I FALL INTO DISGRACE.
If the room to which my bed was removed were a sentient thing that could give evidence, I might appeal to it at this day—who sleeps there now, I wonder!—to bear witness for me what a heavy heart I carried to it. I went up there, hearing the dog in the yard bark after me all the way while I climbed the stairs; and, looking as blank and strange upon the room as the room looked upon me, sat down with my small hands crossed, and thought.
I thought of the oddest things. Of the shape of the room, of the cracks in the ceiling, of the paper on the walls, of the flaws in the window-glass making ripples and dimples on the prospect, of the washing-stand being rickety on its three legs, and having a discontented something about it, which reminded me of Mrs. Gummidge under the influence of the old one. I was crying all the time, but, except that I was conscious of being cold and dejected, I am sure I never thought why I cried. At last in my desolation I began to consider that I was dreadfully in love with little Em’ly, and had been torn away from her to come here where no one seemed to want me, or to care about me, half as much as she did. This made such a very miserable piece of business of it, that I rolled myself up in a corner of the counterpane, and cried myself to sleep.
I was awoke by somebody saying ‘Here he is!’ and uncovering my hot head. My mother and Peggotty had come to look for me, and it was one of them who had done it.
‘Davy,’ said my mother. ‘What’s the matter?’
I thought it was very strange that she should ask me, and answered, ‘Nothing.’ I turned over on my face, I recollect, to hide my trembling lip, which answered her with greater truth. ‘Davy,’ said my mother. ‘Davy, my child!’
I dare say no words she could have uttered would have affected me so much, then, as her calling me her child. I hid my tears in the bedclothes, and pressed her from me with my hand, when she would have raised me up.
‘This is your doing, Peggotty, you cruel thing!’ said my mother. ‘I have no doubt at all about it. How can you reconcile it to your conscience, I wonder, to prejudice my own boy against me, or against anybody who is dear to me? What do you mean by it, Peggotty?’
Poor Peggotty lifted up her hands and eyes, and only answered, in a sort of paraphrase of the grace I usually repeated after dinner, ‘Lord forgive you, Mrs. Copperfield, and for what you have said this minute, may you never be truly sorry!’
‘It’s enough to distract me,’ cried my mother. ‘In my honeymoon, too, when my most inveterate enemy might relent, one would think, and not envy me a little peace of mind and happiness. Davy, you naughty boy! Peggotty, you savage creature! Oh, dear me!’ cried my mother, turning from one of us to the other, in her pettish wilful manner, ‘what a troublesome world this is, when one has the most right to expect it to be as agreeable as possible!’
I felt the touch of a hand that I knew was neither hers nor Peggotty’s, and slipped to my feet at the bed-side. It was Mr. Murdstone’s hand, and he kept it on my arm as he said:
‘What’s this? Clara, my love, have you forgotten?—Firmness, my dear!’
‘I am very sorry, Edward,’ said my mother. ‘I meant to be very good, but I am so uncomfortable.’
‘Indeed!’ he answered. ‘That’s a bad hearing, so soon, Clara.’
‘I say it’s very hard I should be made so now,’ returned my mother, pouting; ‘and it is—very hard—isn’t it?’
He drew her to him, whispered in her ear, and kissed her. I knew as well, when I saw my mother’s head lean down upon his shoulder, and her arm touch his neck—I knew as well that he could mould her pliant nature into any form he chose, as I know, now, that he did it.
‘Go you below, my love,’ said Mr. Murdstone. ‘David and I will come down, together. My friend,’ turning a darkening face on Peggotty, when he had watched my mother out, and dismissed her with a nod and a smile; ‘do you know your mistress’s name?’
‘She has been my mistress a long time, sir,’ answered Peggotty, ‘I ought to know it.’ ‘That’s true,’ he answered. ‘But I thought I heard you, as I came upstairs, address her by a name that is not hers. She has taken mine, you know. Will you remember that?’
Peggotty, with some uneasy glances at me, curtseyed herself out of the room without replying; seeing, I suppose, that she was expected to go, and had no excuse for remaining. When we two were left alone, he shut the door, and sitting on a chair, and holding me standing before him, looked steadily into my eyes. I felt my own attracted, no less steadily, to his. As I recall our being opposed thus, face to face, I seem again to hear my heart beat fast and high.
‘David,’ he said, making his lips thin, by pressing them together, ‘if I have an obstinate horse or dog to deal with, what do you think I do?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I beat him.’
I had answered in a kind of breathless whisper, but I felt, in my silence, that my breath was shorter now.
