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CHAPTER 20
STEERFORTH'S HOME


When the chambermaid tapped at my door at eight o'clock, and
informed me that my shaving-water was outside, I felt severely the
having no occasion for it, and blushed in my bed. The suspicion
that she laughed too, when she said it, preyed upon my mind all the
time I was dressing; and gave me, I was conscious, a sneaking and
guilty air when I passed her on the staircase, as I was going down
to breakfast. I was so sensitively aware, indeed, of being younger
than I could have wished, that for some time I could not make up my
mind to pass her at all, under the ignoble circumstances of the
case; but, hearing her there with a broom, stood peeping out of
window at King Charles on horseback, surrounded by a maze of
hackney-coaches, and looking anything but regal in a drizzling rain
and a dark-brown fog, until I was admonished by the waiter that the
gentleman was waiting for me.

It was not in the coffee-room that I found Steerforth expecting me,
but in a snug private apartment, red-curtained and Turkey-carpeted,
where the fire burnt bright, and a fine hot breakfast was set forth
on a table covered with a clean cloth; and a cheerful miniature of
the room, the fire, the breakfast, Steerforth, and all, was shining
in the little round mirror over the sideboard. I was rather
bashful at first, Steerforth being so self-possessed, and elegant,
and superior to me in all respects (age included); but his easy
patronage soon put that to rights, and made me quite at home. I
could not enough admire the change he had wrought in the Golden
Cross; or compare the dull forlorn state I had held yesterday, with
this morning's comfort and this morning's entertainment. As to the
waiter's familiarity, it was quenched as if it had never been. He
attended on us, as I may say, in sackcloth and ashes.

'Now, Copperfield,' said Steerforth, when we were alone, 'I should
like to hear what you are doing, and where you are going, and all
about you. I feel as if you were my property.'
Glowing with pleasure to find that he had still this interest in
me, I told him how my aunt had proposed the little expedition that
I had before me, and whither it tended.

'As you are in no hurry, then,' said Steerforth, 'come home with me
to Highgate, and stay a day or two. You will be pleased with my
mother - she is a little vain and prosy about me, but that you can
forgive her - and she will be pleased with you.'

'I should like to be as sure of that, as you are kind enough to say
you are,' I answered, smiling.

'Oh!' said Steerforth, 'everyone who likes me, has a claim on her
that is sure to be acknowledged.'

'Then I think I shall be a favourite,' said I.

'Good!' said Steerforth. 'Come and prove it. We will go and see
the lions for an hour or two - it's something to have a fresh
fellow like you to show them to, Copperfield - and then we'll
journey out to Highgate by the coach.'

I could hardly believe but that I was in a dream, and that I should
wake presently in number forty-four, to the solitary box in the
coffee-room and the familiar waiter again. After I had written to
my aunt and told her of my fortunate meeting with my admired old
schoolfellow, and my acceptance of his invitation, we went out in
a hackney-chariot, and saw a Panorama and some other sights, and
took a walk through the Museum, where I could not help observing
how much Steerforth knew, on an infinite variety of subjects, and
of how little account he seemed to make his knowledge.

'You'll take a high degree at college, Steerforth,' said I, 'if you
have not done so already; and they will have good reason to be
proud of you.'

'I take a degree!' cried Steerforth. 'Not I! my dear Daisy - will
you mind my calling you Daisy?'

'Not at all!' said I.

'That's a good fellow! My dear Daisy,' said Steerforth, laughing.
'I have not the least desire or intention to distinguish myself in
that way. I have done quite sufficient for my purpose. I find
that I am heavy company enough for myself as I am.'

'But the fame -' I was beginning.

'You romantic Daisy!' said Steerforth, laughing still more
heartily: 'why should I trouble myself, that a parcel of
heavy-headed fellows may gape and hold up their hands? Let them do
it at some other man. There's fame for him, and he's welcome to
it.'

I was abashed at having made so great a mistake, and was glad to
change the subject. Fortunately it was not difficult to do, for
Steerforth could always pass from one subject to another with a
carelessness and lightness that were his own.

Lunch succeeded to our sight-seeing, and the short winter day wore
away so fast, that it was dusk when the stage-coach stopped with us
at an old brick house at Highgate on the summit of the hill. An
elderly lady, though not very far advanced in years, with a proud
carriage and a handsome face, was in the doorway as we alighted;
and greeting Steerforth as 'My dearest James,' folded him in her
arms. To this lady he presented me as his mother, and she gave me
a stately welcome.

