‘Yes, John. Miss Amy is gone for an airing. My young people all go out a good deal. But at their time of life, it’s natural, John.’
‘Very much so, I am sure, sir.’
‘An airing. An airing. Yes.’ He was blandly tapping his fingers on the table, and casting his eyes up at the window. ‘Amy has gone for an airing on the Iron Bridge. She has become quite partial to the Iron Bridge of late, and seems to like to walk there better than anywhere.’ He returned to conversation. ‘Your father is not on duty at present, I think, John?’
‘No, sir, he comes on later in the afternoon.’ Another twirl of the great hat, and then Young John said, rising, ‘I am afraid I must wish you good day, sir.’
‘So soon? Good day, Young John. Nay, nay,’ with the utmost condescension, ‘never mind your glove, John. Shake hands with it on. You are no stranger here, you know.’
Highly gratified by the kindness of his reception, Young John descended the staircase. On his way down he met some Collegians bringing up visitors to be presented, and at that moment Mr Dorrit happened to call over the banisters with particular distinctness, ‘Much obliged to you for your little testimonial, John!’
Little Dorrit’s lover very soon laid down his penny on the tollplate of the Iron Bridge, and came upon it looking about him for the well-known and well-beloved figure. At first he feared she was not there; but as he walked on towards the Middlesex side, he saw her standing still, looking at the water. She was absorbed in thought, and he wondered what she might be thinking about. There were the piles of city roofs and chimneys, more free from smoke than on week-days; and there were the distant masts and steeples. Perhaps she was thinking about them.
Little Dorrit mused so long, and was so entirely preoccupied, that although her lover stood quiet for what he thought was a long time, and twice or thrice retired and came back again to the former spot, still she did not move. So, in the end, he made up his mind to go on, and seem to come upon her casually in passing, and speak to her. The place was quiet, and now or never was the time to speak to her.
He walked on, and she did not appear to hear his steps until he was close upon her. When he said ‘Miss Dorrit!’ she started and fell back from him, with an expression in her face of fright and something like dislike that caused him unutterable dismay. She had often avoided him before–always, indeed, for a long, long while. She had turned away and glided off so often when she had seen him coming toward her, that the unfortunate Young John could not think it accidental. But he had hoped that it might be shyness, her retiring character, her foreknowledge of the state of his heart, anything short of aversion. Now, that momentary look had said, ‘You, of all people! I would rather have seen any one on earth than you!’
It was but a momentary look, inasmuch as she checked it, and said in her soft little voice, ‘Oh, Mr John! Is it you?’ But she felt what it had been, as he felt what it had been; and they stood looking at one another equally confused.
‘Miss Amy, I am afraid I disturbed you by speaking to you.’
‘Yes, rather. I–I came here to be alone, and I thought I was.’
‘Miss Amy, I took the liberty of walking this way, because Mr Dorrit chanced to mention, when I called upon him just now, that you–’
She caused him more dismay than before by suddenly murmuring, ‘O father, father!’ in a heartrending tone, and turning her face away.
‘Miss Amy, I hope I don’t give you any uneasiness by naming Mr Dorrit. I assure you I found him very well and in the best of Spirits, and he showed me even more than his usual kindness; being so very kind as to say that I was not a stranger there, and in all ways gratifying me very much.’
To the inexpressible consternation of her lover, Little Dorrit, with her hands to her averted face, and rocking herself where she stood as if she were in pain, murmured, ‘O father, how can you! O dear, dear father, how can you, can you, do it!’
The poor fellow stood gazing at her, overflowing with sympathy, but not knowing what to make of this, until, having taken out her handkerchief and put it to her still averted face, she hurried away. At first he remained stock still; then hurried after her.
‘Miss Amy, pray! Will you have the goodness to stop a moment? Miss Amy, if it comes to that, let _me_ go. I shall go out of my senses, if I have to think that I have driven you away like this.’
His trembling voice and unfeigned earnestness brought Little Dorrit to a stop. ‘Oh, I don’t know what to do,’ she cried, ‘I don’t know what to do!’
To Young John, who had never seen her bereft of her quiet self-command, who had seen her from her infancy ever so reliable and self-suppressed, there was a shock in her distress, and in having to associate himself with it as its cause, that shook him from his great hat to the pavement. He felt it necessary to explain himself. He might be misunderstood–supposed to mean something, or to have done something, that had never entered into his imagination. He begged her to hear him explain himself, as the greatest favour she could show him.
‘Miss Amy, I know very well that your family is far above mine. It were vain to conceal it. There never was a Chivery a gentleman that ever I heard of, and I will not commit the meanness of making a false representation on a subject so momentous. Miss Amy, I know very well that your high-souled brother, and likewise your spirited sister, spurn me from a height. What I have to do is to respect them, to wish to be admitted to their friendship, to look up at the eminence on which they are placed from my lowlier station–for, whether viewed as tobacco or viewed as the lock, I well know it is lowly–and ever wish them well and happy.’
There really was a genuineness in the poor fellow, and a contrast between the hardness of his hat and the softness of his heart (albeit, perhaps, of his head, too), that was moving. Little Dorrit entreated him to disparage neither himself nor his station, and, above all things, to divest himself of any idea that she supposed hers to be superior. This gave him a little comfort.
‘Miss Amy,’ he then stammered, ‘I have had for a long time–ages they seem to me–Revolving ages–a heart-cherished wish to say something to you. May I say it?’
Little Dorrit involuntarily started from his side again, with the faintest shadow of her former look; conquering that, she went on at great speed half across the Bridge without replying!
‘May I–Miss Amy, I but ask the question humbly–may I say it? I have been so unlucky already in giving you pain without having any such intentions, before the holy Heavens! that there is no fear of my saying it unless I have your leave. I can be miserable alone, I can be cut up by myself, why should I also make miserable and cut up one that I would fling myself off that parapet to give half a moment’s joy to! Not that that’s much to do, for I’d do it for twopence.’
The mournfulness of his spirits, and the gorgeousness of his appearance, might have made him ridiculous, but that his delicacy made him respectable. Little Dorrit learnt from it what to do.
‘If you please, John Chivery,’ she returned, trembling, but in a quiet way, ‘since you are so considerate as to ask me whether you shall say any more–if you please, no.’
‘Never, Miss Amy?’
‘No, if you please. Never.’