‘I make him wince, and smart. I say to myself, “I’ll conquer that fellow”; and if it were to cost him all the blood he had, I should do it. What is that upon your face?’
‘Dirt,’ I said.
He knew it was the mark of tears as well as I. But if he had asked the question twenty times, each time with twenty blows, I believe my baby heart would have burst before I would have told him so.
‘You have a good deal of intelligence for a little fellow,’ he said, with a grave smile that belonged to him, ‘and you understood me very well, I see. Wash that face, sir, and come down with me.’
He pointed to the washing-stand, which I had made out to be like Mrs. Gummidge, and motioned me with his head to obey him directly. I had little doubt then, and I have less doubt now, that he would have knocked me down without the least compunction, if I had hesitated.
‘Clara, my dear,’ he said, when I had done his bidding, and he walked me into the parlour, with his hand still on my arm; ‘you will not be made uncomfortable any more, I hope. We shall soon improve our youthful humours.’
God help me, I might have been improved for my whole life, I might have been made another creature perhaps, for life, by a kind word at that season. A word of encouragement and explanation, of pity for my childish ignorance, of welcome home, of reassurance to me that it was home, might have made me dutiful to him in my heart henceforth, instead of in my hypocritical outside, and might have made me respect instead of hate him. I thought my mother was sorry to see me standing in the room so scared and strange, and that, presently, when I stole to a chair, she followed me with her eyes more sorrowfully still—missing, perhaps, some freedom in my childish tread—but the word was not spoken, and the time for it was gone.
We dined alone, we three together. He seemed to be very fond of my mother—I am afraid I liked him none the better for that—and she was very fond of him. I gathered from what they said, that an elder sister of his was coming to stay with them, and that she was expected that evening. I am not certain whether I found out then, or afterwards, that, without being actively concerned in any business, he had some share in, or some annual charge upon the profits of, a wine-merchant’s house in London, with which his family had been connected from his great-grandfather’s time, and in which his sister had a similar interest; but I may mention it in this place, whether or no.
After dinner, when we were sitting by the fire, and I was meditating an escape to Peggotty without having the hardihood to slip away, lest it should offend the master of the house, a coach drove up to the garden-gate and he went out to receive the visitor. My mother followed him. I was timidly following her, when she turned round at the parlour door, in the dusk, and taking me in her embrace as she had been used to do, whispered me to love my new father and be obedient to him. She did this hurriedly and secretly, as if it were wrong, but tenderly; and, putting out her hand behind her, held mine in it, until we came near to where he was standing in the garden, where she let mine go, and drew hers through his arm.
It was Miss Murdstone who was arrived, and a gloomy-looking lady she was; dark, like her brother, whom she greatly resembled in face and voice; and with very heavy eyebrows, nearly meeting over her large nose, as if, being disabled by the wrongs of her sex from wearing whiskers, she had carried them to that account. She brought with her two uncompromising hard black boxes, with her initials on the lids in hard brass nails. When she paid the coachman she took her money out of a hard steel purse, and she kept the purse in a very jail of a bag which hung upon her arm by a heavy chain, and shut up like a bite. I had never, at that time, seen such a metallic lady altogether as Miss Murdstone was.
She was brought into the parlour with many tokens of welcome, and there formally recognized my mother as a new and near relation. Then she looked at me, and said:
‘Is that your boy, sister-in-law?’
My mother acknowledged me.
‘Generally speaking,’ said Miss Murdstone, ‘I don’t like boys. How d’ye do, boy?’
Under these encouraging circumstances, I replied that I was very well, and that I hoped she was the same; with such an indifferent grace, that Miss Murdstone disposed of me in two words:
Having uttered which, with great distinctness, she begged the favour of being shown to her room, which became to me from that time forth a place of awe and dread, wherein the two black boxes were never seen open or known to be left unlocked, and where (for I peeped in once or twice when she was out) numerous little steel fetters and rivets, with which Miss Murdstone embellished herself when she was dressed, generally hung upon the looking-glass in formidable array.
As well as I could make out, she had come for good, and had no intention of ever going again. She began to ‘help’ my mother next morning, and was in and out of the store-closet all day, putting things to rights, and making havoc in the old arrangements. Almost the first remarkable thing I observed in Miss Murdstone was, her being constantly haunted by a suspicion that the servants had a man secreted somewhere on the premises. Under the influence of this delusion, she dived into the coal-cellar at the most untimely hours, and scarcely ever opened the door of a dark cupboard without clapping it to again, in the belief that she had got him.
