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Charles Dickens > David Copperfield > Chapter 55

David Copperfield

Chapter 55


I now approach an event in my life, so indelible, so awful, so
bound by an infinite variety of ties to all that has preceded it,
in these pages, that, from the beginning of my narrative, I have
seen it growing larger and larger as I advanced, like a great tower
in a plain, and throwing its fore-cast shadow even on the incidents
of my childish days.

For years after it occurred, I dreamed of it often. I have started
up so vividly impressed by it, that its fury has yet seemed raging
in my quiet room, in the still night. I dream of it sometimes,
though at lengthened and uncertain intervals, to this hour. I have
an association between it and a stormy wind, or the lightest
mention of a sea-shore, as strong as any of which my mind is
conscious. As plainly as I behold what happened, I will try to
write it down. I do not recall it, but see it done; for it happens
again before me.

The time drawing on rapidly for the sailing of the emigrant-ship,
my good old nurse (almost broken-hearted for me, when we first met)
came up to London. I was constantly with her, and her brother, and
the Micawbers (they being very much together); but Emily I never

One evening when the time was close at hand, I was alone with
Peggotty and her brother. Our conversation turned on Ham. She
described to us how tenderly he had taken leave of her, and how
manfully and quietly he had borne himself. Most of all, of late,
when she believed he was most tried. It was a subject of which the
affectionate creature never tired; and our interest in hearing the
many examples which she, who was so much with him, had to relate,
was equal to hers in relating them.

MY aunt and I were at that time vacating the two cottages at
Highgate; I intending to go abroad, and she to return to her house
at Dover. We had a temporary lodging in Covent Garden. As I
walked home to it, after this evening's conversation, reflecting on
what had passed between Ham and myself when I was last at Yarmouth,
I wavered in the original purpose I had formed, of leaving a letter
for Emily when I should take leave of her uncle on board the ship,
and thought it would be better to write to her now. She might
desire, I thought, after receiving my communication, to send some
parting word by me to her unhappy lover. I ought to give her the

I therefore sat down in my room, before going to bed, and wrote to
her. I told her that I had seen him, and that he had requested me
to tell her what I have already written in its place in these
sheets. I faithfully repeated it. I had no need to enlarge upon
it, if I had had the right. Its deep fidelity and goodness were
not to be adorned by me or any man. I left it out, to be sent
round in the morning; with a line to Mr. Peggotty, requesting him
to give it to her; and went to bed at daybreak.

I was weaker than I knew then; and, not falling asleep until the
sun was up, lay late, and unrefreshed, next day. I was roused by
the silent presence of my aunt at my bedside. I felt it in my
sleep, as I suppose we all do feel such things.

'Trot, my dear,' she said, when I opened my eyes, 'I couldn't make
up my mind to disturb you. Mr. Peggotty is here; shall he come

I replied yes, and he soon appeared.

'Mas'r Davy,' he said, when we had shaken hands, 'I giv Em'ly your
letter, sir, and she writ this heer; and begged of me fur to ask
you to read it, and if you see no hurt in't, to be so kind as take
charge on't.'

'Have you read it?' said I.

He nodded sorrowfully. I opened it, and read as follows:

'I have got your message. Oh, what can I write, to thank you for
your good and blessed kindness to me!

'I have put the words close to my heart. I shall keep them till I
die. They are sharp thorns, but they are such comfort. I have
prayed over them, oh, I have prayed so much. When I find what you
are, and what uncle is, I think what God must be, and can cry to

'Good-bye for ever. Now, my dear, my friend, good-bye for ever in
this world. In another world, if I am forgiven, I may wake a child
and come to you. All thanks and blessings. Farewell, evermore.'

This, blotted with tears, was the letter.

'May I tell her as you doen't see no hurt in't, and as you'll be so
kind as take charge on't, Mas'r Davy?' said Mr. Peggotty, when I
had read it.
'Unquestionably,' said I - 'but I am thinking -'

'Yes, Mas'r Davy?'

'I am thinking,' said I, 'that I'll go down again to Yarmouth.
There's time, and to spare, for me to go and come back before the
ship sails. My mind is constantly running on him, in his solitude;
to put this letter of her writing in his hand at this time, and to
enable you to tell her, in the moment of parting, that he has got
it, will be a kindness to both of them. I solemnly accepted his
commission, dear good fellow, and cannot discharge it too
completely. The journey is nothing to me. I am restless, and
shall be better in motion. I'll go down tonight.'

Though he anxiously endeavoured to dissuade me, I saw that he was
of my mind; and this, if I had required to be confirmed in my
intention, would have had the effect. He went round to the coach
office, at my request, and took the box-seat for me on the mail.
In the evening I started, by that conveyance, down the road I had
traversed under so many vicissitudes.