It was a genteel old-fashioned house, very quiet and orderly. From
the windows of my room I saw all London lying in the distance like
a great vapour, with here and there some lights twinkling through
it. I had only time, in dressing, to glance at the solid
furniture, the framed pieces of work (done, I supposed, by
Steerforth's mother when she was a girl), and some pictures in
crayons of ladies with powdered hair and bodices, coming and going
on the walls, as the newly-kindled fire crackled and sputtered,
when I was called to dinner.

There was a second lady in the dining-room, of a slight short
figure, dark, and not agreeable to look at, but with some
appearance of good looks too, who attracted my attention: perhaps
because I had not expected to see her; perhaps because I found
myself sitting opposite to her; perhaps because of something really
remarkable in her. She had black hair and eager black eyes, and
was thin, and had a scar upon her lip. It was an old scar - I
should rather call it seam, for it was not discoloured, and had
healed years ago - which had once cut through her mouth, downward
towards the chin, but was now barely visible across the table,
except above and on her upper lip, the shape of which it had
altered. I concluded in my own mind that she was about thirty
years of age, and that she wished to be married. She was a little
dilapidated - like a house - with having been so long to let; yet
had, as I have said, an appearance of good looks. Her thinness
seemed to be the effect of some wasting fire within her, which
found a vent in her gaunt eyes.

She was introduced as Miss Dartle, and both Steerforth and his
mother called her Rosa. I found that she lived there, and had been
for a long time Mrs. Steerforth's companion. It appeared to me
that she never said anything she wanted to say, outright; but
hinted it, and made a great deal more of it by this practice. For
example, when Mrs. Steerforth observed, more in jest than earnest,
that she feared her son led but a wild life at college, Miss Dartle
put in thus:

'Oh, really? You know how ignorant I am, and that I only ask for
information, but isn't it always so? I thought that kind of life
was on all hands understood to be - eh?'
'It is education for a very grave profession, if you mean that,
Rosa,' Mrs. Steerforth answered with some coldness.

'Oh! Yes! That's very true,' returned Miss Dartle. 'But isn't
it, though? - I want to be put right, if I am wrong - isn't it,
really?'

'Really what?' said Mrs. Steerforth.

'Oh! You mean it's not!' returned Miss Dartle. 'Well, I'm very
glad to hear it! Now, I know what to do! That's the advantage of
asking. I shall never allow people to talk before me about
wastefulness and profligacy, and so forth, in connexion with that
life, any more.'

'And you will be right,' said Mrs. Steerforth. 'My son's tutor is
a conscientious gentleman; and if I had not implicit reliance on my
son, I should have reliance on him.'

'Should you?' said Miss Dartle. 'Dear me! Conscientious, is he?
Really conscientious, now?'

'Yes, I am convinced of it,' said Mrs. Steerforth.

'How very nice!' exclaimed Miss Dartle. 'What a comfort! Really
conscientious? Then he's not - but of course he can't be, if he's
really conscientious. Well, I shall be quite happy in my opinion
of him, from this time. You can't think how it elevates him in my
opinion, to know for certain that he's really conscientious!'

Her own views of every question, and her correction of everything
that was said to which she was opposed, Miss Dartle insinuated in
the same way: sometimes, I could not conceal from myself, with
great power, though in contradiction even of Steerforth. An
instance happened before dinner was done. Mrs. Steerforth speaking
to me about my intention of going down into Suffolk, I said at
hazard how glad I should be, if Steerforth would only go there with
me; and explaining to him that I was going to see my old nurse, and
Mr. Peggotty's family, I reminded him of the boatman whom he had
seen at school.

'Oh! That bluff fellow!' said Steerforth. 'He had a son with him,
hadn't he?'

'No. That was his nephew,' I replied; 'whom he adopted, though, as
a son. He has a very pretty little niece too, whom he adopted as
a daughter. In short, his house - or rather his boat, for he lives
in one, on dry land - is full of people who are objects of his
generosity and kindness. You would be delighted to see that
household.'

'Should I?' said Steerforth. 'Well, I think I should. I must see
what can be done. It would be worth a journey (not to mention the
pleasure of a journey with you, Daisy), to see that sort of people
together, and to make one of 'em.'

