CHAPTER VII. MY ‘FIRST HALF’ AT SALEM HOUSE
School began in earnest next day. A profound impression was made upon me, I remember, by the roar of voices in the schoolroom suddenly becoming hushed as death when Mr. Creakle entered after breakfast, and stood in the doorway looking round upon us like a giant in a story-book surveying his captives.
Tungay stood at Mr. Creakle’s elbow. He had no occasion, I thought, to cry out ‘Silence!’ so ferociously, for the boys were all struck speechless and motionless.
Mr. Creakle was seen to speak, and Tungay was heard, to this effect.
‘Now, boys, this is a new half. Take care what you’re about, in this new half. Come fresh up to the lessons, I advise you, for I come fresh up to the punishment. I won’t flinch. It will be of no use your rubbing yourselves; you won’t rub the marks out that I shall give you. Now get to work, every boy!’
When this dreadful exordium was over, and Tungay had stumped out again, Mr. Creakle came to where I sat, and told me that if I were famous for biting, he was famous for biting, too. He then showed me the cane, and asked me what I thought of THAT, for a tooth? Was it a sharp tooth, hey? Was it a double tooth, hey? Had it a deep prong, hey? Did it bite, hey? Did it bite? At every question he gave me a fleshy cut with it that made me writhe; so I was very soon made free of Salem House (as Steerforth said), and was very soon in tears also.
Not that I mean to say these were special marks of distinction, which only I received. On the contrary, a large majority of the boys (especially the smaller ones) were visited with similar instances of notice, as Mr. Creakle made the round of the schoolroom. Half the establishment was writhing and crying, before the day’s work began; and how much of it had writhed and cried before the day’s work was over, I am really afraid to recollect, lest I should seem to exaggerate.
I should think there never can have been a man who enjoyed his profession more than Mr. Creakle did. He had a delight in cutting at the boys, which was like the satisfaction of a craving appetite. I am confident that he couldn’t resist a chubby boy, especially; that there was a fascination in such a subject, which made him restless in his mind, until he had scored and marked him for the day. I was chubby myself, and ought to know. I am sure when I think of the fellow now, my blood rises against him with the disinterested indignation I should feel if I could have known all about him without having ever been in his power; but it rises hotly, because I know him to have been an incapable brute, who had no more right to be possessed of the great trust he held, than to be Lord High Admiral, or Commander-in-Chief—in either of which capacities it is probable that he would have done infinitely less mischief.
Miserable little propitiators of a remorseless Idol, how abject we were to him! What a launch in life I think it now, on looking back, to be so mean and servile to a man of such parts and pretensions!
Here I sit at the desk again, watching his eye—humbly watching his eye, as he rules a ciphering-book for another victim whose hands have just been flattened by that identical ruler, and who is trying to wipe the sting out with a pocket-handkerchief. I have plenty to do. I don’t watch his eye in idleness, but because I am morbidly attracted to it, in a dread desire to know what he will do next, and whether it will be my turn to suffer, or somebody else’s. A lane of small boys beyond me, with the same interest in his eye, watch it too. I think he knows it, though he pretends he don’t. He makes dreadful mouths as he rules the ciphering-book; and now he throws his eye sideways down our lane, and we all droop over our books and tremble. A moment afterwards we are again eyeing him. An unhappy culprit, found guilty of imperfect exercise, approaches at his command. The culprit falters excuses, and professes a determination to do better tomorrow. Mr. Creakle cuts a joke before he beats him, and we laugh at it,—miserable little dogs, we laugh, with our visages as white as ashes, and our hearts sinking into our boots.
Here I sit at the desk again, on a drowsy summer afternoon. A buzz and hum go up around me, as if the boys were so many bluebottles. A cloggy sensation of the lukewarm fat of meat is upon me (we dined an hour or two ago), and my head is as heavy as so much lead. I would give the world to go to sleep. I sit with my eye on Mr. Creakle, blinking at him like a young owl; when sleep overpowers me for a minute, he still looms through my slumber, ruling those ciphering-books, until he softly comes behind me and wakes me to plainer perception of him, with a red ridge across my back.
Here I am in the playground, with my eye still fascinated by him, though I can’t see him. The window at a little distance from which I know he is having his dinner, stands for him, and I eye that instead. If he shows his face near it, mine assumes an imploring and submissive expression. If he looks out through the glass, the boldest boy (Steerforth excepted) stops in the middle of a shout or yell, and becomes contemplative. One day, Traddles (the most unfortunate boy in the world) breaks that window accidentally, with a ball. I shudder at this moment with the tremendous sensation of seeing it done, and feeling that the ball has bounded on to Mr. Creakle’s sacred head.
Poor Traddles! In a tight sky-blue suit that made his arms and legs like German sausages, or roly-poly puddings, he was the merriest and most miserable of all the boys. He was always being caned—I think he was caned every day that half-year, except one holiday Monday when he was only ruler’d on both hands—and was always going to write to his uncle about it, and never did. After laying his head on the desk for a little while, he would cheer up, somehow, begin to laugh again, and draw skeletons all over his slate, before his eyes were dry. I used at first to wonder what comfort Traddles found in drawing skeletons; and for some time looked upon him as a sort of hermit, who reminded himself by those symbols of mortality that caning couldn’t last for ever. But I believe he only did it because they were easy, and didn’t want any features.
He was very honourable, Traddles was, and held it as a solemn duty in the boys to stand by one another. He suffered for this on several occasions; and particularly once, when Steerforth laughed in church, and the Beadle thought it was Traddles, and took him out. I see him now, going away in custody, despised by the congregation. He never said who was the real offender, though he smarted for it next day, and was imprisoned so many hours that he came forth with a whole churchyard-full of skeletons swarming all over his Latin Dictionary. But he had his reward. Steerforth said there was nothing of the sneak in Traddles, and we all felt that to be the highest praise. For my part, I could have gone through a good deal (though I was much less brave than Traddles, and nothing like so old) to have won such a recompense.
To see Steerforth walk to church before us, arm-in-arm with Miss Creakle, was one of the great sights of my life. I didn’t think Miss Creakle equal to little Em’ly in point of beauty, and I didn’t love her (I didn’t dare); but I thought her a young lady of extraordinary attractions, and in point of gentility not to be surpassed. When Steerforth, in white trousers, carried her parasol for her, I felt proud to know him; and believed that she could not choose but adore him with all her heart. Mr. Sharp and Mr. Mell were both notable personages in my eyes; but Steerforth was to them what the sun was to two stars.
Steerforth continued his protection of me, and proved a very useful friend; since nobody dared to annoy one whom he honoured with his countenance. He couldn’t—or at all events he didn’t—defend me from Mr. Creakle, who was very severe with me; but whenever I had been treated worse than usual, he always told me that I wanted a little of his pluck, and that he wouldn’t have stood it himself; which I felt he intended for encouragement, and considered to be very kind of him. There was one advantage, and only one that I know of, in Mr. Creakle’s severity. He found my placard in his way when he came up or down behind the form on which I sat, and wanted to make a cut at me in passing; for this reason it was soon taken off, and I saw it no more.
An accidental circumstance cemented the intimacy between Steerforth and me, in a manner that inspired me with great pride and satisfaction, though it sometimes led to inconvenience. It happened on one occasion, when he was doing me the honour of talking to me in the playground, that I hazarded the observation that something or somebody—I forget what now—was like something or somebody in Peregrine Pickle. He said nothing at the time; but when I was going to bed at night, asked me if I had got that book?
I told him no, and explained how it was that I had read it, and all those other books of which I have made mention.
‘And do you recollect them?’ Steerforth said.
‘Oh yes,’ I replied; I had a good memory, and I believed I recollected them very well.
‘Then I tell you what, young Copperfield,’ said Steerforth, ‘you shall tell ’em to me. I can’t get to sleep very early at night, and I generally wake rather early in the morning. We’ll go over ’em one after another. We’ll make some regular Arabian Nights of it.’
I felt extremely flattered by this arrangement, and we commenced carrying it into execution that very evening. What ravages I committed on my favourite authors in the course of my interpretation of them, I am not in a condition to say, and should be very unwilling to know; but I had a profound faith in them, and I had, to the best of my belief, a simple, earnest manner of narrating what I did narrate; and these qualities went a long way.
The drawback was, that I was often sleepy at night, or out of spirits and indisposed to resume the story; and then it was rather hard work, and it must be done; for to disappoint or to displease Steerforth was of course out of the question. In the morning, too, when I felt weary, and should have enjoyed another hour’s repose very much, it was a tiresome thing to be roused, like the Sultana Scheherazade, and forced into a long story before the getting-up bell rang; but Steerforth was resolute; and as he explained to me, in return, my sums and exercises, and anything in my tasks that was too hard for me, I was no loser by the transaction. Let me do myself justice, however. I was moved by no interested or selfish motive, nor was I moved by fear of him. I admired and loved him, and his approval was return enough. It was so precious to me that I look back on these trifles, now, with an aching heart.
Steerforth was considerate, too; and showed his consideration, in one particular instance, in an unflinching manner that was a little tantalizing, I suspect, to poor Traddles and the rest. Peggotty’s promised letter—what a comfortable letter it was!—arrived before ‘the half’ was many weeks old; and with it a cake in a perfect nest of oranges, and two bottles of cowslip wine. This treasure, as in duty bound, I laid at the feet of Steerforth, and begged him to dispense.
‘Now, I’ll tell you what, young Copperfield,’ said he: ‘the wine shall be kept to wet your whistle when you are story-telling.’
I blushed at the idea, and begged him, in my modesty, not to think of it. But he said he had observed I was sometimes hoarse—a little roopy was his exact expression—and it should be, every drop, devoted to the purpose he had mentioned. Accordingly, it was locked up in his box, and drawn off by himself in a phial, and administered to me through a piece of quill in the cork, when I was supposed to be in want of a restorative. Sometimes, to make it a more sovereign specific, he was so kind as to squeeze orange juice into it, or to stir it up with ginger, or dissolve a peppermint drop in it; and although I cannot assert that the flavour was improved by these experiments, or that it was exactly the compound one would have chosen for a stomachic, the last thing at night and the first thing in the morning, I drank it gratefully and was very sensible of his attention.
