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Charles Dickens > David Copperfield > Chapter 47

David Copperfield

Chapter 47


We were now down in Westminster. We had turned back to follow her,
having encountered her coming towards us; and Westminster Abbey was
the point at which she passed from the lights and noise of the
leading streets. She proceeded so quickly, when she got free of
the two currents of passengers setting towards and from the bridge,
that, between this and the advance she had of us when she struck
off, we were in the narrow water-side street by Millbank before we
came up with her. At that moment she crossed the road, as if to
avoid the footsteps that she heard so close behind; and, without
looking back, passed on even more rapidly.

A glimpse of the river through a dull gateway, where some waggons
were housed for the night, seemed to arrest my feet. I touched my
companion without speaking, and we both forbore to cross after her,
and both followed on that opposite side of the way; keeping as
quietly as we could in the shadow of the houses, but keeping very
near her.

There was, and is when I write, at the end of that low-lying
street, a dilapidated little wooden building, probably an obsolete
old ferry-house. Its position is just at that point where the
street ceases, and the road begins to lie between a row of houses
and the river. As soon as she came here, and saw the water, she
stopped as if she had come to her destination; and presently went
slowly along by the brink of the river, looking intently at it.

All the way here, I had supposed that she was going to some house;
indeed, I had vaguely entertained the hope that the house might be
in some way associated with the lost girl. But that one dark
glimpse of the river, through the gateway, had instinctively
prepared me for her going no farther.

The neighbourhood was a dreary one at that time; as oppressive,
sad, and solitary by night, as any about London. There were
neither wharves nor houses on the melancholy waste of road near the
great blank Prison. A sluggish ditch deposited its mud at the
prison walls. Coarse grass and rank weeds straggled over all the
marshy land in the vicinity. In one part, carcases of houses,
inauspiciously begun and never finished, rotted away. In another,
the ground was cumbered with rusty iron monsters of steam-boilers,
wheels, cranks, pipes, furnaces, paddles, anchors, diving-bells,
windmill-sails, and I know not what strange objects, accumulated by
some speculator, and grovelling in the dust, underneath which -
having sunk into the soil of their own weight in wet weather - they
had the appearance of vainly trying to hide themselves. The clash
and glare of sundry fiery Works upon the river-side, arose by night
to disturb everything except the heavy and unbroken smoke that
poured out of their chimneys. Slimy gaps and causeways, winding
among old wooden piles, with a sickly substance clinging to the
latter, like green hair, and the rags of last year's handbills
offering rewards for drowned men fluttering above high-water mark,
led down through the ooze and slush to the ebb-tide. There was a
story that one of the pits dug for the dead in the time of the
Great Plague was hereabout; and a blighting influence seemed to
have proceeded from it over the whole place. Or else it looked as
if it had gradually decomposed into that nightmare condition, out
of the overflowings of the polluted stream.

As if she were a part of the refuse it had cast out, and left to
corruption and decay, the girl we had followed strayed down to the
river's brink, and stood in the midst of this night-picture, lonely
and still, looking at the water.

There were some boats and barges astrand in the mud, and these
enabled us to come within a few yards of her without being seen.
I then signed to Mr. Peggotty to remain where he was, and emerged
from their shade to speak to her. I did not approach her solitary
figure without trembling; for this gloomy end to her determined
walk, and the way in which she stood, almost within the cavernous
shadow of the iron bridge, looking at the lights crookedly
reflected in the strong tide, inspired a dread within me.

I think she was talking to herself. I am sure, although absorbed
in gazing at the water, that her shawl was off her shoulders, and
that she was muffling her hands in it, in an unsettled and
bewildered way, more like the action of a sleep-walker than a
waking person. I know, and never can forget, that there was that
in her wild manner which gave me no assurance but that she would
sink before my eyes, until I had her arm within my grasp.

At the same moment I said 'Martha!'

She uttered a terrified scream, and struggled with me with such
strength that I doubt if I could have held her alone. But a
stronger hand than mine was laid upon her; and when she raised her
frightened eyes and saw whose it was, she made but one more effort
and dropped down between us. We carried her away from the water to
where there were some dry stones, and there laid her down, crying
and moaning. In a little while she sat among the stones, holding
her wretched head with both her hands.

