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Charles Dickens > David Copperfield > Chapter 1

David Copperfield

Chapter 1


Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether
that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was
born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve
o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike,
and I began to cry, simultaneously.

In consideration of the day and hour of my birth, it was declared
by the nurse, and by some sage women in the neighbourhood who had
taken a lively interest in me several months before there was any
possibility of our becoming personally acquainted, first, that I
was destined to be unlucky in life; and secondly, that I was
privileged to see ghosts and spirits; both these gifts inevitably
attaching, as they believed, to all unlucky infants of either
gender, born towards the small hours on a Friday night.

I need say nothing here, on the first head, because nothing can
show better than my history whether that prediction was verified or
falsified by the result. On the second branch of the question, I
will only remark, that unless I ran through that part of my
inheritance while I was still a baby, I have not come into it yet.
But I do not at all complain of having been kept out of this
property; and if anybody else should be in the present enjoyment of
it, he is heartily welcome to keep it.

I was born with a caul, which was advertised for sale, in the
newspapers, at the low price of fifteen guineas. Whether sea-going
people were short of money about that time, or were short of faith
and preferred cork jackets, I don't know; all I know is, that there
was but one solitary bidding, and that was from an attorney
connected with the bill-broking business, who offered two pounds in
cash, and the balance in sherry, but declined to be guaranteed from
drowning on any higher bargain. Consequently the advertisement was
withdrawn at a dead loss - for as to sherry, my poor dear mother's
own sherry was in the market then - and ten years afterwards, the
caul was put up in a raffle down in our part of the country, to
fifty members at half-a-crown a head, the winner to spend five
shillings. I was present myself, and I remember to have felt quite
uncomfortable and confused, at a part of myself being disposed of
in that way. The caul was won, I recollect, by an old lady with a
hand-basket, who, very reluctantly, produced from it the stipulated
five shillings, all in halfpence, and twopence halfpenny short - as
it took an immense time and a great waste of arithmetic, to
endeavour without any effect to prove to her. It is a fact which
will be long remembered as remarkable down there, that she was
never drowned, but died triumphantly in bed, at ninety-two. I have
understood that it was, to the last, her proudest boast, that she
never had been on the water in her life, except upon a bridge; and
that over her tea (to which she was extremely partial) she, to the
last, expressed her indignation at the impiety of mariners and
others, who had the presumption to go 'meandering' about the world.
It was in vain to represent to her that some conveniences, tea
perhaps included, resulted from this objectionable practice. She
always returned, with greater emphasis and with an instinctive
knowledge of the strength of her objection, 'Let us have no

Not to meander myself, at present, I will go back to my birth.

I was born at Blunderstone, in Suffolk, or 'there by', as they say
in Scotland. I was a posthumous child. My father's eyes had
closed upon the light of this world six months, when mine opened on
it. There is something strange to me, even now, in the reflection
that he never saw me; and something stranger yet in the shadowy
remembrance that I have of my first childish associations with his
white grave-stone in the churchyard, and of the indefinable
compassion I used to feel for it lying out alone there in the dark
night, when our little parlour was warm and bright with fire and
candle, and the doors of our house were - almost cruelly, it seemed
to me sometimes - bolted and locked against it.

An aunt of my father's, and consequently a great-aunt of mine, of
whom I shall have more to relate by and by, was the principal
magnate of our family. Miss Trotwood, or Miss Betsey, as my poor
mother always called her, when she sufficiently overcame her dread
of this formidable personage to mention her at all (which was
seldom), had been married to a husband younger than herself, who
was very handsome, except in the sense of the homely adage,
'handsome is, that handsome does' - for he was strongly suspected
of having beaten Miss Betsey, and even of having once, on a
disputed question of supplies, made some hasty but determined
arrangements to throw her out of a two pair of stairs' window.
These evidences of an incompatibility of temper induced Miss Betsey
to pay him off, and effect a separation by mutual consent. He went
to India with his capital, and there, according to a wild legend in
our family, he was once seen riding on an elephant, in company with
a Baboon; but I think it must have been a Baboo - or a Begum.
Anyhow, from India tidings of his death reached home, within ten
years. How they affected my aunt, nobody knew; for immediately
upon the separation, she took her maiden name again, bought a
cottage in a hamlet on the sea-coast a long way off, established
herself there as a single woman with one servant, and was
understood to live secluded, ever afterwards, in an inflexible

My father had once been a favourite of hers, I believe; but she was
mortally affronted by his marriage, on the ground that my mother
was 'a wax doll'. She had never seen my mother, but she knew her
to be not yet twenty. My father and Miss Betsey never met again.
He was double my mother's age when he married, and of but a
delicate constitution. He died a year afterwards, and, as I have
said, six months before I came into the world.

