CHAPTER IV. I FALL INTO DISGRACE
If the room to which my bed was removed were a sentient thing that could give evidence, I might appeal to it at this day—who sleeps there now, I wonder!—to bear witness for me what a heavy heart I carried to it. I went up there, hearing the dog in the yard bark after me all the way while I climbed the stairs; and, looking as blank and strange upon the room as the room looked upon me, sat down with my small hands crossed, and thought.
I thought of the oddest things. Of the shape of the room, of the cracks in the ceiling, of the paper on the walls, of the flaws in the window-glass making ripples and dimples on the prospect, of the washing-stand being rickety on its three legs, and having a discontented something about it, which reminded me of Mrs. Gummidge under the influence of the old one. I was crying all the time, but, except that I was conscious of being cold and dejected, I am sure I never thought why I cried. At last in my desolation I began to consider that I was dreadfully in love with little Em’ly, and had been torn away from her to come here where no one seemed to want me, or to care about me, half as much as she did. This made such a very miserable piece of business of it, that I rolled myself up in a corner of the counterpane, and cried myself to sleep.
I was awoke by somebody saying ‘Here he is!’ and uncovering my hot head. My mother and Peggotty had come to look for me, and it was one of them who had done it.
‘Davy,’ said my mother. ‘What’s the matter?’
I thought it was very strange that she should ask me, and answered, ‘Nothing.’ I turned over on my face, I recollect, to hide my trembling lip, which answered her with greater truth. ‘Davy,’ said my mother. ‘Davy, my child!’
I dare say no words she could have uttered would have affected me so much, then, as her calling me her child. I hid my tears in the bedclothes, and pressed her from me with my hand, when she would have raised me up.
‘This is your doing, Peggotty, you cruel thing!’ said my mother. ‘I have no doubt at all about it. How can you reconcile it to your conscience, I wonder, to prejudice my own boy against me, or against anybody who is dear to me? What do you mean by it, Peggotty?’
Poor Peggotty lifted up her hands and eyes, and only answered, in a sort of paraphrase of the grace I usually repeated after dinner, ‘Lord forgive you, Mrs. Copperfield, and for what you have said this minute, may you never be truly sorry!’
‘It’s enough to distract me,’ cried my mother. ‘In my honeymoon, too, when my most inveterate enemy might relent, one would think, and not envy me a little peace of mind and happiness. Davy, you naughty boy! Peggotty, you savage creature! Oh, dear me!’ cried my mother, turning from one of us to the other, in her pettish wilful manner, ‘what a troublesome world this is, when one has the most right to expect it to be as agreeable as possible!’
I felt the touch of a hand that I knew was neither hers nor Peggotty’s, and slipped to my feet at the bed-side. It was Mr. Murdstone’s hand, and he kept it on my arm as he said:
‘What’s this? Clara, my love, have you forgotten?—Firmness, my dear!’
‘I am very sorry, Edward,’ said my mother. ‘I meant to be very good, but I am so uncomfortable.’
‘Indeed!’ he answered. ‘That’s a bad hearing, so soon, Clara.’
‘I say it’s very hard I should be made so now,’ returned my mother, pouting; ‘and it is—very hard—isn’t it?’
He drew her to him, whispered in her ear, and kissed her. I knew as well, when I saw my mother’s head lean down upon his shoulder, and her arm touch his neck—I knew as well that he could mould her pliant nature into any form he chose, as I know, now, that he did it.
‘Go you below, my love,’ said Mr. Murdstone. ‘David and I will come down, together. My friend,’ turning a darkening face on Peggotty, when he had watched my mother out, and dismissed her with a nod and a smile; ‘do you know your mistress’s name?’
‘She has been my mistress a long time, sir,’ answered Peggotty, ‘I ought to know it.’ ‘That’s true,’ he answered. ‘But I thought I heard you, as I came upstairs, address her by a name that is not hers. She has taken mine, you know. Will you remember that?’
Peggotty, with some uneasy glances at me, curtseyed herself out of the room without replying; seeing, I suppose, that she was expected to go, and had no excuse for remaining. When we two were left alone, he shut the door, and sitting on a chair, and holding me standing before him, looked steadily into my eyes. I felt my own attracted, no less steadily, to his. As I recall our being opposed thus, face to face, I seem again to hear my heart beat fast and high.
‘David,’ he said, making his lips thin, by pressing them together, ‘if I have an obstinate horse or dog to deal with, what do you think I do?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I beat him.’
I had answered in a kind of breathless whisper, but I felt, in my silence, that my breath was shorter now.
‘I make him wince, and smart. I say to myself, “I’ll conquer that fellow”; and if it were to cost him all the blood he had, I should do it. What is that upon your face?’
‘Dirt,’ I said.
He knew it was the mark of tears as well as I. But if he had asked the question twenty times, each time with twenty blows, I believe my baby heart would have burst before I would have told him so.
‘You have a good deal of intelligence for a little fellow,’ he said, with a grave smile that belonged to him, ‘and you understood me very well, I see. Wash that face, sir, and come down with me.’
He pointed to the washing-stand, which I had made out to be like Mrs. Gummidge, and motioned me with his head to obey him directly. I had little doubt then, and I have less doubt now, that he would have knocked me down without the least compunction, if I had hesitated.
‘Clara, my dear,’ he said, when I had done his bidding, and he walked me into the parlour, with his hand still on my arm; ‘you will not be made uncomfortable any more, I hope. We shall soon improve our youthful humours.’
God help me, I might have been improved for my whole life, I might have been made another creature perhaps, for life, by a kind word at that season. A word of encouragement and explanation, of pity for my childish ignorance, of welcome home, of reassurance to me that it was home, might have made me dutiful to him in my heart henceforth, instead of in my hypocritical outside, and might have made me respect instead of hate him. I thought my mother was sorry to see me standing in the room so scared and strange, and that, presently, when I stole to a chair, she followed me with her eyes more sorrowfully still—missing, perhaps, some freedom in my childish tread—but the word was not spoken, and the time for it was gone.
We dined alone, we three together. He seemed to be very fond of my mother—I am afraid I liked him none the better for that—and she was very fond of him. I gathered from what they said, that an elder sister of his was coming to stay with them, and that she was expected that evening. I am not certain whether I found out then, or afterwards, that, without being actively concerned in any business, he had some share in, or some annual charge upon the profits of, a wine-merchant’s house in London, with which his family had been connected from his great-grandfather’s time, and in which his sister had a similar interest; but I may mention it in this place, whether or no.
After dinner, when we were sitting by the fire, and I was meditating an escape to Peggotty without having the hardihood to slip away, lest it should offend the master of the house, a coach drove up to the garden-gate and he went out to receive the visitor. My mother followed him. I was timidly following her, when she turned round at the parlour door, in the dusk, and taking me in her embrace as she had been used to do, whispered me to love my new father and be obedient to him. She did this hurriedly and secretly, as if it were wrong, but tenderly; and, putting out her hand behind her, held mine in it, until we came near to where he was standing in the garden, where she let mine go, and drew hers through his arm.
It was Miss Murdstone who was arrived, and a gloomy-looking lady she was; dark, like her brother, whom she greatly resembled in face and voice; and with very heavy eyebrows, nearly meeting over her large nose, as if, being disabled by the wrongs of her sex from wearing whiskers, she had carried them to that account. She brought with her two uncompromising hard black boxes, with her initials on the lids in hard brass nails. When she paid the coachman she took her money out of a hard steel purse, and she kept the purse in a very jail of a bag which hung upon her arm by a heavy chain, and shut up like a bite. I had never, at that time, seen such a metallic lady altogether as Miss Murdstone was.
She was brought into the parlour with many tokens of welcome, and there formally recognized my mother as a new and near relation. Then she looked at me, and said:
‘Is that your boy, sister-in-law?’
My mother acknowledged me.
‘Generally speaking,’ said Miss Murdstone, ‘I don’t like boys. How d’ye do, boy?’
Under these encouraging circumstances, I replied that I was very well, and that I hoped she was the same; with such an indifferent grace, that Miss Murdstone disposed of me in two words:
Having uttered which, with great distinctness, she begged the favour of being shown to her room, which became to me from that time forth a place of awe and dread, wherein the two black boxes were never seen open or known to be left unlocked, and where (for I peeped in once or twice when she was out) numerous little steel fetters and rivets, with which Miss Murdstone embellished herself when she was dressed, generally hung upon the looking-glass in formidable array.
As well as I could make out, she had come for good, and had no intention of ever going again. She began to ‘help’ my mother next morning, and was in and out of the store-closet all day, putting things to rights, and making havoc in the old arrangements. Almost the first remarkable thing I observed in Miss Murdstone was, her being constantly haunted by a suspicion that the servants had a man secreted somewhere on the premises. Under the influence of this delusion, she dived into the coal-cellar at the most untimely hours, and scarcely ever opened the door of a dark cupboard without clapping it to again, in the belief that she had got him.
Though there was nothing very airy about Miss Murdstone, she was a perfect Lark in point of getting up. She was up (and, as I believe to this hour, looking for that man) before anybody in the house was stirring. Peggotty gave it as her opinion that she even slept with one eye open; but I could not concur in this idea; for I tried it myself after hearing the suggestion thrown out, and found it couldn’t be done.
On the very first morning after her arrival she was up and ringing her bell at cock-crow. When my mother came down to breakfast and was going to make the tea, Miss Murdstone gave her a kind of peck on the cheek, which was her nearest approach to a kiss, and said:
‘Now, Clara, my dear, I am come here, you know, to relieve you of all the trouble I can. You’re much too pretty and thoughtless’—my mother blushed but laughed, and seemed not to dislike this character—’to have any duties imposed upon you that can be undertaken by me. If you’ll be so good as give me your keys, my dear, I’ll attend to all this sort of thing in future.’
From that time, Miss Murdstone kept the keys in her own little jail all day, and under her pillow all night, and my mother had no more to do with them than I had.
My mother did not suffer her authority to pass from her without a shadow of protest. One night when Miss Murdstone had been developing certain household plans to her brother, of which he signified his approbation, my mother suddenly began to cry, and said she thought she might have been consulted.
‘Clara!’ said Mr. Murdstone sternly. ‘Clara! I wonder at you.’
‘Oh, it’s very well to say you wonder, Edward!’ cried my mother, ‘and it’s very well for you to talk about firmness, but you wouldn’t like it yourself.’