We seem, to me, to have been months over Peregrine, and months more over the other stories. The institution never flagged for want of a story, I am certain; and the wine lasted out almost as well as the matter. Poor Traddles—I never think of that boy but with a strange disposition to laugh, and with tears in my eyes—was a sort of chorus, in general; and affected to be convulsed with mirth at the comic parts, and to be overcome with fear when there was any passage of an alarming character in the narrative. This rather put me out, very often. It was a great jest of his, I recollect, to pretend that he couldn’t keep his teeth from chattering, whenever mention was made of an Alguazill in connexion with the adventures of Gil Blas; and I remember that when Gil Blas met the captain of the robbers in Madrid, this unlucky joker counterfeited such an ague of terror, that he was overheard by Mr. Creakle, who was prowling about the passage, and handsomely flogged for disorderly conduct in the bedroom. Whatever I had within me that was romantic and dreamy, was encouraged by so much story-telling in the dark; and in that respect the pursuit may not have been very profitable to me. But the being cherished as a kind of plaything in my room, and the consciousness that this accomplishment of mine was bruited about among the boys, and attracted a good deal of notice to me though I was the youngest there, stimulated me to exertion. In a school carried on by sheer cruelty, whether it is presided over by a dunce or not, there is not likely to be much learnt. I believe our boys were, generally, as ignorant a set as any schoolboys in existence; they were too much troubled and knocked about to learn; they could no more do that to advantage, than any one can do anything to advantage in a life of constant misfortune, torment, and worry. But my little vanity, and Steerforth’s help, urged me on somehow; and without saving me from much, if anything, in the way of punishment, made me, for the time I was there, an exception to the general body, insomuch that I did steadily pick up some crumbs of knowledge.
In this I was much assisted by Mr. Mell, who had a liking for me that I am grateful to remember. It always gave me pain to observe that Steerforth treated him with systematic disparagement, and seldom lost an occasion of wounding his feelings, or inducing others to do so. This troubled me the more for a long time, because I had soon told Steerforth, from whom I could no more keep such a secret, than I could keep a cake or any other tangible possession, about the two old women Mr. Mell had taken me to see; and I was always afraid that Steerforth would let it out, and twit him with it.
We little thought, any one of us, I dare say, when I ate my breakfast that first morning, and went to sleep under the shadow of the peacock’s feathers to the sound of the flute, what consequences would come of the introduction into those alms-houses of my insignificant person. But the visit had its unforeseen consequences; and of a serious sort, too, in their way.
One day when Mr. Creakle kept the house from indisposition, which naturally diffused a lively joy through the school, there was a good deal of noise in the course of the morning’s work. The great relief and satisfaction experienced by the boys made them difficult to manage; and though the dreaded Tungay brought his wooden leg in twice or thrice, and took notes of the principal offenders’ names, no great impression was made by it, as they were pretty sure of getting into trouble tomorrow, do what they would, and thought it wise, no doubt, to enjoy themselves today.
It was, properly, a half-holiday; being Saturday. But as the noise in the playground would have disturbed Mr. Creakle, and the weather was not favourable for going out walking, we were ordered into school in the afternoon, and set some lighter tasks than usual, which were made for the occasion. It was the day of the week on which Mr. Sharp went out to get his wig curled; so Mr. Mell, who always did the drudgery, whatever it was, kept school by himself. If I could associate the idea of a bull or a bear with anyone so mild as Mr. Mell, I should think of him, in connexion with that afternoon when the uproar was at its height, as of one of those animals, baited by a thousand dogs. I recall him bending his aching head, supported on his bony hand, over the book on his desk, and wretchedly endeavouring to get on with his tiresome work, amidst an uproar that might have made the Speaker of the House of Commons giddy. Boys started in and out of their places, playing at puss in the corner with other boys; there were laughing boys, singing boys, talking boys, dancing boys, howling boys; boys shuffled with their feet, boys whirled about him, grinning, making faces, mimicking him behind his back and before his eyes; mimicking his poverty, his boots, his coat, his mother, everything belonging to him that they should have had consideration for.
‘Silence!’ cried Mr. Mell, suddenly rising up, and striking his desk with the book. ‘What does this mean! It’s impossible to bear it. It’s maddening. How can you do it to me, boys?’
It was my book that he struck his desk with; and as I stood beside him, following his eye as it glanced round the room, I saw the boys all stop, some suddenly surprised, some half afraid, and some sorry perhaps.
Steerforth’s place was at the bottom of the school, at the opposite end of the long room. He was lounging with his back against the wall, and his hands in his pockets, and looked at Mr. Mell with his mouth shut up as if he were whistling, when Mr. Mell looked at him.
‘Silence, Mr. Steerforth!’ said Mr. Mell.
‘Silence yourself,’ said Steerforth, turning red. ‘Whom are you talking to?’
‘Sit down,’ said Mr. Mell.
‘Sit down yourself,’ said Steerforth, ‘and mind your business.’
There was a titter, and some applause; but Mr. Mell was so white, that silence immediately succeeded; and one boy, who had darted out behind him to imitate his mother again, changed his mind, and pretended to want a pen mended.
‘If you think, Steerforth,’ said Mr. Mell, ‘that I am not acquainted with the power you can establish over any mind here’—he laid his hand, without considering what he did (as I supposed), upon my head—’or that I have not observed you, within a few minutes, urging your juniors on to every sort of outrage against me, you are mistaken.’
‘I don’t give myself the trouble of thinking at all about you,’ said Steerforth, coolly; ‘so I’m not mistaken, as it happens.’
‘And when you make use of your position of favouritism here, sir,’ pursued Mr. Mell, with his lip trembling very much, ‘to insult a gentleman—’
‘A what?—where is he?’ said Steerforth.
Here somebody cried out, ‘Shame, J. Steerforth! Too bad!’ It was Traddles; whom Mr. Mell instantly discomfited by bidding him hold his tongue. —’To insult one who is not fortunate in life, sir, and who never gave you the least offence, and the many reasons for not insulting whom you are old enough and wise enough to understand,’ said Mr. Mell, with his lips trembling more and more, ‘you commit a mean and base action. You can sit down or stand up as you please, sir. Copperfield, go on.’
‘Young Copperfield,’ said Steerforth, coming forward up the room, ‘stop a bit. I tell you what, Mr. Mell, once for all. When you take the liberty of calling me mean or base, or anything of that sort, you are an impudent beggar. You are always a beggar, you know; but when you do that, you are an impudent beggar.’
I am not clear whether he was going to strike Mr. Mell, or Mr. Mell was going to strike him, or there was any such intention on either side. I saw a rigidity come upon the whole school as if they had been turned into stone, and found Mr. Creakle in the midst of us, with Tungay at his side, and Mrs. and Miss Creakle looking in at the door as if they were frightened. Mr. Mell, with his elbows on his desk and his face in his hands, sat, for some moments, quite still.
‘Mr. Mell,’ said Mr. Creakle, shaking him by the arm; and his whisper was so audible now, that Tungay felt it unnecessary to repeat his words; ‘you have not forgotten yourself, I hope?’
‘No, sir, no,’ returned the Master, showing his face, and shaking his head, and rubbing his hands in great agitation. ‘No, sir. No. I have remembered myself, I—no, Mr. Creakle, I have not forgotten myself, I—I have remembered myself, sir. I—I—could wish you had remembered me a little sooner, Mr. Creakle. It—it—would have been more kind, sir, more just, sir. It would have saved me something, sir.’
Mr. Creakle, looking hard at Mr. Mell, put his hand on Tungay’s shoulder, and got his feet upon the form close by, and sat upon the desk. After still looking hard at Mr. Mell from his throne, as he shook his head, and rubbed his hands, and remained in the same state of agitation, Mr. Creakle turned to Steerforth, and said:
‘Now, sir, as he don’t condescend to tell me, what is this?’
Steerforth evaded the question for a little while; looking in scorn and anger on his opponent, and remaining silent. I could not help thinking even in that interval, I remember, what a noble fellow he was in appearance, and how homely and plain Mr. Mell looked opposed to him.
‘What did he mean by talking about favourites, then?’ said Steerforth at length.
‘Favourites?’ repeated Mr. Creakle, with the veins in his forehead swelling quickly. ‘Who talked about favourites?’
‘He did,’ said Steerforth.
‘And pray, what did you mean by that, sir?’ demanded Mr. Creakle, turning angrily on his assistant.
‘I meant, Mr. Creakle,’ he returned in a low voice, ‘as I said; that no pupil had a right to avail himself of his position of favouritism to degrade me.’
‘To degrade YOU?’ said Mr. Creakle. ‘My stars! But give me leave to ask you, Mr. What’s-your-name’; and here Mr. Creakle folded his arms, cane and all, upon his chest, and made such a knot of his brows that his little eyes were hardly visible below them; ‘whether, when you talk about favourites, you showed proper respect to me? To me, sir,’ said Mr. Creakle, darting his head at him suddenly, and drawing it back again, ‘the principal of this establishment, and your employer.’
‘It was not judicious, sir, I am willing to admit,’ said Mr. Mell. ‘I should not have done so, if I had been cool.’
Here Steerforth struck in.
‘Then he said I was mean, and then he said I was base, and then I called him a beggar. If I had been cool, perhaps I shouldn’t have called him a beggar. But I did, and I am ready to take the consequences of it.’
Without considering, perhaps, whether there were any consequences to be taken, I felt quite in a glow at this gallant speech. It made an impression on the boys too, for there was a low stir among them, though no one spoke a word.
‘I am surprised, Steerforth—although your candour does you honour,’ said Mr. Creakle, ‘does you honour, certainly—I am surprised, Steerforth, I must say, that you should attach such an epithet to any person employed and paid in Salem House, sir.’
Steerforth gave a short laugh.
‘That’s not an answer, sir,’ said Mr. Creakle, ‘to my remark. I expect more than that from you, Steerforth.’
If Mr. Mell looked homely, in my eyes, before the handsome boy, it would be quite impossible to say how homely Mr. Creakle looked. ‘Let him deny it,’ said Steerforth.
‘Deny that he is a beggar, Steerforth?’ cried Mr. Creakle. ‘Why, where does he go a-begging?’
‘If he is not a beggar himself, his near relation’s one,’ said Steerforth. ‘It’s all the same.’
He glanced at me, and Mr. Mell’s hand gently patted me upon the shoulder. I looked up with a flush upon my face and remorse in my heart, but Mr. Mell’s eyes were fixed on Steerforth. He continued to pat me kindly on the shoulder, but he looked at him.
‘Since you expect me, Mr. Creakle, to justify myself,’ said Steerforth, ‘and to say what I mean,—what I have to say is, that his mother lives on charity in an alms-house.’
Mr. Mell still looked at him, and still patted me kindly on the shoulder, and said to himself, in a whisper, if I heard right: ‘Yes, I thought so.’
Mr. Creakle turned to his assistant, with a severe frown and laboured politeness:
‘Now, you hear what this gentleman says, Mr. Mell. Have the goodness, if you please, to set him right before the assembled school.’
‘He is right, sir, without correction,’ returned Mr. Mell, in the midst of a dead silence; ‘what he has said is true.’
‘Be so good then as declare publicly, will you,’ said Mr. Creakle, putting his head on one side, and rolling his eyes round the school, ‘whether it ever came to my knowledge until this moment?’
