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Charles Dickens > David Copperfield > Chapter 6

David Copperfield

Chapter 6


I HAD led this life about a month, when the man with the wooden leg
began to stump about with a mop and a bucket of water, from which
I inferred that preparations were making to receive Mr. Creakle and
the boys. I was not mistaken; for the mop came into the schoolroom
before long, and turned out Mr. Mell and me, who lived where we
could, and got on how we could, for some days, during which we were
always in the way of two or three young women, who had rarely shown
themselves before, and were so continually in the midst of dust
that I sneezed almost as much as if Salem House had been a great

One day I was informed by Mr. Mell that Mr. Creakle would be home
that evening. In the evening, after tea, I heard that he was come.
Before bedtime, I was fetched by the man with the wooden leg to
appear before him.

Mr. Creakle's part of the house was a good deal more comfortable
than ours, and he had a snug bit of garden that looked pleasant
after the dusty playground, which was such a desert in miniature,
that I thought no one but a camel, or a dromedary, could have felt
at home in it. It seemed to me a bold thing even to take notice
that the passage looked comfortable, as I went on my way,
trembling, to Mr. Creakle's presence: which so abashed me, when I
was ushered into it, that I hardly saw Mrs. Creakle or Miss Creakle
(who were both there, in the parlour), or anything but Mr. Creakle,
a stout gentleman with a bunch of watch-chain and seals, in an
arm-chair, with a tumbler and bottle beside him.

'So!' said Mr. Creakle. 'This is the young gentleman whose teeth
are to be filed! Turn him round.'

The wooden-legged man turned me about so as to exhibit the placard;
and having afforded time for a full survey of it, turned me about
again, with my face to Mr. Creakle, and posted himself at Mr.
Creakle's side. Mr. Creakle's face was fiery, and his eyes were
small, and deep in his head; he had thick veins in his forehead, a
little nose, and a large chin. He was bald on the top of his head;
and had some thin wet-looking hair that was just turning grey,
brushed across each temple, so that the two sides interlaced on his
forehead. But the circumstance about him which impressed me most,
was, that he had no voice, but spoke in a whisper. The exertion
this cost him, or the consciousness of talking in that feeble way,
made his angry face so much more angry, and his thick veins so much
thicker, when he spoke, that I am not surprised, on looking back,
at this peculiarity striking me as his chief one.
'Now,' said Mr. Creakle. 'What's the report of this boy?'

'There's nothing against him yet,' returned the man with the wooden
leg. 'There has been no opportunity.'

I thought Mr. Creakle was disappointed. I thought Mrs. and Miss
Creakle (at whom I now glanced for the first time, and who were,
both, thin and quiet) were not disappointed.

'Come here, sir!' said Mr. Creakle, beckoning to me.

'Come here!' said the man with the wooden leg, repeating the

'I have the happiness of knowing your father-in-law,' whispered Mr.
Creakle, taking me by the ear; 'and a worthy man he is, and a man
of a strong character. He knows me, and I know him. Do YOU know
me? Hey?' said Mr. Creakle, pinching my ear with ferocious

'Not yet, sir,' I said, flinching with the pain.

'Not yet? Hey?' repeated Mr. Creakle. 'But you will soon. Hey?'

'You will soon. Hey?' repeated the man with the wooden leg. I
afterwards found that he generally acted, with his strong voice, as
Mr. Creakle's interpreter to the boys.

I was very much frightened, and said, I hoped so, if he pleased.
I felt, all this while, as if my ear were blazing; he pinched it so

'I'll tell you what I am,' whispered Mr. Creakle, letting it go at
last, with a screw at parting that brought the water into my eyes.
'I'm a Tartar.'

'A Tartar,' said the man with the wooden leg.

'When I say I'll do a thing, I do it,' said Mr. Creakle; 'and when
I say I will have a thing done, I will have it done.'

'- Will have a thing done, I will have it done,' repeated the man
with the wooden leg.

'I am a determined character,' said Mr. Creakle. 'That's what I
am. I do my duty. That's what I do. My flesh and blood' - he
looked at Mrs. Creakle as he said this - 'when it rises against me,
is not my flesh and blood. I discard it. Has that fellow' - to
the man with the wooden leg -'been here again?'

'No,' was the answer.

'No,' said Mr. Creakle. 'He knows better. He knows me. Let him
keep away. I say let him keep away,' said Mr. Creakle, striking
his hand upon the table, and looking at Mrs. Creakle, 'for he knows
me. Now you have begun to know me too, my young friend, and you
may go. Take him away.'

I was very glad to be ordered away, for Mrs. and Miss Creakle were
both wiping their eyes, and I felt as uncomfortable for them as I
did for myself. But I had a petition on my mind which concerned me
so nearly, that I couldn't help saying, though I wondered at my own

'If you please, sir -'

Mr. Creakle whispered, 'Hah! What's this?' and bent his eyes upon
me, as if he would have burnt me up with them.

