Give him several to take away. Hold the light for him to read it.'
Mr Flintwinch did as he was directed, and Mr Dorrit read it through, as if he had not previously seen it; glad enough of the opportunity of collecting his presence of mind, which the air of the house and of the people in it had a little disturbed. While his eyes were on the paper, he felt that the eyes of Mr Flintwinch and of Mrs Clennam were on him. He found, when he looked up, that this sensation was not a fanciful one.
'Now you know as much,' said Mrs Clennam, 'as we know, sir. Is Mr Blandois a friend of yours?'
'No--a--hum--an acquaintance,' answered Mr Dorrit.
'You have no commission from him, perhaps?'
'I? Ha. Certainly not.'
The searching look turned gradually to the floor, after taking Mr Flintwinch's face in its way. Mr Dorrit, discomfited by finding that he was the questioned instead of the questioner, applied himself to the reversal of that unexpected order of things.
'I am--ha--a gentleman of property, at present residing in Italy with my family, my servants, and--hum--my rather large establishment. Being in London for a short time on affairs connected with--ha--my estate, and hearing of this strange disappearance, I wished to make myself acquainted with the circumstances at first-hand, because there is--ha hum--an English gentleman in Italy whom I shall no doubt see on my return, who has been in habits of close and daily intimacy with Monsieur Blandois. Mr Henry Gowan. You may know the name.'
'Never heard of it.' Mrs Clennam said it, and Mr Flintwinch echoed it.
'Wishing to--ha--make the narrative coherent and consecutive to him,' said Mr Dorrit, 'may I ask--say, three questions?'
'Thirty, if you choose.'
'Have you known Monsieur Blandois long?'
'Not a twelvemonth. Mr Flintwinch here, will refer to the books and tell you when, and by whom at Paris he was introduced to us. If that,' Mrs Clennam added, 'should be any satisfaction to you. It is poor satisfaction to us.'
'Have you seen him often?'
'No. Twice. Once before, and--' 'That once,' suggested Mr Flintwinch.
'And that once.'
'Pray, madam,' said Mr Dorrit, with a growing fancy upon him as he recovered his importance, that he was in some superior way in the Commission of the Peace; 'pray, madam, may I inquire, for the greater satisfaction of the gentleman whom I have the honour to-- ha--retain, or protect or let me say to--hum--know--to know--Was Monsieur Blandois here on business on the night indicated in this present sheet?'
'On what he called business,' returned Mrs Clennam.
'Is--ha--excuse me--is its nature to be communicated?'
It was evidently impracticable to pass the barrier of that reply.
'The question has been asked before,' said Mrs Clennam, 'and the answer has been, No. We don't choose to publish our transactions, however unimportant, to all the town. We say, No.'
'I mean, he took away no money with him, for example,' said Mr Dorrit.
'He took away none of ours, sir, and got none here.'
'I suppose,' observed Mr Dorrit, glancing from Mrs Clennam to Mr Flintwinch, and from Mr Flintwinch to Mrs Clennam, 'you have no way of accounting to yourself for this mystery?'
'Why do you suppose so?' rejoined Mrs Clennam.
Disconcerted by the cold and hard inquiry, Mr Dorrit was unable to assign any reason for his supposing so.
'I account for it, sir,' she pursued after an awkward silence on Mr Dorrit's part, 'by having no doubt that he is travelling somewhere, or hiding somewhere.'
'Do you know--ha--why he should hide anywhere?'
It was exactly the same No as before, and put another barrier up. 'You asked me if I accounted for the disappearance to myself,' Mrs Clennam sternly reminded him, 'not if I accounted for it to you. I do not pretend to account for it to you, sir. I understand it to be no more my business to do that, than it is yours to require that.'
Mr Dorrit answered with an apologetic bend of his head. As he stepped back, preparatory to saying he had no more to ask, he could not but observe how gloomily and fixedly she sat with her eyes fastened on the ground, and a certain air upon her of resolute waiting; also, how exactly the self-same expression was reflected in Mr Flintwinch, standing at a little distance from her chair, with his eyes also on the ground, and his right hand softly rubbing his chin.