The first things that assume shape and form in the recollections of my childhood are my mother, with her pretty hair and youthful shape, and Peggotty, our faithful serving maid, with no shape at all, and eyes so dark that they seemed to darken their whole neighbourhood in her face, and cheeks and arms so hard and red that I wonder the birds didn’t peck her in preference to apples.
What else do I remember?—let me see. There comes to me a vision of our home, Blunderstone Rookery, with its ground-floor kitchen, and long passage leading from it to the front door. A dark store-room opens out of the kitchen, and in it there is the smell of soap, pickles, pepper, candles, and coffee, all at one whiff. Then there are the two parlours;—the one in which we sit of an evening, my mother and I and Peggotty,—for Peggotty is quite our companion,—and the best parlour where we sit on a Sunday; grandly, but not so comfortably, while my mother reads the old familiar Bible stories to us.
And now I see the outside of our house, with the latticed bedroom windows, and the ragged old rooks’ nests dangling in the elm-trees. I see the garden—a very preserve of butterflies, where the pigeon house and dog-kennel are, and the fruit trees. And I see again my mother winding her bright curls around her fingers, and nobody is as proud of her beauty as I am.
One night when Peggotty and I had been sitting cosily by the parlour fire, my mother came home from spending the evening at a neighbour’s, and with her was a gentleman with beautiful black hair and whiskers. As my mother stooped to kiss me, the gentleman said I was a more highly privileged little fellow than a monarch.
“What does that mean?” I asked him. He smiled and patted me on the head in reply, but somehow I didn’t like him, and I shrank away, jealous that his hand should touch my mother’s in touching me—although my mother’s gentle chiding made me ashamed of the involuntary motion, and of my dislike for this new friend of hers, but from chance words which I heard Peggotty utter, I knew that she too felt as I did.
From that time the gentleman with black whiskers, Mr. Murdstone by name, was at our house constantly, and gradually I became used to seeing him, but I liked him no better than at first. The sight of him filled me with a fear that something was going to happen, and time proved that I was right in my apprehension. One night when my mother, as usual, was out, Peggotty asked me,
“Master Davy, how should you like to go along with me and spend a fortnight at my brother’s at Yarmouth? Wouldn’t that be a treat?”
“Is your brother an agreeable man, Peggotty?” I inquired, provisionally.
“Oh what an agreeable man he is!” cried Peggotty, holding up her hands. “Then there’s the sea; and the boats; and the fishermen; and the beach; and ‘Am to play with——”
Peggotty meant her nephew Ham, but she spoke of him as a morsel of English Grammar.
I was flushed with her summary of delights, and replied that it would indeed be a treat, but what would my mother say?
But Peggotty was sure that I would be allowed to go, and so it proved. My mother did not seem nearly so much surprised as I expected, and arranged at once for my visit.
The day soon came for our going. I was in a fever of expectation, and half afraid that an earthquake might stop the expedition, but soon after breakfast we set off, in a carrier’s cart, and the carrier’s lazy horse shuffled along, carrying us towards Yarmouth. We had a fine basket of refreshments, and we ate a good deal, and slept a good deal, and finally arrived in Yarmouth, where at the public-house we found Ham waiting for us. He was a huge, strong fellow of six feet, with a simpering boy’s face and curly light hair, and he insisted on carrying me on his back, as well as a small box of ours under his arm. We turned down lanes, and went past gas-works, boat-builders’ yards, and riggers’ lofts, and presently Ham said,
“Yon’s our house, Mas’r Davy!”
I looked over the wilderness, and away at the sea, and away at the river, but no house could I make out. There was a black barge not far off, high and dry on the ground, with an iron funnel for a chimney, and smoking very cosily.
“That’s not it?” said I. “That ship-looking thing?”
“That’s it, Mas’r Davy,” returned Ham.
If it had been Aladdin’s palace, I could not have been more charmed with the romantic idea of living in it. There was a delightful door cut in the side, and it was roofed in, and there were little windows in it. It was beautifully clean inside and as tidy as possible. There was a table, and a Dutch clock, and a chest of drawers. On the walls were some coloured pictures of Biblical subjects. Abraham in red, going to sacrifice Isaac in blue, and Daniel in yellow, cast into a den of green lions, were most prominent. Also, there was a mantel-shelf, and some lockers and boxes which served for seats. Then Peggotty showed me the completest little bedroom ever seen, in the stern of the vessel, with a tiny bed, a little looking-glass framed in oyster-shells, and a nosegay of seaweed in a blue mug on the table. The walls were white-washed, and the patchwork counterpane made my eyes quite ache with its brightness.