This was the state of matters, on the afternoon of, what I may be
excused for calling, that eventful and important Friday. I can
make no claim therefore to have known, at that time, how matters
stood; or to have any remembrance, founded on the evidence of my
own senses, of what follows.

My mother was sitting by the fire, but poorly in health, and very
low in spirits, looking at it through her tears, and desponding
heavily about herself and the fatherless little stranger, who was
already welcomed by some grosses of prophetic pins, in a drawer
upstairs, to a world not at all excited on the subject of his
arrival; my mother, I say, was sitting by the fire, that bright,
windy March afternoon, very timid and sad, and very doubtful of
ever coming alive out of the trial that was before her, when,
lifting her eyes as she dried them, to the window opposite, she saw
a strange lady coming up the garden.

MY mother had a sure foreboding at the second glance, that it was
Miss Betsey. The setting sun was glowing on the strange lady, over
the garden-fence, and she came walking up to the door with a fell
rigidity of figure and composure of countenance that could have
belonged to nobody else.

When she reached the house, she gave another proof of her identity.
My father had often hinted that she seldom conducted herself like
any ordinary Christian; and now, instead of ringing the bell, she
came and looked in at that identical window, pressing the end of
her nose against the glass to that extent, that my poor dear mother
used to say it became perfectly flat and white in a moment.

She gave my mother such a turn, that I have always been convinced
I am indebted to Miss Betsey for having been born on a Friday.

My mother had left her chair in her agitation, and gone behind it
in the corner. Miss Betsey, looking round the room, slowly and
inquiringly, began on the other side, and carried her eyes on, like
a Saracen's Head in a Dutch clock, until they reached my mother.
Then she made a frown and a gesture to my mother, like one who was
accustomed to be obeyed, to come and open the door. My mother

'Mrs. David Copperfield, I think,' said Miss Betsey; the emphasis
referring, perhaps, to my mother's mourning weeds, and her

'Yes,' said my mother, faintly.

'Miss Trotwood,' said the visitor. 'You have heard of her, I dare

My mother answered she had had that pleasure. And she had a
disagreeable consciousness of not appearing to imply that it had
been an overpowering pleasure.

'Now you see her,' said Miss Betsey. My mother bent her head, and
begged her to walk in.

They went into the parlour my mother had come from, the fire in the
best room on the other side of the passage not being lighted - not
having been lighted, indeed, since my father's funeral; and when
they were both seated, and Miss Betsey said nothing, my mother,
after vainly trying to restrain herself, began to cry.
'Oh tut, tut, tut!' said Miss Betsey, in a hurry. 'Don't do that!
Come, come!'

My mother couldn't help it notwithstanding, so she cried until she
had had her cry out.

'Take off your cap, child,' said Miss Betsey, 'and let me see you.'

MY mother was too much afraid of her to refuse compliance with this
odd request, if she had any disposition to do so. Therefore she
did as she was told, and did it with such nervous hands that her
hair (which was luxuriant and beautiful) fell all about her face.

'Why, bless my heart!' exclaimed Miss Betsey. 'You are a very

My mother was, no doubt, unusually youthful in appearance even for
her years; she hung her head, as if it were her fault, poor thing,
and said, sobbing, that indeed she was afraid she was but a
childish widow, and would be but a childish mother if she lived.
In a short pause which ensued, she had a fancy that she felt Miss
Betsey touch her hair, and that with no ungentle hand; but, looking
at her, in her timid hope, she found that lady sitting with the
skirt of her dress tucked up, her hands folded on one knee, and her
feet upon the fender, frowning at the fire.

'In the name of Heaven,' said Miss Betsey, suddenly, 'why Rookery?'

'Do you mean the house, ma'am?' asked my mother.

'Why Rookery?' said Miss Betsey. 'Cookery would have been more to
the purpose, if you had had any practical ideas of life, either of

'The name was Mr. Copperfield's choice,' returned my mother. 'When
he bought the house, he liked to think that there were rooks about

The evening wind made such a disturbance just now, among some tall
old elm-trees at the bottom of the garden, that neither my mother
nor Miss Betsey could forbear glancing that way. As the elms bent
to one another, like giants who were whispering secrets, and after
a few seconds of such repose, fell into a violent flurry, tossing
their wild arms about, as if their late confidences were really too
wicked for their peace of mind, some weatherbeaten ragged old
rooks'-nests, burdening their higher branches, swung like wrecks
upon a stormy sea.