'If you please, sir,' I faltered, 'if I might be allowed (I am very
sorry indeed, sir, for what I did) to take this writing off, before
the boys come back -'

Whether Mr. Creakle was in earnest, or whether he only did it to
frighten me, I don't know, but he made a burst out of his chair,
before which I precipitately retreated, without waiting for the
escort Of the man with the wooden leg, and never once stopped until
I reached my own bedroom, where, finding I was not pursued, I went
to bed, as it was time, and lay quaking, for a couple of hours.

Next morning Mr. Sharp came back. Mr. Sharp was the first master,
and superior to Mr. Mell. Mr. Mell took his meals with the boys,
but Mr. Sharp dined and supped at Mr. Creakle's table. He was a
limp, delicate-looking gentleman, I thought, with a good deal of
nose, and a way of carrying his head on one side, as if it were a
little too heavy for him. His hair was very smooth and wavy; but
I was informed by the very first boy who came back that it was a
wig (a second-hand one HE said), and that Mr. Sharp went out every
Saturday afternoon to get it curled.

It was no other than Tommy Traddles who gave me this piece of
intelligence. He was the first boy who returned. He introduced
himself by informing me that I should find his name on the right-
hand corner of the gate, over the top-bolt; upon that I said,
'Traddles?' to which he replied, 'The same,' and then he asked me
for a full account of myself and family.

It was a happy circumstance for me that Traddles came back first.
He enjoyed my placard so much, that he saved me from the
embarrassment of either disclosure or concealment, by presenting me
to every other boy who came back, great or small, immediately on
his arrival, in this form of introduction, 'Look here! Here's a
game!' Happily, too, the greater part of the boys came back
low-spirited, and were not so boisterous at my expense as I had
expected. Some of them certainly did dance about me like wild
Indians, and the greater part could not resist the temptation of
pretending that I was a dog, and patting and soothing me, lest I
should bite, and saying, 'Lie down, sir!' and calling me Towzer.
This was naturally confusing, among so many strangers, and cost me
some tears, but on the whole it was much better than I had

I was not considered as being formally received into the school,
however, until J. Steerforth arrived. Before this boy, who was
reputed to be a great scholar, and was very good-looking, and at
least half-a-dozen years my senior, I was carried as before a
magistrate. He inquired, under a shed in the playground, into the
particulars of my punishment, and was pleased to express his
opinion that it was 'a jolly shame'; for which I became bound to
him ever afterwards.

'What money have you got, Copperfield?' he said, walking aside with
me when he had disposed of my affair in these terms. I told him
seven shillings.

'You had better give it to me to take care of,' he said. 'At
least, you can if you like. You needn't if you don't like.'

I hastened to comply with his friendly suggestion, and opening
Peggotty's purse, turned it upside down into his hand.

'Do you want to spend anything now?' he asked me.

'No thank you,' I replied.

'You can, if you like, you know,' said Steerforth. 'Say the word.'

'No, thank you, sir,' I repeated.

'Perhaps you'd like to spend a couple of shillings or so, in a
bottle of currant wine by and by, up in the bedroom?' said
Steerforth. 'You belong to my bedroom, I find.'

It certainly had not occurred to me before, but I said, Yes, I
should like that.

'Very good,' said Steerforth. 'You'll be glad to spend another
shilling or so, in almond cakes, I dare say?'

I said, Yes, I should like that, too.

'And another shilling or so in biscuits, and another in fruit, eh?'
said Steerforth. 'I say, young Copperfield, you're going it!'

I smiled because he smiled, but I was a little troubled in my mind,

'Well!' said Steerforth. 'We must make it stretch as far as we
can; that's all. I'll do the best in my power for you. I can go
out when I like, and I'll smuggle the prog in.' With these words
he put the money in his pocket, and kindly told me not to make
myself uneasy; he would take care it should be all right.
He was as good as his word, if that were all right which I had a
secret misgiving was nearly all wrong - for I feared it was a waste
of my mother's two half-crowns - though I had preserved the piece
of paper they were wrapped in: which was a precious saving. When
we went upstairs to bed, he produced the whole seven
shillings'worth, and laid it out on my bed in the moonlight,

'There you are, young Copperfield, and a royal spread you've got.'

I couldn't think of doing the honours of the feast, at my time of
life, while he was by; my hand shook at the very thought of it. I
begged him to do me the favour of presiding; and my request being
seconded by the other boys who were in that room, he acceded to it,
and sat upon my pillow, handing round the viands - with perfect
fairness, I must say - and dispensing the currant wine in a little
glass without a foot, which was his own property. As to me, I sat
on his left hand, and the rest were grouped about us, on the
nearest beds and on the floor.