When I took out my pocket-handkerchief, it smelt as if it had wrapped up a lobster. When I confided this to Peggotty, she told me that her brother dealt in lobsters, crabs, and crawfish, which accounted for the sea smells in the delightful house.
The inmates of the boat were its master, Mr. Peggotty and his orphan nephew and niece, Ham and little Em’ly, which latter was a beautiful little girl, who wore a necklace of blue beads. There was also Mrs. Gummidge, an old lady who sat continually by the fire and knitted, and who was the widow of a former partner of Mr. Peggotty’s.
With little Em’ly I at once fell violently in love, and we used to walk upon the beach in a loving manner, hours and hours. I am sure I loved that baby quite as truly and with more purity than can enter into the best love of a later time of life; and when the time came for going home, our agony of mind at parting was intense.
During my visit I had been completely absorbed in my new companions, but no sooner were we turned homeward than my heart began to throb at thought of again seeing my mother,—my comforter and friend. To my surprise, when we reached the dear old Rookery, not my mother, but a strange servant opened the door.
“Why, Peggotty,” I said, ruefully, “isn’t she come home?”
“Yes, yes, Master Davy,” said Peggotty, “She’s come home. Wait a bit, Master Davy, and I’ll—I’ll tell you something.”
Intensely agitated, Peggotty led me into the kitchen and closed the door, then, as she untied her bonnet with a shaking hand, she said breathlessly; “Master Davy, what do you think? You have got a Pa!”
I trembled and turned white, and thought of my father’s grave in the churchyard, which I knew so well.
“A new one,” said Peggotty.
“A new one?” I repeated.
Peggotty gasped, as if she were swallowing something very hard, and, putting out her hand, said,
“Come and see him.”
“I don’t want to see him.”
“And your mama,” said Peggotty.
I ceased to draw back, and we went straight to the best parlour. On one side of the fire, sat my mother; on the other, Mr. Murdstone. My mother dropped her work, and arose hurriedly, but timidly, I thought.
“Now, Clara, my dear,” said Mr. Murdstone. “Recollect! control yourself! Davy boy, how do you do?”
I gave him my hand. Then I went over to my mother. She kissed me, patted me gently on the shoulder, and sat down again to her work, while Mr. Murdstone watched us both. I turned to look out of the window, and as soon as I could, I crept up-stairs. My old dear bedroom was changed, and I was to sleep a long way off, and there on my bed, thinking miserable thoughts, I cried myself to sleep. I was awakened by somebody saying, “Here he is!” and there beside me were my mother and Peggotty, asking what was the matter.
I answered, “Nothing,” and turned over, to hide my trembling lip.
“Davy,” said my mother. “Davy, my child!”
Then when she would have caressed me in the old fashion, Mr. Murdstone came up and sent the others away.
“David,” he said, making his lips thin, by pressing them together, “if I have an obstinate horse or dog to deal with, what do you think I do?”
“I don’t know.”
“I beat him. I make him wince and smart. I say to myself, ‘I’ll conquer that fellow;’ and if it were to cost him all the blood he had, I should do it. What is that upon your face?”
“Dirt,” I said.
He knew it was the mark of tears as well as I. But if he had asked the question twenty times, with twenty blows, I believe my baby heart would have burst before I would have told him so.
“You have a good deal of intelligence for a little fellow,” he said, “and you understood me very well, I see. Wash that face, sir, and come down with me.”
He pointed to the washstand, and motioned me to obey him directly, and I have little doubt that he would have knocked me down, had I hesitated.
As he walked me into the parlour, he said to my mother, “Clara, my dear, you will not be made uncomfortable any more, I hope. We shall soon improve our youthful humours.”
I might have been made another creature for life, by a kind word just then. A word of welcome home, of reassurance that it was home, might have made me dutiful to my new father, and made me respect instead of hate him; but the word was not spoken, and the time for it was gone.
After that my life was a lonely one. Mr. Murdstone seemed to be very fond of my mother, and she of him, but also she seemed to stand in great awe of him, and dared not do what he might not approve. Soon Miss Murdstone came to live with us. She was a gloomy-looking lady, dark like her brother, and much like him in character. She assumed the care of the house, and mother had nothing more to do with it. Meanwhile, I learnt lessons at home.
