'Before I take it,' said John, looking at it, without coming from the door, 'guess what message Miss Dorrit gave me.'
Clennam shook his head.
'"Tell him,"' repeated John, in a distinct, though quavering voice, '"that his Little Dorrit sent him her undying love." Now it's delivered. Have I been honourable, sir?'
'Will you tell Miss Dorrit I've been honourable, sir?'
'I will indeed.'
'There's my hand, sir,' said john, 'and I'll stand by you forever!'
After a hearty squeeze, he disappeared with the same cautious creak upon the stair, crept shoeless over the pavement of the yard, and, locking the gates behind him, passed out into the front where he had left his shoes. If the same way had been paved with burning ploughshares, it is not at all improbable that John would have traversed it with the same devotion, for the same purpose.
The last day of the appointed week touched the bars of the Marshalsea gate. Black, all night, since the gate had clashed upon Little Dorrit, its iron stripes were turned by the early-glowing sun into stripes of gold. Far aslant across the city, over its jumbled roofs, and through the open tracery of its church towers, struck the long bright rays, bars of the prison of this lower world.
Throughout the day the old house within the gateway remained untroubled by any visitors. But, when the sun was low, three men turned in at the gateway and made for the dilapidated house.
Rigaud was the first, and walked by himself smoking. Mr Baptist was the second, and jogged close after him, looking at no other object. Mr Pancks was the third, and carried his hat under his arm for the liberation of his restive hair; the weather being extremely hot. They all came together at the door-steps.
'You pair of madmen!' said Rigaud, facing about. 'Don't go yet!'
'We don't mean to,' said Mr Pancks. Giving him a dark glance in acknowledgment of his answer, Rigaud knocked loudly. He had charged himself with drink, for the playing out of his game, and was impatient to begin. He had hardly finished one long resounding knock, when he turned to the knocker again and began another. That was not yet finished when Jeremiah Flintwinch opened the door, and they all clanked into the stone hall. Rigaud, thrusting Mr Flintwinch aside, proceeded straight up-stairs. His two attendants followed him, Mr Flintwinch followed them, and they all came trooping into Mrs Clennam's quiet room. It was in its usual state; except that one of the windows was wide open, and Affery sat on its old-fashioned window-seat, mending a stocking. The usual articles were on the little table; the usual deadened fire was in the grate; the bed had its usual pall upon it; and the mistress of all sat on her black bier-like sofa, propped up by her black angular bolster that was like the headsman's block.
Yet there was a nameless air of preparation in the room, as if it were strung up for an occasion. From what the room derived it-- every one of its small variety of objects being in the fixed spot it had occupied for years--no one could have said without looking attentively at its mistress, and that, too, with a previous knowledge of her face. Although her unchanging black dress was in every plait precisely as of old, and her unchanging attitude was rigidly preserved, a very slight additional setting of her features and contraction of her gloomy forehead was so powerfully marked, that it marked everything about her.
'Who are these?' she said, wonderingly, as the two attendants entered. 'What do these people want here?'
'Who are these, dear madame, is it?' returned Rigaud. 'Faith, they are friends of your son the prisoner. And what do they want here, is it? Death, madame, I don't know. You will do well to ask them.'
'You know you told us at the door, not to go yet,' said Pancks.
'And you know you told me at the door, you didn't mean to go,' retorted Rigaud. 'In a word, madame, permit me to present two spies of the prisoner's--madmen, but spies.