'Don't you think that,' I asked the coachman, in the first stage
out of London, 'a very remarkable sky? I don't remember to have
seen one like it.'

'Nor I - not equal to it,' he replied. 'That's wind, sir.
There'll be mischief done at sea, I expect, before long.'

It was a murky confusion - here and there blotted with a colour
like the colour of the smoke from damp fuel - of flying clouds,
tossed up into most remarkable heaps, suggesting greater heights in
the clouds than there were depths below them to the bottom of the
deepest hollows in the earth, through which the wild moon seemed to
plunge headlong, as if, in a dread disturbance of the laws of
nature, she had lost her way and were frightened. There had been
a wind all day; and it was rising then, with an extraordinary great
sound. In another hour it had much increased, and the sky was more
overcast, and blew hard.

But, as the night advanced, the clouds closing in and densely
over-spreading the whole sky, then very dark, it came on to blow,
harder and harder. It still increased, until our horses could
scarcely face the wind. Many times, in the dark part of the night
(it was then late in September, when the nights were not short),
the leaders turned about, or came to a dead stop; and we were often
in serious apprehension that the coach would be blown over.
Sweeping gusts of rain came up before this storm, like showers of
steel; and, at those times, when there was any shelter of trees or
lee walls to be got, we were fain to stop, in a sheer impossibility
of continuing the struggle.

When the day broke, it blew harder and harder. I had been in
Yarmouth when the seamen said it blew great guns, but I had never
known the like of this, or anything approaching to it. We came to
Ipswich - very late, having had to fight every inch of ground since
we were ten miles out of London; and found a cluster of people in
the market-place, who had risen from their beds in the night,
fearful of falling chimneys. Some of these, congregating about the
inn-yard while we changed horses, told us of great sheets of lead
having been ripped off a high church-tower, and flung into a
by-street, which they then blocked up. Others had to tell of
country people, coming in from neighbouring villages, who had seen
great trees lying torn out of the earth, and whole ricks scattered
about the roads and fields. Still, there was no abatement in the
storm, but it blew harder.

As we struggled on, nearer and nearer to the sea, from which this
mighty wind was blowing dead on shore, its force became more and
more terrific. Long before we saw the sea, its spray was on our
lips, and showered salt rain upon us. The water was out, over
miles and miles of the flat country adjacent to Yarmouth; and every
sheet and puddle lashed its banks, and had its stress of little
breakers setting heavily towards us. When we came within sight of
the sea, the waves on the horizon, caught at intervals above the
rolling abyss, were like glimpses of another shore with towers and
buildings. When at last we got into the town, the people came out
to their doors, all aslant, and with streaming hair, making a
wonder of the mail that had come through such a night.

I put up at the old inn, and went down to look at the sea;
staggering along the street, which was strewn with sand and
seaweed, and with flying blotches of sea-foam; afraid of falling
slates and tiles; and holding by people I met, at angry corners.
Coming near the beach, I saw, not only the boatmen, but half the
people of the town, lurking behind buildings; some, now and then
braving the fury of the storm to look away to sea, and blown sheer
out of their course in trying to get zigzag back.

joining these groups, I found bewailing women whose husbands were
away in herring or oyster boats, which there was too much reason to
think might have foundered before they could run in anywhere for
safety. Grizzled old sailors were among the people, shaking their
heads, as they looked from water to sky, and muttering to one
another; ship-owners, excited and uneasy; children, huddling
together, and peering into older faces; even stout mariners,
disturbed and anxious, levelling their glasses at the sea from
behind places of shelter, as if they were surveying an enemy.

The tremendous sea itself, when I could find sufficient pause to
look at it, in the agitation of the blinding wind, the flying
stones and sand, and the awful noise, confounded me. As the high
watery walls came rolling in, and, at their highest, tumbled into
surf, they looked as if the least would engulf the town. As the
receding wave swept back with a hoarse roar, it seemed to scoop out
deep caves in the beach, as if its purpose were to undermine the
earth. When some white-headed billows thundered on, and dashed
themselves to pieces before they reached the land, every fragment
of the late whole seemed possessed by the full might of its wrath,
rushing to be gathered to the composition of another monster.
Undulating hills were changed to valleys, undulating valleys (with
a solitary storm-bird sometimes skimming through them) were lifted
up to hills; masses of water shivered and shook the beach with a
booming sound; every shape tumultuously rolled on, as soon as made,
to change its shape and place, and beat another shape and place
away; the ideal shore on the horizon, with its towers and
buildings, rose and fell; the clouds fell fast and thick; I seemed
to see a rending and upheaving of all nature.