‘I believe not directly,’ he returned.
‘Why, you know not,’ said Mr. Creakle. ‘Don’t you, man?’
‘I apprehend you never supposed my worldly circumstances to be very good,’ replied the assistant. ‘You know what my position is, and always has been, here.’
‘I apprehend, if you come to that,’ said Mr. Creakle, with his veins swelling again bigger than ever, ‘that you’ve been in a wrong position altogether, and mistook this for a charity school. Mr. Mell, we’ll part, if you please. The sooner the better.’
‘There is no time,’ answered Mr. Mell, rising, ‘like the present.’
‘Sir, to you!’ said Mr. Creakle.
‘I take my leave of you, Mr. Creakle, and all of you,’ said Mr. Mell, glancing round the room, and again patting me gently on the shoulders. ‘James Steerforth, the best wish I can leave you is that you may come to be ashamed of what you have done today. At present I would prefer to see you anything rather than a friend, to me, or to anyone in whom I feel an interest.’
Once more he laid his hand upon my shoulder; and then taking his flute and a few books from his desk, and leaving the key in it for his successor, he went out of the school, with his property under his arm. Mr. Creakle then made a speech, through Tungay, in which he thanked Steerforth for asserting (though perhaps too warmly) the independence and respectability of Salem House; and which he wound up by shaking hands with Steerforth, while we gave three cheers—I did not quite know what for, but I supposed for Steerforth, and so joined in them ardently, though I felt miserable. Mr. Creakle then caned Tommy Traddles for being discovered in tears, instead of cheers, on account of Mr. Mell’s departure; and went back to his sofa, or his bed, or wherever he had come from.
We were left to ourselves now, and looked very blank, I recollect, on one another. For myself, I felt so much self-reproach and contrition for my part in what had happened, that nothing would have enabled me to keep back my tears but the fear that Steerforth, who often looked at me, I saw, might think it unfriendly—or, I should rather say, considering our relative ages, and the feeling with which I regarded him, undutiful—if I showed the emotion which distressed me. He was very angry with Traddles, and said he was glad he had caught it.
Poor Traddles, who had passed the stage of lying with his head upon the desk, and was relieving himself as usual with a burst of skeletons, said he didn’t care. Mr. Mell was ill-used.
‘Who has ill-used him, you girl?’ said Steerforth.
‘Why, you have,’ returned Traddles.
‘What have I done?’ said Steerforth.
‘What have you done?’ retorted Traddles. ‘Hurt his feelings, and lost him his situation.’
‘His feelings?’ repeated Steerforth disdainfully. ‘His feelings will soon get the better of it, I’ll be bound. His feelings are not like yours, Miss Traddles. As to his situation—which was a precious one, wasn’t it?—do you suppose I am not going to write home, and take care that he gets some money? Polly?’
We thought this intention very noble in Steerforth, whose mother was a widow, and rich, and would do almost anything, it was said, that he asked her. We were all extremely glad to see Traddles so put down, and exalted Steerforth to the skies: especially when he told us, as he condescended to do, that what he had done had been done expressly for us, and for our cause; and that he had conferred a great boon upon us by unselfishly doing it. But I must say that when I was going on with a story in the dark that night, Mr. Mell’s old flute seemed more than once to sound mournfully in my ears; and that when at last Steerforth was tired, and I lay down in my bed, I fancied it playing so sorrowfully somewhere, that I was quite wretched.
I soon forgot him in the contemplation of Steerforth, who, in an easy amateur way, and without any book (he seemed to me to know everything by heart), took some of his classes until a new master was found. The new master came from a grammar school; and before he entered on his duties, dined in the parlour one day, to be introduced to Steerforth. Steerforth approved of him highly, and told us he was a Brick. Without exactly understanding what learned distinction was meant by this, I respected him greatly for it, and had no doubt whatever of his superior knowledge: though he never took the pains with me—not that I was anybody—that Mr. Mell had taken.
There was only one other event in this half-year, out of the daily school-life, that made an impression upon me which still survives. It survives for many reasons.
One afternoon, when we were all harassed into a state of dire confusion, and Mr. Creakle was laying about him dreadfully, Tungay came in, and called out in his usual strong way: ‘Visitors for Copperfield!’
A few words were interchanged between him and Mr. Creakle, as, who the visitors were, and what room they were to be shown into; and then I, who had, according to custom, stood up on the announcement being made, and felt quite faint with astonishment, was told to go by the back stairs and get a clean frill on, before I repaired to the dining-room. These orders I obeyed, in such a flutter and hurry of my young spirits as I had never known before; and when I got to the parlour door, and the thought came into my head that it might be my mother—I had only thought of Mr. or Miss Murdstone until then—I drew back my hand from the lock, and stopped to have a sob before I went in.
At first I saw nobody; but feeling a pressure against the door, I looked round it, and there, to my amazement, were Mr. Peggotty and Ham, ducking at me with their hats, and squeezing one another against the wall. I could not help laughing; but it was much more in the pleasure of seeing them, than at the appearance they made. We shook hands in a very cordial way; and I laughed and laughed, until I pulled out my pocket-handkerchief and wiped my eyes.
Mr. Peggotty (who never shut his mouth once, I remember, during the visit) showed great concern when he saw me do this, and nudged Ham to say something.
‘Cheer up, Mas’r Davy bor’!’ said Ham, in his simpering way. ‘Why, how you have growed!’
‘Am I grown?’ I said, drying my eyes. I was not crying at anything in particular that I know of; but somehow it made me cry, to see old friends.
‘Growed, Mas’r Davy bor’? Ain’t he growed!’ said Ham.
‘Ain’t he growed!’ said Mr. Peggotty.
They made me laugh again by laughing at each other, and then we all three laughed until I was in danger of crying again.
‘Do you know how mama is, Mr. Peggotty?’ I said. ‘And how my dear, dear, old Peggotty is?’
‘Oncommon,’ said Mr. Peggotty.
‘And little Em’ly, and Mrs. Gummidge?’
‘On—common,’ said Mr. Peggotty.
There was a silence. Mr. Peggotty, to relieve it, took two prodigious lobsters, and an enormous crab, and a large canvas bag of shrimps, out of his pockets, and piled them up in Ham’s arms.
‘You see,’ said Mr. Peggotty, ‘knowing as you was partial to a little relish with your wittles when you was along with us, we took the liberty. The old Mawther biled ’em, she did. Mrs. Gummidge biled ’em. Yes,’ said Mr. Peggotty, slowly, who I thought appeared to stick to the subject on account of having no other subject ready, ‘Mrs. Gummidge, I do assure you, she biled ’em.’
I expressed my thanks; and Mr. Peggotty, after looking at Ham, who stood smiling sheepishly over the shellfish, without making any attempt to help him, said:
‘We come, you see, the wind and tide making in our favour, in one of our Yarmouth lugs to Gravesen’. My sister she wrote to me the name of this here place, and wrote to me as if ever I chanced to come to Gravesen’, I was to come over and inquire for Mas’r Davy and give her dooty, humbly wishing him well and reporting of the fam’ly as they was oncommon toe-be-sure. Little Em’ly, you see, she’ll write to my sister when I go back, as I see you and as you was similarly oncommon, and so we make it quite a merry-go-rounder.’
I was obliged to consider a little before I understood what Mr. Peggotty meant by this figure, expressive of a complete circle of intelligence. I then thanked him heartily; and said, with a consciousness of reddening, that I supposed little Em’ly was altered too, since we used to pick up shells and pebbles on the beach?
‘She’s getting to be a woman, that’s wot she’s getting to be,’ said Mr. Peggotty. ‘Ask HIM.’ He meant Ham, who beamed with delight and assent over the bag of shrimps.
‘Her pretty face!’ said Mr. Peggotty, with his own shining like a light.
‘Her learning!’ said Ham.
‘Her writing!’ said Mr. Peggotty. ‘Why it’s as black as jet! And so large it is, you might see it anywheres.’
It was perfectly delightful to behold with what enthusiasm Mr. Peggotty became inspired when he thought of his little favourite. He stands before me again, his bluff hairy face irradiating with a joyful love and pride, for which I can find no description. His honest eyes fire up, and sparkle, as if their depths were stirred by something bright. His broad chest heaves with pleasure. His strong loose hands clench themselves, in his earnestness; and he emphasizes what he says with a right arm that shows, in my pigmy view, like a sledge-hammer.
Ham was quite as earnest as he. I dare say they would have said much more about her, if they had not been abashed by the unexpected coming in of Steerforth, who, seeing me in a corner speaking with two strangers, stopped in a song he was singing, and said: ‘I didn’t know you were here, young Copperfield!’ (for it was not the usual visiting room) and crossed by us on his way out.
I am not sure whether it was in the pride of having such a friend as Steerforth, or in the desire to explain to him how I came to have such a friend as Mr. Peggotty, that I called to him as he was going away. But I said, modestly—Good Heaven, how it all comes back to me this long time afterwards—!
‘Don’t go, Steerforth, if you please. These are two Yarmouth boatmen—very kind, good people—who are relations of my nurse, and have come from Gravesend to see me.’
‘Aye, aye?’ said Steerforth, returning. ‘I am glad to see them. How are you both?’
There was an ease in his manner—a gay and light manner it was, but not swaggering—which I still believe to have borne a kind of enchantment with it. I still believe him, in virtue of this carriage, his animal spirits, his delightful voice, his handsome face and figure, and, for aught I know, of some inborn power of attraction besides (which I think a few people possess), to have carried a spell with him to which it was a natural weakness to yield, and which not many persons could withstand. I could not but see how pleased they were with him, and how they seemed to open their hearts to him in a moment.
‘You must let them know at home, if you please, Mr. Peggotty,’ I said, ‘when that letter is sent, that Mr. Steerforth is very kind to me, and that I don’t know what I should ever do here without him.’
‘Nonsense!’ said Steerforth, laughing. ‘You mustn’t tell them anything of the sort.’
‘And if Mr. Steerforth ever comes into Norfolk or Suffolk, Mr. Peggotty,’ I said, ‘while I am there, you may depend upon it I shall bring him to Yarmouth, if he will let me, to see your house. You never saw such a good house, Steerforth. It’s made out of a boat!’
‘Made out of a boat, is it?’ said Steerforth. ‘It’s the right sort of a house for such a thorough-built boatman.’
‘So ’tis, sir, so ’tis, sir,’ said Ham, grinning. ‘You’re right, young gen’l’m’n! Mas’r Davy bor’, gen’l’m’n’s right. A thorough-built boatman! Hor, hor! That’s what he is, too!’
Mr. Peggotty was no less pleased than his nephew, though his modesty forbade him to claim a personal compliment so vociferously.
‘Well, sir,’ he said, bowing and chuckling, and tucking in the ends of his neckerchief at his breast: ‘I thankee, sir, I thankee! I do my endeavours in my line of life, sir.’