Shall I ever forget those lessons! They were presided over nominally by my mother, but really by Mr. Murdstone and his sister, who were always present, and the very sight of the Murdstones had such an effect upon me, that every word I had tried to learn would glide away, and go I know not where. I was treated to so much systematic cruelty that after six months, I became sullen, dull, and dogged, and this feeling was not lessened by the fact that I was more and more shut out from my mother. I believe I should have been almost stupified but for the small collection of books which had belonged to my own father, and to which I had access. From that blessed little room, came forth “Roderick Random,” “Peregrine Pickle,” “Tom Jones,” “The Vicar of Wakefield,” “Robinson Crusoe,” “Gil Blas,” and “Don Quixote,”—a glorious company to sustain me. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time—they, and the “Arabian Nights” and “Tales of the Genii,”—and were my only comfort.
One morning, when I went into the parlour with my books, I found Mr. Murdstone poising a cane in the air, which he had obtained, it seemed, for the purpose of flogging me for any mistake I might make. My apprehension was so great, that the words of my lessons slipped off by the entire page,—I made mistake after mistake, failure upon failure,—and presently Mr. Murdstone rose, taking up the cane, and telling me to follow him. As he took me out at the door, my mother ran towards us. Miss Murdstone said, “Clara! are you a perfect fool?” and interfered. I saw my mother stop her ears then, and I heard her crying.
Mr. Murdstone walked me up to my room, and when we got there suddenly twisted my head under his arm.
“Mr. Murdstone! Sir!” I cried, “Don’t. Pray don’t beat me! I have tried to learn, sir, but I can’t learn while you and Miss Murdstone are by. I can’t indeed!”
“Can’t you, indeed, David?” he said. “We’ll try that.” He had my head as in a vise, but I twined round him somehow, and stopped him for a moment, entreating him again not to beat me. It was only for a moment though, for he cut me heavily an instant afterwards, and in the same instant I caught the hand with which he held me in my mouth and bit it through. It sets my teeth on edge to think of it.
He beat me then, as if he would have beaten me to death. Above all the noise we made, I heard them running up the stairs and crying out—my mother and Peggotty. Then he was gone; and the door was locked outside; and I was lying, fevered and hot, and torn, and sore, and raging in my puny way, upon the floor.
How well I recollect, when I became quiet, what an unnatural stillness seemed to reign through the house! When my passion began to cool, how wicked I began to feel! My stripes were sore and stiff, and made me cry afresh when I moved, but they were nothing to the guilt I felt. It lay like lead upon my breast. For five days I was imprisoned, and of the length of those days I can convey no idea to any one. They occupy the place of years in my remembrance. On the fifth night Peggotty came to my door and whispered my name through the keyhole.
“What is going to be done with me, Peggotty dear?” I asked.
“School. Near London,” was Peggotty’s answer.
“Is that the reason why Miss Murdstone took the clothes out of my drawers?”
“Yes,” said Peggotty. “Box.”
“Shan’t I see mama?”
“Yes,” said Peggotty. “Morning.”
Then followed some assurances of affection, which Peggotty sobbed through the keyhole, and from that night I had an affection for her greater than for any one, except my mother.
In the morning Miss Murdstone appeared and told me what I already knew, and said that I was to come down into the parlour, and have my breakfast. My mother was there, very pale, and with red eyes, into whose arms I ran, and begged her pardon from my suffering soul.
“Oh, Davy,” she said. “That you could hurt any one I love! Try to be better, pray to be better! I forgive you, but I am so grieved, Davy, that you should have such bad passions in your heart!”
They had persuaded her that I was a wicked fellow, and she was more sorry for that, than for my going away. I felt it sorely. I tried to eat, but tears dropped upon my bread-and-butter, and trickled into my tea, and I could not swallow.
Presently the carrier was at the door, my box was in the cart, and before I could realise it, my mother was holding me in a farewell embrace, and then I got into the cart, and the lazy horse started off.
About half a mile away from home the carrier stopped, and Peggotty burst from a hedge and climbed into the cart. She squeezed me until I could scarcely speak, and crammed some bags of cakes into my pockets, and a purse into my hand, but not a word did she speak. Then with a final hug, she climbed down and ran away again, and we started on once more.
Having by this time cried as much as I possibly could, I began to think it was of no use crying any more. The carrier agreed with me, and proposed that my pocket handkerchief should be spread upon the horse’s back to dry, to which I assented, and then turned my attention to the purse. It had three bright shillings in it, which Peggotty had evidently polished up with whitening,—but more precious yet,—were two half-crowns in a bit of paper on which my mother had written, “For Davy. With my love.”
I was so overcome by this that I asked the carrier to reach me my pocket handkerchief again, but he thought I had better do without it, so I wiped my eyes on my sleeve and stopped myself—and on we jogged.