Not finding Ham among the people whom this memorable wind - for it
is still remembered down there, as the greatest ever known to blow
upon that coast - had brought together, I made my way to his house.
It was shut; and as no one answered to my knocking, I went, by back
ways and by-lanes, to the yard where he worked. I learned, there,
that he had gone to Lowestoft, to meet some sudden exigency of
ship-repairing in which his skill was required; but that he would
be back tomorrow morning, in good time.

I went back to the inn; and when I had washed and dressed, and
tried to sleep, but in vain, it was five o'clock in the afternoon.
I had not sat five minutes by the coffee-room fire, when the
waiter, coming to stir it, as an excuse for talking, told me that
two colliers had gone down, with all hands, a few miles away; and
that some other ships had been seen labouring hard in the Roads,
and trying, in great distress, to keep off shore. Mercy on them,
and on all poor sailors, said he, if we had another night like the

I was very much depressed in spirits; very solitary; and felt an
uneasiness in Ham's not being there, disproportionate to the
occasion. I was seriously affected, without knowing how much, by
late events; and my long exposure to the fierce wind had confused
me. There was that jumble in my thoughts and recollections, that
I had lost the clear arrangement of time and distance. Thus, if I
had gone out into the town, I should not have been surprised, I
think, to encounter someone who I knew must be then in London. So
to speak, there was in these respects a curious inattention in my
mind. Yet it was busy, too, with all the remembrances the place
naturally awakened; and they were particularly distinct and vivid.

In this state, the waiter's dismal intelligence about the ships
immediately connected itself, without any effort of my volition,
with my uneasiness about Ham. I was persuaded that I had an
apprehension of his returning from Lowestoft by sea, and being
lost. This grew so strong with me, that I resolved to go back to
the yard before I took my dinner, and ask the boat-builder if he
thought his attempting to return by sea at all likely? If he gave
me the least reason to think so, I would go over to Lowestoft and
prevent it by bringing him with me.

I hastily ordered my dinner, and went back to the yard. I was none
too soon; for the boat-builder, with a lantern in his hand, was
locking the yard-gate. He quite laughed when I asked him the
question, and said there was no fear; no man in his senses, or out
of them, would put off in such a gale of wind, least of all Ham
Peggotty, who had been born to seafaring.

So sensible of this, beforehand, that I had really felt ashamed of
doing what I was nevertheless impelled to do, I went back to the
inn. If such a wind could rise, I think it was rising. The howl
and roar, the rattling of the doors and windows, the rumbling in
the chimneys, the apparent rocking of the very house that sheltered
me, and the prodigious tumult of the sea, were more fearful than in
the morning. But there was now a great darkness besides; and that
invested the storm with new terrors, real and fanciful.

I could not eat, I could not sit still, I could not continue
steadfast to anything. Something within me, faintly answering to
the storm without, tossed up the depths of my memory and made a
tumult in them. Yet, in all the hurry of my thoughts, wild running
with the thundering sea, - the storm, and my uneasiness regarding
Ham were always in the fore-ground.

My dinner went away almost untasted, and I tried to refresh myself
with a glass or two of wine. In vain. I fell into a dull slumber
before the fire, without losing my consciousness, either of the
uproar out of doors, or of the place in which I was. Both became
overshadowed by a new and indefinable horror; and when I awoke - or
rather when I shook off the lethargy that bound me in my chair- my
whole frame thrilled with objectless and unintelligible fear.

I walked to and fro, tried to read an old gazetteer, listened to
the awful noises: looked at faces, scenes, and figures in the fire.
At length, the steady ticking of the undisturbed clock on the wall
tormented me to that degree that I resolved to go to bed.

It was reassuring, on such a night, to be told that some of the
inn-servants had agreed together to sit up until morning. I went
to bed, exceedingly weary and heavy; but, on my lying down, all
such sensations vanished, as if by magic, and I was broad awake,
with every sense refined.

For hours I lay there, listening to the wind and water; imagining,
now, that I heard shrieks out at sea; now, that I distinctly heard
the firing of signal guns; and now, the fall of houses in the town.
I got up, several times, and looked out; but could see nothing,
except the reflection in the window-panes of the faint candle I had
left burning, and of my own haggard face looking in at me from the
black void.