‘The best of men can do no more, Mr. Peggotty,’ said Steerforth. He had got his name already.
‘I’ll pound it, it’s wot you do yourself, sir,’ said Mr. Peggotty, shaking his head, ‘and wot you do well—right well! I thankee, sir. I’m obleeged to you, sir, for your welcoming manner of me. I’m rough, sir, but I’m ready—least ways, I hope I’m ready, you unnerstand. My house ain’t much for to see, sir, but it’s hearty at your service if ever you should come along with Mas’r Davy to see it. I’m a reg’lar Dodman, I am,’ said Mr. Peggotty, by which he meant snail, and this was in allusion to his being slow to go, for he had attempted to go after every sentence, and had somehow or other come back again; ‘but I wish you both well, and I wish you happy!’
Ham echoed this sentiment, and we parted with them in the heartiest manner. I was almost tempted that evening to tell Steerforth about pretty little Em’ly, but I was too timid of mentioning her name, and too much afraid of his laughing at me. I remember that I thought a good deal, and in an uneasy sort of way, about Mr. Peggotty having said that she was getting on to be a woman; but I decided that was nonsense.
We transported the shellfish, or the ‘relish’ as Mr. Peggotty had modestly called it, up into our room unobserved, and made a great supper that evening. But Traddles couldn’t get happily out of it. He was too unfortunate even to come through a supper like anybody else. He was taken ill in the night—quite prostrate he was—in consequence of Crab; and after being drugged with black draughts and blue pills, to an extent which Demple (whose father was a doctor) said was enough to undermine a horse’s constitution, received a caning and six chapters of Greek Testament for refusing to confess.
The rest of the half-year is a jumble in my recollection of the daily strife and struggle of our lives; of the waning summer and the changing season; of the frosty mornings when we were rung out of bed, and the cold, cold smell of the dark nights when we were rung into bed again; of the evening schoolroom dimly lighted and indifferently warmed, and the morning schoolroom which was nothing but a great shivering-machine; of the alternation of boiled beef with roast beef, and boiled mutton with roast mutton; of clods of bread-and-butter, dog’s-eared lesson-books, cracked slates, tear-blotted copy-books, canings, rulerings, hair-cuttings, rainy Sundays, suet-puddings, and a dirty atmosphere of ink, surrounding all.
I well remember though, how the distant idea of the holidays, after seeming for an immense time to be a stationary speck, began to come towards us, and to grow and grow. How from counting months, we came to weeks, and then to days; and how I then began to be afraid that I should not be sent for and when I learnt from Steerforth that I had been sent for, and was certainly to go home, had dim forebodings that I might break my leg first. How the breaking-up day changed its place fast, at last, from the week after next to next week, this week, the day after tomorrow, tomorrow, today, tonight—when I was inside the Yarmouth mail, and going home.
I had many a broken sleep inside the Yarmouth mail, and many an incoherent dream of all these things. But when I awoke at intervals, the ground outside the window was not the playground of Salem House, and the sound in my ears was not the sound of Mr. Creakle giving it to Traddles, but the sound of the coachman touching up the horses.
CHAPTER VIII. MY HOLIDAYS. ESPECIALLY ONE HAPPY AFTERNOON
When we arrived before day at the inn where the mail stopped, which was not the inn where my friend the waiter lived, I was shown up to a nice little bedroom, with DOLPHIN painted on the door. Very cold I was, I know, notwithstanding the hot tea they had given me before a large fire downstairs; and very glad I was to turn into the Dolphin’s bed, pull the Dolphin’s blankets round my head, and go to sleep.
Mr. Barkis the carrier was to call for me in the morning at nine o’clock. I got up at eight, a little giddy from the shortness of my night’s rest, and was ready for him before the appointed time. He received me exactly as if not five minutes had elapsed since we were last together, and I had only been into the hotel to get change for sixpence, or something of that sort.
As soon as I and my box were in the cart, and the carrier seated, the lazy horse walked away with us all at his accustomed pace.
‘You look very well, Mr. Barkis,’ I said, thinking he would like to know it.
Mr. Barkis rubbed his cheek with his cuff, and then looked at his cuff as if he expected to find some of the bloom upon it; but made no other acknowledgement of the compliment.
‘I gave your message, Mr. Barkis,’ I said: ‘I wrote to Peggotty.’
‘Ah!’ said Mr. Barkis.
Mr. Barkis seemed gruff, and answered drily.
‘Wasn’t it right, Mr. Barkis?’ I asked, after a little hesitation.
‘Why, no,’ said Mr. Barkis.
‘Not the message?’
‘The message was right enough, perhaps,’ said Mr. Barkis; ‘but it come to an end there.’
Not understanding what he meant, I repeated inquisitively: ‘Came to an end, Mr. Barkis?’
‘Nothing come of it,’ he explained, looking at me sideways. ‘No answer.’
‘There was an answer expected, was there, Mr. Barkis?’ said I, opening my eyes. For this was a new light to me.
‘When a man says he’s willin’,’ said Mr. Barkis, turning his glance slowly on me again, ‘it’s as much as to say, that man’s a-waitin’ for a answer.’
‘Well, Mr. Barkis?’
‘Well,’ said Mr. Barkis, carrying his eyes back to his horse’s ears; ‘that man’s been a-waitin’ for a answer ever since.’
‘Have you told her so, Mr. Barkis?’
‘No—no,’ growled Mr. Barkis, reflecting about it. ‘I ain’t got no call to go and tell her so. I never said six words to her myself, I ain’t a-goin’ to tell her so.’
‘Would you like me to do it, Mr. Barkis?’ said I, doubtfully. ‘You might tell her, if you would,’ said Mr. Barkis, with another slow look at me, ‘that Barkis was a-waitin’ for a answer. Says you—what name is it?’
‘Ah!’ said Mr. Barkis, with a nod of his head.
‘Chrisen name? Or nat’ral name?’ said Mr. Barkis.
‘Oh, it’s not her Christian name. Her Christian name is Clara.’
‘Is it though?’ said Mr. Barkis.
He seemed to find an immense fund of reflection in this circumstance, and sat pondering and inwardly whistling for some time.
‘Well!’ he resumed at length. ‘Says you, “Peggotty! Barkis is waitin’ for a answer.” Says she, perhaps, “Answer to what?” Says you, “To what I told you.” “What is that?” says she. “Barkis is willin’,” says you.’
This extremely artful suggestion Mr. Barkis accompanied with a nudge of his elbow that gave me quite a stitch in my side. After that, he slouched over his horse in his usual manner; and made no other reference to the subject except, half an hour afterwards, taking a piece of chalk from his pocket, and writing up, inside the tilt of the cart, ‘Clara Peggotty’—apparently as a private memorandum.
Ah, what a strange feeling it was to be going home when it was not home, and to find that every object I looked at, reminded me of the happy old home, which was like a dream I could never dream again! The days when my mother and I and Peggotty were all in all to one another, and there was no one to come between us, rose up before me so sorrowfully on the road, that I am not sure I was glad to be there—not sure but that I would rather have remained away, and forgotten it in Steerforth’s company. But there I was; and soon I was at our house, where the bare old elm-trees wrung their many hands in the bleak wintry air, and shreds of the old rooks’-nests drifted away upon the wind.
The carrier put my box down at the garden-gate, and left me. I walked along the path towards the house, glancing at the windows, and fearing at every step to see Mr. Murdstone or Miss Murdstone lowering out of one of them. No face appeared, however; and being come to the house, and knowing how to open the door, before dark, without knocking, I went in with a quiet, timid step.
God knows how infantine the memory may have been, that was awakened within me by the sound of my mother’s voice in the old parlour, when I set foot in the hall. She was singing in a low tone. I think I must have lain in her arms, and heard her singing so to me when I was but a baby. The strain was new to me, and yet it was so old that it filled my heart brim-full; like a friend come back from a long absence.
I believed, from the solitary and thoughtful way in which my mother murmured her song, that she was alone. And I went softly into the room. She was sitting by the fire, suckling an infant, whose tiny hand she held against her neck. Her eyes were looking down upon its face, and she sat singing to it. I was so far right, that she had no other companion.
I spoke to her, and she started, and cried out. But seeing me, she called me her dear Davy, her own boy! and coming half across the room to meet me, kneeled down upon the ground and kissed me, and laid my head down on her bosom near the little creature that was nestling there, and put its hand to my lips.
I wish I had died. I wish I had died then, with that feeling in my heart! I should have been more fit for Heaven than I ever have been since.
‘He is your brother,’ said my mother, fondling me. ‘Davy, my pretty boy! My poor child!’ Then she kissed me more and more, and clasped me round the neck. This she was doing when Peggotty came running in, and bounced down on the ground beside us, and went mad about us both for a quarter of an hour.
It seemed that I had not been expected so soon, the carrier being much before his usual time. It seemed, too, that Mr. and Miss Murdstone had gone out upon a visit in the neighbourhood, and would not return before night. I had never hoped for this. I had never thought it possible that we three could be together undisturbed, once more; and I felt, for the time, as if the old days were come back.
We dined together by the fireside. Peggotty was in attendance to wait upon us, but my mother wouldn’t let her do it, and made her dine with us. I had my own old plate, with a brown view of a man-of-war in full sail upon it, which Peggotty had hoarded somewhere all the time I had been away, and would not have had broken, she said, for a hundred pounds. I had my own old mug with David on it, and my own old little knife and fork that wouldn’t cut.
While we were at table, I thought it a favourable occasion to tell Peggotty about Mr. Barkis, who, before I had finished what I had to tell her, began to laugh, and throw her apron over her face.
‘Peggotty,’ said my mother. ‘What’s the matter?’
Peggotty only laughed the more, and held her apron tight over her face when my mother tried to pull it away, and sat as if her head were in a bag.
‘What are you doing, you stupid creature?’ said my mother, laughing.
‘Oh, drat the man!’ cried Peggotty. ‘He wants to marry me.’
‘It would be a very good match for you; wouldn’t it?’ said my mother.
‘Oh! I don’t know,’ said Peggotty. ‘Don’t ask me. I wouldn’t have him if he was made of gold. Nor I wouldn’t have anybody.’
‘Then, why don’t you tell him so, you ridiculous thing?’ said my mother.
‘Tell him so,’ retorted Peggotty, looking out of her apron. ‘He has never said a word to me about it. He knows better. If he was to make so bold as say a word to me, I should slap his face.’
Her own was as red as ever I saw it, or any other face, I think; but she only covered it again, for a few moments at a time, when she was taken with a violent fit of laughter; and after two or three of those attacks, went on with her dinner.