'Where are the birds?' asked Miss Betsey.

'The -? ' My mother had been thinking of something else.

'The rooks - what has become of them?' asked Miss Betsey.

'There have not been any since we have lived here,' said my mother.
'We thought - Mr. Copperfield thought - it was quite a large
rookery; but the nests were very old ones, and the birds have
deserted them a long while.'

'David Copperfield all over!' cried Miss Betsey. 'David
Copperfield from head to foot! Calls a house a rookery when
there's not a rook near it, and takes the birds on trust, because
he sees the nests!'

'Mr. Copperfield,' returned my mother, 'is dead, and if you dare to
speak unkindly of him to me -'

My poor dear mother, I suppose, had some momentary intention of
committing an assault and battery upon my aunt, who could easily
have settled her with one hand, even if my mother had been in far
better training for such an encounter than she was that evening.
But it passed with the action of rising from her chair; and she sat
down again very meekly, and fainted.

When she came to herself, or when Miss Betsey had restored her,
whichever it was, she found the latter standing at the window. The
twilight was by this time shading down into darkness; and dimly as
they saw each other, they could not have done that without the aid
of the fire.

'Well?' said Miss Betsey, coming back to her chair, as if she had
only been taking a casual look at the prospect; 'and when do you
expect -'

'I am all in a tremble,' faltered my mother. 'I don't know what's
the matter. I shall die, I am sure!'

'No, no, no,' said Miss Betsey. 'Have some tea.'

'Oh dear me, dear me, do you think it will do me any good?' cried
my mother in a helpless manner.

'Of course it will,' said Miss Betsey. 'It's nothing but fancy.
What do you call your girl?'

'I don't know that it will be a girl, yet, ma'am,' said my mother

'Bless the Baby!' exclaimed Miss Betsey, unconsciously quoting the
second sentiment of the pincushion in the drawer upstairs, but
applying it to my mother instead of me, 'I don't mean that. I mean
your servant-girl.'

'Peggotty,' said my mother.

'Peggotty!' repeated Miss Betsey, with some indignation. 'Do you
mean to say, child, that any human being has gone into a Christian
church, and got herself named Peggotty?'
'It's her surname,' said my mother, faintly. 'Mr. Copperfield
called her by it, because her Christian name was the same as mine.'

'Here! Peggotty!' cried Miss Betsey, opening the parlour door.
'Tea. Your mistress is a little unwell. Don't dawdle.'

Having issued this mandate with as much potentiality as if she had
been a recognized authority in the house ever since it had been a
house, and having looked out to confront the amazed Peggotty coming
along the passage with a candle at the sound of a strange voice,
Miss Betsey shut the door again, and sat down as before: with her
feet on the fender, the skirt of her dress tucked up, and her hands
folded on one knee.

'You were speaking about its being a girl,' said Miss Betsey. 'I
have no doubt it will be a girl. I have a presentiment that it
must be a girl. Now child, from the moment of the birth of this
girl -'

'Perhaps boy,' my mother took the liberty of putting in.

'I tell you I have a presentiment that it must be a girl,' returned
Miss Betsey. 'Don't contradict. From the moment of this girl's
birth, child, I intend to be her friend. I intend to be her
godmother, and I beg you'll call her Betsey Trotwood Copperfield.
There must be no mistakes in life with THIS Betsey Trotwood. There
must be no trifling with HER affections, poor dear. She must be
well brought up, and well guarded from reposing any foolish
confidences where they are not deserved. I must make that MY

There was a twitch of Miss Betsey's head, after each of these
sentences, as if her own old wrongs were working within her, and
she repressed any plainer reference to them by strong constraint.
So my mother suspected, at least, as she observed her by the low
glimmer of the fire: too much scared by Miss Betsey, too uneasy in
herself, and too subdued and bewildered altogether, to observe
anything very clearly, or to know what to say.

'And was David good to you, child?' asked Miss Betsey, when she had
been silent for a little while, and these motions of her head had
gradually ceased. 'Were you comfortable together?'

'We were very happy,' said my mother. 'Mr. Copperfield was only
too good to me.'

'What, he spoilt you, I suppose?' returned Miss Betsey.

