‘It will sound strange. I hardly know how to say it. Don’t think it unreasonable or ungrateful in me,’ said Little Dorrit, with returning and increasing agitation.
‘No, no, no. I am sure it will be natural and right. I am not afraid that I shall put a wrong construction on it, whatever it is.’
‘Thank you. You are coming back to see my father again?’
‘You have been so good and thoughtful as to write him a note, saying that you are coming to-morrow?’
‘Oh, that was nothing! Yes.’
‘Can you guess,’ said Little Dorrit, folding her small hands tight in one another, and looking at him with all the earnestness of her soul looking steadily out of her eyes, ‘what I am going to ask you not to do?’
‘I think I can. But I may be wrong.’
‘No, you are not wrong,’ said Little Dorrit, shaking her head. ‘If we should want it so very, very badly that we cannot do without it, let me ask you for it.’
‘I Will,–I Will.’
‘Don’t encourage him to ask. Don’t understand him if he does ask. Don’t give it to him. Save him and spare him that, and you will be able to think better of him!’
Clennam said–not very plainly, seeing those tears glistening in her anxious eyes–that her wish should be sacred with him.
‘You don’t know what he is,’ she said; ‘you don’t know what he really is. How can you, seeing him there all at once, dear love, and not gradually, as I have done! You have been so good to us, so delicately and truly good, that I want him to be better in your eyes than in anybody’s. And I cannot bear to think,’ cried Little Dorrit, covering her tears with her hands, ‘I cannot bear to think that you of all the world should see him in his only moments of degradation.’
‘Pray,’ said Clennam, ‘do not be so distressed. Pray, pray, Little Dorrit! This is quite understood now.’
‘Thank you, sir. Thank you! I have tried very much to keep myself from saying this; I have thought about it, days and nights; but when I knew for certain you were coming again, I made up my mind to speak to you. Not because I am ashamed of him,’ she dried her tears quickly, ‘but because I know him better than any one does, and love him, and am proud of him.’
Relieved of this weight, Little Dorrit was nervously anxious to be gone. Maggy being broad awake, and in the act of distantly gloating over the fruit and cakes with chuckles of anticipation, Clennam made the best diversion in his power by pouring her out a glass of wine, which she drank in a series of loud smacks; putting her hand upon her windpipe after every one, and saying, breathless, with her eyes in a prominent state, ‘Oh, ain’t it d’licious! Ain’t it hospitally!’ When she had finished the wine and these encomiums, he charged her to load her basket (she was never without her basket) with every eatable thing upon the table, and to take especial care to leave no scrap behind. Maggy’s pleasure in doing this and her little mother’s pleasure in seeing Maggy pleased, was as good a turn as circumstances could have given to the late conversation.
‘But the gates will have been locked long ago,’ said Clennam, suddenly remembering it. ‘Where are you going?’
‘I am going to Maggy’s lodging,’ answered Little Dorrit. ‘I shall be quite safe, quite well taken care of.’
‘I must accompany you there,’ said Clennam, ‘I cannot let you go alone.’
‘Yes, pray leave us to go there by ourselves. Pray do!’ begged Little Dorrit.
She was so earnest in the petition, that Clennam felt a delicacy in obtruding himself upon her: the rather, because he could well understand that Maggy’s lodging was of the obscurest sort. ‘Come, Maggy,’ said Little Dorrit cheerily, ‘we shall do very well; we know the way by this time, Maggy?’
‘Yes, yes, little mother; we know the way,’ chuckled Maggy. And away they went. Little Dorrit turned at the door to say, ‘God bless you!’ She said it very softly, but perhaps she may have been as audible above–who knows!–as a whole cathedral choir.
Arthur Clennam suffered them to pass the corner of the street before he followed at a distance; not with any idea of encroaching a second time on Little Dorrit’s privacy, but to satisfy his mind by seeing her secure in the neighbourhood to which she was accustomed. So diminutive she looked, so fragile and defenceless against the bleak damp weather, flitting along in the shuffling shadow of her charge, that he felt, in his compassion, and in his habit of considering her a child apart from the rest of the rough world, as if he would have been glad to take her up in his arms and carry her to her journey’s end.
In course of time she came into the leading thoroughfare where the Marshalsea was, and then he saw them slacken their pace, and soon turn down a by-street. He stopped, felt that he had no right to go further, and slowly left them. He had no suspicion that they ran any risk of being houseless until morning; had no idea of the truth until long, long afterwards.
But, said Little Dorrit, when they stopped at a poor dwelling all in darkness, and heard no sound on listening at the door, ‘Now, this is a good lodging for you, Maggy, and we must not give offence. Consequently, we will only knock twice, and not very loud; and if we cannot wake them so, we must walk about till day.’
Once, Little Dorrit knocked with a careful hand, and listened. Twice, Little Dorrit knocked with a careful hand, and listened. All was close and still. ‘Maggy, we must do the best we can, my dear. We must be patient, and wait for day.’
It was a chill dark night, with a damp wind blowing, when they came out into the leading street again, and heard the clocks strike half-past one. ‘In only five hours and a half,’ said Little Dorrit, ‘we shall be able to go home.’ To speak of home, and to go and look at it, it being so near, was a natural sequence. They went to the closed gate, and peeped through into the court-yard. ‘I hope he is sound asleep,’ said Little Dorrit, kissing one of the bars, ‘and does not miss me.’
The gate was so familiar, and so like a companion, that they put down Maggy’s basket in a corner to serve for a seat, and keeping close together, rested there for some time. While the street was empty and silent, Little Dorrit was not afraid; but when she heard a footstep at a distance, or saw a moving shadow among the street lamps, she was startled, and whispered, ‘Maggy, I see some one. Come away!’ Maggy would then wake up more or less fretfully, and they would wander about a little, and come back again.
As long as eating was a novelty and an amusement, Maggy kept up pretty well. But that period going by, she became querulous about the cold, and shivered and whimpered. ‘It will soon be over, dear,’ said Little Dorrit patiently. ‘Oh it’s all very fine for you, little mother,’ returned Maggy, ‘but I’m a poor thing, only ten years old.’ At last, in the dead of the night, when the street was very still indeed, Little Dorrit laid the heavy head upon her bosom, and soothed her to sleep. And thus she sat at the gate, as it were alone; looking up at the stars, and seeing the clouds pass over them in their wild flight–which was the dance at Little Dorrit’s party.
‘If it really was a party!’ she thought once, as she sat there. ‘If it was light and warm and beautiful, and it was our house, and my poor dear was its master, and had never been inside these walls. And if Mr Clennam was one of our visitors, and we were dancing to delightful music, and were all as gay and light-hearted as ever we could be! I wonder–’ Such a vista of wonder opened out before her, that she sat looking up at the stars, quite lost, until Maggy was querulous again, and wanted to get up and walk.