Mrs Merdle received him with great distinction; the bosom was in admirable preservation, and on the best terms with itself; the dinner was very choice; and the company was very select.
It was principally English; saving that it comprised the usual French Count and the usual Italian Marchese--decorative social milestones, always to be found in certain places, and varying very little in appearance. The table was long, and the dinner was long; and Little Dorrit, overshadowed by a large pair of black whiskers and a large white cravat, lost sight of her father altogether, until a servant put a scrap of paper in her hand, with a whispered request from Mrs Merdle that she would read it directly. Mrs Merdle had written on it in pencil, 'Pray come and speak to Mr Dorrit, I doubt if he is well.'
She was hurrying to him, unobserved, when he got up out of his chair, and leaning over the table called to her, supposing her to be still in her place:
'Amy, Amy, my child!'
The action was so unusual, to say nothing of his strange eager appearance and strange eager voice, that it instantaneously caused a profound silence.
' Amy, my dear,' he repeated. 'Will you go and see if Bob is on the lock?'
She was at his side, and touching him, but he still perversely supposed her to be in her seat, and called out, still leaning over the table, 'Amy, Amy. I don't feel quite myself. Ha. I don't know what's the matter with me. I particularly wish to see Bob. Ha. Of all the turnkeys, he's as much my friend as yours. See if Bob is in the lodge, and beg him to come to me.'
All the guests were now in consternation, and everybody rose.
'Dear father, I am not there; I am here, by you.'
'Oh! You are here, Amy! Good. Hum. Good. Ha. Call Bob. If he has been relieved, and is not on the lock, tell Mrs Bangham to go and fetch him.'
She was gently trying to get him away; but he resisted, and would not go.
'I tell you, child,' he said petulantly, 'I can't be got up the narrow stairs without Bob. Ha. Send for Bob. Hum. Send for Bob--best of all the turnkeys--send for Bob!'
He looked confusedly about him, and, becoming conscious of the number of faces by which he was surrounded, addressed them:
'Ladies and gentlemen, the duty--ha--devolves upon me of--hum-- welcoming you to the Marshalsea! Welcome to the Marshalsea! The space is--ha--limited--limited--the parade might be wider; but you will find it apparently grow larger after a time--a time, ladies and gentlemen--and the air is, all things considered, very good. It blows over the--ha--Surrey hills. Blows over the Surrey hills. This is the Snuggery. Hum. Supported by a small subscription of the--ha--Collegiate body. In return for which--hot water--general kitchen--and little domestic advantages. Those who are habituated to the--ha--Marshalsea, are pleased to call me its father. I am accustomed to be complimented by strangers as the--ha--Father of the Marshalsea. Certainly, if years of residence may establish a claim to so--ha--honourable a title, I may accept the--hum-- conferred distinction. My child, ladies and gentlemen. My daughter. Born here!'
She was not ashamed of it, or ashamed of him. She was pale and frightened; but she had no other care than to soothe him and get him away, for his own dear sake. She was between him and the wondering faces, turned round upon his breast with her own face raised to his. He held her clasped in his left arm, and between whiles her low voice was heard tenderly imploring him to go away with her.
'Born here,' he repeated, shedding tears. 'Bred here. Ladies and gentlemen, my daughter. Child of an unfortunate father, but--ha-- always a gentleman. Poor, no doubt, but--hum--proud. Always proud. It has become a--hum--not infrequent custom for my--ha-- personal admirers--personal admirers solely--to be pleased to express their desire to acknowledge my semi-official position here, by offering--ha--little tributes, which usually take the form of-- ha--voluntary recognitions of my humble endeavours to--hum--to uphold a Tone here--a Tone--I beg it to be understood that I do not consider myself compromised.