Firmness, I may observe, was the grand quality on which both Mr. and Miss Murdstone took their stand. However I might have expressed my comprehension of it at that time, if I had been called upon, I nevertheless did clearly comprehend in my own way, that it was another name for tyranny; and for a certain gloomy, arrogant, devil’s humour, that was in them both. The creed, as I should state it now, was this. Mr. Murdstone was firm; nobody in his world was to be so firm as Mr. Murdstone; nobody else in his world was to be firm at all, for everybody was to be bent to his firmness. Miss Murdstone was an exception. She might be firm, but only by relationship, and in an inferior and tributary degree. My mother was another exception. She might be firm, and must be; but only in bearing their firmness, and firmly believing there was no other firmness upon earth.
‘It’s very hard,’ said my mother, ‘that in my own house—’
‘My own house?’ repeated Mr. Murdstone. ‘Clara!’
‘OUR own house, I mean,’ faltered my mother, evidently frightened—’I hope you must know what I mean, Edward—it’s very hard that in YOUR own house I may not have a word to say about domestic matters. I am sure I managed very well before we were married. There’s evidence,’ said my mother, sobbing; ‘ask Peggotty if I didn’t do very well when I wasn’t interfered with!’
‘Edward,’ said Miss Murdstone, ‘let there be an end of this. I go tomorrow.’
‘Jane Murdstone,’ said her brother, ‘be silent! How dare you to insinuate that you don’t know my character better than your words imply?’
‘I am sure,’ my poor mother went on, at a grievous disadvantage, and with many tears, ‘I don’t want anybody to go. I should be very miserable and unhappy if anybody was to go. I don’t ask much. I am not unreasonable. I only want to be consulted sometimes. I am very much obliged to anybody who assists me, and I only want to be consulted as a mere form, sometimes. I thought you were pleased, once, with my being a little inexperienced and girlish, Edward—I am sure you said so—but you seem to hate me for it now, you are so severe.’
‘Edward,’ said Miss Murdstone, again, ‘let there be an end of this. I go tomorrow.’
‘Jane Murdstone,’ thundered Mr. Murdstone. ‘Will you be silent? How dare you?’
Miss Murdstone made a jail-delivery of her pocket-handkerchief, and held it before her eyes.
‘Clara,’ he continued, looking at my mother, ‘you surprise me! You astound me! Yes, I had a satisfaction in the thought of marrying an inexperienced and artless person, and forming her character, and infusing into it some amount of that firmness and decision of which it stood in need. But when Jane Murdstone is kind enough to come to my assistance in this endeavour, and to assume, for my sake, a condition something like a housekeeper’s, and when she meets with a base return—’
‘Oh, pray, pray, Edward,’ cried my mother, ‘don’t accuse me of being ungrateful. I am sure I am not ungrateful. No one ever said I was before. I have many faults, but not that. Oh, don’t, my dear!’
‘When Jane Murdstone meets, I say,’ he went on, after waiting until my mother was silent, ‘with a base return, that feeling of mine is chilled and altered.’
‘Don’t, my love, say that!’ implored my mother very piteously. ‘Oh, don’t, Edward! I can’t bear to hear it. Whatever I am, I am affectionate. I know I am affectionate. I wouldn’t say it, if I wasn’t sure that I am. Ask Peggotty. I am sure she’ll tell you I’m affectionate.’
‘There is no extent of mere weakness, Clara,’ said Mr. Murdstone in reply, ‘that can have the least weight with me. You lose breath.’
‘Pray let us be friends,’ said my mother, ‘I couldn’t live under coldness or unkindness. I am so sorry. I have a great many defects, I know, and it’s very good of you, Edward, with your strength of mind, to endeavour to correct them for me. Jane, I don’t object to anything. I should be quite broken-hearted if you thought of leaving—’ My mother was too much overcome to go on.
‘Jane Murdstone,’ said Mr. Murdstone to his sister, ‘any harsh words between us are, I hope, uncommon. It is not my fault that so unusual an occurrence has taken place tonight. I was betrayed into it by another. Nor is it your fault. You were betrayed into it by another. Let us both try to forget it. And as this,’ he added, after these magnanimous words, ‘is not a fit scene for the boy—David, go to bed!’
I could hardly find the door, through the tears that stood in my eyes. I was so sorry for my mother’s distress; but I groped my way out, and groped my way up to my room in the dark, without even having the heart to say good night to Peggotty, or to get a candle from her. When her coming up to look for me, an hour or so afterwards, awoke me, she said that my mother had gone to bed poorly, and that Mr. and Miss Murdstone were sitting alone.
Going down next morning rather earlier than usual, I paused outside the parlour door, on hearing my mother’s voice. She was very earnestly and humbly entreating Miss Murdstone’s pardon, which that lady granted, and a perfect reconciliation took place. I never knew my mother afterwards to give an opinion on any matter, without first appealing to Miss Murdstone, or without having first ascertained by some sure means, what Miss Murdstone’s opinion was; and I never saw Miss Murdstone, when out of temper (she was infirm that way), move her hand towards her bag as if she were going to take out the keys and offer to resign them to my mother, without seeing that my mother was in a terrible fright.
The gloomy taint that was in the Murdstone blood, darkened the Murdstone religion, which was austere and wrathful. I have thought, since, that its assuming that character was a necessary consequence of Mr. Murdstone’s firmness, which wouldn’t allow him to let anybody off from the utmost weight of the severest penalties he could find any excuse for. Be this as it may, I well remember the tremendous visages with which we used to go to church, and the changed air of the place. Again, the dreaded Sunday comes round, and I file into the old pew first, like a guarded captive brought to a condemned service. Again, Miss Murdstone, in a black velvet gown, that looks as if it had been made out of a pall, follows close upon me; then my mother; then her husband. There is no Peggotty now, as in the old time. Again, I listen to Miss Murdstone mumbling the responses, and emphasizing all the dread words with a cruel relish. Again, I see her dark eyes roll round the church when she says ‘miserable sinners’, as if she were calling all the congregation names. Again, I catch rare glimpses of my mother, moving her lips timidly between the two, with one of them muttering at each ear like low thunder. Again, I wonder with a sudden fear whether it is likely that our good old clergyman can be wrong, and Mr. and Miss Murdstone right, and that all the angels in Heaven can be destroying angels. Again, if I move a finger or relax a muscle of my face, Miss Murdstone pokes me with her prayer-book, and makes my side ache.
Yes, and again, as we walk home, I note some neighbours looking at my mother and at me, and whispering. Again, as the three go on arm-in-arm, and I linger behind alone, I follow some of those looks, and wonder if my mother’s step be really not so light as I have seen it, and if the gaiety of her beauty be really almost worried away. Again, I wonder whether any of the neighbours call to mind, as I do, how we used to walk home together, she and I; and I wonder stupidly about that, all the dreary dismal day.
There had been some talk on occasions of my going to boarding-school. Mr. and Miss Murdstone had originated it, and my mother had of course agreed with them. Nothing, however, was concluded on the subject yet. In the meantime, I learnt lessons at home. Shall I ever forget those lessons! They were presided over nominally by my mother, but really by Mr. Murdstone and his sister, who were always present, and found them a favourable occasion for giving my mother lessons in that miscalled firmness, which was the bane of both our lives. I believe I was kept at home for that purpose. I had been apt enough to learn, and willing enough, when my mother and I had lived alone together. I can faintly remember learning the alphabet at her knee. To this day, when I look upon the fat black letters in the primer, the puzzling novelty of their shapes, and the easy good-nature of O and Q and S, seem to present themselves again before me as they used to do. But they recall no feeling of disgust or reluctance. On the contrary, I seem to have walked along a path of flowers as far as the crocodile-book, and to have been cheered by the gentleness of my mother’s voice and manner all the way. But these solemn lessons which succeeded those, I remember as the death-blow of my peace, and a grievous daily drudgery and misery. They were very long, very numerous, very hard—perfectly unintelligible, some of them, to me—and I was generally as much bewildered by them as I believe my poor mother was herself.
Let me remember how it used to be, and bring one morning back again.
I come into the second-best parlour after breakfast, with my books, and an exercise-book, and a slate. My mother is ready for me at her writing-desk, but not half so ready as Mr. Murdstone in his easy-chair by the window (though he pretends to be reading a book), or as Miss Murdstone, sitting near my mother stringing steel beads. The very sight of these two has such an influence over me, that I begin to feel the words I have been at infinite pains to get into my head, all sliding away, and going I don’t know where. I wonder where they do go, by the by?
I hand the first book to my mother. Perhaps it is a grammar, perhaps a history, or geography. I take a last drowning look at the page as I give it into her hand, and start off aloud at a racing pace while I have got it fresh. I trip over a word. Mr. Murdstone looks up. I trip over another word. Miss Murdstone looks up. I redden, tumble over half-a-dozen words, and stop. I think my mother would show me the book if she dared, but she does not dare, and she says softly:
‘Oh, Davy, Davy!’
‘Now, Clara,’ says Mr. Murdstone, ‘be firm with the boy. Don’t say, “Oh, Davy, Davy!” That’s childish. He knows his lesson, or he does not know it.’
‘He does NOT know it,’ Miss Murdstone interposes awfully.
‘I am really afraid he does not,’ says my mother.
‘Then, you see, Clara,’ returns Miss Murdstone, ‘you should just give him the book back, and make him know it.’
‘Yes, certainly,’ says my mother; ‘that is what I intend to do, my dear Jane. Now, Davy, try once more, and don’t be stupid.’
I obey the first clause of the injunction by trying once more, but am not so successful with the second, for I am very stupid. I tumble down before I get to the old place, at a point where I was all right before, and stop to think. But I can’t think about the lesson. I think of the number of yards of net in Miss Murdstone’s cap, or of the price of Mr. Murdstone’s dressing-gown, or any such ridiculous problem that I have no business with, and don’t want to have anything at all to do with. Mr. Murdstone makes a movement of impatience which I have been expecting for a long time. Miss Murdstone does the same. My mother glances submissively at them, shuts the book, and lays it by as an arrear to be worked out when my other tasks are done.
There is a pile of these arrears very soon, and it swells like a rolling snowball. The bigger it gets, the more stupid I get. The case is so hopeless, and I feel that I am wallowing in such a bog of nonsense, that I give up all idea of getting out, and abandon myself to my fate. The despairing way in which my mother and I look at each other, as I blunder on, is truly melancholy. But the greatest effect in these miserable lessons is when my mother (thinking nobody is observing her) tries to give me the cue by the motion of her lips. At that instant, Miss Murdstone, who has been lying in wait for nothing else all along, says in a deep warning voice:
My mother starts, colours, and smiles faintly. Mr. Murdstone comes out of his chair, takes the book, throws it at me or boxes my ears with it, and turns me out of the room by the shoulders.