Though there was nothing very airy about Miss Murdstone, she was a perfect Lark in point of getting up. She was up (and, as I believe to this hour, looking for that man) before anybody in the house was stirring. Peggotty gave it as her opinion that she even slept with one eye open; but I could not concur in this idea; for I tried it myself after hearing the suggestion thrown out, and found it couldn’t be done.
On the very first morning after her arrival she was up and ringing her bell at cock-crow. When my mother came down to breakfast and was going to make the tea, Miss Murdstone gave her a kind of peck on the cheek, which was her nearest approach to a kiss, and said:
‘Now, Clara, my dear, I am come here, you know, to relieve you of all the trouble I can. You’re much too pretty and thoughtless’—my mother blushed but laughed, and seemed not to dislike this character—’to have any duties imposed upon you that can be undertaken by me. If you’ll be so good as give me your keys, my dear, I’ll attend to all this sort of thing in future.’
From that time, Miss Murdstone kept the keys in her own little jail all day, and under her pillow all night, and my mother had no more to do with them than I had.
My mother did not suffer her authority to pass from her without a shadow of protest. One night when Miss Murdstone had been developing certain household plans to her brother, of which he signified his approbation, my mother suddenly began to cry, and said she thought she might have been consulted.
‘Clara!’ said Mr. Murdstone sternly. ‘Clara! I wonder at you.’
‘Oh, it’s very well to say you wonder, Edward!’ cried my mother, ‘and it’s very well for you to talk about firmness, but you wouldn’t like it yourself.’
Firmness, I may observe, was the grand quality on which both Mr. and Miss Murdstone took their stand. However I might have expressed my comprehension of it at that time, if I had been called upon, I nevertheless did clearly comprehend in my own way, that it was another name for tyranny; and for a certain gloomy, arrogant, devil’s humour, that was in them both. The creed, as I should state it now, was this. Mr. Murdstone was firm; nobody in his world was to be so firm as Mr. Murdstone; nobody else in his world was to be firm at all, for everybody was to be bent to his firmness. Miss Murdstone was an exception. She might be firm, but only by relationship, and in an inferior and tributary degree. My mother was another exception. She might be firm, and must be; but only in bearing their firmness, and firmly believing there was no other firmness upon earth.
‘It’s very hard,’ said my mother, ‘that in my own house—’
‘My own house?’ repeated Mr. Murdstone. ‘Clara!’
‘OUR own house, I mean,’ faltered my mother, evidently frightened—’I hope you must know what I mean, Edward—it’s very hard that in YOUR own house I may not have a word to say about domestic matters. I am sure I managed very well before we were married. There’s evidence,’ said my mother, sobbing; ‘ask Peggotty if I didn’t do very well when I wasn’t interfered with!’
‘Edward,’ said Miss Murdstone, ‘let there be an end of this. I go tomorrow.’
‘Jane Murdstone,’ said her brother, ‘be silent! How dare you to insinuate that you don’t know my character better than your words imply?’
‘I am sure,’ my poor mother went on, at a grievous disadvantage, and with many tears, ‘I don’t want anybody to go. I should be very miserable and unhappy if anybody was to go. I don’t ask much. I am not unreasonable. I only want to be consulted sometimes. I am very much obliged to anybody who assists me, and I only want to be consulted as a mere form, sometimes. I thought you were pleased, once, with my being a little inexperienced and girlish, Edward—I am sure you said so—but you seem to hate me for it now, you are so severe.’
‘Edward,’ said Miss Murdstone, again, ‘let there be an end of this. I go tomorrow.’
‘Jane Murdstone,’ thundered Mr. Murdstone. ‘Will you be silent? How dare you?’
Miss Murdstone made a jail-delivery of her pocket-handkerchief, and held it before her eyes.
‘Clara,’ he continued, looking at my mother, ‘you surprise me! You astound me! Yes, I had a satisfaction in the thought of marrying an inexperienced and artless person, and forming her character, and infusing into it some amount of that firmness and decision of which it stood in need. But when Jane Murdstone is kind enough to come to my assistance in this endeavour, and to assume, for my sake, a condition something like a housekeeper’s, and when she meets with a base return—’
‘Oh, pray, pray, Edward,’ cried my mother, ‘don’t accuse me of being ungrateful. I am sure I am not ungrateful. No one ever said I was before. I have many faults, but not that. Oh, don’t, my dear!’
‘When Jane Murdstone meets, I say,’ he went on, after waiting until my mother was silent, ‘with a base return, that feeling of mine is chilled and altered.’
