like to see her there, with my own eyes, when neither she nor Uncle is aware. It is very seldom indeed that I can do that, because when I am not out at work, I am with my father, and even when I am out at work, I hurry home to him. But I pretend to-night that I am at a party.’
As she made the confession, timidly hesitating, she raised her eyes to the face, and read its expression so plainly that she answered it.
‘Oh no, certainly! I never was at a party in my life.’
She paused a little under his attentive look, and then said, ‘I hope there is no harm in it. I could never have been of any use, if I had not pretended a little.’
She feared that he was blaming her in his mind for so devising to contrive for them, think for them, and watch over them, without their knowledge or gratitude; perhaps even with their reproaches for supposed neglect. But what was really in his mind, was the weak figure with its strong purpose, the thin worn shoes, the insufficient dress, and the pretence of recreation and enjoyment. He asked where the suppositious party was? At a place where she worked, answered Little Dorrit, blushing. She had said very little about it; only a few words to make her father easy. Her father did not believe it to be a grand party–indeed he might suppose that. And she glanced for an instant at the shawl she wore.
‘It is the first night,’ said Little Dorrit, ‘that I have ever been away from home. And London looks so large, so barren, and so wild.’ In Little Dorrit’s eyes, its vastness under the black sky was awful; a tremor passed over her as she said the words.
‘But this is not,’ she added, with the quiet effort again, ‘what I have come to trouble you with, sir. My sister’s having found a friend, a lady she has told me of and made me rather anxious about, was the first cause of my coming away from home. And being away, and coming (on purpose) round by where you lived and seeing a light in the window–’
Not for the first time. No, not for the first time. In Little Dorrit’s eyes, the outside of that window had been a distant star on other nights than this. She had toiled out of her way, tired and troubled, to look up at it, and wonder about the grave, brown gentleman from so far off, who had spoken to her as a friend and protector.
‘There were three things,’ said Little Dorrit, ‘that I thought I would like to say, if you were alone and I might come up-stairs. First, what I have tried to say, but never can–never shall–’
‘Hush, hush! That is done with, and disposed of. Let us pass to the second,’ said Clennam, smiling her agitation away, making the blaze shine upon her, and putting wine and cake and fruit towards her on the table.
‘I think,’ said Little Dorrit–‘this is the second thing, sir–I think Mrs Clennam must have found out my secret, and must know where I come from and where I go to. Where I live, I mean.’
‘Indeed!’ returned Clennam quickly. He asked her, after short consideration, why she supposed so.
‘I think,’ replied Little Dorrit, ‘that Mr Flintwinch must have watched me.’
And why, Clennam asked, as he turned his eyes upon the fire, bent his brows, and considered again; why did she suppose that?
‘I have met him twice. Both times near home. Both times at night, when I was going back. Both times I thought (though that may easily be my mistake), that he hardly looked as if he had met me by accident.’
‘Did he say anything?’
‘No; he only nodded and put his head on one side.’
‘The devil take his head!’ mused Clennam, still looking at the fire; ‘it’s always on one side.’
He roused himself to persuade her to put some wine to her lips, and to touch something to eat–it was very difficult, she was so timid and shy–and then said, musing again:
‘Is my mother at all changed to you?’
‘Oh, not at all. She is just the same. I wondered whether I had better tell her my history. I wondered whether I might–I mean, whether you would like me to tell her. I wondered,’ said Little Dorrit, looking at him in a suppliant way, and gradually withdrawing her eyes as he looked at her, ‘whether you would advise me what I ought to do.’
‘Little Dorrit,’ said Clennam; and the phrase had already begun, between these two, to stand for a hundred gentle phrases, according to the varying tone and connection in which it was used; ‘do nothing. I will have some talk with my old friend, Mrs Affery. Do nothing, Little Dorrit–except refresh yourself with such means as there are here. I entreat you to do that.’
‘Thank you, I am not hungry. Nor,’ said Little Dorrit, as he softly put her glass towards her, ‘nor thirsty.–I think Maggy might like something, perhaps.’
‘We will make her find pockets presently for all there is here,’ said Clennam: ‘but before we awake her, there was a third thing to say.’
‘Yes. You will not be offended, sir?’
‘I promise that, unreservedly.’