Even when the lessons are done, the worst is yet to happen, in the shape of an appalling sum. This is invented for me, and delivered to me orally by Mr. Murdstone, and begins, ‘If I go into a cheesemonger’s shop, and buy five thousand double-Gloucester cheeses at fourpence-halfpenny each, present payment’—at which I see Miss Murdstone secretly overjoyed. I pore over these cheeses without any result or enlightenment until dinner-time, when, having made a Mulatto of myself by getting the dirt of the slate into the pores of my skin, I have a slice of bread to help me out with the cheeses, and am considered in disgrace for the rest of the evening.
It seems to me, at this distance of time, as if my unfortunate studies generally took this course. I could have done very well if I had been without the Murdstones; but the influence of the Murdstones upon me was like the fascination of two snakes on a wretched young bird. Even when I did get through the morning with tolerable credit, there was not much gained but dinner; for Miss Murdstone never could endure to see me untasked, and if I rashly made any show of being unemployed, called her brother’s attention to me by saying, ‘Clara, my dear, there’s nothing like work—give your boy an exercise’; which caused me to be clapped down to some new labour, there and then. As to any recreation with other children of my age, I had very little of that; for the gloomy theology of the Murdstones made all children out to be a swarm of little vipers (though there WAS a child once set in the midst of the Disciples), and held that they contaminated one another.
The natural result of this treatment, continued, I suppose, for some six months or more, was to make me sullen, dull, and dogged. I was not made the less so by my sense of being daily more and more shut out and alienated from my mother. I believe I should have been almost stupefied but for one circumstance.
It was this. My father had left a small collection of books in a little room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time,—they, and the Arabian Nights, and the Tales of the Genii,—and did me no harm; for whatever harm was in some of them was not there for me; I knew nothing of it. It is astonishing to me now, how I found time, in the midst of my porings and blunderings over heavier themes, to read those books as I did. It is curious to me how I could ever have consoled myself under my small troubles (which were great troubles to me), by impersonating my favourite characters in them—as I did—and by putting Mr. and Miss Murdstone into all the bad ones—which I did too. I have been Tom Jones (a child’s Tom Jones, a harmless creature) for a week together. I have sustained my own idea of Roderick Random for a month at a stretch, I verily believe. I had a greedy relish for a few volumes of Voyages and Travels—I forget what, now—that were on those shelves; and for days and days I can remember to have gone about my region of our house, armed with the centre-piece out of an old set of boot-trees—the perfect realization of Captain Somebody, of the Royal British Navy, in danger of being beset by savages, and resolved to sell his life at a great price. The Captain never lost dignity, from having his ears boxed with the Latin Grammar. I did; but the Captain was a Captain and a hero, in despite of all the grammars of all the languages in the world, dead or alive.
This was my only and my constant comfort. When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life. Every barn in the neighbourhood, every stone in the church, and every foot of the churchyard, had some association of its own, in my mind, connected with these books, and stood for some locality made famous in them. I have seen Tom Pipes go climbing up the church-steeple; I have watched Strap, with the knapsack on his back, stopping to rest himself upon the wicket-gate; and I know that Commodore Trunnion held that club with Mr. Pickle, in the parlour of our little village alehouse.
The reader now understands, as well as I do, what I was when I came to that point of my youthful history to which I am now coming again.
One morning when I went into the parlour with my books, I found my mother looking anxious, Miss Murdstone looking firm, and Mr. Murdstone binding something round the bottom of a cane—a lithe and limber cane, which he left off binding when I came in, and poised and switched in the air.
‘I tell you, Clara,’ said Mr. Murdstone, ‘I have been often flogged myself.’
‘To be sure; of course,’ said Miss Murdstone.
‘Certainly, my dear Jane,’ faltered my mother, meekly. ‘But—but do you think it did Edward good?’
‘Do you think it did Edward harm, Clara?’ asked Mr. Murdstone, gravely.
‘That’s the point,’ said his sister.
To this my mother returned, ‘Certainly, my dear Jane,’ and said no more.
I felt apprehensive that I was personally interested in this dialogue, and sought Mr. Murdstone’s eye as it lighted on mine.
‘Now, David,’ he said—and I saw that cast again as he said it—’you must be far more careful today than usual.’ He gave the cane another poise, and another switch; and having finished his preparation of it, laid it down beside him, with an impressive look, and took up his book.
This was a good freshener to my presence of mind, as a beginning. I felt the words of my lessons slipping off, not one by one, or line by line, but by the entire page; I tried to lay hold of them; but they seemed, if I may so express it, to have put skates on, and to skim away from me with a smoothness there was no checking.
We began badly, and went on worse. I had come in with an idea of distinguishing myself rather, conceiving that I was very well prepared; but it turned out to be quite a mistake. Book after book was added to the heap of failures, Miss Murdstone being firmly watchful of us all the time. And when we came at last to the five thousand cheeses (canes he made it that day, I remember), my mother burst out crying.
‘Clara!’ said Miss Murdstone, in her warning voice.
‘I am not quite well, my dear Jane, I think,’ said my mother.
I saw him wink, solemnly, at his sister, as he rose and said, taking up the cane:
‘Why, Jane, we can hardly expect Clara to bear, with perfect firmness, the worry and torment that David has occasioned her today. That would be stoical. Clara is greatly strengthened and improved, but we can hardly expect so much from her. David, you and I will go upstairs, boy.’
As he took me out at the door, my mother ran towards us. Miss Murdstone said, ‘Clara! are you a perfect fool?’ and interfered. I saw my mother stop her ears then, and I heard her crying.
He walked me up to my room slowly and gravely—I am certain he had a delight in that formal parade of executing justice—and when we got there, suddenly twisted my head under his arm.
‘Mr. Murdstone! Sir!’ I cried to him. ‘Don’t! Pray don’t beat me! I have tried to learn, sir, but I can’t learn while you and Miss Murdstone are by. I can’t indeed!’
‘Can’t you, indeed, David?’ he said. ‘We’ll try that.’
He had my head as in a vice, but I twined round him somehow, and stopped him for a moment, entreating him not to beat me. It was only a moment that I stopped him, for he cut me heavily an instant afterwards, and in the same instant I caught the hand with which he held me in my mouth, between my teeth, and bit it through. It sets my teeth on edge to think of it.
He beat me then, as if he would have beaten me to death. Above all the noise we made, I heard them running up the stairs, and crying out—I heard my mother crying out—and Peggotty. Then he was gone; and the door was locked outside; and I was lying, fevered and hot, and torn, and sore, and raging in my puny way, upon the floor.
How well I recollect, when I became quiet, what an unnatural stillness seemed to reign through the whole house! How well I remember, when my smart and passion began to cool, how wicked I began to feel!
I sat listening for a long while, but there was not a sound. I crawled up from the floor, and saw my face in the glass, so swollen, red, and ugly that it almost frightened me. My stripes were sore and stiff, and made me cry afresh, when I moved; but they were nothing to the guilt I felt. It lay heavier on my breast than if I had been a most atrocious criminal, I dare say.
It had begun to grow dark, and I had shut the window (I had been lying, for the most part, with my head upon the sill, by turns crying, dozing, and looking listlessly out), when the key was turned, and Miss Murdstone came in with some bread and meat, and milk. These she put down upon the table without a word, glaring at me the while with exemplary firmness, and then retired, locking the door after her.
Long after it was dark I sat there, wondering whether anybody else would come. When this appeared improbable for that night, I undressed, and went to bed; and, there, I began to wonder fearfully what would be done to me. Whether it was a criminal act that I had committed? Whether I should be taken into custody, and sent to prison? Whether I was at all in danger of being hanged?
I never shall forget the waking, next morning; the being cheerful and fresh for the first moment, and then the being weighed down by the stale and dismal oppression of remembrance. Miss Murdstone reappeared before I was out of bed; told me, in so many words, that I was free to walk in the garden for half an hour and no longer; and retired, leaving the door open, that I might avail myself of that permission.
I did so, and did so every morning of my imprisonment, which lasted five days. If I could have seen my mother alone, I should have gone down on my knees to her and besought her forgiveness; but I saw no one, Miss Murdstone excepted, during the whole time—except at evening prayers in the parlour; to which I was escorted by Miss Murdstone after everybody else was placed; where I was stationed, a young outlaw, all alone by myself near the door; and whence I was solemnly conducted by my jailer, before any one arose from the devotional posture. I only observed that my mother was as far off from me as she could be, and kept her face another way so that I never saw it; and that Mr. Murdstone’s hand was bound up in a large linen wrapper.
The length of those five days I can convey no idea of to any one. They occupy the place of years in my remembrance. The way in which I listened to all the incidents of the house that made themselves audible to me; the ringing of bells, the opening and shutting of doors, the murmuring of voices, the footsteps on the stairs; to any laughing, whistling, or singing, outside, which seemed more dismal than anything else to me in my solitude and disgrace—the uncertain pace of the hours, especially at night, when I would wake thinking it was morning, and find that the family were not yet gone to bed, and that all the length of night had yet to come—the depressed dreams and nightmares I had—the return of day, noon, afternoon, evening, when the boys played in the churchyard, and I watched them from a distance within the room, being ashamed to show myself at the window lest they should know I was a prisoner—the strange sensation of never hearing myself speak—the fleeting intervals of something like cheerfulness, which came with eating and drinking, and went away with it—the setting in of rain one evening, with a fresh smell, and its coming down faster and faster between me and the church, until it and gathering night seemed to quench me in gloom, and fear, and remorse—all this appears to have gone round and round for years instead of days, it is so vividly and strongly stamped on my remembrance. On the last night of my restraint, I was awakened by hearing my own name spoken in a whisper. I started up in bed, and putting out my arms in the dark, said:
‘Is that you, Peggotty?’
There was no immediate answer, but presently I heard my name again, in a tone so very mysterious and awful, that I think I should have gone into a fit, if it had not occurred to me that it must have come through the keyhole.
I groped my way to the door, and putting my own lips to the keyhole, whispered: ‘Is that you, Peggotty dear?’
‘Yes, my own precious Davy,’ she replied. ‘Be as soft as a mouse, or the Cat’ll hear us.’
I understood this to mean Miss Murdstone, and was sensible of the urgency of the case; her room being close by.
‘How’s mama, dear Peggotty? Is she very angry with me?’
I could hear Peggotty crying softly on her side of the keyhole, as I was doing on mine, before she answered. ‘No. Not very.’
‘What is going to be done with me, Peggotty dear? Do you know?’
‘School. Near London,’ was Peggotty’s answer. I was obliged to get her to repeat it, for she spoke it the first time quite down my throat, in consequence of my having forgotten to take my mouth away from the keyhole and put my ear there; and though her words tickled me a good deal, I didn’t hear them.