I remarked that my mother, though she smiled when Peggotty looked at her, became more serious and thoughtful. I had seen at first that she was changed. Her face was very pretty still, but it looked careworn, and too delicate; and her hand was so thin and white that it seemed to me to be almost transparent. But the change to which I now refer was superadded to this: it was in her manner, which became anxious and fluttered. At last she said, putting out her hand, and laying it affectionately on the hand of her old servant,
‘Peggotty, dear, you are not going to be married?’
‘Me, ma’am?’ returned Peggotty, staring. ‘Lord bless you, no!’
‘Not just yet?’ said my mother, tenderly.
‘Never!’ cried Peggotty.
My mother took her hand, and said:
‘Don’t leave me, Peggotty. Stay with me. It will not be for long, perhaps. What should I ever do without you!’
‘Me leave you, my precious!’ cried Peggotty. ‘Not for all the world and his wife. Why, what’s put that in your silly little head?’—For Peggotty had been used of old to talk to my mother sometimes like a child.
But my mother made no answer, except to thank her, and Peggotty went running on in her own fashion.
‘Me leave you? I think I see myself. Peggotty go away from you? I should like to catch her at it! No, no, no,’ said Peggotty, shaking her head, and folding her arms; ‘not she, my dear. It isn’t that there ain’t some Cats that would be well enough pleased if she did, but they sha’n’t be pleased. They shall be aggravated. I’ll stay with you till I am a cross cranky old woman. And when I’m too deaf, and too lame, and too blind, and too mumbly for want of teeth, to be of any use at all, even to be found fault with, than I shall go to my Davy, and ask him to take me in.’
‘And, Peggotty,’ says I, ‘I shall be glad to see you, and I’ll make you as welcome as a queen.’
‘Bless your dear heart!’ cried Peggotty. ‘I know you will!’ And she kissed me beforehand, in grateful acknowledgement of my hospitality. After that, she covered her head up with her apron again and had another laugh about Mr. Barkis. After that, she took the baby out of its little cradle, and nursed it. After that, she cleared the dinner table; after that, came in with another cap on, and her work-box, and the yard-measure, and the bit of wax-candle, all just the same as ever.
We sat round the fire, and talked delightfully. I told them what a hard master Mr. Creakle was, and they pitied me very much. I told them what a fine fellow Steerforth was, and what a patron of mine, and Peggotty said she would walk a score of miles to see him. I took the little baby in my arms when it was awake, and nursed it lovingly. When it was asleep again, I crept close to my mother’s side according to my old custom, broken now a long time, and sat with my arms embracing her waist, and my little red cheek on her shoulder, and once more felt her beautiful hair drooping over me—like an angel’s wing as I used to think, I recollect—and was very happy indeed.
While I sat thus, looking at the fire, and seeing pictures in the red-hot coals, I almost believed that I had never been away; that Mr. and Miss Murdstone were such pictures, and would vanish when the fire got low; and that there was nothing real in all that I remembered, save my mother, Peggotty, and I.
Peggotty darned away at a stocking as long as she could see, and then sat with it drawn on her left hand like a glove, and her needle in her right, ready to take another stitch whenever there was a blaze. I cannot conceive whose stockings they can have been that Peggotty was always darning, or where such an unfailing supply of stockings in want of darning can have come from. From my earliest infancy she seems to have been always employed in that class of needlework, and never by any chance in any other.
‘I wonder,’ said Peggotty, who was sometimes seized with a fit of wondering on some most unexpected topic, ‘what’s become of Davy’s great-aunt?’ ‘Lor, Peggotty!’ observed my mother, rousing herself from a reverie, ‘what nonsense you talk!’
‘Well, but I really do wonder, ma’am,’ said Peggotty.
‘What can have put such a person in your head?’ inquired my mother. ‘Is there nobody else in the world to come there?’
‘I don’t know how it is,’ said Peggotty, ‘unless it’s on account of being stupid, but my head never can pick and choose its people. They come and they go, and they don’t come and they don’t go, just as they like. I wonder what’s become of her?’
‘How absurd you are, Peggotty!’ returned my mother. ‘One would suppose you wanted a second visit from her.’
‘Lord forbid!’ cried Peggotty.
‘Well then, don’t talk about such uncomfortable things, there’s a good soul,’ said my mother. ‘Miss Betsey is shut up in her cottage by the sea, no doubt, and will remain there. At all events, she is not likely ever to trouble us again.’
‘No!’ mused Peggotty. ‘No, that ain’t likely at all.—-I wonder, if she was to die, whether she’d leave Davy anything?’
‘Good gracious me, Peggotty,’ returned my mother, ‘what a nonsensical woman you are! when you know that she took offence at the poor dear boy’s ever being born at all.’
‘I suppose she wouldn’t be inclined to forgive him now,’ hinted Peggotty.
‘Why should she be inclined to forgive him now?’ said my mother, rather sharply.
‘Now that he’s got a brother, I mean,’ said Peggotty.
My mother immediately began to cry, and wondered how Peggotty dared to say such a thing.
‘As if this poor little innocent in its cradle had ever done any harm to you or anybody else, you jealous thing!’ said she. ‘You had much better go and marry Mr. Barkis, the carrier. Why don’t you?’
‘I should make Miss Murdstone happy, if I was to,’ said Peggotty.
‘What a bad disposition you have, Peggotty!’ returned my mother. ‘You are as jealous of Miss Murdstone as it is possible for a ridiculous creature to be. You want to keep the keys yourself, and give out all the things, I suppose? I shouldn’t be surprised if you did. When you know that she only does it out of kindness and the best intentions! You know she does, Peggotty—you know it well.’
Peggotty muttered something to the effect of ‘Bother the best intentions!’ and something else to the effect that there was a little too much of the best intentions going on.
‘I know what you mean, you cross thing,’ said my mother. ‘I understand you, Peggotty, perfectly. You know I do, and I wonder you don’t colour up like fire. But one point at a time. Miss Murdstone is the point now, Peggotty, and you sha’n’t escape from it. Haven’t you heard her say, over and over again, that she thinks I am too thoughtless and too—a—a—’
‘Pretty,’ suggested Peggotty.
‘Well,’ returned my mother, half laughing, ‘and if she is so silly as to say so, can I be blamed for it?’
‘No one says you can,’ said Peggotty.
‘No, I should hope not, indeed!’ returned my mother. ‘Haven’t you heard her say, over and over again, that on this account she wished to spare me a great deal of trouble, which she thinks I am not suited for, and which I really don’t know myself that I AM suited for; and isn’t she up early and late, and going to and fro continually—and doesn’t she do all sorts of things, and grope into all sorts of places, coal-holes and pantries and I don’t know where, that can’t be very agreeable—and do you mean to insinuate that there is not a sort of devotion in that?’
‘I don’t insinuate at all,’ said Peggotty.
‘You do, Peggotty,’ returned my mother. ‘You never do anything else, except your work. You are always insinuating. You revel in it. And when you talk of Mr. Murdstone’s good intentions—’
‘I never talked of ’em,’ said Peggotty.
‘No, Peggotty,’ returned my mother, ‘but you insinuated. That’s what I told you just now. That’s the worst of you. You WILL insinuate. I said, at the moment, that I understood you, and you see I did. When you talk of Mr. Murdstone’s good intentions, and pretend to slight them (for I don’t believe you really do, in your heart, Peggotty), you must be as well convinced as I am how good they are, and how they actuate him in everything. If he seems to have been at all stern with a certain person, Peggotty—you understand, and so I am sure does Davy, that I am not alluding to anybody present—it is solely because he is satisfied that it is for a certain person’s benefit. He naturally loves a certain person, on my account; and acts solely for a certain person’s good. He is better able to judge of it than I am; for I very well know that I am a weak, light, girlish creature, and that he is a firm, grave, serious man. And he takes,’ said my mother, with the tears which were engendered in her affectionate nature, stealing down her face, ‘he takes great pains with me; and I ought to be very thankful to him, and very submissive to him even in my thoughts; and when I am not, Peggotty, I worry and condemn myself, and feel doubtful of my own heart, and don’t know what to do.’
Peggotty sat with her chin on the foot of the stocking, looking silently at the fire.
‘There, Peggotty,’ said my mother, changing her tone, ‘don’t let us fall out with one another, for I couldn’t bear it. You are my true friend, I know, if I have any in the world. When I call you a ridiculous creature, or a vexatious thing, or anything of that sort, Peggotty, I only mean that you are my true friend, and always have been, ever since the night when Mr. Copperfield first brought me home here, and you came out to the gate to meet me.’
Peggotty was not slow to respond, and ratify the treaty of friendship by giving me one of her best hugs. I think I had some glimpses of the real character of this conversation at the time; but I am sure, now, that the good creature originated it, and took her part in it, merely that my mother might comfort herself with the little contradictory summary in which she had indulged. The design was efficacious; for I remember that my mother seemed more at ease during the rest of the evening, and that Peggotty observed her less.
When we had had our tea, and the ashes were thrown up, and the candles snuffed, I read Peggotty a chapter out of the Crocodile Book, in remembrance of old times—she took it out of her pocket: I don’t know whether she had kept it there ever since—and then we talked about Salem House, which brought me round again to Steerforth, who was my great subject. We were very happy; and that evening, as the last of its race, and destined evermore to close that volume of my life, will never pass out of my memory.
It was almost ten o’clock before we heard the sound of wheels. We all got up then; and my mother said hurriedly that, as it was so late, and Mr. and Miss Murdstone approved of early hours for young people, perhaps I had better go to bed. I kissed her, and went upstairs with my candle directly, before they came in. It appeared to my childish fancy, as I ascended to the bedroom where I had been imprisoned, that they brought a cold blast of air into the house which blew away the old familiar feeling like a feather.
I felt uncomfortable about going down to breakfast in the morning, as I had never set eyes on Mr. Murdstone since the day when I committed my memorable offence. However, as it must be done, I went down, after two or three false starts half-way, and as many runs back on tiptoe to my own room, and presented myself in the parlour.
He was standing before the fire with his back to it, while Miss Murdstone made the tea. He looked at me steadily as I entered, but made no sign of recognition whatever. I went up to him, after a moment of confusion, and said: ‘I beg your pardon, sir. I am very sorry for what I did, and I hope you will forgive me.’
‘I am glad to hear you are sorry, David,’ he replied.
The hand he gave me was the hand I had bitten. I could not restrain my eye from resting for an instant on a red spot upon it; but it was not so red as I turned, when I met that sinister expression in his face.
‘How do you do, ma’am?’ I said to Miss Murdstone.
‘Ah, dear me!’ sighed Miss Murdstone, giving me the tea-caddy scoop instead of her fingers. ‘How long are the holidays?’
‘A month, ma’am.’
‘Counting from when?’
‘From today, ma’am.’
‘Oh!’ said Miss Murdstone. ‘Then here’s one day off.’