At length, my restlessness attained to such a pitch, that I hurried
on my clothes, and went downstairs. In the large kitchen, where I
dimly saw bacon and ropes of onions hanging from the beams, the
watchers were clustered together, in various attitudes, about a
table, purposely moved away from the great chimney, and brought
near the door. A pretty girl, who had her ears stopped with her
apron, and her eyes upon the door, screamed when I appeared,
supposing me to be a spirit; but the others had more presence of
mind, and were glad of an addition to their company. One man,
referring to the topic they had been discussing, asked me whether
I thought the souls of the collier-crews who had gone down, were
out in the storm?

I remained there, I dare say, two hours. Once, I opened the
yard-gate, and looked into the empty street. The sand, the
sea-weed, and the flakes of foam, were driving by; and I was
obliged to call for assistance before I could shut the gate again,
and make it fast against the wind.

There was a dark gloom in my solitary chamber, when I at length
returned to it; but I was tired now, and, getting into bed again,
fell - off a tower and down a precipice - into the depths of sleep.
I have an impression that for a long time, though I dreamed of
being elsewhere and in a variety of scenes, it was always blowing
in my dream. At length, I lost that feeble hold upon reality, and
was engaged with two dear friends, but who they were I don't know,
at the siege of some town in a roar of cannonading.

The thunder of the cannon was so loud and incessant, that I could
not hear something I much desired to hear, until I made a great
exertion and awoke. It was broad day - eight or nine o'clock; the
storm raging, in lieu of the batteries; and someone knocking and
calling at my door.

'What is the matter?' I cried.

'A wreck! Close by!'

I sprung out of bed, and asked, what wreck?

'A schooner, from Spain or Portugal, laden with fruit and wine.
Make haste, sir, if you want to see her! It's thought, down on the
beach, she'll go to pieces every moment.'

The excited voice went clamouring along the staircase; and I
wrapped myself in my clothes as quickly as I could, and ran into
the street.

Numbers of people were there before me, all running in one
direction, to the beach. I ran the same way, outstripping a good
many, and soon came facing the wild sea.

The wind might by this time have lulled a little, though not more
sensibly than if the cannonading I had dreamed of, had been
diminished by the silencing of half-a-dozen guns out of hundreds.
But the sea, having upon it the additional agitation of the whole
night, was infinitely more terrific than when I had seen it last.
Every appearance it had then presented, bore the expression of
being swelled; and the height to which the breakers rose, and,
looking over one another, bore one another down, and rolled in, in
interminable hosts, was most appalling.
In the difficulty of hearing anything but wind and waves, and in
the crowd, and the unspeakable confusion, and my first breathless
efforts to stand against the weather, I was so confused that I
looked out to sea for the wreck, and saw nothing but the foaming
heads of the great waves. A half-dressed boatman, standing next
me, pointed with his bare arm (a tattoo'd arrow on it, pointing in
the same direction) to the left. Then, O great Heaven, I saw it,
close in upon us!

One mast was broken short off, six or eight feet from the deck, and
lay over the side, entangled in a maze of sail and rigging; and all
that ruin, as the ship rolled and beat - which she did without a
moment's pause, and with a violence quite inconceivable - beat the
side as if it would stave it in. Some efforts were even then being
made, to cut this portion of the wreck away; for, as the ship,
which was broadside on, turned towards us in her rolling, I plainly
descried her people at work with axes, especially one active figure
with long curling hair, conspicuous among the rest. But a great
cry, which was audible even above the wind and water, rose from the
shore at this moment; the sea, sweeping over the rolling wreck,
made a clean breach, and carried men, spars, casks, planks,
bulwarks, heaps of such toys, into the boiling surge.

The second mast was yet standing, with the rags of a rent sail, and
a wild confusion of broken cordage flapping to and fro. The ship
had struck once, the same boatman hoarsely said in my ear, and then
lifted in and struck again. I understood him to add that she was
parting amidships, and I could readily suppose so, for the rolling
and beating were too tremendous for any human work to suffer long.
As he spoke, there was another great cry of pity from the beach;
four men arose with the wreck out of the deep, clinging to the
rigging of the remaining mast; uppermost, the active figure with
the curling hair.

There was a bell on board; and as the ship rolled and dashed, like
a desperate creature driven mad, now showing us the whole sweep of
her deck, as she turned on her beam-ends towards the shore, now
nothing but her keel, as she sprung wildly over and turned towards
the sea, the bell rang; and its sound, the knell of those unhappy
men, was borne towards us on the wind. Again we lost her, and
again she rose. Two men were gone. The agony on the shore
increased. Men groaned, and clasped their hands; women shrieked,
and turned away their faces. Some ran wildly up and down along the
beach, crying for help where no help could be. I found myself one
of these, frantically imploring a knot of sailors whom I knew, not
to let those two lost creatures perish before our eyes.

