Little Dorrit considered for a moment; and with a rather sad smile upon her face, which was flushed by the sunset, began:
‘Maggy, there was once upon a time a fine King, and he had everything he could wish for, and a great deal more. He had gold and silver, diamonds and rubies, riches of every kind. He had palaces, and he had–’
‘Hospitals,’ interposed Maggy, still nursing her knees. ‘Let him have hospitals, because they’re so comfortable. Hospitals with lots of Chicking.’
‘Yes, he had plenty of them, and he had plenty of everything.’
‘Plenty of baked potatoes, for instance?’ said Maggy.
‘Plenty of everything.’
‘Lor!’ chuckled Maggy, giving her knees a hug. ‘Wasn’t it prime!’
‘This King had a daughter, who was the wisest and most beautiful Princess that ever was seen. When she was a child she understood all her lessons before her masters taught them to her; and when she was grown up, she was the wonder of the world. Now, near the Palace where this Princess lived, there was a cottage in which there was a poor little tiny woman, who lived all alone by herself.’
‘An old woman,’ said Maggy, with an unctuous smack of her lips.
‘No, not an old woman. Quite a young one.’
‘I wonder she warn’t afraid,’ said Maggy. ‘Go on, please.’
‘The Princess passed the cottage nearly every day, and whenever she went by in her beautiful carriage, she saw the poor tiny woman spinning at her wheel, and she looked at the tiny woman, and the tiny woman looked at her. So, one day she stopped the coachman a little way from the cottage, and got out and walked on and peeped in at the door, and there, as usual, was the tiny woman spinning at her wheel, and she looked at the Princess, and the Princess looked at her.’
‘Like trying to stare one another out,’ said Maggy. ‘Please go on, Little Mother.’
‘The Princess was such a wonderful Princess that she had the power of knowing secrets, and she said to the tiny woman, Why do you keep it there? This showed her directly that the Princess knew why she lived all alone by herself spinning at her wheel, and she kneeled down at the Princess’s feet, and asked her never to betray her. So the Princess said, I never will betray you. Let me see it. So the tiny woman closed the shutter of the cottage window and fastened the door, and trembling from head to foot for fear that any one should suspect her, opened a very secret place and showed the Princess a shadow.’
‘Lor!’ said Maggy.
‘It was the shadow of Some one who had gone by long before: of Some one who had gone on far away quite out of reach, never, never to come back. It was bright to look at; and when the tiny woman showed it to the Princess, she was proud of it with all her heart, as a great, great treasure. When the Princess had considered it a little while, she said to the tiny woman, And you keep watch over this every day? And she cast down her eyes, and whispered, Yes. Then the Princess said, Remind me why. To which the other replied, that no one so good and kind had ever passed that way, and that was why in the beginning. She said, too, that nobody missed it, that nobody was the worse for it, that Some one had gone on, to those who were expecting him–’
‘Some one was a man then?’ interposed Maggy.
Little Dorrit timidly said Yes, she believed so; and resumed:
‘–Had gone on to those who were expecting him, and that this remembrance was stolen or kept back from nobody. The Princess made answer, Ah! But when the cottager died it would be discovered there. The tiny woman told her No; when that time came, it would sink quietly into her own grave, and would never be found.’
‘Well, to be sure!’ said Maggy. ‘Go on, please.’
‘The Princess was very much astonished to hear this, as you may suppose, Maggy.’
[‘And well she might be,’ said Maggy.)
‘So she resolved to watch the tiny woman, and see what came of it. Every day she drove in her beautiful carriage by the cottage-door, and there she saw the tiny woman always alone by herself spinning at her wheel, and she looked at the tiny woman, and the tiny woman looked at her. At last one day the wheel was still, and the tiny woman was not to be seen. When the Princess made inquiries why the wheel had stopped, and where the tiny woman was, she was informed that the wheel had stopped because there was nobody to turn it, the tiny woman being dead.’
[‘They ought to have took her to the Hospital,’ said Maggy, and then she’d have got over it.’)
‘The Princess, after crying a very little for the loss of the tiny woman, dried her eyes and got out of her carriage at the place where she had stopped it before, and went to the cottage and peeped in at the door. There was nobody to look at her now, and nobody for her to look at, so she went in at once to search for the treasured shadow. But there was no sign of it to be found anywhere; and then she knew that the tiny woman had told her the truth, and that it would never give anybody any trouble, and that it had sunk quietly into her own grave, and that she and it were at rest together.
‘That’s all, Maggy.’
The sunset flush was so bright on Little Dorrit’s face when she came thus to the end of her story, that she interposed her hand to shade it.
‘Had she got to be old?’ Maggy asked.
‘The tiny woman?’