'Oh, the river!' she cried passionately. 'Oh, the river!'

'Hush, hush!' said I. 'Calm yourself.'

But she still repeated the same words, continually exclaiming, 'Oh,
the river!' over and over again.

'I know it's like me!' she exclaimed. 'I know that I belong to it.
I know that it's the natural company of such as I am! It comes from
country places, where there was once no harm in it - and it creeps
through the dismal streets, defiled and miserable - and it goes
away, like my life, to a great sea, that is always troubled - and
I feel that I must go with it!'
I have never known what despair was, except in the tone of those

'I can't keep away from it. I can't forget it. It haunts me day
and night. It's the only thing in all the world that I am fit for,
or that's fit for me. Oh, the dreadful river!'

The thought passed through my mind that in the face of my
companion, as he looked upon her without speech or motion, I might
have read his niece's history, if I had known nothing of it. I
never saw, in any painting or reality, horror and compassion so
impressively blended. He shook as if he would have fallen; and his
hand - I touched it with my own, for his appearance alarmed me -
was deadly cold.

'She is in a state of frenzy,' I whispered to him. 'She will speak
differently in a little time.'

I don't know what he would have said in answer. He made some
motion with his mouth, and seemed to think he had spoken; but he
had only pointed to her with his outstretched hand.

A new burst of crying came upon her now, in which she once more hid
her face among the stones, and lay before us, a prostrate image of
humiliation and ruin. Knowing that this state must pass, before we
could speak to her with any hope, I ventured to restrain him when
he would have raised her, and we stood by in silence until she
became more tranquil.

'Martha,' said I then, leaning down, and helping her to rise - she
seemed to want to rise as if with the intention of going away, but
she was weak, and leaned against a boat. 'Do you know who this is,
who is with me?'

She said faintly, 'Yes.'

'Do you know that we have followed you a long way tonight?'

She shook her head. She looked neither at him nor at me, but stood
in a humble attitude, holding her bonnet and shawl in one hand,
without appearing conscious of them, and pressing the other,
clenched, against her forehead.

'Are you composed enough,' said I, 'to speak on the subject which
so interested you - I hope Heaven may remember it! - that snowy

Her sobs broke out afresh, and she murmured some inarticulate
thanks to me for not having driven her away from the door.

'I want to say nothing for myself,' she said, after a few moments.
'I am bad, I am lost. I have no hope at all. But tell him, sir,'
she had shrunk away from him, 'if you don't feel too hard to me to
do it, that I never was in any way the cause of his misfortune.'
'It has never been attributed to you,' I returned, earnestly
responding to her earnestness.

'It was you, if I don't deceive myself,' she said, in a broken
voice, 'that came into the kitchen, the night she took such pity on
me; was so gentle to me; didn't shrink away from me like all the
rest, and gave me such kind help! Was it you, sir?'

'It was,' said I.

'I should have been in the river long ago,' she said, glancing at
it with a terrible expression, 'if any wrong to her had been upon
my mind. I never could have kept out of it a single winter's
night, if I had not been free of any share in that!'

'The cause of her flight is too well understood,' I said. 'You are
innocent of any part in it, we thoroughly believe, - we know.'

'Oh, I might have been much the better for her, if I had had a
better heart!' exclaimed the girl, with most forlorn regret; 'for
she was always good to me! She never spoke a word to me but what
was pleasant and right. Is it likely I would try to make her what
I am myself, knowing what I am myself, so well? When I lost
everything that makes life dear, the worst of all my thoughts was
that I was parted for ever from her!'

Mr. Peggotty, standing with one hand on the gunwale of the boat,
and his eyes cast down, put his disengaged hand before his face.

'And when I heard what had happened before that snowy night, from
some belonging to our town,' cried Martha, 'the bitterest thought
in all my mind was, that the people would remember she once kept
company with me, and would say I had corrupted her! When, Heaven
knows, I would have died to have brought back her good name!'

Long unused to any self-control, the piercing agony of her remorse
and grief was terrible.