‘Don’t, my love, say that!’ implored my mother very piteously. ‘Oh, don’t, Edward! I can’t bear to hear it. Whatever I am, I am affectionate. I know I am affectionate. I wouldn’t say it, if I wasn’t sure that I am. Ask Peggotty. I am sure she’ll tell you I’m affectionate.’
‘There is no extent of mere weakness, Clara,’ said Mr. Murdstone in reply, ‘that can have the least weight with me. You lose breath.’
‘Pray let us be friends,’ said my mother, ‘I couldn’t live under coldness or unkindness. I am so sorry. I have a great many defects, I know, and it’s very good of you, Edward, with your strength of mind, to endeavour to correct them for me. Jane, I don’t object to anything. I should be quite broken-hearted if you thought of leaving—’ My mother was too much overcome to go on.
‘Jane Murdstone,’ said Mr. Murdstone to his sister, ‘any harsh words between us are, I hope, uncommon. It is not my fault that so unusual an occurrence has taken place tonight. I was betrayed into it by another. Nor is it your fault. You were betrayed into it by another. Let us both try to forget it. And as this,’ he added, after these magnanimous words, ‘is not a fit scene for the boy—David, go to bed!’
I could hardly find the door, through the tears that stood in my eyes. I was so sorry for my mother’s distress; but I groped my way out, and groped my way up to my room in the dark, without even having the heart to say good night to Peggotty, or to get a candle from her. When her coming up to look for me, an hour or so afterwards, awoke me, she said that my mother had gone to bed poorly, and that Mr. and Miss Murdstone were sitting alone.
Going down next morning rather earlier than usual, I paused outside the parlour door, on hearing my mother’s voice. She was very earnestly and humbly entreating Miss Murdstone’s pardon, which that lady granted, and a perfect reconciliation took place. I never knew my mother afterwards to give an opinion on any matter, without first appealing to Miss Murdstone, or without having first ascertained by some sure means, what Miss Murdstone’s opinion was; and I never saw Miss Murdstone, when out of temper (she was infirm that way), move her hand towards her bag as if she were going to take out the keys and offer to resign them to my mother, without seeing that my mother was in a terrible fright.
The gloomy taint that was in the Murdstone blood, darkened the Murdstone religion, which was austere and wrathful. I have thought, since, that its assuming that character was a necessary consequence of Mr. Murdstone’s firmness, which wouldn’t allow him to let anybody off from the utmost weight of the severest penalties he could find any excuse for. Be this as it may, I well remember the tremendous visages with which we used to go to church, and the changed air of the place. Again, the dreaded Sunday comes round, and I file into the old pew first, like a guarded captive brought to a condemned service. Again, Miss Murdstone, in a black velvet gown, that looks as if it had been made out of a pall, follows close upon me; then my mother; then her husband. There is no Peggotty now, as in the old time. Again, I listen to Miss Murdstone mumbling the responses, and emphasizing all the dread words with a cruel relish. Again, I see her dark eyes roll round the church when she says ‘miserable sinners’, as if she were calling all the congregation names. Again, I catch rare glimpses of my mother, moving her lips timidly between the two, with one of them muttering at each ear like low thunder. Again, I wonder with a sudden fear whether it is likely that our good old clergyman can be wrong, and Mr. and Miss Murdstone right, and that all the angels in Heaven can be destroying angels. Again, if I move a finger or relax a muscle of my face, Miss Murdstone pokes me with her prayer-book, and makes my side ache.
Yes, and again, as we walk home, I note some neighbours looking at my mother and at me, and whispering. Again, as the three go on arm-in-arm, and I linger behind alone, I follow some of those looks, and wonder if my mother’s step be really not so light as I have seen it, and if the gaiety of her beauty be really almost worried away. Again, I wonder whether any of the neighbours call to mind, as I do, how we used to walk home together, she and I; and I wonder stupidly about that, all the dreary dismal day.
There had been some talk on occasions of my going to boarding-school. Mr. and Miss Murdstone had originated it, and my mother had of course agreed with them. Nothing, however, was concluded on the subject yet. In the meantime, I learnt lessons at home. Shall I ever forget those lessons! They were presided over nominally by my mother, but really by Mr. Murdstone and his sister, who were always present, and found them a favourable occasion for giving my mother lessons in that miscalled firmness, which was the bane of both our lives. I believe I was kept at home for that purpose. I had been apt enough to learn, and willing enough, when my mother and I had lived alone together. I can faintly remember learning the alphabet at her knee. To this day, when I look upon the fat black letters in the primer, the puzzling novelty of their shapes, and the easy good-nature of O and Q and S, seem to present themselves again before me as they used to do. But they recall no feeling of disgust or reluctance. On the contrary, I seem to have walked along a path of flowers as far as the crocodile-book, and to have been cheered by the gentleness of my mother’s voice and manner all the way. But these solemn lessons which succeeded those, I remember as the death-blow of my peace, and a grievous daily drudgery and misery. They were very long, very numerous, very hard—perfectly unintelligible, some of them, to me—and I was generally as much bewildered by them as I believe my poor mother was herself.