'For being quite alone and dependent on myself in this rough world
again, yes, I fear he did indeed,' sobbed my mother.

'Well! Don't cry!' said Miss Betsey. 'You were not equally
matched, child - if any two people can be equally matched - and so
I asked the question. You were an orphan, weren't you?'

'And a governess?'

'I was nursery-governess in a family where Mr. Copperfield came to
visit. Mr. Copperfield was very kind to me, and took a great deal
of notice of me, and paid me a good deal of attention, and at last
proposed to me. And I accepted him. And so we were married,' said
my mother simply.

'Ha! Poor Baby!' mused Miss Betsey, with her frown still bent upon
the fire. 'Do you know anything?'

'I beg your pardon, ma'am,' faltered my mother.

'About keeping house, for instance,' said Miss Betsey.

'Not much, I fear,' returned my mother. 'Not so much as I could
wish. But Mr. Copperfield was teaching me -'

('Much he knew about it himself!') said Miss Betsey in a

- 'And I hope I should have improved, being very anxious to learn,
and he very patient to teach me, if the great misfortune of his
death' - my mother broke down again here, and could get no farther.

'Well, well!' said Miss Betsey.

-'I kept my housekeeping-book regularly, and balanced it with Mr.
Copperfield every night,' cried my mother in another burst of
distress, and breaking down again.

'Well, well!' said Miss Betsey. 'Don't cry any more.'

- 'And I am sure we never had a word of difference respecting it,
except when Mr. Copperfield objected to my threes and fives being
too much like each other, or to my putting curly tails to my sevens
and nines,' resumed my mother in another burst, and breaking down

'You'll make yourself ill,' said Miss Betsey, 'and you know that
will not be good either for you or for my god-daughter. Come! You
mustn't do it!'

This argument had some share in quieting my mother, though her
increasing indisposition had a larger one. There was an interval
of silence, only broken by Miss Betsey's occasionally ejaculating
'Ha!' as she sat with her feet upon the fender.

'David had bought an annuity for himself with his money, I know,'
said she, by and by. 'What did he do for you?'

'Mr. Copperfield,' said my mother, answering with some difficulty,
'was so considerate and good as to secure the reversion of a part
of it to me.'

'How much?' asked Miss Betsey.

'A hundred and five pounds a year,' said my mother.

'He might have done worse,' said my aunt.

The word was appropriate to the moment. My mother was so much
worse that Peggotty, coming in with the teaboard and candles, and
seeing at a glance how ill she was, - as Miss Betsey might have
done sooner if there had been light enough, - conveyed her upstairs
to her own room with all speed; and immediately dispatched Ham
Peggotty, her nephew, who had been for some days past secreted in
the house, unknown to my mother, as a special messenger in case of
emergency, to fetch the nurse and doctor.

Those allied powers were considerably astonished, when they arrived
within a few minutes of each other, to find an unknown lady of
portentous appearance, sitting before the fire, with her bonnet
tied over her left arm, stopping her ears with jewellers' cotton.
Peggotty knowing nothing about her, and my mother saying nothing
about her, she was quite a mystery in the parlour; and the fact of
her having a magazine of jewellers' cotton in her pocket, and
sticking the article in her ears in that way, did not detract from
the solemnity of her presence.

The doctor having been upstairs and come down again, and having
satisfied himself, I suppose, that there was a probability of this
unknown lady and himself having to sit there, face to face, for
some hours, laid himself out to be polite and social. He was the
meekest of his sex, the mildest of little men. He sidled in and
out of a room, to take up the less space. He walked as softly as
the Ghost in Hamlet, and more slowly. He carried his head on one
side, partly in modest depreciation of himself, partly in modest
propitiation of everybody else. It is nothing to say that he
hadn't a word to throw at a dog. He couldn't have thrown a word at
a mad dog. He might have offered him one gently, or half a one, or
a fragment of one; for he spoke as slowly as he walked; but he
wouldn't have been rude to him, and he couldn't have been quick
with him, for any earthly consideration.

Mr. Chillip, looking mildly at my aunt with his head on one side,
and making her a little bow, said, in allusion to the jewellers'
cotton, as he softly touched his left ear:

'Some local irritation, ma'am?'

'What!' replied my aunt, pulling the cotton out of one ear like a

Mr. Chillip was so alarmed by her abruptness - as he told my mother
afterwards - that it was a mercy he didn't lose his presence of
mind. But he repeated sweetly:

'Some local irritation, ma'am?'