'To have died, would not have been much - what can I say? - I
would have lived!' she cried. 'I would have lived to be old, in
the wretched streets - and to wander about, avoided, in the dark -
and to see the day break on the ghastly line of houses, and
remember how the same sun used to shine into my room, and wake me
once - I would have done even that, to save her!'

Sinking on the stones, she took some in each hand, and clenched
them up, as if she would have ground them. She writhed into some
new posture constantly: stiffening her arms, twisting them before
her face, as though to shut out from her eyes the little light
there was, and drooping her head, as if it were heavy with
insupportable recollections.

'What shall I ever do!' she said, fighting thus with her despair.
'How can I go on as I am, a solitary curse to myself, a living
disgrace to everyone I come near!' Suddenly she turned to my
companion. 'Stamp upon me, kill me! When she was your pride, you
would have thought I had done her harm if I had brushed against her
in the street. You can't believe - why should you? - a syllable
that comes out of my lips. It would be a burning shame upon you,
even now, if she and I exchanged a word. I don't complain. I
don't say she and I are alike - I know there is a long, long way
between us. I only say, with all my guilt and wretchedness upon my
head, that I am grateful to her from my soul, and love her. Oh,
don't think that all the power I had of loving anything is quite
worn out! Throw me away, as all the world does. Kill me for being
what I am, and having ever known her; but don't think that of me!'

He looked upon her, while she made this supplication, in a wild
distracted manner; and, when she was silent, gently raised her.

'Martha,' said Mr. Peggotty, 'God forbid as I should judge you.
Forbid as I, of all men, should do that, my girl! You doen't know
half the change that's come, in course of time, upon me, when you
think it likely. Well!' he paused a moment, then went on. 'You
doen't understand how 'tis that this here gentleman and me has
wished to speak to you. You doen't understand what 'tis we has
afore us. Listen now!'

His influence upon her was complete. She stood, shrinkingly,
before him, as if she were afraid to meet his eyes; but her
passionate sorrow was quite hushed and mute.

'If you heerd,' said Mr. Peggotty, 'owt of what passed between
Mas'r Davy and me, th' night when it snew so hard, you know as I
have been - wheer not - fur to seek my dear niece. My dear niece,'
he repeated steadily. 'Fur she's more dear to me now, Martha, than
she was dear afore.'

She put her hands before her face; but otherwise remained quiet.

'I have heerd her tell,' said Mr. Peggotty, 'as you was early left
fatherless and motherless, with no friend fur to take, in a rough
seafaring-way, their place. Maybe you can guess that if you'd had
such a friend, you'd have got into a way of being fond of him in
course of time, and that my niece was kiender daughter-like to me.'

As she was silently trembling, he put her shawl carefully about
her, taking it up from the ground for that purpose.

'Whereby,' said he, 'I know, both as she would go to the wureld's
furdest end with me, if she could once see me again; and that she
would fly to the wureld's furdest end to keep off seeing me. For
though she ain't no call to doubt my love, and doen't - and
doen't,' he repeated, with a quiet assurance of the truth of what
he said, 'there's shame steps in, and keeps betwixt us.'

I read, in every word of his plain impressive way of delivering
himself, new evidence of his having thought of this one topic, in
every feature it presented.

'According to our reckoning,' he proceeded, 'Mas'r Davy's here, and
mine, she is like, one day, to make her own poor solitary course to
London. We believe - Mas'r Davy, me, and all of us - that you are
as innocent of everything that has befell her, as the unborn child.
You've spoke of her being pleasant, kind, and gentle to you. Bless
her, I knew she was! I knew she always was, to all. You're
thankful to her, and you love her. Help us all you can to find
her, and may Heaven reward you!'

She looked at him hastily, and for the first time, as if she were
doubtful of what he had said.

'Will you trust me?' she asked, in a low voice of astonishment.

'Full and free!' said Mr. Peggotty.

'To speak to her, if I should ever find her; shelter her, if I have
any shelter to divide with her; and then, without her knowledge,
come to you, and bring you to her?' she asked hurriedly.

We both replied together, 'Yes!'