Let me remember how it used to be, and bring one morning back again.
I come into the second-best parlour after breakfast, with my books, and an exercise-book, and a slate. My mother is ready for me at her writing-desk, but not half so ready as Mr. Murdstone in his easy-chair by the window (though he pretends to be reading a book), or as Miss Murdstone, sitting near my mother stringing steel beads. The very sight of these two has such an influence over me, that I begin to feel the words I have been at infinite pains to get into my head, all sliding away, and going I don’t know where. I wonder where they do go, by the by?
I hand the first book to my mother. Perhaps it is a grammar, perhaps a history, or geography. I take a last drowning look at the page as I give it into her hand, and start off aloud at a racing pace while I have got it fresh. I trip over a word. Mr. Murdstone looks up. I trip over another word. Miss Murdstone looks up. I redden, tumble over half-a-dozen words, and stop. I think my mother would show me the book if she dared, but she does not dare, and she says softly:
‘Oh, Davy, Davy!’
‘Now, Clara,’ says Mr. Murdstone, ‘be firm with the boy. Don’t say, “Oh, Davy, Davy!” That’s childish. He knows his lesson, or he does not know it.’
‘He does NOT know it,’ Miss Murdstone interposes awfully.
‘I am really afraid he does not,’ says my mother.
‘Then, you see, Clara,’ returns Miss Murdstone, ‘you should just give him the book back, and make him know it.’
‘Yes, certainly,’ says my mother; ‘that is what I intend to do, my dear Jane. Now, Davy, try once more, and don’t be stupid.’
I obey the first clause of the injunction by trying once more, but am not so successful with the second, for I am very stupid. I tumble down before I get to the old place, at a point where I was all right before, and stop to think. But I can’t think about the lesson. I think of the number of yards of net in Miss Murdstone’s cap, or of the price of Mr. Murdstone’s dressing-gown, or any such ridiculous problem that I have no business with, and don’t want to have anything at all to do with. Mr. Murdstone makes a movement of impatience which I have been expecting for a long time. Miss Murdstone does the same. My mother glances submissively at them, shuts the book, and lays it by as an arrear to be worked out when my other tasks are done.
There is a pile of these arrears very soon, and it swells like a rolling snowball. The bigger it gets, the more stupid I get. The case is so hopeless, and I feel that I am wallowing in such a bog of nonsense, that I give up all idea of getting out, and abandon myself to my fate. The despairing way in which my mother and I look at each other, as I blunder on, is truly melancholy. But the greatest effect in these miserable lessons is when my mother (thinking nobody is observing her) tries to give me the cue by the motion of her lips. At that instant, Miss Murdstone, who has been lying in wait for nothing else all along, says in a deep warning voice:
My mother starts, colours, and smiles faintly. Mr. Murdstone comes out of his chair, takes the book, throws it at me or boxes my ears with it, and turns me out of the room by the shoulders.
Even when the lessons are done, the worst is yet to happen, in the shape of an appalling sum. This is invented for me, and delivered to me orally by Mr. Murdstone, and begins, ‘If I go into a cheesemonger’s shop, and buy five thousand double-Gloucester cheeses at fourpence-halfpenny each, present payment’—at which I see Miss Murdstone secretly overjoyed. I pore over these cheeses without any result or enlightenment until dinner-time, when, having made a Mulatto of myself by getting the dirt of the slate into the pores of my skin, I have a slice of bread to help me out with the cheeses, and am considered in disgrace for the rest of the evening.
It seems to me, at this distance of time, as if my unfortunate studies generally took this course. I could have done very well if I had been without the Murdstones; but the influence of the Murdstones upon me was like the fascination of two snakes on a wretched young bird. Even when I did get through the morning with tolerable credit, there was not much gained but dinner; for Miss Murdstone never could endure to see me untasked, and if I rashly made any show of being unemployed, called her brother’s attention to me by saying, ‘Clara, my dear, there’s nothing like work—give your boy an exercise’; which caused me to be clapped down to some new labour, there and then. As to any recreation with other children of my age, I had very little of that; for the gloomy theology of the Murdstones made all children out to be a swarm of little vipers (though there WAS a child once set in the midst of the Disciples), and held that they contaminated one another.