‘Is that the reason why Miss Murdstone took the clothes out of my drawers?’ which she had done, though I have forgotten to mention it.
‘Yes,’ said Peggotty. ‘Box.’
‘Shan’t I see mama?’
‘Yes,’ said Peggotty. ‘Morning.’
Then Peggotty fitted her mouth close to the keyhole, and delivered these words through it with as much feeling and earnestness as a keyhole has ever been the medium of communicating, I will venture to assert: shooting in each broken little sentence in a convulsive little burst of its own.
‘Davy, dear. If I ain’t been azackly as intimate with you. Lately, as I used to be. It ain’t because I don’t love you. Just as well and more, my pretty poppet. It’s because I thought it better for you. And for someone else besides. Davy, my darling, are you listening? Can you hear?’
‘Ye-ye-ye-yes, Peggotty!’ I sobbed.
‘My own!’ said Peggotty, with infinite compassion. ‘What I want to say, is. That you must never forget me. For I’ll never forget you. And I’ll take as much care of your mama, Davy. As ever I took of you. And I won’t leave her. The day may come when she’ll be glad to lay her poor head. On her stupid, cross old Peggotty’s arm again. And I’ll write to you, my dear. Though I ain’t no scholar. And I’ll—I’ll—’ Peggotty fell to kissing the keyhole, as she couldn’t kiss me.
‘Thank you, dear Peggotty!’ said I. ‘Oh, thank you! Thank you! Will you promise me one thing, Peggotty? Will you write and tell Mr. Peggotty and little Em’ly, and Mrs. Gummidge and Ham, that I am not so bad as they might suppose, and that I sent ’em all my love—especially to little Em’ly? Will you, if you please, Peggotty?’
The kind soul promised, and we both of us kissed the keyhole with the greatest affection—I patted it with my hand, I recollect, as if it had been her honest face—and parted. From that night there grew up in my breast a feeling for Peggotty which I cannot very well define. She did not replace my mother; no one could do that; but she came into a vacancy in my heart, which closed upon her, and I felt towards her something I have never felt for any other human being. It was a sort of comical affection, too; and yet if she had died, I cannot think what I should have done, or how I should have acted out the tragedy it would have been to me.
In the morning Miss Murdstone appeared as usual, and told me I was going to school; which was not altogether such news to me as she supposed. She also informed me that when I was dressed, I was to come downstairs into the parlour, and have my breakfast. There, I found my mother, very pale and with red eyes: into whose arms I ran, and begged her pardon from my suffering soul.
‘Oh, Davy!’ she said. ‘That you could hurt anyone I love! Try to be better, pray to be better! I forgive you; but I am so grieved, Davy, that you should have such bad passions in your heart.’
They had persuaded her that I was a wicked fellow, and she was more sorry for that than for my going away. I felt it sorely. I tried to eat my parting breakfast, but my tears dropped upon my bread-and-butter, and trickled into my tea. I saw my mother look at me sometimes, and then glance at the watchful Miss Murdstone, and than look down, or look away.
‘Master Copperfield’s box there!’ said Miss Murdstone, when wheels were heard at the gate.
I looked for Peggotty, but it was not she; neither she nor Mr. Murdstone appeared. My former acquaintance, the carrier, was at the door. The box was taken out to his cart, and lifted in.
‘Clara!’ said Miss Murdstone, in her warning note.
‘Ready, my dear Jane,’ returned my mother. ‘Good-bye, Davy. You are going for your own good. Good-bye, my child. You will come home in the holidays, and be a better boy.’
‘Clara!’ Miss Murdstone repeated.
‘Certainly, my dear Jane,’ replied my mother, who was holding me. ‘I forgive you, my dear boy. God bless you!’
‘Clara!’ Miss Murdstone repeated.
Miss Murdstone was good enough to take me out to the cart, and to say on the way that she hoped I would repent, before I came to a bad end; and then I got into the cart, and the lazy horse walked off with it.
CHAPTER V. I AM SENT AWAY FROM HOME
We might have gone about half a mile, and my pocket-handkerchief was quite wet through, when the carrier stopped short. Looking out to ascertain for what, I saw, to My amazement, Peggotty burst from a hedge and climb into the cart. She took me in both her arms, and squeezed me to her stays until the pressure on my nose was extremely painful, though I never thought of that till afterwards when I found it very tender. Not a single word did Peggotty speak. Releasing one of her arms, she put it down in her pocket to the elbow, and brought out some paper bags of cakes which she crammed into my pockets, and a purse which she put into my hand, but not one word did she say. After another and a final squeeze with both arms, she got down from the cart and ran away; and, my belief is, and has always been, without a solitary button on her gown. I picked up one, of several that were rolling about, and treasured it as a keepsake for a long time.
The carrier looked at me, as if to inquire if she were coming back. I shook my head, and said I thought not. ‘Then come up,’ said the carrier to the lazy horse; who came up accordingly.
Having by this time cried as much as I possibly could, I began to think it was of no use crying any more, especially as neither Roderick Random, nor that Captain in the Royal British Navy, had ever cried, that I could remember, in trying situations. The carrier, seeing me in this resolution, proposed that my pocket-handkerchief should be spread upon the horse’s back to dry. I thanked him, and assented; and particularly small it looked, under those circumstances.
I had now leisure to examine the purse. It was a stiff leather purse, with a snap, and had three bright shillings in it, which Peggotty had evidently polished up with whitening, for my greater delight. But its most precious contents were two half-crowns folded together in a bit of paper, on which was written, in my mother’s hand, ‘For Davy. With my love.’ I was so overcome by this, that I asked the carrier to be so good as to reach me my pocket-handkerchief again; but he said he thought I had better do without it, and I thought I really had, so I wiped my eyes on my sleeve and stopped myself.
For good, too; though, in consequence of my previous emotions, I was still occasionally seized with a stormy sob. After we had jogged on for some little time, I asked the carrier if he was going all the way.
‘All the way where?’ inquired the carrier.
‘There,’ I said.
‘Where’s there?’ inquired the carrier.
‘Near London,’ I said.
‘Why that horse,’ said the carrier, jerking the rein to point him out, ‘would be deader than pork afore he got over half the ground.’
‘Are you only going to Yarmouth then?’ I asked.
‘That’s about it,’ said the carrier. ‘And there I shall take you to the stage-cutch, and the stage-cutch that’ll take you to—wherever it is.’
As this was a great deal for the carrier (whose name was Mr. Barkis) to say—he being, as I observed in a former chapter, of a phlegmatic temperament, and not at all conversational—I offered him a cake as a mark of attention, which he ate at one gulp, exactly like an elephant, and which made no more impression on his big face than it would have done on an elephant’s.
‘Did SHE make ’em, now?’ said Mr. Barkis, always leaning forward, in his slouching way, on the footboard of the cart with an arm on each knee.
‘Peggotty, do you mean, sir?’
‘Ah!’ said Mr. Barkis. ‘Her.’
‘Yes. She makes all our pastry, and does all our cooking.’
‘Do she though?’ said Mr. Barkis. He made up his mouth as if to whistle, but he didn’t whistle. He sat looking at the horse’s ears, as if he saw something new there; and sat so, for a considerable time. By and by, he said:
‘No sweethearts, I b’lieve?’
‘Sweetmeats did you say, Mr. Barkis?’ For I thought he wanted something else to eat, and had pointedly alluded to that description of refreshment.
‘Hearts,’ said Mr. Barkis. ‘Sweet hearts; no person walks with her!’
‘Ah!’ he said. ‘Her.’
‘Oh, no. She never had a sweetheart.’
‘Didn’t she, though!’ said Mr. Barkis.
Again he made up his mouth to whistle, and again he didn’t whistle, but sat looking at the horse’s ears.
‘So she makes,’ said Mr. Barkis, after a long interval of reflection, ‘all the apple parsties, and doos all the cooking, do she?’
I replied that such was the fact.
‘Well. I’ll tell you what,’ said Mr. Barkis. ‘P’raps you might be writin’ to her?’
‘I shall certainly write to her,’ I rejoined.
‘Ah!’ he said, slowly turning his eyes towards me. ‘Well! If you was writin’ to her, p’raps you’d recollect to say that Barkis was willin’; would you?’
‘That Barkis is willing,’ I repeated, innocently. ‘Is that all the message?’
‘Ye-es,’ he said, considering. ‘Ye-es. Barkis is willin’.’
‘But you will be at Blunderstone again tomorrow, Mr. Barkis,’ I said, faltering a little at the idea of my being far away from it then, and could give your own message so much better.’
As he repudiated this suggestion, however, with a jerk of his head, and once more confirmed his previous request by saying, with profound gravity, ‘Barkis is willin’. That’s the message,’ I readily undertook its transmission. While I was waiting for the coach in the hotel at Yarmouth that very afternoon, I procured a sheet of paper and an inkstand, and wrote a note to Peggotty, which ran thus: ‘My dear Peggotty. I have come here safe. Barkis is willing. My love to mama. Yours affectionately. P.S. He says he particularly wants you to know—BARKIS IS WILLING.’
When I had taken this commission on myself prospectively, Mr. Barkis relapsed into perfect silence; and I, feeling quite worn out by all that had happened lately, lay down on a sack in the cart and fell asleep. I slept soundly until we got to Yarmouth; which was so entirely new and strange to me in the inn-yard to which we drove, that I at once abandoned a latent hope I had had of meeting with some of Mr. Peggotty’s family there, perhaps even with little Em’ly herself.
The coach was in the yard, shining very much all over, but without any horses to it as yet; and it looked in that state as if nothing was more unlikely than its ever going to London. I was thinking this, and wondering what would ultimately become of my box, which Mr. Barkis had put down on the yard-pavement by the pole (he having driven up the yard to turn his cart), and also what would ultimately become of me, when a lady looked out of a bow-window where some fowls and joints of meat were hanging up, and said:
‘Is that the little gentleman from Blunderstone?’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ I said.
‘What name?’ inquired the lady.
‘Copperfield, ma’am,’ I said.
‘That won’t do,’ returned the lady. ‘Nobody’s dinner is paid for here, in that name.’
‘Is it Murdstone, ma’am?’ I said.
‘If you’re Master Murdstone,’ said the lady, ‘why do you go and give another name, first?’
I explained to the lady how it was, who than rang a bell, and called out, ‘William! show the coffee-room!’ upon which a waiter came running out of a kitchen on the opposite side of the yard to show it, and seemed a good deal surprised when he was only to show it to me.
