Your time and mine may be a long one yet. When I say for ever, I mean (though I am not poetical) through all our time.' Mr Flintwinch gave this explanation with great calmness, and calmly waited for an answer.
'So long as Little Dorrit is quiet and industrious, and stands in need of the slight help I can give her, and deserves it; so long, I suppose, unless she withdraws of her own act, she will continue to come here, I being spared.'
'Nothing more than that?' said Flintwinch, stroking his mouth and chin.
'What should there be more than that! What could there be more than that!' she ejaculated in her sternly wondering way.
Mrs Flintwinch dreamed, that, for the space of a minute or two, they remained looking at each other with the candle between them, and that she somehow derived an impression that they looked at each other fixedly.
'Do you happen to know, Mrs Clennam,' Affery's liege lord then demanded in a much lower voice, and with an amount of expression that seemed quite out of proportion to the simple purpose of his words, 'where she lives?'
'Would you--now, would you like to know?' said Jeremiah with a pounce as if he had sprung upon her.
'If I cared to know, I should know already. Could I not have asked her any day?'
'Then you don't care to know?'
'I do not.'
Mr Flintwinch, having expelled a long significant breath said, with his former emphasis, 'For I have accidentally--mind!--found out.'
'Wherever she lives,' said Mrs Clennam, speaking in one unmodulated hard voice, and separating her words as distinctly as if she were reading them off from separate bits of metal that she took up one by one, 'she has made a secret of it, and she shall always keep her secret from me.'
'After all, perhaps you would rather not have known the fact, any how?' said Jeremiah; and he said it with a twist, as if his words had come out of him in his own wry shape.
'Flintwinch,' said his mistress and partner, flashing into a sudden energy that made Affery start, 'why do you goad me? Look round this room. If it is any compensation for my long confinement within these narrow limits--not that I complain of being afflicted; you know I never complain of that--if it is any compensation to me for long confinement to this room, that while I am shut up from all pleasant change I am also shut up from the knowledge of some things that I may prefer to avoid knowing, why should you, of all men, grudge me that belief?'
'I don't grudge it to you,' returned Jeremiah.
'Then say no more. Say no more. Let Little Dorrit keep her secret from me, and do you keep it from me also. Let her come and go, unobserved and unquestioned. Let me suffer, and let me have what alleviation belongs to my condition. Is it so much, that you torment me like an evil spirit?'
'I asked you a question. That's all.'
'I have answered it. So, say no more. Say no more.' Here the sound of the wheeled chair was heard upon the floor, and Affery's bell rang with a hasty jerk.
More afraid of her husband at the moment than of the mysterious sound in the kitchen, Affery crept away as lightly and as quickly as she could, descended the kitchen stairs almost as rapidly as she had ascended them, resumed her seat before the fire, tucked up her skirt again, and finally threw her apron over her head. Then the bell rang once more, and then once more, and then kept on ringing; in despite of which importunate summons, Affery still sat behind her apron, recovering her breath.
At last Mr Flintwinch came shuffling down the staircase into the hall, muttering and calling 'Affery woman!' all the way. Affery still remaining behind her apron, he came stumbling down the kitchen stairs, candle in hand, sidled up to her, twitched her apron off, and roused her.
'Oh Jeremiah!' cried Affery, waking. 'What a start you gave me!'
'What have you been doing, woman?' inquired Jeremiah. 'You've been rung for fifty times.'
'Oh Jeremiah,' said Mistress Affery, 'I have been a-dreaming!'
Reminded of her former achievement in that way, Mr Flintwinch held the candle to her head, as if he had some idea of lighting her up for the illumination of the kitchen.