The natural result of this treatment, continued, I suppose, for some six months or more, was to make me sullen, dull, and dogged. I was not made the less so by my sense of being daily more and more shut out and alienated from my mother. I believe I should have been almost stupefied but for one circumstance.
It was this. My father had left a small collection of books in a little room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined my own) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time,—they, and the Arabian Nights, and the Tales of the Genii,—and did me no harm; for whatever harm was in some of them was not there for me; I knew nothing of it. It is astonishing to me now, how I found time, in the midst of my porings and blunderings over heavier themes, to read those books as I did. It is curious to me how I could ever have consoled myself under my small troubles (which were great troubles to me), by impersonating my favourite characters in them—as I did—and by putting Mr. and Miss Murdstone into all the bad ones—which I did too. I have been Tom Jones (a child’s Tom Jones, a harmless creature) for a week together. I have sustained my own idea of Roderick Random for a month at a stretch, I verily believe. I had a greedy relish for a few volumes of Voyages and Travels—I forget what, now—that were on those shelves; and for days and days I can remember to have gone about my region of our house, armed with the centre-piece out of an old set of boot-trees—the perfect realization of Captain Somebody, of the Royal British Navy, in danger of being beset by savages, and resolved to sell his life at a great price. The Captain never lost dignity, from having his ears boxed with the Latin Grammar. I did; but the Captain was a Captain and a hero, in despite of all the grammars of all the languages in the world, dead or alive.
This was my only and my constant comfort. When I think of it, the picture always rises in my mind, of a summer evening, the boys at play in the churchyard, and I sitting on my bed, reading as if for life. Every barn in the neighbourhood, every stone in the church, and every foot of the churchyard, had some association of its own, in my mind, connected with these books, and stood for some locality made famous in them. I have seen Tom Pipes go climbing up the church-steeple; I have watched Strap, with the knapsack on his back, stopping to rest himself upon the wicket-gate; and I know that Commodore Trunnion held that club with Mr. Pickle, in the parlour of our little village alehouse.
The reader now understands, as well as I do, what I was when I came to that point of my youthful history to which I am now coming again.
One morning when I went into the parlour with my books, I found my mother looking anxious, Miss Murdstone looking firm, and Mr. Murdstone binding something round the bottom of a cane—a lithe and limber cane, which he left off binding when I came in, and poised and switched in the air.
‘I tell you, Clara,’ said Mr. Murdstone, ‘I have been often flogged myself.’
‘To be sure; of course,’ said Miss Murdstone.
‘Certainly, my dear Jane,’ faltered my mother, meekly. ‘But—but do you think it did Edward good?’
‘Do you think it did Edward harm, Clara?’ asked Mr. Murdstone, gravely.
‘That’s the point,’ said his sister.
To this my mother returned, ‘Certainly, my dear Jane,’ and said no more.
I felt apprehensive that I was personally interested in this dialogue, and sought Mr. Murdstone’s eye as it lighted on mine.
‘Now, David,’ he said—and I saw that cast again as he said it—’you must be far more careful today than usual.’ He gave the cane another poise, and another switch; and having finished his preparation of it, laid it down beside him, with an impressive look, and took up his book.
This was a good freshener to my presence of mind, as a beginning. I felt the words of my lessons slipping off, not one by one, or line by line, but by the entire page; I tried to lay hold of them; but they seemed, if I may so express it, to have put skates on, and to skim away from me with a smoothness there was no checking.
We began badly, and went on worse. I had come in with an idea of distinguishing myself rather, conceiving that I was very well prepared; but it turned out to be quite a mistake. Book after book was added to the heap of failures, Miss Murdstone being firmly watchful of us all the time. And when we came at last to the five thousand cheeses (canes he made it that day, I remember), my mother burst out crying.
‘Clara!’ said Miss Murdstone, in her warning voice.
‘I am not quite well, my dear Jane, I think,’ said my mother.
I saw him wink, solemnly, at his sister, as he rose and said, taking up the cane:
‘Why, Jane, we can hardly expect Clara to bear, with perfect firmness, the worry and torment that David has occasioned her today. That would be stoical. Clara is greatly strengthened and improved, but we can hardly expect so much from her. David, you and I will go upstairs, boy.’
As he took me out at the door, my mother ran towards us. Miss Murdstone said, ‘Clara! are you a perfect fool?’ and interfered. I saw my mother stop her ears then, and I heard her crying.
He walked me up to my room slowly and gravely—I am certain he had a delight in that formal parade of executing justice—and when we got there, suddenly twisted my head under his arm.
