They had been speaking in low voices; more because it was natural to what they said to adopt that tone, than with any care to reserve it from Maggy at her work. All of a sudden Maggy stared again, and this time spoke:
'I say! Little Mother!'
'If you an't got no secret of your own to tell him, tell him that about the Princess. She had a secret, you know.'
'The Princess had a secret?' said Clennam, in some surprise. 'What Princess was that, Maggy?'
'Lor! How you do go and bother a gal of ten,' said Maggy, 'catching the poor thing up in that way. Whoever said the Princess had a secret? _I_ never said so.'
'I beg your pardon. I thought you did.'
'No, I didn't. How could I, when it was her as wanted to find it out? It was the little woman as had the secret, and she was always a spinning at her wheel. And so she says to her, why do you keep it there? And so the t'other one says to her, no I don't; and so the t'other one says to her, yes you do; and then they both goes to the cupboard, and there it is. And she wouldn't go into the Hospital, and so she died. You know, Little Mother; tell him that.
For it was a reg'lar good secret, that was!' cried Maggy, hugging herself.
Arthur looked at Little Dorrit for help to comprehend this, and was struck by seeing her so timid and red. But, when she told him that it was only a Fairy Tale she had one day made up for Maggy, and that there was nothing in it which she wouldn't be ashamed to tell again to anybody else, even if she could remember it, he left the subject where it was.
However, he returned to his own subject by first entreating her to see him oftener, and to remember that it was impossible to have a stronger interest in her welfare than he had, or to be more set upon promoting it than he was. When she answered fervently, she well knew that, she never forgot it, he touched upon his second and more delicate point--the suspicion he had formed.
'Little Dorrit,' he said, taking her hand again, and speaking lower than he had spoken yet, so that even Maggy in the small room could not hear him, 'another word. I have wanted very much to say this to you; I have tried for opportunities. Don't mind me, who, for the matter of years, might be your father or your uncle. Always think of me as quite an old man. I know that all your devotion centres in this room, and that nothing to the last will ever tempt you away from the duties you discharge here. If I were not sure of it, I should, before now, have implored you, and implored your father, to let me make some provision for you in a more suitable place. But you may have an interest--I will not say, now, though even that might be--may have, at another time, an interest in some one else; an interest not incompatible with your affection here.'
She was very, very pale, and silently shook her head.
'It may be, dear Little Dorrit.'
'No. No. No.' She shook her head, after each slow repetition of the word, with an air of quiet desolation that he remembered long afterwards. The time came when he remembered it well, long afterwards, within those prison walls; within that very room.
'But, if it ever should be, tell me so, my dear child. Entrust the truth to me, point out the object of such an interest to me, and I will try with all the zeal, and honour, and friendship and respect that I feel for you, good Little Dorrit of my heart, to do you a lasting service.'
'O thank you, thank you! But, O no, O no, O no!' She said this, looking at him with her work-worn hands folded together, and in the same resigned accents as before.
'I press for no confidence now. I only ask you to repose unhesitating trust in me.'
'Can I do less than that, when you are so good!'
'Then you will trust me fully? Will have no secret unhappiness, or anxiety, concealed from me?'
'And you have none now?'
She shook her head. But she was very pale.
'When I lie down to-night, and my thoughts come back--as they will, for they do every night, even when I have not seen you--to this sad place, I may believe that there is no grief beyond this room, now, and its usual occupants, which preys on Little Dorrit's mind?'
She seemed to catch at these words--that he remembered, too, long afterwards--and said, more brightly, 'Yes, Mr Clennam; yes, you may!'
The crazy staircase, usually not slow to give notice when any one was coming up or down, here creaked under a quick tread, and a further sound was heard upon it, as if a little steam-engine with more steam than it knew what to do with, were working towards the room.