Mrs Clennam then gave her the inner packet that was addressed to herself, and held the other. The shadow of the wall and of the prison buildings, which made the room sombre at noon, made it too dark to read there, with the dusk deepening apace, save in the window. In the window, where a little of the bright summer evening sky could shine upon her, Little Dorrit stood, and read. After a broken exclamation or so of wonder and of terror, she read in silence. When she had finished, she looked round, and her old mistress bowed herself before her.
'You know, now, what I have done.'
'I think so. I am afraid so; though my mind is so hurried, and so sorry, and has so much to pity that it has not been able to follow all I have read,' said Little Dorrit tremulously.
'I will restore to you what I have withheld from you. Forgive me. Can you forgive me?'
'I can, and Heaven knows I do! Do not kiss my dress and kneel to me; you are too old to kneel to me; I forgive you freely without that.'
'I have more yet to ask.'
'Not in that posture,' said Little Dorrit. 'It is unnatural to see your grey hair lower than mine. Pray rise; let me help you.' With that she raised her up, and stood rather shrinking from her, but looking at her earnestly.
'The great petition that I make to you (there is another which grows out of it), the great supplication that I address to your merciful and gentle heart, is, that you will not disclose this to Arthur until I am dead. If you think, when you have had time for consideration, that it can do him any good to know it while I am yet alive, then tell him. But you will not think that; and in such case, will you promise me to spare me until I am dead?'
'I am so sorry, and what I have read has so confused my thoughts,' returned Little Dorrit, 'that I can scarcely give you a steady answer. If I should be quite sure that to be acquainted with it will do Mr Clennam no good--'
'I know you are attached to him, and will make him the first consideration. It is right that he should be the first consideration. I ask that. But, having regarded him, and still finding that you may spare me for the little time I shall remain on earth, will you do it?'
'GOD bless you!'
She stood in the shadow so that she was only a veiled form to Little Dorrit in the light; but the sound of her voice, in saying those three grateful words, was at once fervent and broken--broken by emotion as unfamiliar to her frozen eyes as action to her frozen limbs.
'You will wonder, perhaps,' she said in a stronger tone, 'that I can better bear to be known to you whom I have wronged, than to the son of my enemy who wronged me.--For she did wrong me! She not only sinned grievously against the Lord, but she wronged me. What Arthur's father was to me, she made him. From our marriage day I was his dread, and that she made me. I was the scourge of both, and that is referable to her. You love Arthur (I can see the blush upon your face; may it be the dawn of happier days to both of you!), and you will have thought already that he is as merciful and kind as you, and why do I not trust myself to him as soon as to you. Have you not thought so?'
'No thought,' said Little Dorrit, 'can be quite a stranger to my heart, that springs out of the knowledge that Mr Clennam is always to be relied upon for being kind and generous and good.'
'I do not doubt it. Yet Arthur is, of the whole world, the one person from whom I would conceal this, while I am in it. I kept over him as a child, in the days of his first remembrance, my restraining and correcting hand. I was stern with him, knowing that the transgressions of the parents are visited on their offspring, and that there was an angry mark upon him at his birth. I have sat with him and his father, seeing the weakness of his father yearning to unbend to him; and forcing it back, that the child might work out his release in bondage and hardship. I have seen him, with his mother's face, looking up at me in awe from his little books, and trying to soften me with his mother's ways that hardened me.'
The shrinking of her auditress stopped her for a moment in her flow of words, delivered in a retrospective gloomy voice.