‘Mr. Murdstone! Sir!’ I cried to him. ‘Don’t! Pray don’t beat me! I have tried to learn, sir, but I can’t learn while you and Miss Murdstone are by. I can’t indeed!’
‘Can’t you, indeed, David?’ he said. ‘We’ll try that.’
He had my head as in a vice, but I twined round him somehow, and stopped him for a moment, entreating him not to beat me. It was only a moment that I stopped him, for he cut me heavily an instant afterwards, and in the same instant I caught the hand with which he held me in my mouth, between my teeth, and bit it through. It sets my teeth on edge to think of it.
He beat me then, as if he would have beaten me to death. Above all the noise we made, I heard them running up the stairs, and crying out—I heard my mother crying out—and Peggotty. Then he was gone; and the door was locked outside; and I was lying, fevered and hot, and torn, and sore, and raging in my puny way, upon the floor.
How well I recollect, when I became quiet, what an unnatural stillness seemed to reign through the whole house! How well I remember, when my smart and passion began to cool, how wicked I began to feel!
I sat listening for a long while, but there was not a sound. I crawled up from the floor, and saw my face in the glass, so swollen, red, and ugly that it almost frightened me. My stripes were sore and stiff, and made me cry afresh, when I moved; but they were nothing to the guilt I felt. It lay heavier on my breast than if I had been a most atrocious criminal, I dare say.
It had begun to grow dark, and I had shut the window (I had been lying, for the most part, with my head upon the sill, by turns crying, dozing, and looking listlessly out), when the key was turned, and Miss Murdstone came in with some bread and meat, and milk. These she put down upon the table without a word, glaring at me the while with exemplary firmness, and then retired, locking the door after her.
Long after it was dark I sat there, wondering whether anybody else would come. When this appeared improbable for that night, I undressed, and went to bed; and, there, I began to wonder fearfully what would be done to me. Whether it was a criminal act that I had committed? Whether I should be taken into custody, and sent to prison? Whether I was at all in danger of being hanged?
I never shall forget the waking, next morning; the being cheerful and fresh for the first moment, and then the being weighed down by the stale and dismal oppression of remembrance. Miss Murdstone reappeared before I was out of bed; told me, in so many words, that I was free to walk in the garden for half an hour and no longer; and retired, leaving the door open, that I might avail myself of that permission.
I did so, and did so every morning of my imprisonment, which lasted five days. If I could have seen my mother alone, I should have gone down on my knees to her and besought her forgiveness; but I saw no one, Miss Murdstone excepted, during the whole time—except at evening prayers in the parlour; to which I was escorted by Miss Murdstone after everybody else was placed; where I was stationed, a young outlaw, all alone by myself near the door; and whence I was solemnly conducted by my jailer, before any one arose from the devotional posture. I only observed that my mother was as far off from me as she could be, and kept her face another way so that I never saw it; and that Mr. Murdstone’s hand was bound up in a large linen wrapper.
The length of those five days I can convey no idea of to any one. They occupy the place of years in my remembrance. The way in which I listened to all the incidents of the house that made themselves audible to me; the ringing of bells, the opening and shutting of doors, the murmuring of voices, the footsteps on the stairs; to any laughing, whistling, or singing, outside, which seemed more dismal than anything else to me in my solitude and disgrace—the uncertain pace of the hours, especially at night, when I would wake thinking it was morning, and find that the family were not yet gone to bed, and that all the length of night had yet to come—the depressed dreams and nightmares I had—the return of day, noon, afternoon, evening, when the boys played in the churchyard, and I watched them from a distance within the room, being ashamed to show myself at the window lest they should know I was a prisoner—the strange sensation of never hearing myself speak—the fleeting intervals of something like cheerfulness, which came with eating and drinking, and went away with it—the setting in of rain one evening, with a fresh smell, and its coming down faster and faster between me and the church, until it and gathering night seemed to quench me in gloom, and fear, and remorse—all this appears to have gone round and round for years instead of days, it is so vividly and strongly stamped on my remembrance. On the last night of my restraint, I was awakened by hearing my own name spoken in a whisper. I started up in bed, and putting out my arms in the dark, said:
‘Is that you, Peggotty?’
There was no immediate answer, but presently I heard my name again, in a tone so very mysterious and awful, that I think I should have gone into a fit, if it had not occurred to me that it must have come through the keyhole.
I groped my way to the door, and putting my own lips to the keyhole, whispered: ‘Is that you, Peggotty dear?’
‘Yes, my own precious Davy,’ she replied. ‘Be as soft as a mouse, or the Cat’ll hear us.’
