But, as it is, I must never touch it, never!'
She besought him, more pathetically and earnestly, with her little supplicatory hand, than she could have done in any words.
'I am disgraced enough, my Little Dorrit. I must not descend so low as that, and carry you--so dear, so generous, so good--down with me. GOD bless you, GOD reward you! It is past.' He took her in his arms, as if she had been his daughter.
'Always so much older, so much rougher, and so much less worthy, even what I was must be dismissed by both of us, and you must see me only as I am. I put this parting kiss upon your cheek, my child--who might have been more near to me, who never could have been more dear--a ruined man far removed from you, for ever separated from you, whose course is run while yours is but beginning. I have not the courage to ask to be forgotten by you in my humiliation; but I ask to be remembered only as I am.'
The bell began to ring, warning visitors to depart. He took her mantle from the wall, and tenderly wrapped it round her.
'One other word, my Little Dorrit. A hard one to me, but it is a necessary one. The time when you and this prison had anything in common has long gone by. Do you understand?'
'O! you will never say to me,' she cried, weeping bitterly, and holding up her clasped hands in entreaty, 'that I am not to come back any more! You will surely not desert me so!'
'I would say it, if I could; but I have not the courage quite to shut out this dear face, and abandon all hope of its return. But do not come soon, do not come often! This is now a tainted place, and I well know the taint of it clings to me. You belong to much brighter and better scenes. You are not to look back here, my Little Dorrit; you are to look away to very different and much happier paths. Again, GOD bless you in them! GOD reward you!'
Maggy, who had fallen into very low spirits, here cried, 'Oh get him into a hospital; do get him into a hospital, Mother! He'll never look like hisself again, if he an't got into a hospital. And then the little woman as was always a spinning at her wheel, she can go to the cupboard with the Princess, and say, what do you keep the Chicking there for? and then they can take it out and give it to him, and then all be happy!'
The interruption was seasonable, for the bell had nearly rung itself out. Again tenderly wrapping her mantle about her, and taking her on his arm (though, but for her visit, he was almost too weak to walk), Arthur led Little Dorrit down-stairs. She was the last visitor to pass out at the Lodge, and the gate jarred heavily and hopelessly upon her.
With the funeral clang that it sounded into Arthur's heart, his sense of weakness returned. It was a toilsome journey up-stairs to his room, and he re-entered its dark solitary precincts in unutterable misery.
When it was almost midnight, and the prison had long been quiet, a cautious creak came up the stairs, and a cautious tap of a key was given at his door. It was Young John. He glided in, in his stockings, and held the door closed, while he spoke in a whisper.
'It's against all rules, but I don't mind. I was determined to come through, and come to you.'
'What is the matter?'
'Nothing's the matter, sir. I was waiting in the court-yard for Miss Dorrit when she came out. I thought you'd like some one to see that she was safe.'
'Thank you, thank you! You took her home, John?'
'I saw her to her hotel. The same that Mr Dorrit was at. Miss Dorrit walked all the way, and talked to me so kind, it quite knocked me over. Why do you think she walked instead of riding?'
'I don't know, John.'
'To talk about you. She said to me, "John, you was always honourable, and if you'll promise me that you will take care of him, and never let him want for help and comfort when I am not there, my mind will be at rest so far." I promised her. And I'll stand by you,' said John Chivery, 'for ever!'
Clennam, much affected, stretched out his hand to this honest spirit.