She kept a calendar of the holidays in this way, and every morning checked a day off in exactly the same manner. She did it gloomily until she came to ten, but when she got into two figures she became more hopeful, and, as the time advanced, even jocular.
It was on this very first day that I had the misfortune to throw her, though she was not subject to such weakness in general, into a state of violent consternation. I came into the room where she and my mother were sitting; and the baby (who was only a few weeks old) being on my mother’s lap, I took it very carefully in my arms. Suddenly Miss Murdstone gave such a scream that I all but dropped it.
‘My dear Jane!’ cried my mother.
‘Good heavens, Clara, do you see?’ exclaimed Miss Murdstone.
‘See what, my dear Jane?’ said my mother; ‘where?’
‘He’s got it!’ cried Miss Murdstone. ‘The boy has got the baby!’
She was limp with horror; but stiffened herself to make a dart at me, and take it out of my arms. Then, she turned faint; and was so very ill that they were obliged to give her cherry brandy. I was solemnly interdicted by her, on her recovery, from touching my brother any more on any pretence whatever; and my poor mother, who, I could see, wished otherwise, meekly confirmed the interdict, by saying: ‘No doubt you are right, my dear Jane.’
On another occasion, when we three were together, this same dear baby—it was truly dear to me, for our mother’s sake—was the innocent occasion of Miss Murdstone’s going into a passion. My mother, who had been looking at its eyes as it lay upon her lap, said:
‘Davy! come here!’ and looked at mine.
I saw Miss Murdstone lay her beads down.
‘I declare,’ said my mother, gently, ‘they are exactly alike. I suppose they are mine. I think they are the colour of mine. But they are wonderfully alike.’
‘What are you talking about, Clara?’ said Miss Murdstone.
‘My dear Jane,’ faltered my mother, a little abashed by the harsh tone of this inquiry, ‘I find that the baby’s eyes and Davy’s are exactly alike.’
‘Clara!’ said Miss Murdstone, rising angrily, ‘you are a positive fool sometimes.’
‘My dear Jane,’ remonstrated my mother.
‘A positive fool,’ said Miss Murdstone. ‘Who else could compare my brother’s baby with your boy? They are not at all alike. They are exactly unlike. They are utterly dissimilar in all respects. I hope they will ever remain so. I will not sit here, and hear such comparisons made.’ With that she stalked out, and made the door bang after her.
In short, I was not a favourite with Miss Murdstone. In short, I was not a favourite there with anybody, not even with myself; for those who did like me could not show it, and those who did not, showed it so plainly that I had a sensitive consciousness of always appearing constrained, boorish, and dull.
I felt that I made them as uncomfortable as they made me. If I came into the room where they were, and they were talking together and my mother seemed cheerful, an anxious cloud would steal over her face from the moment of my entrance. If Mr. Murdstone were in his best humour, I checked him. If Miss Murdstone were in her worst, I intensified it. I had perception enough to know that my mother was the victim always; that she was afraid to speak to me or to be kind to me, lest she should give them some offence by her manner of doing so, and receive a lecture afterwards; that she was not only ceaselessly afraid of her own offending, but of my offending, and uneasily watched their looks if I only moved. Therefore I resolved to keep myself as much out of their way as I could; and many a wintry hour did I hear the church clock strike, when I was sitting in my cheerless bedroom, wrapped in my little great-coat, poring over a book.
In the evening, sometimes, I went and sat with Peggotty in the kitchen. There I was comfortable, and not afraid of being myself. But neither of these resources was approved of in the parlour. The tormenting humour which was dominant there stopped them both. I was still held to be necessary to my poor mother’s training, and, as one of her trials, could not be suffered to absent myself.
‘David,’ said Mr. Murdstone, one day after dinner when I was going to leave the room as usual; ‘I am sorry to observe that you are of a sullen disposition.’
‘As sulky as a bear!’ said Miss Murdstone.
I stood still, and hung my head.
‘Now, David,’ said Mr. Murdstone, ‘a sullen obdurate disposition is, of all tempers, the worst.’
‘And the boy’s is, of all such dispositions that ever I have seen,’ remarked his sister, ‘the most confirmed and stubborn. I think, my dear Clara, even you must observe it?’
‘I beg your pardon, my dear Jane,’ said my mother, ‘but are you quite sure—I am certain you’ll excuse me, my dear Jane—that you understand Davy?’
‘I should be somewhat ashamed of myself, Clara,’ returned Miss Murdstone, ‘if I could not understand the boy, or any boy. I don’t profess to be profound; but I do lay claim to common sense.’
‘No doubt, my dear Jane,’ returned my mother, ‘your understanding is very vigorous—’
‘Oh dear, no! Pray don’t say that, Clara,’ interposed Miss Murdstone, angrily.
‘But I am sure it is,’ resumed my mother; ‘and everybody knows it is. I profit so much by it myself, in many ways—at least I ought to—that no one can be more convinced of it than myself; and therefore I speak with great diffidence, my dear Jane, I assure you.’
‘We’ll say I don’t understand the boy, Clara,’ returned Miss Murdstone, arranging the little fetters on her wrists. ‘We’ll agree, if you please, that I don’t understand him at all. He is much too deep for me. But perhaps my brother’s penetration may enable him to have some insight into his character. And I believe my brother was speaking on the subject when we—not very decently—interrupted him.’
‘I think, Clara,’ said Mr. Murdstone, in a low grave voice, ‘that there may be better and more dispassionate judges of such a question than you.’
‘Edward,’ replied my mother, timidly, ‘you are a far better judge of all questions than I pretend to be. Both you and Jane are. I only said—’
‘You only said something weak and inconsiderate,’ he replied. ‘Try not to do it again, my dear Clara, and keep a watch upon yourself.’
My mother’s lips moved, as if she answered ‘Yes, my dear Edward,’ but she said nothing aloud.
‘I was sorry, David, I remarked,’ said Mr. Murdstone, turning his head and his eyes stiffly towards me, ‘to observe that you are of a sullen disposition. This is not a character that I can suffer to develop itself beneath my eyes without an effort at improvement. You must endeavour, sir, to change it. We must endeavour to change it for you.’
‘I beg your pardon, sir,’ I faltered. ‘I have never meant to be sullen since I came back.’
‘Don’t take refuge in a lie, sir!’ he returned so fiercely, that I saw my mother involuntarily put out her trembling hand as if to interpose between us. ‘You have withdrawn yourself in your sullenness to your own room. You have kept your own room when you ought to have been here. You know now, once for all, that I require you to be here, and not there. Further, that I require you to bring obedience here. You know me, David. I will have it done.’
Miss Murdstone gave a hoarse chuckle.
‘I will have a respectful, prompt, and ready bearing towards myself,’ he continued, ‘and towards Jane Murdstone, and towards your mother. I will not have this room shunned as if it were infected, at the pleasure of a child. Sit down.’
He ordered me like a dog, and I obeyed like a dog.
‘One thing more,’ he said. ‘I observe that you have an attachment to low and common company. You are not to associate with servants. The kitchen will not improve you, in the many respects in which you need improvement. Of the woman who abets you, I say nothing—since you, Clara,’ addressing my mother in a lower voice, ‘from old associations and long-established fancies, have a weakness respecting her which is not yet overcome.’
‘A most unaccountable delusion it is!’ cried Miss Murdstone.
‘I only say,’ he resumed, addressing me, ‘that I disapprove of your preferring such company as Mistress Peggotty, and that it is to be abandoned. Now, David, you understand me, and you know what will be the consequence if you fail to obey me to the letter.’
I knew well—better perhaps than he thought, as far as my poor mother was concerned—and I obeyed him to the letter. I retreated to my own room no more; I took refuge with Peggotty no more; but sat wearily in the parlour day after day, looking forward to night, and bedtime.
What irksome constraint I underwent, sitting in the same attitude hours upon hours, afraid to move an arm or a leg lest Miss Murdstone should complain (as she did on the least pretence) of my restlessness, and afraid to move an eye lest she should light on some look of dislike or scrutiny that would find new cause for complaint in mine! What intolerable dulness to sit listening to the ticking of the clock; and watching Miss Murdstone’s little shiny steel beads as she strung them; and wondering whether she would ever be married, and if so, to what sort of unhappy man; and counting the divisions in the moulding of the chimney-piece; and wandering away, with my eyes, to the ceiling, among the curls and corkscrews in the paper on the wall!
What walks I took alone, down muddy lanes, in the bad winter weather, carrying that parlour, and Mr. and Miss Murdstone in it, everywhere: a monstrous load that I was obliged to bear, a daymare that there was no possibility of breaking in, a weight that brooded on my wits, and blunted them!
What meals I had in silence and embarrassment, always feeling that there were a knife and fork too many, and that mine; an appetite too many, and that mine; a plate and chair too many, and those mine; a somebody too many, and that I!
What evenings, when the candles came, and I was expected to employ myself, but, not daring to read an entertaining book, pored over some hard-headed, harder-hearted treatise on arithmetic; when the tables of weights and measures set themselves to tunes, as ‘Rule Britannia’, or ‘Away with Melancholy’; when they wouldn’t stand still to be learnt, but would go threading my grandmother’s needle through my unfortunate head, in at one ear and out at the other! What yawns and dozes I lapsed into, in spite of all my care; what starts I came out of concealed sleeps with; what answers I never got, to little observations that I rarely made; what a blank space I seemed, which everybody overlooked, and yet was in everybody’s way; what a heavy relief it was to hear Miss Murdstone hail the first stroke of nine at night, and order me to bed!
Thus the holidays lagged away, until the morning came when Miss Murdstone said: ‘Here’s the last day off!’ and gave me the closing cup of tea of the vacation.
I was not sorry to go. I had lapsed into a stupid state; but I was recovering a little and looking forward to Steerforth, albeit Mr. Creakle loomed behind him. Again Mr. Barkis appeared at the gate, and again Miss Murdstone in her warning voice, said: ‘Clara!’ when my mother bent over me, to bid me farewell.
I kissed her, and my baby brother, and was very sorry then; but not sorry to go away, for the gulf between us was there, and the parting was there, every day. And it is not so much the embrace she gave me, that lives in my mind, though it was as fervent as could be, as what followed the embrace.
I was in the carrier’s cart when I heard her calling to me. I looked out, and she stood at the garden-gate alone, holding her baby up in her arms for me to see. It was cold still weather; and not a hair of her head, nor a fold of her dress, was stirred, as she looked intently at me, holding up her child.
So I lost her. So I saw her afterwards, in my sleep at school—a silent presence near my bed—looking at me with the same intent face—holding up her baby in her arms.
