Mrs General's voice, as it died away, pronounced the words, 'at a loss to imagine.'
After which Mr Dorrit was seized with a doze for about a minute, out of which he sprang with spasmodic nimbleness.
'I refer, Mrs General, to that--ha--strong spirit of opposition, or--hum--I might say--ha--jealousy in Fanny, which has occasionally risen against the--ha--sense I entertain of--hum--the claims of-- ha--the lady with whom I have now the honour of communing.'
'Mr Dorrit,' returned Mrs General, 'is ever but too obliging, ever but too appreciative. If there have been moments when I have imagined that Miss Dorrit has indeed resented the favourable opinion Mr Dorrit has formed of my services, I have found, in that only too high opinion, my consolation and recompense.'
'Opinion of your services, madam?' said Mr Dorrit.
'Of,' Mrs General repeated, in an elegantly impressive manner, 'my services.'
'Of your services alone, dear madam?' said Mr Dorrit.
'I presume,' retorted Mrs General, in her former impressive manner, 'of my services alone. For, to what else,' said Mrs General, with a slightly interrogative action of her gloves, 'could I impute--'
'To--ha--yourself, Mrs General. Ha, hum. To yourself and your merits,' was Mr Dorrit's rejoinder.
'Mr Dorrit will pardon me,' said Mrs General, 'if I remark that this is not a time or place for the pursuit of the present conversation. Mr Dorrit will excuse me if I remind him that Miss Dorrit is in the adjoining room, and is visible to myself while I utter her name. Mr Dorrit will forgive me if I observe that I am agitated, and that I find there are moments when weaknesses I supposed myself to have subdued, return with redoubled power. Mr Dorrit will allow me to withdraw.'
'Hum. Perhaps we may resume this--ha--interesting conversation,' said Mr Dorrit, 'at another time; unless it should be, what I hope it is not--hum--in any way disagreeable to--ah--Mrs General.' 'Mr Dorrit,' said Mrs General, casting down her eyes as she rose with a bend, 'must ever claim my homage and obedience.'
Mrs General then took herself off in a stately way, and not with that amount of trepidation upon her which might have been expected in a less remarkable woman. Mr Dorrit, who had conducted his part of the dialogue with a certain majestic and admiring condescension --much as some people may be seen to conduct themselves in Church, and to perform their part in the service--appeared, on the whole, very well satisfied with himself and with Mrs General too. On the return of that lady to tea, she had touched herself up with a little powder and pomatum, and was not without moral enchantment likewise: the latter showing itself in much sweet patronage of manner towards Miss Dorrit, and in an air of as tender interest in Mr Dorrit as was consistent with rigid propriety. At the close of the evening, when she rose to retire, Mr Dorrit took her by the hand as if he were going to lead her out into the Piazza of the people to walk a minuet by moonlight, and with great solemnity conducted her to the room door, where he raised her knuckles to his lips. Having parted from her with what may be conjectured to have been a rather bony kiss of a cosmetic flavour, he gave his daughter his blessing, graciously. And having thus hinted that there was something remarkable in the wind, he again went to bed.
He remained in the seclusion of his own chamber next morning; but, early in the afternoon, sent down his best compliments to Mrs General, by Mr Tinkler, and begged she would accompany Miss Dorrit on an airing without him. His daughter was dressed for Mrs Merdle's dinner before he appeared. He then presented himself in a refulgent condition as to his attire, but looking indefinably shrunken and old. However, as he was plainly determined to be angry with her if she so much as asked him how he was, she only ventured to kiss his cheek, before accompanying him to Mrs Merdle's with an anxious heart.
The distance that they had to go was very short, but he was at his building work again before the carriage had half traversed it.