It was a large long room with some large maps in it. I doubt if I could have felt much stranger if the maps had been real foreign countries, and I cast away in the middle of them. I felt it was taking a liberty to sit down, with my cap in my hand, on the corner of the chair nearest the door; and when the waiter laid a cloth on purpose for me, and put a set of castors on it, I think I must have turned red all over with modesty.
He brought me some chops, and vegetables, and took the covers off in such a bouncing manner that I was afraid I must have given him some offence. But he greatly relieved my mind by putting a chair for me at the table, and saying, very affably, ‘Now, six-foot! come on!’
I thanked him, and took my seat at the board; but found it extremely difficult to handle my knife and fork with anything like dexterity, or to avoid splashing myself with the gravy, while he was standing opposite, staring so hard, and making me blush in the most dreadful manner every time I caught his eye. After watching me into the second chop, he said:
‘There’s half a pint of ale for you. Will you have it now?’
I thanked him and said, ‘Yes.’ Upon which he poured it out of a jug into a large tumbler, and held it up against the light, and made it look beautiful.
‘My eye!’ he said. ‘It seems a good deal, don’t it?’
‘It does seem a good deal,’ I answered with a smile. For it was quite delightful to me, to find him so pleasant. He was a twinkling-eyed, pimple-faced man, with his hair standing upright all over his head; and as he stood with one arm a-kimbo, holding up the glass to the light with the other hand, he looked quite friendly.
‘There was a gentleman here, yesterday,’ he said—’a stout gentleman, by the name of Topsawyer—perhaps you know him?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘I don’t think—’
‘In breeches and gaiters, broad-brimmed hat, grey coat, speckled choker,’ said the waiter.
‘No,’ I said bashfully, ‘I haven’t the pleasure—’
‘He came in here,’ said the waiter, looking at the light through the tumbler, ‘ordered a glass of this ale—WOULD order it—I told him not—drank it, and fell dead. It was too old for him. It oughtn’t to be drawn; that’s the fact.’
I was very much shocked to hear of this melancholy accident, and said I thought I had better have some water.
‘Why you see,’ said the waiter, still looking at the light through the tumbler, with one of his eyes shut up, ‘our people don’t like things being ordered and left. It offends ’em. But I’ll drink it, if you like. I’m used to it, and use is everything. I don’t think it’ll hurt me, if I throw my head back, and take it off quick. Shall I?’
I replied that he would much oblige me by drinking it, if he thought he could do it safely, but by no means otherwise. When he did throw his head back, and take it off quick, I had a horrible fear, I confess, of seeing him meet the fate of the lamented Mr. Topsawyer, and fall lifeless on the carpet. But it didn’t hurt him. On the contrary, I thought he seemed the fresher for it.
‘What have we got here?’ he said, putting a fork into my dish. ‘Not chops?’
‘Chops,’ I said.
‘Lord bless my soul!’ he exclaimed, ‘I didn’t know they were chops. Why, a chop’s the very thing to take off the bad effects of that beer! Ain’t it lucky?’
So he took a chop by the bone in one hand, and a potato in the other, and ate away with a very good appetite, to my extreme satisfaction. He afterwards took another chop, and another potato; and after that, another chop and another potato. When we had done, he brought me a pudding, and having set it before me, seemed to ruminate, and to become absent in his mind for some moments.
‘How’s the pie?’ he said, rousing himself.
‘It’s a pudding,’ I made answer.
‘Pudding!’ he exclaimed. ‘Why, bless me, so it is! What!’ looking at it nearer. ‘You don’t mean to say it’s a batter-pudding!’
‘Yes, it is indeed.’
‘Why, a batter-pudding,’ he said, taking up a table-spoon, ‘is my favourite pudding! Ain’t that lucky? Come on, little ‘un, and let’s see who’ll get most.’
The waiter certainly got most. He entreated me more than once to come in and win, but what with his table-spoon to my tea-spoon, his dispatch to my dispatch, and his appetite to my appetite, I was left far behind at the first mouthful, and had no chance with him. I never saw anyone enjoy a pudding so much, I think; and he laughed, when it was all gone, as if his enjoyment of it lasted still.
Finding him so very friendly and companionable, it was then that I asked for the pen and ink and paper, to write to Peggotty. He not only brought it immediately, but was good enough to look over me while I wrote the letter. When I had finished it, he asked me where I was going to school.
I said, ‘Near London,’ which was all I knew.
‘Oh! my eye!’ he said, looking very low-spirited, ‘I am sorry for that.’
‘Why?’ I asked him.
‘Oh, Lord!’ he said, shaking his head, ‘that’s the school where they broke the boy’s ribs—two ribs—a little boy he was. I should say he was—let me see—how old are you, about?’
I told him between eight and nine.
‘That’s just his age,’ he said. ‘He was eight years and six months old when they broke his first rib; eight years and eight months old when they broke his second, and did for him.’
I could not disguise from myself, or from the waiter, that this was an uncomfortable coincidence, and inquired how it was done. His answer was not cheering to my spirits, for it consisted of two dismal words, ‘With whopping.’
The blowing of the coach-horn in the yard was a seasonable diversion, which made me get up and hesitatingly inquire, in the mingled pride and diffidence of having a purse (which I took out of my pocket), if there were anything to pay.
‘There’s a sheet of letter-paper,’ he returned. ‘Did you ever buy a sheet of letter-paper?’
I could not remember that I ever had.
‘It’s dear,’ he said, ‘on account of the duty. Threepence. That’s the way we’re taxed in this country. There’s nothing else, except the waiter. Never mind the ink. I lose by that.’
‘What should you—what should I—how much ought I to—what would it be right to pay the waiter, if you please?’ I stammered, blushing.
‘If I hadn’t a family, and that family hadn’t the cowpock,’ said the waiter, ‘I wouldn’t take a sixpence. If I didn’t support a aged pairint, and a lovely sister,’—here the waiter was greatly agitated—’I wouldn’t take a farthing. If I had a good place, and was treated well here, I should beg acceptance of a trifle, instead of taking of it. But I live on broken wittles—and I sleep on the coals’—here the waiter burst into tears.
I was very much concerned for his misfortunes, and felt that any recognition short of ninepence would be mere brutality and hardness of heart. Therefore I gave him one of my three bright shillings, which he received with much humility and veneration, and spun up with his thumb, directly afterwards, to try the goodness of.
It was a little disconcerting to me, to find, when I was being helped up behind the coach, that I was supposed to have eaten all the dinner without any assistance. I discovered this, from overhearing the lady in the bow-window say to the guard, ‘Take care of that child, George, or he’ll burst!’ and from observing that the women-servants who were about the place came out to look and giggle at me as a young phenomenon. My unfortunate friend the waiter, who had quite recovered his spirits, did not appear to be disturbed by this, but joined in the general admiration without being at all confused. If I had any doubt of him, I suppose this half awakened it; but I am inclined to believe that with the simple confidence of a child, and the natural reliance of a child upon superior years (qualities I am very sorry any children should prematurely change for worldly wisdom), I had no serious mistrust of him on the whole, even then.
I felt it rather hard, I must own, to be made, without deserving it, the subject of jokes between the coachman and guard as to the coach drawing heavy behind, on account of my sitting there, and as to the greater expediency of my travelling by waggon. The story of my supposed appetite getting wind among the outside passengers, they were merry upon it likewise; and asked me whether I was going to be paid for, at school, as two brothers or three, and whether I was contracted for, or went upon the regular terms; with other pleasant questions. But the worst of it was, that I knew I should be ashamed to eat anything, when an opportunity offered, and that, after a rather light dinner, I should remain hungry all night—for I had left my cakes behind, at the hotel, in my hurry. My apprehensions were realized. When we stopped for supper I couldn’t muster courage to take any, though I should have liked it very much, but sat by the fire and said I didn’t want anything. This did not save me from more jokes, either; for a husky-voiced gentleman with a rough face, who had been eating out of a sandwich-box nearly all the way, except when he had been drinking out of a bottle, said I was like a boa-constrictor who took enough at one meal to last him a long time; after which, he actually brought a rash out upon himself with boiled beef.
We had started from Yarmouth at three o’clock in the afternoon, and we were due in London about eight next morning. It was Mid-summer weather, and the evening was very pleasant. When we passed through a village, I pictured to myself what the insides of the houses were like, and what the inhabitants were about; and when boys came running after us, and got up behind and swung there for a little way, I wondered whether their fathers were alive, and whether they were happy at home. I had plenty to think of, therefore, besides my mind running continually on the kind of place I was going to—which was an awful speculation. Sometimes, I remember, I resigned myself to thoughts of home and Peggotty; and to endeavouring, in a confused blind way, to recall how I had felt, and what sort of boy I used to be, before I bit Mr. Murdstone: which I couldn’t satisfy myself about by any means, I seemed to have bitten him in such a remote antiquity.
The night was not so pleasant as the evening, for it got chilly; and being put between two gentlemen (the rough-faced one and another) to prevent my tumbling off the coach, I was nearly smothered by their falling asleep, and completely blocking me up. They squeezed me so hard sometimes, that I could not help crying out, ‘Oh! If you please!’—which they didn’t like at all, because it woke them. Opposite me was an elderly lady in a great fur cloak, who looked in the dark more like a haystack than a lady, she was wrapped up to such a degree. This lady had a basket with her, and she hadn’t known what to do with it, for a long time, until she found that on account of my legs being short, it could go underneath me. It cramped and hurt me so, that it made me perfectly miserable; but if I moved in the least, and made a glass that was in the basket rattle against something else (as it was sure to do), she gave me the cruellest poke with her foot, and said, ‘Come, don’t YOU fidget. YOUR bones are young enough, I’m sure!’
At last the sun rose, and then my companions seemed to sleep easier. The difficulties under which they had laboured all night, and which had found utterance in the most terrific gasps and snorts, are not to be conceived. As the sun got higher, their sleep became lighter, and so they gradually one by one awoke. I recollect being very much surprised by the feint everybody made, then, of not having been to sleep at all, and by the uncommon indignation with which everyone repelled the charge. I labour under the same kind of astonishment to this day, having invariably observed that of all human weaknesses, the one to which our common nature is the least disposed to confess (I cannot imagine why) is the weakness of having gone to sleep in a coach.
What an amazing place London was to me when I saw it in the distance, and how I believed all the adventures of all my favourite heroes to be constantly enacting and re-enacting there, and how I vaguely made it out in my own mind to be fuller of wonders and wickedness than all the cities of the earth, I need not stop here to relate. We approached it by degrees, and got, in due time, to the inn in the Whitechapel district, for which we were bound. I forget whether it was the Blue Bull, or the Blue Boar; but I know it was the Blue Something, and that its likeness was painted up on the back of the coach.