I understood this to mean Miss Murdstone, and was sensible of the urgency of the case; her room being close by.
‘How’s mama, dear Peggotty? Is she very angry with me?’
I could hear Peggotty crying softly on her side of the keyhole, as I was doing on mine, before she answered. ‘No. Not very.’
‘What is going to be done with me, Peggotty dear? Do you know?’
‘School. Near London,’ was Peggotty’s answer. I was obliged to get her to repeat it, for she spoke it the first time quite down my throat, in consequence of my having forgotten to take my mouth away from the keyhole and put my ear there; and though her words tickled me a good deal, I didn’t hear them.
‘Is that the reason why Miss Murdstone took the clothes out of my drawers?’ which she had done, though I have forgotten to mention it.
‘Yes,’ said Peggotty. ‘Box.’
‘Shan’t I see mama?’
‘Yes,’ said Peggotty. ‘Morning.’
Then Peggotty fitted her mouth close to the keyhole, and delivered these words through it with as much feeling and earnestness as a keyhole has ever been the medium of communicating, I will venture to assert: shooting in each broken little sentence in a convulsive little burst of its own.
‘Davy, dear. If I ain’t been azackly as intimate with you. Lately, as I used to be. It ain’t because I don’t love you. Just as well and more, my pretty poppet. It’s because I thought it better for you. And for someone else besides. Davy, my darling, are you listening? Can you hear?’
‘Ye-ye-ye-yes, Peggotty!’ I sobbed.
‘My own!’ said Peggotty, with infinite compassion. ‘What I want to say, is. That you must never forget me. For I’ll never forget you. And I’ll take as much care of your mama, Davy. As ever I took of you. And I won’t leave her. The day may come when she’ll be glad to lay her poor head. On her stupid, cross old Peggotty’s arm again. And I’ll write to you, my dear. Though I ain’t no scholar. And I’ll—I’ll—’ Peggotty fell to kissing the keyhole, as she couldn’t kiss me.
‘Thank you, dear Peggotty!’ said I. ‘Oh, thank you! Thank you! Will you promise me one thing, Peggotty? Will you write and tell Mr. Peggotty and little Em’ly, and Mrs. Gummidge and Ham, that I am not so bad as they might suppose, and that I sent ’em all my love—especially to little Em’ly? Will you, if you please, Peggotty?’
The kind soul promised, and we both of us kissed the keyhole with the greatest affection—I patted it with my hand, I recollect, as if it had been her honest face—and parted. From that night there grew up in my breast a feeling for Peggotty which I cannot very well define. She did not replace my mother; no one could do that; but she came into a vacancy in my heart, which closed upon her, and I felt towards her something I have never felt for any other human being. It was a sort of comical affection, too; and yet if she had died, I cannot think what I should have done, or how I should have acted out the tragedy it would have been to me.
In the morning Miss Murdstone appeared as usual, and told me I was going to school; which was not altogether such news to me as she supposed. She also informed me that when I was dressed, I was to come downstairs into the parlour, and have my breakfast. There, I found my mother, very pale and with red eyes: into whose arms I ran, and begged her pardon from my suffering soul.
‘Oh, Davy!’ she said. ‘That you could hurt anyone I love! Try to be better, pray to be better! I forgive you; but I am so grieved, Davy, that you should have such bad passions in your heart.’
They had persuaded her that I was a wicked fellow, and she was more sorry for that than for my going away. I felt it sorely. I tried to eat my parting breakfast, but my tears dropped upon my bread-and-butter, and trickled into my tea. I saw my mother look at me sometimes, and then glance at the watchful Miss Murdstone, and than look down, or look away.
‘Master Copperfield’s box there!’ said Miss Murdstone, when wheels were heard at the gate.
I looked for Peggotty, but it was not she; neither she nor Mr. Murdstone appeared. My former acquaintance, the carrier, was at the door. The box was taken out to his cart, and lifted in.
‘Clara!’ said Miss Murdstone, in her warning note.
‘Ready, my dear Jane,’ returned my mother. ‘Good-bye, Davy. You are going for your own good. Good-bye, my child. You will come home in the holidays, and be a better boy.’
‘Clara!’ Miss Murdstone repeated.
‘Certainly, my dear Jane,’ replied my mother, who was holding me. ‘I forgive you, my dear boy. God bless you!’
‘Clara!’ Miss Murdstone repeated.
Miss Murdstone was good enough to take me out to the cart, and to say on the way that she hoped I would repent, before I came to a bad end; and then I got into the cart, and the lazy horse walked off with it.