'Nonsense!' replied my aunt, and corked herself again, at one blow.

Mr. Chillip could do nothing after this, but sit and look at her
feebly, as she sat and looked at the fire, until he was called
upstairs again. After some quarter of an hour's absence, he

'Well?' said my aunt, taking the cotton out of the ear nearest to

'Well, ma'am,' returned Mr. Chillip, 'we are- we are progressing
slowly, ma'am.'

'Ba--a--ah!' said my aunt, with a perfect shake on the contemptuous
interjection. And corked herself as before.

Really - really - as Mr. Chillip told my mother, he was almost
shocked; speaking in a professional point of view alone, he was
almost shocked. But he sat and looked at her, notwithstanding, for
nearly two hours, as she sat looking at the fire, until he was
again called out. After another absence, he again returned.

'Well?' said my aunt, taking out the cotton on that side again.

'Well, ma'am,' returned Mr. Chillip, 'we are - we are progressing

slowly, ma'am.'

'Ya--a--ah!' said my aunt. With such a snarl at him, that Mr.
Chillip absolutely could not bear it. It was really calculated to
break his spirit, he said afterwards. He preferred to go and sit
upon the stairs, in the dark and a strong draught, until he was
again sent for.

Ham Peggotty, who went to the national school, and was a very
dragon at his catechism, and who may therefore be regarded as a
credible witness, reported next day, that happening to peep in at
the parlour-door an hour after this, he was instantly descried by
Miss Betsey, then walking to and fro in a state of agitation, and
pounced upon before he could make his escape. That there were now
occasional sounds of feet and voices overhead which he inferred the
cotton did not exclude, from the circumstance of his evidently
being clutched by the lady as a victim on whom to expend her
superabundant agitation when the sounds were loudest. That,
marching him constantly up and down by the collar (as if he had
been taking too much laudanum), she, at those times, shook him,
rumpled his hair, made light of his linen, stopped his ears as if
she confounded them with her own, and otherwise tousled and
maltreated him. This was in part confirmed by his aunt, who saw
him at half past twelve o'clock, soon after his release, and
affirmed that he was then as red as I was.

The mild Mr. Chillip could not possibly bear malice at such a time,
if at any time. He sidled into the parlour as soon as he was at
liberty, and said to my aunt in his meekest manner:

'Well, ma'am, I am happy to congratulate you.'

'What upon?' said my aunt, sharply.

Mr. Chillip was fluttered again, by the extreme severity of my
aunt's manner; so he made her a little bow and gave her a little
smile, to mollify her.

'Mercy on the man, what's he doing!' cried my aunt, impatiently.
'Can't he speak?'

'Be calm, my dear ma'am,' said Mr. Chillip, in his softest accents.

'There is no longer any occasion for uneasiness, ma'am. Be calm.'

It has since been considered almost a miracle that my aunt didn't
shake him, and shake what he had to say, out of him. She only
shook her own head at him, but in a way that made him quail.

'Well, ma'am,' resumed Mr. Chillip, as soon as he had courage, 'I
am happy to congratulate you. All is now over, ma'am, and well

During the five minutes or so that Mr. Chillip devoted to the
delivery of this oration, my aunt eyed him narrowly.

'How is she?' said my aunt, folding her arms with her bonnet still
tied on one of them.

'Well, ma'am, she will soon be quite comfortable, I hope,' returned
Mr. Chillip. 'Quite as comfortable as we can expect a young mother
to be, under these melancholy domestic circumstances. There cannot
be any objection to your seeing her presently, ma'am. It may do
her good.'

'And SHE. How is SHE?' said my aunt, sharply.

Mr. Chillip laid his head a little more on one side, and looked at
my aunt like an amiable bird.

'The baby,' said my aunt. 'How is she?'

'Ma'am,' returned Mr. Chillip, 'I apprehended you had known. It's
a boy.'

My aunt said never a word, but took her bonnet by the strings, in
the manner of a sling, aimed a blow at Mr. Chillip's head with it,
put it on bent, walked out, and never came back. She vanished like
a discontented fairy; or like one of those supernatural beings,
whom it was popularly supposed I was entitled to see; and never
came back any more.

No. I lay in my basket, and my mother lay in her bed; but Betsey
Trotwood Copperfield was for ever in the land of dreams and
shadows, the tremendous region whence I had so lately travelled;
and the light upon the window of our room shone out upon the
earthly bourne of all such travellers, and the mound above the
ashes and the dust that once was he, without whom I had never been.

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