The guard’s eye lighted on me as he was getting down, and he said at the booking-office door:
‘Is there anybody here for a yoongster booked in the name of Murdstone, from Bloonderstone, Sooffolk, to be left till called for?’
‘Try Copperfield, if you please, sir,’ said I, looking helplessly down.
‘Is there anybody here for a yoongster, booked in the name of Murdstone, from Bloonderstone, Sooffolk, but owning to the name of Copperfield, to be left till called for?’ said the guard. ‘Come! IS there anybody?’
No. There was nobody. I looked anxiously around; but the inquiry made no impression on any of the bystanders, if I except a man in gaiters, with one eye, who suggested that they had better put a brass collar round my neck, and tie me up in the stable.
A ladder was brought, and I got down after the lady, who was like a haystack: not daring to stir, until her basket was removed. The coach was clear of passengers by that time, the luggage was very soon cleared out, the horses had been taken out before the luggage, and now the coach itself was wheeled and backed off by some hostlers, out of the way. Still, nobody appeared, to claim the dusty youngster from Blunderstone, Suffolk.
More solitary than Robinson Crusoe, who had nobody to look at him and see that he was solitary, I went into the booking-office, and, by invitation of the clerk on duty, passed behind the counter, and sat down on the scale at which they weighed the luggage. Here, as I sat looking at the parcels, packages, and books, and inhaling the smell of stables (ever since associated with that morning), a procession of most tremendous considerations began to march through my mind. Supposing nobody should ever fetch me, how long would they consent to keep me there? Would they keep me long enough to spend seven shillings? Should I sleep at night in one of those wooden bins, with the other luggage, and wash myself at the pump in the yard in the morning; or should I be turned out every night, and expected to come again to be left till called for, when the office opened next day? Supposing there was no mistake in the case, and Mr. Murdstone had devised this plan to get rid of me, what should I do? If they allowed me to remain there until my seven shillings were spent, I couldn’t hope to remain there when I began to starve. That would obviously be inconvenient and unpleasant to the customers, besides entailing on the Blue Whatever-it-was, the risk of funeral expenses. If I started off at once, and tried to walk back home, how could I ever find my way, how could I ever hope to walk so far, how could I make sure of anyone but Peggotty, even if I got back? If I found out the nearest proper authorities, and offered myself to go for a soldier, or a sailor, I was such a little fellow that it was most likely they wouldn’t take me in. These thoughts, and a hundred other such thoughts, turned me burning hot, and made me giddy with apprehension and dismay. I was in the height of my fever when a man entered and whispered to the clerk, who presently slanted me off the scale, and pushed me over to him, as if I were weighed, bought, delivered, and paid for.
As I went out of the office, hand in hand with this new acquaintance, I stole a look at him. He was a gaunt, sallow young man, with hollow cheeks, and a chin almost as black as Mr. Murdstone’s; but there the likeness ended, for his whiskers were shaved off, and his hair, instead of being glossy, was rusty and dry. He was dressed in a suit of black clothes which were rather rusty and dry too, and rather short in the sleeves and legs; and he had a white neck-kerchief on, that was not over-clean. I did not, and do not, suppose that this neck-kerchief was all the linen he wore, but it was all he showed or gave any hint of.
‘You’re the new boy?’ he said. ‘Yes, sir,’ I said.
I supposed I was. I didn’t know.
‘I’m one of the masters at Salem House,’ he said.
I made him a bow and felt very much overawed. I was so ashamed to allude to a commonplace thing like my box, to a scholar and a master at Salem House, that we had gone some little distance from the yard before I had the hardihood to mention it. We turned back, on my humbly insinuating that it might be useful to me hereafter; and he told the clerk that the carrier had instructions to call for it at noon.
‘If you please, sir,’ I said, when we had accomplished about the same distance as before, ‘is it far?’
‘It’s down by Blackheath,’ he said.
‘Is that far, sir?’ I diffidently asked.
‘It’s a good step,’ he said. ‘We shall go by the stage-coach. It’s about six miles.’
I was so faint and tired, that the idea of holding out for six miles more, was too much for me. I took heart to tell him that I had had nothing all night, and that if he would allow me to buy something to eat, I should be very much obliged to him. He appeared surprised at this—I see him stop and look at me now—and after considering for a few moments, said he wanted to call on an old person who lived not far off, and that the best way would be for me to buy some bread, or whatever I liked best that was wholesome, and make my breakfast at her house, where we could get some milk.
Accordingly we looked in at a baker’s window, and after I had made a series of proposals to buy everything that was bilious in the shop, and he had rejected them one by one, we decided in favour of a nice little loaf of brown bread, which cost me threepence. Then, at a grocer’s shop, we bought an egg and a slice of streaky bacon; which still left what I thought a good deal of change, out of the second of the bright shillings, and made me consider London a very cheap place. These provisions laid in, we went on through a great noise and uproar that confused my weary head beyond description, and over a bridge which, no doubt, was London Bridge (indeed I think he told me so, but I was half asleep), until we came to the poor person’s house, which was a part of some alms-houses, as I knew by their look, and by an inscription on a stone over the gate which said they were established for twenty-five poor women.
The Master at Salem House lifted the latch of one of a number of little black doors that were all alike, and had each a little diamond-paned window on one side, and another little diamond—paned window above; and we went into the little house of one of these poor old women, who was blowing a fire to make a little saucepan boil. On seeing the master enter, the old woman stopped with the bellows on her knee, and said something that I thought sounded like ‘My Charley!’ but on seeing me come in too, she got up, and rubbing her hands made a confused sort of half curtsey.
‘Can you cook this young gentleman’s breakfast for him, if you please?’ said the Master at Salem House.
‘Can I?’ said the old woman. ‘Yes can I, sure!’
‘How’s Mrs. Fibbitson today?’ said the Master, looking at another old woman in a large chair by the fire, who was such a bundle of clothes that I feel grateful to this hour for not having sat upon her by mistake.
‘Ah, she’s poorly,’ said the first old woman. ‘It’s one of her bad days. If the fire was to go out, through any accident, I verily believe she’d go out too, and never come to life again.’
As they looked at her, I looked at her also. Although it was a warm day, she seemed to think of nothing but the fire. I fancied she was jealous even of the saucepan on it; and I have reason to know that she took its impressment into the service of boiling my egg and broiling my bacon, in dudgeon; for I saw her, with my own discomfited eyes, shake her fist at me once, when those culinary operations were going on, and no one else was looking. The sun streamed in at the little window, but she sat with her own back and the back of the large chair towards it, screening the fire as if she were sedulously keeping IT warm, instead of it keeping her warm, and watching it in a most distrustful manner. The completion of the preparations for my breakfast, by relieving the fire, gave her such extreme joy that she laughed aloud—and a very unmelodious laugh she had, I must say.
I sat down to my brown loaf, my egg, and my rasher of bacon, with a basin of milk besides, and made a most delicious meal. While I was yet in the full enjoyment of it, the old woman of the house said to the Master:
‘Have you got your flute with you?’
‘Yes,’ he returned.
‘Have a blow at it,’ said the old woman, coaxingly. ‘Do!’
The Master, upon this, put his hand underneath the skirts of his coat, and brought out his flute in three pieces, which he screwed together, and began immediately to play. My impression is, after many years of consideration, that there never can have been anybody in the world who played worse. He made the most dismal sounds I have ever heard produced by any means, natural or artificial. I don’t know what the tunes were—if there were such things in the performance at all, which I doubt—but the influence of the strain upon me was, first, to make me think of all my sorrows until I could hardly keep my tears back; then to take away my appetite; and lastly, to make me so sleepy that I couldn’t keep my eyes open. They begin to close again, and I begin to nod, as the recollection rises fresh upon me. Once more the little room, with its open corner cupboard, and its square-backed chairs, and its angular little staircase leading to the room above, and its three peacock’s feathers displayed over the mantelpiece—I remember wondering when I first went in, what that peacock would have thought if he had known what his finery was doomed to come to—fades from before me, and I nod, and sleep. The flute becomes inaudible, the wheels of the coach are heard instead, and I am on my journey. The coach jolts, I wake with a start, and the flute has come back again, and the Master at Salem House is sitting with his legs crossed, playing it dolefully, while the old woman of the house looks on delighted. She fades in her turn, and he fades, and all fades, and there is no flute, no Master, no Salem House, no David Copperfield, no anything but heavy sleep.
I dreamed, I thought, that once while he was blowing into this dismal flute, the old woman of the house, who had gone nearer and nearer to him in her ecstatic admiration, leaned over the back of his chair and gave him an affectionate squeeze round the neck, which stopped his playing for a moment. I was in the middle state between sleeping and waking, either then or immediately afterwards; for, as he resumed—it was a real fact that he had stopped playing—I saw and heard the same old woman ask Mrs. Fibbitson if it wasn’t delicious (meaning the flute), to which Mrs. Fibbitson replied, ‘Ay, ay! yes!’ and nodded at the fire: to which, I am persuaded, she gave the credit of the whole performance.
When I seemed to have been dozing a long while, the Master at Salem House unscrewed his flute into the three pieces, put them up as before, and took me away. We found the coach very near at hand, and got upon the roof; but I was so dead sleepy, that when we stopped on the road to take up somebody else, they put me inside where there were no passengers, and where I slept profoundly, until I found the coach going at a footpace up a steep hill among green leaves. Presently, it stopped, and had come to its destination.
A short walk brought us—I mean the Master and me—to Salem House, which was enclosed with a high brick wall, and looked very dull. Over a door in this wall was a board with SALEM HOUSE upon it; and through a grating in this door we were surveyed when we rang the bell by a surly face, which I found, on the door being opened, belonged to a stout man with a bull-neck, a wooden leg, overhanging temples, and his hair cut close all round his head.
‘The new boy,’ said the Master.
The man with the wooden leg eyed me all over—it didn’t take long, for there was not much of me—and locked the gate behind us, and took out the key. We were going up to the house, among some dark heavy trees, when he called after my conductor. ‘Hallo!’
We looked back, and he was standing at the door of a little lodge, where he lived, with a pair of boots in his hand.
‘Here! The cobbler’s been,’ he said, ‘since you’ve been out, Mr. Mell, and he says he can’t mend ’em any more. He says there ain’t a bit of the original boot left, and he wonders you expect it.’
With these words he threw the boots towards Mr. Mell, who went back a few paces to pick them up, and looked at them (very disconsolately, I was afraid), as we went on together. I observed then, for the first time, that the boots he had on were a good deal the worse for wear, and that his stocking was just breaking out in one place, like a bud.