How well I recollect our sitting there, talking in whispers; or
their talking, and my respectfully listening, I ought rather to
say; the moonlight falling a little way into the room, through the
window, painting a pale window on the floor, and the greater part
of us in shadow, except when Steerforth dipped a match into a
phosphorus-box, when he wanted to look for anything on the board,
and shed a blue glare over us that was gone directly! A certain
mysterious feeling, consequent on the darkness, the secrecy of the
revel, and the whisper in which everything was said, steals over me
again, and I listen to all they tell me with a vague feeling of
solemnity and awe, which makes me glad that they are all so near,
and frightens me (though I feign to laugh) when Traddles pretends
to see a ghost in the corner.

I heard all kinds of things about the school and all belonging to
it. I heard that Mr. Creakle had not preferred his claim to being
a Tartar without reason; that he was the sternest and most severe
of masters; that he laid about him, right and left, every day of
his life, charging in among the boys like a trooper, and slashing
away, unmercifully. That he knew nothing himself, but the art of
slashing, being more ignorant (J. Steerforth said) than the lowest
boy in the school; that he had been, a good many years ago, a small
hop-dealer in the Borough, and had taken to the schooling business
after being bankrupt in hops, and making away with Mrs. Creakle's
money. With a good deal more of that sort, which I wondered how
they knew.

I heard that the man with the wooden leg, whose name was Tungay,
was an obstinate barbarian who had formerly assisted in the hop
business, but had come into the scholastic line with Mr. Creakle,
in consequence, as was supposed among the boys, of his having
broken his leg in Mr. Creakle's service, and having done a deal of
dishonest work for him, and knowing his secrets. I heard that with
the single exception of Mr. Creakle, Tungay considered the whole
establishment, masters and boys, as his natural enemies, and that
the only delight of his life was to be sour and malicious. I heard
that Mr. Creakle had a son, who had not been Tungay's friend, and
who, assisting in the school, had once held some remonstrance with
his father on an occasion when its discipline was very cruelly
exercised, and was supposed, besides, to have protested against his
father's usage of his mother. I heard that Mr. Creakle had turned
him out of doors, in consequence; and that Mrs. and Miss Creakle
had been in a sad way, ever since.

But the greatest wonder that I heard of Mr. Creakle was, there
being one boy in the school on whom he never ventured to lay a
hand, and that boy being J. Steerforth. Steerforth himself
confirmed this when it was stated, and said that he should like to
begin to see him do it. On being asked by a mild boy (not me) how
he would proceed if he did begin to see him do it, he dipped a
match into his phosphorus-box on purpose to shed a glare over his
reply, and said he would commence by knocking him down with a blow
on the forehead from the seven-and-sixpenny ink-bottle that was
always on the mantelpiece. We sat in the dark for some time,

I heard that Mr. Sharp and Mr. Mell were both supposed to be
wretchedly paid; and that when there was hot and cold meat for
dinner at Mr. Creakle's table, Mr. Sharp was always expected to say
he preferred cold; which was again corroborated by J. Steerforth,
the only parlour-boarder. I heard that Mr. Sharp's wig didn't fit
him; and that he needn't be so 'bounceable' - somebody else said
'bumptious' - about it, because his own red hair was very plainly
to be seen behind.

I heard that one boy, who was a coal-merchant's son, came as a
set-off against the coal-bill, and was called, on that account,
'Exchange or Barter' - a name selected from the arithmetic book as
expressing this arrangement. I heard that the table beer was a
robbery of parents, and the pudding an imposition. I heard that
Miss Creakle was regarded by the school in general as being in love
with Steerforth; and I am sure, as I sat in the dark, thinking of
his nice voice, and his fine face, and his easy manner, and his
curling hair, I thought it very likely. I heard that Mr. Mell was
not a bad sort of fellow, but hadn't a sixpence to bless himself
with; and that there was no doubt that old Mrs. Mell, his mother,
was as poor as job. I thought of my breakfast then, and what had
sounded like 'My Charley!' but I was, I am glad to remember, as
mute as a mouse about it.

The hearing of all this, and a good deal more, outlasted the
banquet some time. The greater part of the guests had gone to bed
as soon as the eating and drinking were over; and we, who had
remained whispering and listening half-undressed, at last betook
ourselves to bed, too.

'Good night, young Copperfield,' said Steerforth. 'I'll take care
of you.'
'You're very kind,' I gratefully returned. 'I am very much obliged
to you.'

'You haven't got a sister, have you?' said Steerforth, yawning.

'No,' I answered.

'That's a pity,' said Steerforth. 'If you had had one, I should
think she would have been a pretty, timid, little, bright-eyed sort
of girl. I should have liked to know her. Good night, young

'Good night, sir,' I replied.

I thought of him very much after I went to bed, and raised myself,
I recollect, to look at him where he lay in the moonlight, with his
handsome face turned up, and his head reclining easily on his arm.
He was a person of great power in my eyes; that was, of course, the
reason of my mind running on him. No veiled future dimly glanced
upon him in the moonbeams. There was no shadowy picture of his
footsteps, in the garden that I dreamed of walking in all night.

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