My heart leaped with a new hope of pleasure. But it was in
reference to the tone in which he had spoken of 'that sort of
people', that Miss Dartle, whose sparkling eyes had been watchful
of us, now broke in again.

'Oh, but, really? Do tell me. Are they, though?' she said.

'Are they what? And are who what?' said Steerforth.

'That sort of people. - Are they really animals and clods, and
beings of another order? I want to know SO much.'

'Why, there's a pretty wide separation between them and us,' said
Steerforth, with indifference. 'They are not to be expected to be
as sensitive as we are. Their delicacy is not to be shocked, or
hurt easily. They are wonderfully virtuous, I dare say - some
people contend for that, at least; and I am sure I don't want to
contradict them - but they have not very fine natures, and they may
be thankful that, like their coarse rough skins, they are not
easily wounded.'

'Really!' said Miss Dartle. 'Well, I don't know, now, when I have
been better pleased than to hear that. It's so consoling! It's
such a delight to know that, when they suffer, they don't feel!
Sometimes I have been quite uneasy for that sort of people; but now
I shall just dismiss the idea of them, altogether. Live and learn.
I had my doubts, I confess, but now they're cleared up. I didn't
know, and now I do know, and that shows the advantage of asking -
don't it?'

I believed that Steerforth had said what he had, in jest, or to
draw Miss Dartle out; and I expected him to say as much when she
was gone, and we two were sitting before the fire. But he merely
asked me what I thought of her.

'She is very clever, is she not?' I asked.

'Clever! She brings everything to a grindstone,' said Steerforth,
and sharpens it, as she has sharpened her own face and figure these
years past. She has worn herself away by constant sharpening. She
is all edge.'

'What a remarkable scar that is upon her lip!' I said.

Steerforth's face fell, and he paused a moment.

'Why, the fact is,' he returned, 'I did that.'

'By an unfortunate accident!'

'No. I was a young boy, and she exasperated me, and I threw a
hammer at her. A promising young angel I must have been!'
I was deeply sorry to have touched on such a painful theme, but
that was useless now.

'She has borne the mark ever since, as you see,' said Steerforth;
'and she'll bear it to her grave, if she ever rests in one - though
I can hardly believe she will ever rest anywhere. She was the
motherless child of a sort of cousin of my father's. He died one
day. My mother, who was then a widow, brought her here to be
company to her. She has a couple of thousand pounds of her own,
and saves the interest of it every year, to add to the principal.
There's the history of Miss Rosa Dartle for you.'

'And I have no doubt she loves you like a brother?' said I.

'Humph!' retorted Steerforth, looking at the fire. 'Some brothers
are not loved over much; and some love - but help yourself,
Copperfield! We'll drink the daisies of the field, in compliment
to you; and the lilies of the valley that toil not, neither do they
spin, in compliment to me - the more shame for me!' A moody smile
that had overspread his features cleared off as he said this
merrily, and he was his own frank, winning self again.

I could not help glancing at the scar with a painful interest when
we went in to tea. It was not long before I observed that it was
the most susceptible part of her face, and that, when she turned
pale, that mark altered first, and became a dull, lead-coloured
streak, lengthening out to its full extent, like a mark in
invisible ink brought to the fire. There was a little altercation
between her and Steerforth about a cast of the dice at back gammon
- when I thought her, for one moment, in a storm of rage; and then
I saw it start forth like the old writing on the wall.

It was no matter of wonder to me to find Mrs. Steerforth devoted to
her son. She seemed to be able to speak or think about nothing
else. She showed me his picture as an infant, in a locket, with
some of his baby-hair in it; she showed me his picture as he had
been when I first knew him; and she wore at her breast his picture
as he was now. All the letters he had ever written to her, she
kept in a cabinet near her own chair by the fire; and she would
have read me some of them, and I should have been very glad to hear
them too, if he had not interposed, and coaxed her out of the
design.

'It was at Mr. Creakle's, my son tells me, that you first became
acquainted,' said Mrs. Steerforth, as she and I were talking at one
table, while they played backgammon at another. 'Indeed, I
recollect his speaking, at that time, of a pupil younger than
himself who had taken his fancy there; but your name, as you may
suppose, has not lived in my memory.'

'He was very generous and noble to me in those days, I assure you,
ma'am,' said I, 'and I stood in need of such a friend. I should
have been quite crushed without him.'