CHAPTER IX. I HAVE A MEMORABLE BIRTHDAY
I PASS over all that happened at school, until the anniversary of my birthday came round in March. Except that Steerforth was more to be admired than ever, I remember nothing. He was going away at the end of the half-year, if not sooner, and was more spirited and independent than before in my eyes, and therefore more engaging than before; but beyond this I remember nothing. The great remembrance by which that time is marked in my mind, seems to have swallowed up all lesser recollections, and to exist alone.
It is even difficult for me to believe that there was a gap of full two months between my return to Salem House and the arrival of that birthday. I can only understand that the fact was so, because I know it must have been so; otherwise I should feel convinced that there was no interval, and that the one occasion trod upon the other’s heels.
How well I recollect the kind of day it was! I smell the fog that hung about the place; I see the hoar frost, ghostly, through it; I feel my rimy hair fall clammy on my cheek; I look along the dim perspective of the schoolroom, with a sputtering candle here and there to light up the foggy morning, and the breath of the boys wreathing and smoking in the raw cold as they blow upon their fingers, and tap their feet upon the floor. It was after breakfast, and we had been summoned in from the playground, when Mr. Sharp entered and said:
‘David Copperfield is to go into the parlour.’
I expected a hamper from Peggotty, and brightened at the order. Some of the boys about me put in their claim not to be forgotten in the distribution of the good things, as I got out of my seat with great alacrity.
‘Don’t hurry, David,’ said Mr. Sharp. ‘There’s time enough, my boy, don’t hurry.’
I might have been surprised by the feeling tone in which he spoke, if I had given it a thought; but I gave it none until afterwards. I hurried away to the parlour; and there I found Mr. Creakle, sitting at his breakfast with the cane and a newspaper before him, and Mrs. Creakle with an opened letter in her hand. But no hamper.
‘David Copperfield,’ said Mrs. Creakle, leading me to a sofa, and sitting down beside me. ‘I want to speak to you very particularly. I have something to tell you, my child.’
Mr. Creakle, at whom of course I looked, shook his head without looking at me, and stopped up a sigh with a very large piece of buttered toast.
‘You are too young to know how the world changes every day,’ said Mrs. Creakle, ‘and how the people in it pass away. But we all have to learn it, David; some of us when we are young, some of us when we are old, some of us at all times of our lives.’
I looked at her earnestly.
‘When you came away from home at the end of the vacation,’ said Mrs. Creakle, after a pause, ‘were they all well?’ After another pause, ‘Was your mama well?’
I trembled without distinctly knowing why, and still looked at her earnestly, making no attempt to answer.
‘Because,’ said she, ‘I grieve to tell you that I hear this morning your mama is very ill.’
A mist rose between Mrs. Creakle and me, and her figure seemed to move in it for an instant. Then I felt the burning tears run down my face, and it was steady again.
‘She is very dangerously ill,’ she added.
I knew all now.
‘She is dead.’
There was no need to tell me so. I had already broken out into a desolate cry, and felt an orphan in the wide world.
She was very kind to me. She kept me there all day, and left me alone sometimes; and I cried, and wore myself to sleep, and awoke and cried again. When I could cry no more, I began to think; and then the oppression on my breast was heaviest, and my grief a dull pain that there was no ease for.
And yet my thoughts were idle; not intent on the calamity that weighed upon my heart, but idly loitering near it. I thought of our house shut up and hushed. I thought of the little baby, who, Mrs. Creakle said, had been pining away for some time, and who, they believed, would die too. I thought of my father’s grave in the churchyard, by our house, and of my mother lying there beneath the tree I knew so well. I stood upon a chair when I was left alone, and looked into the glass to see how red my eyes were, and how sorrowful my face. I considered, after some hours were gone, if my tears were really hard to flow now, as they seemed to be, what, in connexion with my loss, it would affect me most to think of when I drew near home—for I was going home to the funeral. I am sensible of having felt that a dignity attached to me among the rest of the boys, and that I was important in my affliction.
If ever child were stricken with sincere grief, I was. But I remember that this importance was a kind of satisfaction to me, when I walked in the playground that afternoon while the boys were in school. When I saw them glancing at me out of the windows, as they went up to their classes, I felt distinguished, and looked more melancholy, and walked slower. When school was over, and they came out and spoke to me, I felt it rather good in myself not to be proud to any of them, and to take exactly the same notice of them all, as before.
I was to go home next night; not by the mail, but by the heavy night-coach, which was called the Farmer, and was principally used by country-people travelling short intermediate distances upon the road. We had no story-telling that evening, and Traddles insisted on lending me his pillow. I don’t know what good he thought it would do me, for I had one of my own: but it was all he had to lend, poor fellow, except a sheet of letter-paper full of skeletons; and that he gave me at parting, as a soother of my sorrows and a contribution to my peace of mind.
I left Salem House upon the morrow afternoon. I little thought then that I left it, never to return. We travelled very slowly all night, and did not get into Yarmouth before nine or ten o’clock in the morning. I looked out for Mr. Barkis, but he was not there; and instead of him a fat, short-winded, merry-looking, little old man in black, with rusty little bunches of ribbons at the knees of his breeches, black stockings, and a broad-brimmed hat, came puffing up to the coach window, and said:
‘Will you come with me, young sir, if you please,’ he said, opening the door, ‘and I shall have the pleasure of taking you home.’
I put my hand in his, wondering who he was, and we walked away to a shop in a narrow street, on which was written OMER, DRAPER, TAILOR, HABERDASHER, FUNERAL FURNISHER, &c. It was a close and stifling little shop; full of all sorts of clothing, made and unmade, including one window full of beaver-hats and bonnets. We went into a little back-parlour behind the shop, where we found three young women at work on a quantity of black materials, which were heaped upon the table, and little bits and cuttings of which were littered all over the floor. There was a good fire in the room, and a breathless smell of warm black crape—I did not know what the smell was then, but I know now.
The three young women, who appeared to be very industrious and comfortable, raised their heads to look at me, and then went on with their work. Stitch, stitch, stitch. At the same time there came from a workshop across a little yard outside the window, a regular sound of hammering that kept a kind of tune: RAT—tat-tat, RAT—tat-tat, RAT—tat-tat, without any variation.
‘Well,’ said my conductor to one of the three young women. ‘How do you get on, Minnie?’
‘We shall be ready by the trying-on time,’ she replied gaily, without looking up. ‘Don’t you be afraid, father.’
Mr. Omer took off his broad-brimmed hat, and sat down and panted. He was so fat that he was obliged to pant some time before he could say:
‘Father!’ said Minnie, playfully. ‘What a porpoise you do grow!’
‘Well, I don’t know how it is, my dear,’ he replied, considering about it. ‘I am rather so.’
‘You are such a comfortable man, you see,’ said Minnie. ‘You take things so easy.’
‘No use taking ’em otherwise, my dear,’ said Mr. Omer.
‘No, indeed,’ returned his daughter. ‘We are all pretty gay here, thank Heaven! Ain’t we, father?’
‘I hope so, my dear,’ said Mr. Omer. ‘As I have got my breath now, I think I’ll measure this young scholar. Would you walk into the shop, Master Copperfield?’
I preceded Mr. Omer, in compliance with his request; and after showing me a roll of cloth which he said was extra super, and too good mourning for anything short of parents, he took my various dimensions, and put them down in a book. While he was recording them he called my attention to his stock in trade, and to certain fashions which he said had ‘just come up’, and to certain other fashions which he said had ‘just gone out’.
‘And by that sort of thing we very often lose a little mint of money,’ said Mr. Omer. ‘But fashions are like human beings. They come in, nobody knows when, why, or how; and they go out, nobody knows when, why, or how. Everything is like life, in my opinion, if you look at it in that point of view.’
I was too sorrowful to discuss the question, which would possibly have been beyond me under any circumstances; and Mr. Omer took me back into the parlour, breathing with some difficulty on the way.
He then called down a little break-neck range of steps behind a door: ‘Bring up that tea and bread-and-butter!’ which, after some time, during which I sat looking about me and thinking, and listening to the stitching in the room and the tune that was being hammered across the yard, appeared on a tray, and turned out to be for me.
‘I have been acquainted with you,’ said Mr. Omer, after watching me for some minutes, during which I had not made much impression on the breakfast, for the black things destroyed my appetite, ‘I have been acquainted with you a long time, my young friend.’
‘Have you, sir?’
‘All your life,’ said Mr. Omer. ‘I may say before it. I knew your father before you. He was five foot nine and a half, and he lays in five-and-twen-ty foot of ground.’
‘RAT—tat-tat, RAT—tat-tat, RAT—tat-tat,’ across the yard.
‘He lays in five and twen-ty foot of ground, if he lays in a fraction,’ said Mr. Omer, pleasantly. ‘It was either his request or her direction, I forget which.’
‘Do you know how my little brother is, sir?’ I inquired.
Mr. Omer shook his head.
‘RAT—tat-tat, RAT—tat-tat, RAT—tat-tat.’
‘He is in his mother’s arms,’ said he.
‘Oh, poor little fellow! Is he dead?’
‘Don’t mind it more than you can help,’ said Mr. Omer. ‘Yes. The baby’s dead.’
My wounds broke out afresh at this intelligence. I left the scarcely-tasted breakfast, and went and rested my head on another table, in a corner of the little room, which Minnie hastily cleared, lest I should spot the mourning that was lying there with my tears. She was a pretty, good-natured girl, and put my hair away from my eyes with a soft, kind touch; but she was very cheerful at having nearly finished her work and being in good time, and was so different from me!
Presently the tune left off, and a good-looking young fellow came across the yard into the room. He had a hammer in his hand, and his mouth was full of little nails, which he was obliged to take out before he could speak.
‘Well, Joram!’ said Mr. Omer. ‘How do you get on?’
‘All right,’ said Joram. ‘Done, sir.’
Minnie coloured a little, and the other two girls smiled at one another.
‘What! you were at it by candle-light last night, when I was at the club, then? Were you?’ said Mr. Omer, shutting up one eye.
‘Yes,’ said Joram. ‘As you said we could make a little trip of it, and go over together, if it was done, Minnie and me—and you.’
‘Oh! I thought you were going to leave me out altogether,’ said Mr. Omer, laughing till he coughed.
‘—As you was so good as to say that,’ resumed the young man, ‘why I turned to with a will, you see. Will you give me your opinion of it?’
‘I will,’ said Mr. Omer, rising. ‘My dear’; and he stopped and turned to me: ‘would you like to see your—’
‘No, father,’ Minnie interposed.
‘I thought it might be agreeable, my dear,’ said Mr. Omer. ‘But perhaps you’re right.’
I can’t say how I knew it was my dear, dear mother’s coffin that they went to look at. I had never heard one making; I had never seen one that I know of.—but it came into my mind what the noise was, while it was going on; and when the young man entered, I am sure I knew what he had been doing.