She lifted up her eyes, and solemnly declared that she would devote
herself to this task, fervently and faithfully. That she would
never waver in it, never be diverted from it, never relinquish it,
while there was any chance of hope. If she were not true to it,
might the object she now had in life, which bound her to something
devoid of evil, in its passing away from her, leave her more
forlorn and more despairing, if that were possible, than she had
been upon the river's brink that night; and then might all help,
human and Divine, renounce her evermore!

She did not raise her voice above her breath, or address us, but
said this to the night sky; then stood profoundly quiet, looking at
the gloomy water.

We judged it expedient, now, to tell her all we knew; which I
recounted at length. She listened with great attention, and with
a face that often changed, but had the same purpose in all its
varying expressions. Her eyes occasionally filled with tears, but
those she repressed. It seemed as if her spirit were quite
altered, and she could not be too quiet.

She asked, when all was told, where we were to be communicated
with, if occasion should arise. Under a dull lamp in the road, I
wrote our two addresses on a leaf of my pocket-book, which I tore
out and gave to her, and which she put in her poor bosom. I asked
her where she lived herself. She said, after a pause, in no place
long. It were better not to know.

Mr. Peggotty suggesting to me, in a whisper, what had already
occurred to myself, I took out my purse; but I could not prevail
upon her to accept any money, nor could I exact any promise from
her that she would do so at another time. I represented to her
that Mr. Peggotty could not be called, for one in his condition,
poor; and that the idea of her engaging in this search, while
depending on her own resources, shocked us both. She continued
steadfast. In this particular, his influence upon her was equally
powerless with mine. She gratefully thanked him but remained

'There may be work to be got,' she said. 'I'll try.'

'At least take some assistance,' I returned, 'until you have

'I could not do what I have promised, for money,' she replied. 'I
could not take it, if I was starving. To give me money would be to
take away your trust, to take away the object that you have given
me, to take away the only certain thing that saves me from the

'In the name of the great judge,' said I, 'before whom you and all
of us must stand at His dread time, dismiss that terrible idea! We
can all do some good, if we will.'

She trembled, and her lip shook, and her face was paler, as she

'It has been put into your hearts, perhaps, to save a wretched
creature for repentance. I am afraid to think so; it seems too
bold. If any good should come of me, I might begin to hope; for
nothing but harm has ever come of my deeds yet. I am to be
trusted, for the first time in a long while, with my miserable
life, on account of what you have given me to try for. I know no
more, and I can say no more.'

Again she repressed the tears that had begun to flow; and, putting
out her trembling hand, and touching Mr. Peggotty, as if there was
some healing virtue in him, went away along the desolate road. She
had been ill, probably for a long time. I observed, upon that
closer opportunity of observation, that she was worn and haggard,
and that her sunken eyes expressed privation and endurance.

We followed her at a short distance, our way lying in the same
direction, until we came back into the lighted and populous
streets. I had such implicit confidence in her declaration, that
I then put it to Mr. Peggotty, whether it would not seem, in the
onset, like distrusting her, to follow her any farther. He being
of the same mind, and equally reliant on her, we suffered her to
take her own road, and took ours, which was towards Highgate. He
accompanied me a good part of the way; and when we parted, with a
prayer for the success of this fresh effort, there was a new and
thoughtful compassion in him that I was at no loss to interpret.

It was midnight when I arrived at home. I had reached my own gate,
and was standing listening for the deep bell of St. Paul's, the
sound of which I thought had been borne towards me among the
multitude of striking clocks, when I was rather surprised to see
that the door of my aunt's cottage was open, and that a faint light
in the entry was shining out across the road.

Thinking that my aunt might have relapsed into one of her old
alarms, and might be watching the progress of some imaginary
conflagration in the distance, I went to speak to her. It was with
very great surprise that I saw a man standing in her little garden.

He had a glass and bottle in his hand, and was in the act of
drinking. I stopped short, among the thick foliage outside, for
the moon was up now, though obscured; and I recognized the man whom
I had once supposed to be a delusion of Mr. Dick's, and had once
encountered with my aunt in the streets of the city.

He was eating as well as drinking, and seemed to eat with a hungry
appetite. He seemed curious regarding the cottage, too, as if it
were the first time he had seen it. After stooping to put the
bottle on the ground, he looked up at the windows, and looked
about; though with a covert and impatient air, as if he was anxious
to be gone.