At Yarmouth we drove to the inn-yard, where I dismounted, and was given dinner, after which I mounted the coach for London, and at three o’clock we started off on a trip which was not unpleasant to me, with its many novel sights and experiences. In London, at an inn in Whitechapel, I was met by a Mr. Mell, one of the teachers at Salem House, the school to which I was going. We journeyed on together, and by the next day were at Salem House, which was a square brick building with wings, enclosed with a high brick wall. I was astonished at the perfect quiet there, until Mr. Mell told me that the boys were at their homes on account of it being holiday-time, and that even the proprietor was away. And he added that I was sent in vacation as a punishment for my misdoing.
I can see the schoolroom now, into which he took me, with its long rows of desks and forms, and bristling all round with pegs for hats and slates. Scraps of old copy-books and exercises littered the dirty floor, ink had been splashed everywhere, and the air of the place was indescribably dreary. My companion left me there alone for a while, and as I roamed round, I came upon a pasteboard placard, beautifully written, lying on a desk, bearing these words, “Take care of him. He bites.”
I got upon the desk immediately, apprehensive of at least a great dog underneath, but I could see nothing of him. I was still peering about, when Mr. Mell came back, and asked what I did up there.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” said I, “I’m looking for the dog.”
“Dog,” said he, “What dog?”
“The one that’s to be taken care of, sir; that bites.”
“Copperfield,” said he, gravely, “that’s not a dog. That’s a boy. My instructions are, Copperfield, to put this placard on your back. I am sorry to make such a beginning with you, but I must do it.”
With that he took me down, and tied the placard on my shoulders, and wherever I went afterwards I carried it. What I suffered from that placard, nobody can imagine. I always fancied that somebody was reading it, and I began to have a dread of myself, as a kind of wild boy who did bite. Above and beyond all, I dreaded the coming back of the boys and what they might think of me, and my days and nights were filled with gloomy forebodings. In a month Mr. Creakle, the proprietor of Salem House arrived. He was stout, with a bald head, a fiery face, small, deep-set eyes, thick veins in his forehead, a little nose, and a large chin. His face always looked angry, but what impressed me most about him was that he spoke always in a whisper. He inquired at once about my behaviour, and seemed disappointed to find that there was nothing against me so far. He then told me that he knew my stepfather as a man of strong character, and that he should carry out his wishes concerning me. He pinched my ear with ferocious playfulness, and I was very much frightened by his manner and words; but before I was ordered away, I ventured to ask if the placard might not be removed. Whether Mr. Creakle was in earnest, or only meant to frighten me, I don’t know, but he made a burst out of his chair, before which I precipitately retreated, and never once stopped until I reached my own bedroom, where, finding I was not pursued, I went to bed, and lay quaking for a couple of hours.
The next day the other masters and the scholars began to arrive. Jolly Tommy Traddles was the first boy back, and it was a happy circumstance for me. He enjoyed my placard so much that he saved me from the embarrassment of either disclosure or concealment, by presenting me to the other boys in this way; “Look here! Here’s a game!” Happily, too, most of the boys came back low-spirited, and were not as boisterous at my expense as I expected. Some of them did dance about me like wild Indians and pretended I was a dog, patting me and saying, “Lie down, sir!” and calling me Towzer, which of course was trying, but, on the whole, much better than I had anticipated.
I was not considered as formally received into the school until I had met J. Steerforth. He was one of the older scholars, reputed to be brilliant and clever, and quite the lion of the school. He inquired, under a shed in the playground, into the particulars of my punishment, and said it was “a jolly shame,” which opinion bound me to him ever afterwards. Then he asked me what money I had, and when I answered seven shillings, he suggested that I spend a couple of shillings or so in a bottle of currant wine, and a couple or so in almond cakes, and another in fruit, and another in biscuit, for a little celebration that night in our bedroom, in honour of my arrival, and of course I said I should be glad to do so. I was a little uneasy about wasting my mother’s half-crowns, but I did not dare to say so, and Steerforth procured the feast and laid it out on my bed, saying, “There you are, young Copperfield, and a royal spread you’ve got.”
I couldn’t think of doing the honours of the feast, and begged him to preside. So he sat upon my pillow, handing round the viands, and dispensing the wine. As to me, I sat next to him, and the rest grouped about us on the nearest beds and on the floor; and there we sat in the dim moonlight, talking in whispers, while I heard all the school gossip, about Mr. Creakle and his cruelty, and about the other masters, and that the only boy on whom Mr. Creakle never dared to lay a hand was Steerforth. All this and much more I heard before we at last betook ourselves to bed.
