‘Thank you. Good evening.’
The dismissal, and its accompanying finger pointed straight at the door, was so curt and direct that Mr Pancks did not see his way to prolong his visit. He stirred up his hair with his sprightliest expression, glanced at the little figure again, said ‘Good evening, ma ‘am; don’t come down, Mrs Affery, I know the road to the door,’ and steamed out. Mrs Clennam, her chin resting on her hand, followed him with attentive and darkly distrustful eyes; and Affery stood looking at her as if she were spell-bound.
Slowly and thoughtfully, Mrs Clennam’s eyes turned from the door by which Pancks had gone out, to Little Dorrit, rising from the carpet. With her chin drooping more heavily on her hand, and her eyes vigilant and lowering, the sick woman sat looking at her until she attracted her attention. Little Dorrit coloured under such a gaze, and looked down. Mrs Clennam still sat intent.
‘Little Dorrit,’ she said, when she at last broke silence, ‘what do you know of that man?’
‘I don’t know anything of him, ma’am, except that I have seen him about, and that he has spoken to me.’
‘What has he said to you?’
‘I don’t understand what he has said, he is so strange. But nothing rough or disagreeable.’
‘Why does he come here to see you?’
‘I don’t know, ma’am,’ said Little Dorrit, with perfect frankness.
‘You know that he does come here to see you?’
‘I have fancied so,’ said Little Dorrit. ‘But why he should come here or anywhere for that, ma’am, I can’t think.’
Mrs Clennam cast her eyes towards the ground, and with her strong, set face, as intent upon a subject in her mind as it had lately been upon the form that seemed to pass out of her view, sat absorbed. Some minutes elapsed before she came out of this thoughtfulness, and resumed her hard composure.
Little Dorrit in the meanwhile had been waiting to go, but afraid to disturb her by moving. She now ventured to leave the spot where she had been standing since she had risen, and to pass gently round by the wheeled chair. She stopped at its side to say ‘Good night, ma’am.’
Mrs Clennam put out her hand, and laid it on her arm. Little Dorrit, confused under the touch, stood faltering. Perhaps some momentary recollection of the story of the Princess may have been in her mind.
‘Tell me, Little Dorrit,’ said Mrs Clennam, ‘have you many friends now?’
‘Very few, ma’am. Besides you, only Miss Flora and–one more.’
‘Meaning,’ said Mrs Clennam, with her unbent finger again pointing to the door, ‘that man?’
‘Oh no, ma’am!’
‘Some friend of his, perhaps?’
‘No ma’am.’ Little Dorrit earnestly shook her head. ‘Oh no! No one at all like him, or belonging to him.’
‘Well!’ said Mrs Clennam, almost smiling. ‘It is no affair of mine. I ask, because I take an interest in you; and because I believe I was your friend when you had no other who could serve you. Is that so?’
‘Yes, ma’am; indeed it is. I have been here many a time when, but for you and the work you gave me, we should have wanted everything.’
‘We,’ repeated Mrs Clennam, looking towards the watch, once her dead husband’s, which always lay upon her table. ‘Are there many of you?’
‘Only father and I, now. I mean, only father and I to keep regularly out of what we get.’
‘Have you undergone many privations? You and your father and who else there may be of you?’ asked Mrs Clennam, speaking deliberately, and meditatively turning the watch over and over.
‘Sometimes it has been rather hard to live,’ said Little Dorrit, in her soft voice, and timid uncomplaining way; ‘but I think not harder–as to that–than many people find it.’
‘That’s well said!’ Mrs Clennam quickly returned. ‘That’s the truth! You are a good, thoughtful girl. You are a grateful girl too, or I much mistake you.’
‘It is only natural to be that. There is no merit in being that,’ said Little Dorrit. ‘I am indeed.’
Mrs Clennam, with a gentleness of which the dreaming Affery had never dreamed her to be capable, drew down the face of her little seamstress, and kissed her on the forehead.
‘Now go, Little Dorrit,’ said she, ‘or you will be late, poor child!’