Salem House was a square brick building with wings; of a bare and unfurnished appearance. All about it was so very quiet, that I said to Mr. Mell I supposed the boys were out; but he seemed surprised at my not knowing that it was holiday-time. That all the boys were at their several homes. That Mr. Creakle, the proprietor, was down by the sea-side with Mrs. and Miss Creakle; and that I was sent in holiday-time as a punishment for my misdoing, all of which he explained to me as we went along.
I gazed upon the schoolroom into which he took me, as the most forlorn and desolate place I had ever seen. I see it now. A long room with three long rows of desks, and six of forms, and bristling all round with pegs for hats and slates. Scraps of old copy-books and exercises litter the dirty floor. Some silkworms’ houses, made of the same materials, are scattered over the desks. Two miserable little white mice, left behind by their owner, are running up and down in a fusty castle made of pasteboard and wire, looking in all the corners with their red eyes for anything to eat. A bird, in a cage very little bigger than himself, makes a mournful rattle now and then in hopping on his perch, two inches high, or dropping from it; but neither sings nor chirps. There is a strange unwholesome smell upon the room, like mildewed corduroys, sweet apples wanting air, and rotten books. There could not well be more ink splashed about it, if it had been roofless from its first construction, and the skies had rained, snowed, hailed, and blown ink through the varying seasons of the year.
Mr. Mell having left me while he took his irreparable boots upstairs, I went softly to the upper end of the room, observing all this as I crept along. Suddenly I came upon a pasteboard placard, beautifully written, which was lying on the desk, and bore these words: ‘TAKE CARE OF HIM. HE BITES.’
I got upon the desk immediately, apprehensive of at least a great dog underneath. But, though I looked all round with anxious eyes, I could see nothing of him. I was still engaged in peering about, when Mr. Mell came back, and asked me what I did up there?
‘I beg your pardon, sir,’ says I, ‘if you please, I’m looking for the dog.’
‘Dog?’ he says. ‘What dog?’
‘Isn’t it a dog, sir?’
‘Isn’t what a dog?’
‘That’s to be taken care of, sir; that bites.’
‘No, Copperfield,’ says he, gravely, ‘that’s not a dog. That’s a boy. My instructions are, Copperfield, to put this placard on your back. I am sorry to make such a beginning with you, but I must do it.’ With that he took me down, and tied the placard, which was neatly constructed for the purpose, on my shoulders like a knapsack; and wherever I went, afterwards, I had the consolation of carrying it.
What I suffered from that placard, nobody can imagine. Whether it was possible for people to see me or not, I always fancied that somebody was reading it. It was no relief to turn round and find nobody; for wherever my back was, there I imagined somebody always to be. That cruel man with the wooden leg aggravated my sufferings. He was in authority; and if he ever saw me leaning against a tree, or a wall, or the house, he roared out from his lodge door in a stupendous voice, ‘Hallo, you sir! You Copperfield! Show that badge conspicuous, or I’ll report you!’ The playground was a bare gravelled yard, open to all the back of the house and the offices; and I knew that the servants read it, and the butcher read it, and the baker read it; that everybody, in a word, who came backwards and forwards to the house, of a morning when I was ordered to walk there, read that I was to be taken care of, for I bit, I recollect that I positively began to have a dread of myself, as a kind of wild boy who did bite.
There was an old door in this playground, on which the boys had a custom of carving their names. It was completely covered with such inscriptions. In my dread of the end of the vacation and their coming back, I could not read a boy’s name, without inquiring in what tone and with what emphasis HE would read, ‘Take care of him. He bites.’ There was one boy—a certain J. Steerforth—who cut his name very deep and very often, who, I conceived, would read it in a rather strong voice, and afterwards pull my hair. There was another boy, one Tommy Traddles, who I dreaded would make game of it, and pretend to be dreadfully frightened of me. There was a third, George Demple, who I fancied would sing it. I have looked, a little shrinking creature, at that door, until the owners of all the names—there were five-and-forty of them in the school then, Mr. Mell said—seemed to send me to Coventry by general acclamation, and to cry out, each in his own way, ‘Take care of him. He bites!’
It was the same with the places at the desks and forms. It was the same with the groves of deserted bedsteads I peeped at, on my way to, and when I was in, my own bed. I remember dreaming night after night, of being with my mother as she used to be, or of going to a party at Mr. Peggotty’s, or of travelling outside the stage-coach, or of dining again with my unfortunate friend the waiter, and in all these circumstances making people scream and stare, by the unhappy disclosure that I had nothing on but my little night-shirt, and that placard.
In the monotony of my life, and in my constant apprehension of the re-opening of the school, it was such an insupportable affliction! I had long tasks every day to do with Mr. Mell; but I did them, there being no Mr. and Miss Murdstone here, and got through them without disgrace. Before, and after them, I walked about—supervised, as I have mentioned, by the man with the wooden leg. How vividly I call to mind the damp about the house, the green cracked flagstones in the court, an old leaky water-butt, and the discoloured trunks of some of the grim trees, which seemed to have dripped more in the rain than other trees, and to have blown less in the sun! At one we dined, Mr. Mell and I, at the upper end of a long bare dining-room, full of deal tables, and smelling of fat. Then, we had more tasks until tea, which Mr. Mell drank out of a blue teacup, and I out of a tin pot. All day long, and until seven or eight in the evening, Mr. Mell, at his own detached desk in the schoolroom, worked hard with pen, ink, ruler, books, and writing-paper, making out the bills (as I found) for last half-year. When he had put up his things for the night he took out his flute, and blew at it, until I almost thought he would gradually blow his whole being into the large hole at the top, and ooze away at the keys.
I picture my small self in the dimly-lighted rooms, sitting with my head upon my hand, listening to the doleful performance of Mr. Mell, and conning tomorrow’s lessons. I picture myself with my books shut up, still listening to the doleful performance of Mr. Mell, and listening through it to what used to be at home, and to the blowing of the wind on Yarmouth flats, and feeling very sad and solitary. I picture myself going up to bed, among the unused rooms, and sitting on my bed-side crying for a comfortable word from Peggotty. I picture myself coming downstairs in the morning, and looking through a long ghastly gash of a staircase window at the school-bell hanging on the top of an out-house with a weathercock above it; and dreading the time when it shall ring J. Steerforth and the rest to work: which is only second, in my foreboding apprehensions, to the time when the man with the wooden leg shall unlock the rusty gate to give admission to the awful Mr. Creakle. I cannot think I was a very dangerous character in any of these aspects, but in all of them I carried the same warning on my back.
Mr. Mell never said much to me, but he was never harsh to me. I suppose we were company to each other, without talking. I forgot to mention that he would talk to himself sometimes, and grin, and clench his fist, and grind his teeth, and pull his hair in an unaccountable manner. But he had these peculiarities: and at first they frightened me, though I soon got used to them.
CHAPTER VI. I ENLARGE MY CIRCLE OF ACQUAINTANCE
I HAD led this life about a month, when the man with the wooden leg began to stump about with a mop and a bucket of water, from which I inferred that preparations were making to receive Mr. Creakle and the boys. I was not mistaken; for the mop came into the schoolroom before long, and turned out Mr. Mell and me, who lived where we could, and got on how we could, for some days, during which we were always in the way of two or three young women, who had rarely shown themselves before, and were so continually in the midst of dust that I sneezed almost as much as if Salem House had been a great snuff-box.
One day I was informed by Mr. Mell that Mr. Creakle would be home that evening. In the evening, after tea, I heard that he was come. Before bedtime, I was fetched by the man with the wooden leg to appear before him.
Mr. Creakle’s part of the house was a good deal more comfortable than ours, and he had a snug bit of garden that looked pleasant after the dusty playground, which was such a desert in miniature, that I thought no one but a camel, or a dromedary, could have felt at home in it. It seemed to me a bold thing even to take notice that the passage looked comfortable, as I went on my way, trembling, to Mr. Creakle’s presence: which so abashed me, when I was ushered into it, that I hardly saw Mrs. Creakle or Miss Creakle (who were both there, in the parlour), or anything but Mr. Creakle, a stout gentleman with a bunch of watch-chain and seals, in an arm-chair, with a tumbler and bottle beside him.
‘So!’ said Mr. Creakle. ‘This is the young gentleman whose teeth are to be filed! Turn him round.’
The wooden-legged man turned me about so as to exhibit the placard; and having afforded time for a full survey of it, turned me about again, with my face to Mr. Creakle, and posted himself at Mr. Creakle’s side. Mr. Creakle’s face was fiery, and his eyes were small, and deep in his head; he had thick veins in his forehead, a little nose, and a large chin. He was bald on the top of his head; and had some thin wet-looking hair that was just turning grey, brushed across each temple, so that the two sides interlaced on his forehead. But the circumstance about him which impressed me most, was, that he had no voice, but spoke in a whisper. The exertion this cost him, or the consciousness of talking in that feeble way, made his angry face so much more angry, and his thick veins so much thicker, when he spoke, that I am not surprised, on looking back, at this peculiarity striking me as his chief one. ‘Now,’ said Mr. Creakle. ‘What’s the report of this boy?’
‘There’s nothing against him yet,’ returned the man with the wooden leg. ‘There has been no opportunity.’
I thought Mr. Creakle was disappointed. I thought Mrs. and Miss Creakle (at whom I now glanced for the first time, and who were, both, thin and quiet) were not disappointed.
‘Come here, sir!’ said Mr. Creakle, beckoning to me.
‘Come here!’ said the man with the wooden leg, repeating the gesture.
‘I have the happiness of knowing your father-in-law,’ whispered Mr. Creakle, taking me by the ear; ‘and a worthy man he is, and a man of a strong character. He knows me, and I know him. Do YOU know me? Hey?’ said Mr. Creakle, pinching my ear with ferocious playfulness.
‘Not yet, sir,’ I said, flinching with the pain.
‘Not yet? Hey?’ repeated Mr. Creakle. ‘But you will soon. Hey?’
‘You will soon. Hey?’ repeated the man with the wooden leg. I afterwards found that he generally acted, with his strong voice, as Mr. Creakle’s interpreter to the boys.
I was very much frightened, and said, I hoped so, if he pleased. I felt, all this while, as if my ear were blazing; he pinched it so hard.
‘I’ll tell you what I am,’ whispered Mr. Creakle, letting it go at last, with a screw at parting that brought the water into my eyes. ‘I’m a Tartar.’
‘A Tartar,’ said the man with the wooden leg.
‘When I say I’ll do a thing, I do it,’ said Mr. Creakle; ‘and when I say I will have a thing done, I will have it done.’