The work being now finished, the two girls, whose names I had not heard, brushed the shreds and threads from their dresses, and went into the shop to put that to rights, and wait for customers. Minnie stayed behind to fold up what they had made, and pack it in two baskets. This she did upon her knees, humming a lively little tune the while. Joram, who I had no doubt was her lover, came in and stole a kiss from her while she was busy (he didn’t appear to mind me, at all), and said her father was gone for the chaise, and he must make haste and get himself ready. Then he went out again; and then she put her thimble and scissors in her pocket, and stuck a needle threaded with black thread neatly in the bosom of her gown, and put on her outer clothing smartly, at a little glass behind the door, in which I saw the reflection of her pleased face.
All this I observed, sitting at the table in the corner with my head leaning on my hand, and my thoughts running on very different things. The chaise soon came round to the front of the shop, and the baskets being put in first, I was put in next, and those three followed. I remember it as a kind of half chaise-cart, half pianoforte-van, painted of a sombre colour, and drawn by a black horse with a long tail. There was plenty of room for us all.
I do not think I have ever experienced so strange a feeling in my life (I am wiser now, perhaps) as that of being with them, remembering how they had been employed, and seeing them enjoy the ride. I was not angry with them; I was more afraid of them, as if I were cast away among creatures with whom I had no community of nature. They were very cheerful. The old man sat in front to drive, and the two young people sat behind him, and whenever he spoke to them leaned forward, the one on one side of his chubby face and the other on the other, and made a great deal of him. They would have talked to me too, but I held back, and moped in my corner; scared by their love-making and hilarity, though it was far from boisterous, and almost wondering that no judgement came upon them for their hardness of heart.
So, when they stopped to bait the horse, and ate and drank and enjoyed themselves, I could touch nothing that they touched, but kept my fast unbroken. So, when we reached home, I dropped out of the chaise behind, as quickly as possible, that I might not be in their company before those solemn windows, looking blindly on me like closed eyes once bright. And oh, how little need I had had to think what would move me to tears when I came back—seeing the window of my mother’s room, and next it that which, in the better time, was mine!
I was in Peggotty’s arms before I got to the door, and she took me into the house. Her grief burst out when she first saw me; but she controlled it soon, and spoke in whispers, and walked softly, as if the dead could be disturbed. She had not been in bed, I found, for a long time. She sat up at night still, and watched. As long as her poor dear pretty was above the ground, she said, she would never desert her.
Mr. Murdstone took no heed of me when I went into the parlour where he was, but sat by the fireside, weeping silently, and pondering in his elbow-chair. Miss Murdstone, who was busy at her writing-desk, which was covered with letters and papers, gave me her cold finger-nails, and asked me, in an iron whisper, if I had been measured for my mourning.
I said: ‘Yes.’
‘And your shirts,’ said Miss Murdstone; ‘have you brought ’em home?’
‘Yes, ma’am. I have brought home all my clothes.’
This was all the consolation that her firmness administered to me. I do not doubt that she had a choice pleasure in exhibiting what she called her self-command, and her firmness, and her strength of mind, and her common sense, and the whole diabolical catalogue of her unamiable qualities, on such an occasion. She was particularly proud of her turn for business; and she showed it now in reducing everything to pen and ink, and being moved by nothing. All the rest of that day, and from morning to night afterwards, she sat at that desk, scratching composedly with a hard pen, speaking in the same imperturbable whisper to everybody; never relaxing a muscle of her face, or softening a tone of her voice, or appearing with an atom of her dress astray.
Her brother took a book sometimes, but never read it that I saw. He would open it and look at it as if he were reading, but would remain for a whole hour without turning the leaf, and then put it down and walk to and fro in the room. I used to sit with folded hands watching him, and counting his footsteps, hour after hour. He very seldom spoke to her, and never to me. He seemed to be the only restless thing, except the clocks, in the whole motionless house.
In these days before the funeral, I saw but little of Peggotty, except that, in passing up or down stairs, I always found her close to the room where my mother and her baby lay, and except that she came to me every night, and sat by my bed’s head while I went to sleep. A day or two before the burial—I think it was a day or two before, but I am conscious of confusion in my mind about that heavy time, with nothing to mark its progress—she took me into the room. I only recollect that underneath some white covering on the bed, with a beautiful cleanliness and freshness all around it, there seemed to me to lie embodied the solemn stillness that was in the house; and that when she would have turned the cover gently back, I cried: ‘Oh no! oh no!’ and held her hand.
If the funeral had been yesterday, I could not recollect it better. The very air of the best parlour, when I went in at the door, the bright condition of the fire, the shining of the wine in the decanters, the patterns of the glasses and plates, the faint sweet smell of cake, the odour of Miss Murdstone’s dress, and our black clothes. Mr. Chillip is in the room, and comes to speak to me.
‘And how is Master David?’ he says, kindly.
I cannot tell him very well. I give him my hand, which he holds in his.
‘Dear me!’ says Mr. Chillip, meekly smiling, with something shining in his eye. ‘Our little friends grow up around us. They grow out of our knowledge, ma’am?’ This is to Miss Murdstone, who makes no reply.
‘There is a great improvement here, ma’am?’ says Mr. Chillip.
Miss Murdstone merely answers with a frown and a formal bend: Mr. Chillip, discomfited, goes into a corner, keeping me with him, and opens his mouth no more.
I remark this, because I remark everything that happens, not because I care about myself, or have done since I came home. And now the bell begins to sound, and Mr. Omer and another come to make us ready. As Peggotty was wont to tell me, long ago, the followers of my father to the same grave were made ready in the same room.
There are Mr. Murdstone, our neighbour Mr. Grayper, Mr. Chillip, and I. When we go out to the door, the Bearers and their load are in the garden; and they move before us down the path, and past the elms, and through the gate, and into the churchyard, where I have so often heard the birds sing on a summer morning.
We stand around the grave. The day seems different to me from every other day, and the light not of the same colour—of a sadder colour. Now there is a solemn hush, which we have brought from home with what is resting in the mould; and while we stand bareheaded, I hear the voice of the clergyman, sounding remote in the open air, and yet distinct and plain, saying: ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord!’ Then I hear sobs; and, standing apart among the lookers-on, I see that good and faithful servant, whom of all the people upon earth I love the best, and unto whom my childish heart is certain that the Lord will one day say: ‘Well done.’
There are many faces that I know, among the little crowd; faces that I knew in church, when mine was always wondering there; faces that first saw my mother, when she came to the village in her youthful bloom. I do not mind them—I mind nothing but my grief—and yet I see and know them all; and even in the background, far away, see Minnie looking on, and her eye glancing on her sweetheart, who is near me.
It is over, and the earth is filled in, and we turn to come away. Before us stands our house, so pretty and unchanged, so linked in my mind with the young idea of what is gone, that all my sorrow has been nothing to the sorrow it calls forth. But they take me on; and Mr. Chillip talks to me; and when we get home, puts some water to my lips; and when I ask his leave to go up to my room, dismisses me with the gentleness of a woman.
All this, I say, is yesterday’s event. Events of later date have floated from me to the shore where all forgotten things will reappear, but this stands like a high rock in the ocean.
I knew that Peggotty would come to me in my room. The Sabbath stillness of the time (the day was so like Sunday! I have forgotten that) was suited to us both. She sat down by my side upon my little bed; and holding my hand, and sometimes putting it to her lips, and sometimes smoothing it with hers, as she might have comforted my little brother, told me, in her way, all that she had to tell concerning what had happened.
‘She was never well,’ said Peggotty, ‘for a long time. She was uncertain in her mind, and not happy. When her baby was born, I thought at first she would get better, but she was more delicate, and sunk a little every day. She used to like to sit alone before her baby came, and then she cried; but afterwards she used to sing to it—so soft, that I once thought, when I heard her, it was like a voice up in the air, that was rising away.
‘I think she got to be more timid, and more frightened-like, of late; and that a hard word was like a blow to her. But she was always the same to me. She never changed to her foolish Peggotty, didn’t my sweet girl.’
Here Peggotty stopped, and softly beat upon my hand a little while.
‘The last time that I saw her like her own old self, was the night when you came home, my dear. The day you went away, she said to me, “I never shall see my pretty darling again. Something tells me so, that tells the truth, I know.”
‘She tried to hold up after that; and many a time, when they told her she was thoughtless and light-hearted, made believe to be so; but it was all a bygone then. She never told her husband what she had told me—she was afraid of saying it to anybody else—till one night, a little more than a week before it happened, when she said to him: “My dear, I think I am dying.”
‘”It’s off my mind now, Peggotty,” she told me, when I laid her in her bed that night. “He will believe it more and more, poor fellow, every day for a few days to come; and then it will be past. I am very tired. If this is sleep, sit by me while I sleep: don’t leave me. God bless both my children! God protect and keep my fatherless boy!”
‘I never left her afterwards,’ said Peggotty. ‘She often talked to them two downstairs—for she loved them; she couldn’t bear not to love anyone who was about her—but when they went away from her bed-side, she always turned to me, as if there was rest where Peggotty was, and never fell asleep in any other way.
‘On the last night, in the evening, she kissed me, and said: “If my baby should die too, Peggotty, please let them lay him in my arms, and bury us together.” (It was done; for the poor lamb lived but a day beyond her.) “Let my dearest boy go with us to our resting-place,” she said, “and tell him that his mother, when she lay here, blessed him not once, but a thousand times.”‘
Another silence followed this, and another gentle beating on my hand.
‘It was pretty far in the night,’ said Peggotty, ‘when she asked me for some drink; and when she had taken it, gave me such a patient smile, the dear!—so beautiful!
‘Daybreak had come, and the sun was rising, when she said to me, how kind and considerate Mr. Copperfield had always been to her, and how he had borne with her, and told her, when she doubted herself, that a loving heart was better and stronger than wisdom, and that he was a happy man in hers. “Peggotty, my dear,” she said then, “put me nearer to you,” for she was very weak. “Lay your good arm underneath my neck,” she said, “and turn me to you, for your face is going far off, and I want it to be near.” I put it as she asked; and oh Davy! the time had come when my first parting words to you were true—when she was glad to lay her poor head on her stupid cross old Peggotty’s arm—and she died like a child that had gone to sleep!’
Thus ended Peggotty’s narration. From the moment of my knowing of the death of my mother, the idea of her as she had been of late had vanished from me. I remembered her, from that instant, only as the young mother of my earliest impressions, who had been used to wind her bright curls round and round her finger, and to dance with me at twilight in the parlour. What Peggotty had told me now, was so far from bringing me back to the later period, that it rooted the earlier image in my mind. It may be curious, but it is true. In her death she winged her way back to her calm untroubled youth, and cancelled all the rest.
The mother who lay in the grave, was the mother of my infancy; the little creature in her arms, was myself, as I had once been, hushed for ever on her bosom.