David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

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.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:30