‘—Will have a thing done, I will have it done,’ repeated the man with the wooden leg.
‘I am a determined character,’ said Mr. Creakle. ‘That’s what I am. I do my duty. That’s what I do. My flesh and blood’—he looked at Mrs. Creakle as he said this—’when it rises against me, is not my flesh and blood. I discard it. Has that fellow’—to the man with the wooden leg—’been here again?’
‘No,’ was the answer.
‘No,’ said Mr. Creakle. ‘He knows better. He knows me. Let him keep away. I say let him keep away,’ said Mr. Creakle, striking his hand upon the table, and looking at Mrs. Creakle, ‘for he knows me. Now you have begun to know me too, my young friend, and you may go. Take him away.’
I was very glad to be ordered away, for Mrs. and Miss Creakle were both wiping their eyes, and I felt as uncomfortable for them as I did for myself. But I had a petition on my mind which concerned me so nearly, that I couldn’t help saying, though I wondered at my own courage:
‘If you please, sir—’
Mr. Creakle whispered, ‘Hah! What’s this?’ and bent his eyes upon me, as if he would have burnt me up with them.
‘If you please, sir,’ I faltered, ‘if I might be allowed (I am very sorry indeed, sir, for what I did) to take this writing off, before the boys come back—’
Whether Mr. Creakle was in earnest, or whether he only did it to frighten me, I don’t know, but he made a burst out of his chair, before which I precipitately retreated, without waiting for the escort of the man with the wooden leg, and never once stopped until I reached my own bedroom, where, finding I was not pursued, I went to bed, as it was time, and lay quaking, for a couple of hours.
Next morning Mr. Sharp came back. Mr. Sharp was the first master, and superior to Mr. Mell. Mr. Mell took his meals with the boys, but Mr. Sharp dined and supped at Mr. Creakle’s table. He was a limp, delicate-looking gentleman, I thought, with a good deal of nose, and a way of carrying his head on one side, as if it were a little too heavy for him. His hair was very smooth and wavy; but I was informed by the very first boy who came back that it was a wig (a second-hand one HE said), and that Mr. Sharp went out every Saturday afternoon to get it curled.
It was no other than Tommy Traddles who gave me this piece of intelligence. He was the first boy who returned. He introduced himself by informing me that I should find his name on the right-hand corner of the gate, over the top-bolt; upon that I said, ‘Traddles?’ to which he replied, ‘The same,’ and then he asked me for a full account of myself and family.
It was a happy circumstance for me that Traddles came back first. He enjoyed my placard so much, that he saved me from the embarrassment of either disclosure or concealment, by presenting me to every other boy who came back, great or small, immediately on his arrival, in this form of introduction, ‘Look here! Here’s a game!’ Happily, too, the greater part of the boys came back low-spirited, and were not so boisterous at my expense as I had expected. Some of them certainly did dance about me like wild Indians, and the greater part could not resist the temptation of pretending that I was a dog, and patting and soothing me, lest I should bite, and saying, ‘Lie down, sir!’ and calling me Towzer. This was naturally confusing, among so many strangers, and cost me some tears, but on the whole it was much better than I had anticipated.
I was not considered as being formally received into the school, however, until J. Steerforth arrived. Before this boy, who was reputed to be a great scholar, and was very good-looking, and at least half-a-dozen years my senior, I was carried as before a magistrate. He inquired, under a shed in the playground, into the particulars of my punishment, and was pleased to express his opinion that it was ‘a jolly shame’; for which I became bound to him ever afterwards.
‘What money have you got, Copperfield?’ he said, walking aside with me when he had disposed of my affair in these terms. I told him seven shillings.
‘You had better give it to me to take care of,’ he said. ‘At least, you can if you like. You needn’t if you don’t like.’
I hastened to comply with his friendly suggestion, and opening Peggotty’s purse, turned it upside down into his hand.
‘Do you want to spend anything now?’ he asked me.
‘No thank you,’ I replied.
‘You can, if you like, you know,’ said Steerforth. ‘Say the word.’
‘No, thank you, sir,’ I repeated.
‘Perhaps you’d like to spend a couple of shillings or so, in a bottle of currant wine by and by, up in the bedroom?’ said Steerforth. ‘You belong to my bedroom, I find.’
It certainly had not occurred to me before, but I said, Yes, I should like that.
‘Very good,’ said Steerforth. ‘You’ll be glad to spend another shilling or so, in almond cakes, I dare say?’
I said, Yes, I should like that, too.
‘And another shilling or so in biscuits, and another in fruit, eh?’ said Steerforth. ‘I say, young Copperfield, you’re going it!’
I smiled because he smiled, but I was a little troubled in my mind, too.
‘Well!’ said Steerforth. ‘We must make it stretch as far as we can; that’s all. I’ll do the best in my power for you. I can go out when I like, and I’ll smuggle the prog in.’ With these words he put the money in his pocket, and kindly told me not to make myself uneasy; he would take care it should be all right. He was as good as his word, if that were all right which I had a secret misgiving was nearly all wrong—for I feared it was a waste of my mother’s two half-crowns—though I had preserved the piece of paper they were wrapped in: which was a precious saving. When we went upstairs to bed, he produced the whole seven shillings’ worth, and laid it out on my bed in the moonlight, saying:
‘There you are, young Copperfield, and a royal spread you’ve got.’
I couldn’t think of doing the honours of the feast, at my time of life, while he was by; my hand shook at the very thought of it. I begged him to do me the favour of presiding; and my request being seconded by the other boys who were in that room, he acceded to it, and sat upon my pillow, handing round the viands—with perfect fairness, I must say—and dispensing the currant wine in a little glass without a foot, which was his own property. As to me, I sat on his left hand, and the rest were grouped about us, on the nearest beds and on the floor.
How well I recollect our sitting there, talking in whispers; or their talking, and my respectfully listening, I ought rather to say; the moonlight falling a little way into the room, through the window, painting a pale window on the floor, and the greater part of us in shadow, except when Steerforth dipped a match into a phosphorus-box, when he wanted to look for anything on the board, and shed a blue glare over us that was gone directly! A certain mysterious feeling, consequent on the darkness, the secrecy of the revel, and the whisper in which everything was said, steals over me again, and I listen to all they tell me with a vague feeling of solemnity and awe, which makes me glad that they are all so near, and frightens me (though I feign to laugh) when Traddles pretends to see a ghost in the corner.
I heard all kinds of things about the school and all belonging to it. I heard that Mr. Creakle had not preferred his claim to being a Tartar without reason; that he was the sternest and most severe of masters; that he laid about him, right and left, every day of his life, charging in among the boys like a trooper, and slashing away, unmercifully. That he knew nothing himself, but the art of slashing, being more ignorant (J. Steerforth said) than the lowest boy in the school; that he had been, a good many years ago, a small hop-dealer in the Borough, and had taken to the schooling business after being bankrupt in hops, and making away with Mrs. Creakle’s money. With a good deal more of that sort, which I wondered how they knew.
I heard that the man with the wooden leg, whose name was Tungay, was an obstinate barbarian who had formerly assisted in the hop business, but had come into the scholastic line with Mr. Creakle, in consequence, as was supposed among the boys, of his having broken his leg in Mr. Creakle’s service, and having done a deal of dishonest work for him, and knowing his secrets. I heard that with the single exception of Mr. Creakle, Tungay considered the whole establishment, masters and boys, as his natural enemies, and that the only delight of his life was to be sour and malicious. I heard that Mr. Creakle had a son, who had not been Tungay’s friend, and who, assisting in the school, had once held some remonstrance with his father on an occasion when its discipline was very cruelly exercised, and was supposed, besides, to have protested against his father’s usage of his mother. I heard that Mr. Creakle had turned him out of doors, in consequence; and that Mrs. and Miss Creakle had been in a sad way, ever since.
But the greatest wonder that I heard of Mr. Creakle was, there being one boy in the school on whom he never ventured to lay a hand, and that boy being J. Steerforth. Steerforth himself confirmed this when it was stated, and said that he should like to begin to see him do it. On being asked by a mild boy (not me) how he would proceed if he did begin to see him do it, he dipped a match into his phosphorus-box on purpose to shed a glare over his reply, and said he would commence by knocking him down with a blow on the forehead from the seven-and-sixpenny ink-bottle that was always on the mantelpiece. We sat in the dark for some time, breathless.
I heard that Mr. Sharp and Mr. Mell were both supposed to be wretchedly paid; and that when there was hot and cold meat for dinner at Mr. Creakle’s table, Mr. Sharp was always expected to say he preferred cold; which was again corroborated by J. Steerforth, the only parlour-boarder. I heard that Mr. Sharp’s wig didn’t fit him; and that he needn’t be so ‘bounceable’—somebody else said ‘bumptious’—about it, because his own red hair was very plainly to be seen behind.
I heard that one boy, who was a coal-merchant’s son, came as a set-off against the coal-bill, and was called, on that account, ‘Exchange or Barter’—a name selected from the arithmetic book as expressing this arrangement. I heard that the table beer was a robbery of parents, and the pudding an imposition. I heard that Miss Creakle was regarded by the school in general as being in love with Steerforth; and I am sure, as I sat in the dark, thinking of his nice voice, and his fine face, and his easy manner, and his curling hair, I thought it very likely. I heard that Mr. Mell was not a bad sort of fellow, but hadn’t a sixpence to bless himself with; and that there was no doubt that old Mrs. Mell, his mother, was as poor as job. I thought of my breakfast then, and what had sounded like ‘My Charley!’ but I was, I am glad to remember, as mute as a mouse about it.
The hearing of all this, and a good deal more, outlasted the banquet some time. The greater part of the guests had gone to bed as soon as the eating and drinking were over; and we, who had remained whispering and listening half-undressed, at last betook ourselves to bed, too.
‘Good night, young Copperfield,’ said Steerforth. ‘I’ll take care of you.’ ‘You’re very kind,’ I gratefully returned. ‘I am very much obliged to you.’
‘You haven’t got a sister, have you?’ said Steerforth, yawning.
‘No,’ I answered.
‘That’s a pity,’ said Steerforth. ‘If you had had one, I should think she would have been a pretty, timid, little, bright-eyed sort of girl. I should have liked to know her. Good night, young Copperfield.’
‘Good night, sir,’ I replied.
I thought of him very much after I went to bed, and raised myself, I recollect, to look at him where he lay in the moonlight, with his handsome face turned up, and his head reclining easily on his arm. He was a person of great power in my eyes; that was, of course, the reason of my mind running on him. No veiled future dimly glanced upon him in the moonbeams. There was no shadowy picture of his footsteps, in the garden that I dreamed of walking in all night.