They were making out to me, in an agitated way - I don't know how,
for the little I could hear I was scarcely composed enough to
understand - that the lifeboat had been bravely manned an hour ago,
and could do nothing; and that as no man would be so desperate as
to attempt to wade off with a rope, and establish a communication
with the shore, there was nothing left to try; when I noticed that
some new sensation moved the people on the beach, and saw them
part, and Ham come breaking through them to the front.

I ran to him - as well as I know, to repeat my appeal for help.
But, distracted though I was, by a sight so new to me and terrible,
the determination in his face, and his look out to sea - exactly
the same look as I remembered in connexion with the morning after
Emily's flight - awoke me to a knowledge of his danger. I held him
back with both arms; and implored the men with whom I had been
speaking, not to listen to him, not to do murder, not to let him
stir from off that sand!

Another cry arose on shore; and looking to the wreck, we saw the
cruel sail, with blow on blow, beat off the lower of the two men,
and fly up in triumph round the active figure left alone upon the

Against such a sight, and against such determination as that of the
calmly desperate man who was already accustomed to lead half the
people present, I might as hopefully have entreated the wind.
'Mas'r Davy,' he said, cheerily grasping me by both hands, 'if my
time is come, 'tis come. If 'tan't, I'll bide it. Lord above
bless you, and bless all! Mates, make me ready! I'm a-going off!'

I was swept away, but not unkindly, to some distance, where the
people around me made me stay; urging, as I confusedly perceived,
that he was bent on going, with help or without, and that I should
endanger the precautions for his safety by troubling those with
whom they rested. I don't know what I answered, or what they
rejoined; but I saw hurry on the beach, and men running with ropes
from a capstan that was there, and penetrating into a circle of
figures that hid him from me. Then, I saw him standing alone, in
a seaman's frock and trousers: a rope in his hand, or slung to his
wrist: another round his body: and several of the best men holding,
at a little distance, to the latter, which he laid out himself,
slack upon the shore, at his feet.

The wreck, even to my unpractised eye, was breaking up. I saw that
she was parting in the middle, and that the life of the solitary
man upon the mast hung by a thread. Still, he clung to it. He had
a singular red cap on, - not like a sailor's cap, but of a finer
colour; and as the few yielding planks between him and destruction
rolled and bulged, and his anticipative death-knell rung, he was
seen by all of us to wave it. I saw him do it now, and thought I
was going distracted, when his action brought an old remembrance to
my mind of a once dear friend.

Ham watched the sea, standing alone, with the silence of suspended
breath behind him, and the storm before, until there was a great
retiring wave, when, with a backward glance at those who held the
rope which was made fast round his body, he dashed in after it, and
in a moment was buffeting with the water; rising with the hills,
falling with the valleys, lost beneath the foam; then drawn again
to land. They hauled in hastily.

He was hurt. I saw blood on his face, from where I stood; but he
took no thought of that. He seemed hurriedly to give them some
directions for leaving him more free - or so I judged from the
motion of his arm - and was gone as before.

And now he made for the wreck, rising with the hills, falling with
the valleys, lost beneath the rugged foam, borne in towards the
shore, borne on towards the ship, striving hard and valiantly. The
distance was nothing, but the power of the sea and wind made the
strife deadly. At length he neared the wreck. He was so near,
that with one more of his vigorous strokes he would be clinging to
it, - when a high, green, vast hill-side of water, moving on
shoreward, from beyond the ship, he seemed to leap up into it with
a mighty bound, and the ship was gone!

Some eddying fragments I saw in the sea, as if a mere cask had been
broken, in running to the spot where they were hauling in.
Consternation was in every face. They drew him to my very feet -
insensible - dead. He was carried to the nearest house; and, no
one preventing me now, I remained near him, busy, while every means
of restoration were tried; but he had been beaten to death by the
great wave, and his generous heart was stilled for ever.

As I sat beside the bed, when hope was abandoned and all was done,
a fisherman, who had known me when Emily and I were children, and
ever since, whispered my name at the door.

'Sir,' said he, with tears starting to his weather-beaten face,
which, with his trembling lips, was ashy pale, 'will you come over

The old remembrance that had been recalled to me, was in his look.
I asked him, terror-stricken, leaning on the arm he held out to
support me:

'Has a body come ashore?'

He said, 'Yes.'

'Do I know it?' I asked then.

He answered nothing.

But he led me to the shore. And on that part of it where she and
I had looked for shells, two children - on that part of it where
some lighter fragments of the old boat, blown down last night, had
been scattered by the wind - among the ruins of the home he had
wronged - I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had
often seen him lie at school.

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