The next day school began in earnest, and so far as the boys were concerned, Steerforth continued his protection of me, and was always a very firm and useful friend, as no one dared annoy any one whom he liked.
One night he discovered that my head was filled with stories of my favourite heroes, which I could relate with some measure of graphic talent, and after that I was obliged to reel off stories by the yard, making myself into a regular Sultana Scheherezade for his benefit. I was much flattered by his interest in my tales, and the only drawback to telling them was that I was often very sleepy at night, and it was sometimes very hard work to be roused and forced into a long recital before the rising bell rang, but Steerforth was resolute, and as in return he explained sums and exercises to me, I was no loser by the transaction. Also, I honestly admired and loved the handsome fellow, and desired to please him.
And so from week to week the story-telling in the dark went on, and whatever I had within me that was romantic or dreamy was encouraged by it. By degrees the other boys joined the circle of listeners. Traddles was always overcome with mirth at the comic parts of the stories. He used to pretend that he couldn’t keep his teeth from chattering when an Alguazil was mentioned in connection with the adventures of Gil Blas, and I remember when Gil Blas met the captain of the robbers in Madrid, Traddles counterfeited such an ague of terror, that Mr. Creakle who was prowling about the passage, overheard him, and flogged him for disorderly conduct.
There was little of especial moment in my first half-term at Salem House, except the quarrel which took place between Steerforth and Mr. Mell; and an unexpected visit from Ham and Mr. Peggotty when I had the delight of introducing those rollicking fellows to Steerforth, whose bright, easy manner charmed them, as it did most persons.
The rest of the half-year is a jumble in my recollection; and then came the holidays, which were spent at home. I found my mother as tender as of old. She hugged me and kissed me, and on that first blessed night, as Mr. and Miss Murdstone were away on a visit, mother and Peggotty and I dined together by the fireside in the old fashion. My mother spoke of herself as a weak, ignorant young thing whom the Murdstones were endeavouring to make as strong in character as themselves. Then we talked about Salem House and my experiences and friends there, and were very happy. That evening as the last of its race will never pass out of my memory. I was at home for a month, but after that first night I felt in the way, for the Murdstones were always with my mother. On the evening after my return I made a very humble apology to Mr. Murdstone, which he received with cold dignity. I tried to spend my evenings in the kitchen with Peggotty, but of this Mr. Murdstone did not approve, so I sat wearily in the parlour, waiting for the hours to wear themselves away. What walks I took alone! What meals I had in silence and embarrassment! What dull evenings, poring over tables of weights and measures, and what yawns and dozes I lapsed into in spite of all my care! Thus the holidays lagged away, until the morning came when Miss Murdstone gave me the closing cup of tea of the vacation. I was not sorry to go. I had lapsed into a stupid state; but I was recovering a little and looking foward to Steerforth. I kissed my mother, and had climbed into the carrier’s cart when I heard her calling me. I looked back, and she stood at the garden-gate, looking intently at me.
So I lost her. So I saw her afterwards, in my sleep at school,—a silent presence near my bed—looking at me with the same intent face,—and the vision is still a constant blessing to me.
From then I pass over all that happened at Salem House until my birthday in March. On the morning of that day I was summoned into Mr. Creakle’s august presence. Mrs. Creakle was in the room too, and somehow they broke it to me that my mother was very ill. I knew all now!
“She is dead,” they said.
There was no need to tell me so. I had already broken out into a desolate cry, and felt an orphan in the wide world. If ever child were stricken with sincere grief, I was. But I remember even so, that my sorrow was a kind of satisfaction to me, when I walked in the playground, while the boys were in school, and saw them glancing at me out of the windows, and because of my grief I felt distinguished, and of vast importance. We had no story-telling that night, and Traddles insisted on lending me his pillow as a guarantee of his sympathy, which I understood and accepted.
I left Salem House upon noon the next day, stopping in Yarmouth to be measured for my suit of black. Then all too soon I was at home again, only it was home no longer, for my mother was not there. Mr. Murdstone, who was weeping, took no notice of me. Miss Murdstone gave me her cold fingers, and asked if I had been measured for my mourning, and if I had brought home my shirts. There was no sign that they thought of my suffering, and—alone—except for dear faithful Peggotty, I remained there, motherless, and worse than fatherless, still stunned and giddy with the shock. As soon as the funeral was over, Peggotty obtained permission to take me home with her for a visit, and I was thankful for the change, even though I knew that Peggotty was leaving the Rookery forever.