The light in the passage was obscured for a moment, and my aunt
came out. She was agitated, and told some money into his hand. I
heard it chink.

'What's the use of this?' he demanded.

'I can spare no more,' returned my aunt.

'Then I can't go,' said he. 'Here! You may take it back!'

'You bad man,' returned my aunt, with great emotion; 'how can you
use me so? But why do I ask? It is because you know how weak I
am! What have I to do, to free myself for ever of your visits, but
to abandon you to your deserts?'

'And why don't you abandon me to my deserts?' said he.

'You ask me why!' returned my aunt. 'What a heart you must have!'

He stood moodily rattling the money, and shaking his head, until at
length he said:

'Is this all you mean to give me, then?'

'It is all I CAN give you,' said my aunt. 'You know I have had
losses, and am poorer than I used to be. I have told you so.
Having got it, why do you give me the pain of looking at you for
another moment, and seeing what you have become?'

'I have become shabby enough, if you mean that,' he said. 'I lead
the life of an owl.'

'You stripped me of the greater part of all I ever had,' said my
aunt. 'You closed my heart against the whole world, years and
years. You treated me falsely, ungratefully, and cruelly. Go, and
repent of it. Don't add new injuries to the long, long list of
injuries you have done me!'

'Aye!' he returned. 'It's all very fine - Well! I must do the best
I can, for the present, I suppose.'

In spite of himself, he appeared abashed by my aunt's indignant
tears, and came slouching out of the garden. Taking two or three
quick steps, as if I had just come up, I met him at the gate, and
went in as he came out. We eyed one another narrowly in passing,
and with no favour.

'Aunt,' said I, hurriedly. 'This man alarming you again! Let me
speak to him. Who is he?'

'Child,' returned my aunt, taking my arm, 'come in, and don't speak
to me for ten minutes.'

We sat down in her little parlour. My aunt retired behind the
round green fan of former days, which was screwed on the back of a
chair, and occasionally wiped her eyes, for about a quarter of an
hour. Then she came out, and took a seat beside me.

'Trot,' said my aunt, calmly, 'it's my husband.'

'Your husband, aunt? I thought he had been dead!'

'Dead to me,' returned my aunt, 'but living.'

I sat in silent amazement.

'Betsey Trotwood don't look a likely subject for the tender
passion,' said my aunt, composedly, 'but the time was, Trot, when
she believed in that man most entirely. When she loved him, Trot,
right well. When there was no proof of attachment and affection
that she would not have given him. He repaid her by breaking her
fortune, and nearly breaking her heart. So she put all that sort
of sentiment, once and for ever, in a grave, and filled it up, and
flattened it down.'

'My dear, good aunt!'

'I left him,' my aunt proceeded, laying her hand as usual on the
back of mine, 'generously. I may say at this distance of time,
Trot, that I left him generously. He had been so cruel to me, that
I might have effected a separation on easy terms for myself; but I
did not. He soon made ducks and drakes of what I gave him, sank
lower and lower, married another woman, I believe, became an
adventurer, a gambler, and a cheat. What he is now, you see. But
he was a fine-looking man when I married him,' said my aunt, with
an echo of her old pride and admiration in her tone; 'and I
believed him - I was a fool! - to be the soul of honour!'

She gave my hand a squeeze, and shook her head.

'He is nothing to me now, Trot- less than nothing. But, sooner
than have him punished for his offences (as he would be if he
prowled about in this country), I give him more money than I can
afford, at intervals when he reappears, to go away. I was a fool
when I married him; and I am so far an incurable fool on that
subject, that, for the sake of what I once believed him to be, I
wouldn't have even this shadow of my idle fancy hardly dealt with.
For I was in earnest, Trot, if ever a woman was.'

MY aunt dismissed the matter with a heavy sigh, and smoothed her

'There, my dear!' she said. 'Now you know the beginning, middle,
and end, and all about it. We won't mention the subject to one
another any more; neither, of course, will you mention it to
anybody else. This is my grumpy, frumpy story, and we'll keep it
to ourselves, Trot!'

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