'He is always generous and noble,' said Mrs. Steerforth, proudly.

I subscribed to this with all my heart, God knows. She knew I did;
for the stateliness of her manner already abated towards me, except
when she spoke in praise of him, and then her air was always lofty.

'It was not a fit school generally for my son,' said she; 'far from
it; but there were particular circumstances to be considered at the
time, of more importance even than that selection. My son's high
spirit made it desirable that he should be placed with some man who
felt its superiority, and would be content to bow himself before
it; and we found such a man there.'

I knew that, knowing the fellow. And yet I did not despise him the
more for it, but thought it a redeeming quality in him if he could
be allowed any grace for not resisting one so irresistible as
Steerforth.

'My son's great capacity was tempted on, there, by a feeling of
voluntary emulation and conscious pride,' the fond lady went on to
say. 'He would have risen against all constraint; but he found
himself the monarch of the place, and he haughtily determined to be
worthy of his station. It was like himself.'

I echoed, with all my heart and soul, that it was like himself.

'So my son took, of his own will, and on no compulsion, to the
course in which he can always, when it is his pleasure, outstrip
every competitor,' she pursued. 'My son informs me, Mr.
Copperfield, that you were quite devoted to him, and that when you
met yesterday you made yourself known to him with tears of joy. I
should be an affected woman if I made any pretence of being
surprised by my son's inspiring such emotions; but I cannot be
indifferent to anyone who is so sensible of his merit, and I am
very glad to see you here, and can assure you that he feels an
unusual friendship for you, and that you may rely on his
protection.'

Miss Dartle played backgammon as eagerly as she did everything
else. If I had seen her, first, at the board, I should have
fancied that her figure had got thin, and her eyes had got large,
over that pursuit, and no other in the world. But I am very much
mistaken if she missed a word of this, or lost a look of mine as I
received it with the utmost pleasure, and honoured by Mrs.
Steerforth's confidence, felt older than I had done since I left
Canterbury.

When the evening was pretty far spent, and a tray of glasses and
decanters came in, Steerforth promised, over the fire, that he
would seriously think of going down into the country with me.
There was no hurry, he said; a week hence would do; and his mother
hospitably said the same. While we were talking, he more than once
called me Daisy; which brought Miss Dartle out again.

'But really, Mr. Copperfield,' she asked, 'is it a nickname? And
why does he give it you? Is it - eh? - because he thinks you young
and innocent? I am so stupid in these things.'

I coloured in replying that I believed it was.

'Oh!' said Miss Dartle. 'Now I am glad to know that! I ask for
information, and I am glad to know it. He thinks you young and
innocent; and so you are his friend. Well, that's quite
delightful!'

She went to bed soon after this, and Mrs. Steerforth retired too.
Steerforth and I, after lingering for half-an-hour over the fire,
talking about Traddles and all the rest of them at old Salem House,
went upstairs together. Steerforth's room was next to mine, and I
went in to look at it. It was a picture of comfort, full of
easy-chairs, cushions and footstools, worked by his mother's hand,
and with no sort of thing omitted that could help to render it
complete. Finally, her handsome features looked down on her
darling from a portrait on the wall, as if it were even something
to her that her likeness should watch him while he slept.

I found the fire burning clear enough in my room by this time, and
the curtains drawn before the windows and round the bed, giving it
a very snug appearance. I sat down in a great chair upon the
hearth to meditate on my happiness; and had enjoyed the
contemplation of it for some time, when I found a likeness of Miss
Dartle looking eagerly at me from above the chimney-piece.

It was a startling likeness, and necessarily had a startling look.
The painter hadn't made the scar, but I made it; and there it was,
coming and going; now confined to the upper lip as I had seen it at
dinner, and now showing the whole extent of the wound inflicted by
the hammer, as I had seen it when she was passionate.

I wondered peevishly why they couldn't put her anywhere else
instead of quartering her on me. To get rid of her, I undressed
quickly, extinguished my light, and went to bed. But, as I fell
asleep, I could not forget that she was still there looking, 'Is it
really, though? I want to know'; and when I awoke in the night, I
found that I was uneasily asking all sorts of people in my dreams
whether it really was or not - without knowing what I meant.





David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Category:
General Fiction

England - Social life and customs - 19th century
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