We found the old boat the same pleasant place as ever, only little Em’ly and I seldom wandered on the beach now. She had tasks to learn, and needlework to do. During the visit I had a great surprise, which was no less than Peggotty’s marriage to the carrier who had taken me on so many trips, and whose affections it seemed, had long been fastened upon Peggotty. He took her to a nice little home, and there she showed me a room which she said would be mine whenever I chose to occupy it. I felt the constancy of my dear old nurse, and thanked her as well as I could, but the next day I was obliged to go back to the Murdstones. Peggotty made the journey with me, and no words can express my forlorn and desolate feelings when the cart took her away again, and I was left alone in the place where I used to be so happy.
And now I fell into a state of neglect, apart from other boys of my own age, and apart from all friendly faces. What would I not have given to have been sent to school! I think Mr. Murdstone’s means were straightened at that time, and there was no mention of Salem House or of any other school. I was not beaten or starved, only coldly neglected. Peggotty I was seldom allowed to visit, but once a week she either came to see me or met me somewhere, and that, and the dear old books were my only comfort.
One day Mr. Quinion, a visitor at the house, took pains to ask me some questions about myself, and afterwards Mr. Murdstone called me to him, and said:
“I suppose you know, David, that I am not rich. You have received some considerable education already. Education is costly; and even if I could afford it, I am of opinion that it would not be at all advantageous to you to be kept at a school. There is before you a fight with the world; and the sooner you begin it the better. You may have heard of the counting house of Murdstone and Grinby, in the wine trade? Mr. Quinion manages the business, and he suggests thit it gives employment to some other boys, and that he sees no reason why it shouldn’t give employment to you. You will earn enough to provide for your eating, and drinking, and pocket money. Your lodging will be paid by me. So will your washing. Your clothes will be looked after for you, too,” said Mr. Murdstone, “as you will not be able, yet awhile, to get them for yourself. So you are now going to London, David, to begin the world on your own account.”
Behold me, on the morrow, in a much-worn little white hat, with a crape band round it, a black jacket, and stiff corduroy trousers! Behold me so attired, and with my little worldly all in a small trunk, sitting, a lone, lorn child, in the post-chaise, journeying to London with Mr. Quinion! Behold me at ten years old, a little labouring hind in Murdstone and Grinby’s warehouse on the waterside at Blackfriars! It was a crazy old house with a wharf of its own, but rotting with dirt and age. Their trade was among many kinds of people, chiefly supplying wines and spirits to certain packet ships. My work was pasting labels on full bottles, or fitting corks to them, or sealing the corks, and the work was not half so distasteful as were my companions, far below me in birth and education. The oldest of the regular boys was named Mick Walker, and another boy in my department, on account of his complexion, was called Mealy Potatoes. No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship, and thought sadly of Traddles, Steerforth, and those other boys, whom I felt sure would grow up to be great men.
I lodged with a Mr. Micawber who lived in Windsor Terrace. My pay at the warehouse was six shillings a week. I provided my own breakfast and kept bread and cheese to eat at night. Also, child that I was,—sometimes I could not resist pastry cakes and puddings in the shop windows, all of which made a large hole in my six shillings. From Monday to Saturday I had no advice, no encouragement or help of any kind. I worked with common men and boys, a shabby child. I lounged about the streets, insufficiently and unsatisfactorily fed. But for the mercy of God, I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a little vagabond. Yet they were kind to me at the warehouse and that I suffered and was miserably unhappy, no one noticed. I concealed the fact even from Peggotty (partly for love of her, and partly for shame).
I did my work not unskilfully, and though perfectly familiar with my companions, my conduct and manner placed a space between us and I was usually spoken of as the “little Gent.” In my desolate condition, I became really attached to the Micawbers, and when they experienced reverses of fortune, and Mr. Micawber was carried off to the Debtors’ Prison, I did all that I could for them, and remained with Mrs. Micawber in lodgings near the prison. But I plainly saw that a parting was near at hand, as it was the Micawbers’ intention to leave London as soon as Mr. Micawber could free himself. So keen was my dread of lodging with new people, added to the misery of my daily life at the warehouse, that I could not endure the thought, and finally I made a resolution. I would run away!
Many times in the old days, my mother had told me the story of my one relative, Aunt Betsey, who had been present at the time of my birth, confident in her hopes of a niece who should be named for her, Betsey Trotwood, and for whom she proposed to provide liberally. When I, David Copperfield, came in place of the longed-for niece, Aunt Betsey shook the dust of the place off her feet, and my mother never saw her afterwards. My idea now was to find Aunt Betsey. Not knowing where she lived, I wrote a long letter to Peggotty, and asked in it incidentally if she knew the address, and also if she could lend me half a guinea for a short time. She answered promptly and enclosed the half guinea, saying that Miss Betsey lived just outside of Dover, which place I at once resolved to set out for. However, I considered myself bound to remain at the warehouse until Saturday night; and as when I first came there I had been paid for a week in advance, not to present myself as usual to receive my wages. For this reason I had borrowed the half guinea, that I might have a fund for my travelling expenses.
Accordingly, when Saturday night came, I shook Mick Walker’s hand, bade good-night to Mealy Potatoes—and ran away.
My box was at my old lodging, and I had a card ready for it, addressed to “Master David, to be left till called for at the Coach Office, Dover.”
I found a young man with a donkey-cart whom I engaged for sixpence, to remove my box, and in pulling the card for it out of my pocket, I tumbled my half guinea out too. I put it in my mouth for safety, and had just tied the card on, when I felt myself violently chucked under the chin by the young man, and saw my half guinea fly out of my mouth into his hand.
“You give me my money back, if you please,” said I, very much frightened. “And leave me alone!”
“Come to the pollis,” said he; “you shall prove it yourn to the pollis!”
“Give me my box and money, will you?” I cried, bursting into tears.
The young man still replied, “Come to the pollis!”
Then suddenly changed his mind, jumped into the cart, sat upon my box, and exclaiming that he would drive to the pollis straight, rattled away.
I ran after him as fast as I could, narrowly escaping being run over some twenty times in a mile, until I had no breath left to call out with. Now I lost him, now I saw him, but at length, confused and exhausted, I left him to go where he would with my box and money, and, panting and crying, but never stopping, I faced about for Greenwich, and had some wild idea of running straight to Dover. However, my scattered senses were soon collected and I sat down on a doorstep, quite spent. Fortunately, it was a fine summer night, and when I had recovered my breath, I went on again. But I had only three-halfpence in the world, and as I trudged on, I pictured to myself how I should be found dead in a day or two, under some hedge. Passing a little pawnshop, I left my waistcoat, and went on, richer by ninepence, and I foresaw that my jacket would go next, in fact that I should be lucky if I got to Dover in a shirt and a pair of trousers.
It had occurred to me to go on as fast as I could towards Salem House, and spend the night behind the wall at the back of my old school, where there used to be a haystack. I imagined it would be a kind of company to have the boys and the bedroom where I used to tell the stories, so near me. I had a hard day’s walk, and with great trouble found Salem House, and the haystack, and lay down outside the dark and silent house. Never shall I forget the lonely sensation of first lying down, without a roof above my head! But at last I slept, and dreamed of old school-days, until the warm beams of the sun, and the rising bell at Salem House awoke me. As none of my old companions could still be there, I had no wish to linger, so I crept away from the wall and struck out into the dusty Dover road.
That day I got through three and twenty miles, and at night I passed over the bridge at Rochester, footsore and tired, eating bread as I walked. There were plenty of signs, “Lodgings for Travellers,” but I sought no shelter, fearing to spend the few pence I had. Very stiff and sore of foot I was in the morning, and I felt that I could go only a short distance that day. I took off my jacket, and went into a shop, where I exchanged it finally for one and fourpence. For threepence I refreshed myself completely, and limped seven miles further. I slept under another haystack, after washing my blistered feet in a stream, and went on in rather better spirits, coming at last to the bare wide downs near Dover. I then began to inquire of everyone I met, about my aunt, but no one knew her, and finally, when the morning was far spent, in despair I went into a little shop to ask once more. I spoke to the clerk, but a young woman on whom he was waiting, took the inquiry to herself.
“My mistress?” she said. “What do you want with her, boy?”
On my replying that I wished to see Miss Trotwood, the young woman told me to follow her. I needed no second permission, though by this time my legs shook under me. Soon we came to a neat little cottage with cheerful bow-windows, in front of it a gravelled court, full of flowers.
“This is Miss Trotwood’s,” said the young woman, and then she hurried in, and left me standing at the gate. My shoes were by this time in a woeful condition, my hat was crushed and bent, my shirt and trousers stained and torn, my hair had known no comb or brush since I left London, my face, neck, and hands, from unaccustomed exposure, were burnt to a berry-brown. From head to foot I was powdered with dust. In this plight I waited to introduce myself to my formidable aunt.
As I waited, there came out of the house a lady with a handkerchief tied over her cap, a pair of gardening gloves on her hands, and carrying a great knife. I knew her immediately, for she stalked out of the house exactly as my mother had so often described her stalking up our garden at home.
“Go away!” said Miss Betsey, shaking her head, and waving her knife. “Go along! No boys here!”
I watched her, with my heart at my lips, as she stopped to dig up a root. Then I went up and touched her.
“If you please, ma’am,” I began.
She started, and looked up.
“If you please, aunt.”
“Eh?” exclaimed Miss Betsey, in a tone of amazement I have never heard approached.
“If you please, aunt, I am your nephew.”
“Oh, Lord!” said my aunt. And sat down flat in the garden-path.
“I am David Copperfield, of Blunderstone, in Suffolk—where you came, on the night when I was born, and saw my dear mama. I have been very unhappy since she died. I have been slighted and taught nothing, and thrown upon myself, and put to work not fit for me. It made me run away to you. I was robbed at first setting out, and have walked all the way, and have never slept in a bed since I began the journey.” Here my self-support gave way all at once, and I broke into a passion of crying.
My aunt sat on the gravel, staring at me, until I began to cry, when she got up in a great hurry, collared me, and took me into the parlour. Her first proceeding there was to unlock a tall press, bring out several bottles, and pour some of the contents of each into my mouth. I think they must have been taken out at random, for I am sure I tasted aniseed water, anchovy sauce, and salad dressing. Then she put me on a sofa with a shawl under my head, and a handkerchief under my feet, lest I should soil the cover, and then, sitting down so I could not see her face, she ejaculated “Mercy on us!” at regular intervals.
After a time she rang a bell, and a grey-headed, florid old gentleman, called Mr. Dick, who had the appearance of a grown-up boy, and who lived with my aunt, appeared. When my aunt asked his opinion about what to do with me, his advice was to wash me.
This Janet, the maid, was preparing to do, when suddenly my aunt became, in one moment, rigid with indignation, and cried out, “Janet! Donkeys!”
Upon which, Janet came running as if the house were in flames, and darted out on a little piece of green in front, to warn off two donkeys, lady ridden, while my aunt seized the bridle of a third animal, laden with a child, led him from the sacred spot, and boxed the ears of the unlucky urchin in attendance.
To this hour I do not know whether my aunt had any lawful right of way over that patch of green, but she had settled it in her own mind that she had, and it was all the same to her. The passage of a donkey over that spot was the one great outrage of her life. In whatever occupation or conversation she was engaged, a donkey turned the current of her ideas, and she was upon him straight. Jugs of water were kept in secret places ready to be discharged on the offenders, sticks were laid in ambush behind the doors; sallies were made at all hours, and incessant war prevailed, which was perhaps an agreeable excitement to the donkey boys.
The bath was a great comfort, for I began to feel acute pains in my limbs, and was so tired that I could scarcely keep awake for five minutes together. Enrobed in clothes belonging to Mr. Dick, and tied up in great shawls, I fell asleep, on the sofa, and only awoke in time to dine off a roast fowl and pudding, while my aunt asked me a number of questions, and spoke of my mother and Peggotty, and in the afternoon we talked again and there was another alarm of Donkeys.
After tea we sat at the window until dusk, and shortly afterwards I was escorted up to a pleasant room at the top of the house. When I had said my prayers, and the candle had burnt out, I lay there yielding to a sensation of profound gratitude and rest, nestling in the snow white sheets, and I prayed that I might never be houseless any more, and might never forget the houseless.
At breakfast the following day, I found myself the object of my aunt’s most rigid scrutiny.
“Hallo!” she said, after a time to attract my attention, and when I looked up she told me that she had written Mr. Murdstone in regard to me, under which information I became heavy of heart, for I felt that some efforts would be made to force me to return to the warehouse, while the more I saw of my aunt, the more sure I felt that she was the one with whom I wished to stay; that with all her eccentricities and humours, she was one to be honoured and trusted in.
On the second day after my arrival, my Aunt gave a sudden alarm of donkeys, and to my consternation I beheld Miss Murdstone ride over the sacred piece of green, and stop in front of the house.
“Go along with you!” cried my aunt, shaking her head and her fist at the window. “You have no business there. How dare you trespass? Oh! you bold-faced thing!”
I hurriedly told her who the offender was, and that Mr. Murdstone was behind her, but Aunt Betsey was frantic, and cried, “I don’t care who it is—I won’t allow it! Go away! Janet, lead him off!” and from behind my aunt, I saw the donkey pulled round by the bridle, while Mr. Murdstone tried to lead him on, and Miss Murdstone struck at Janet with a parasol, and several boys shouted vigorously. But my aunt suddenly discovering the donkey’s guardian to be one of the most inveterate offenders against her, rushed out and pounced upon him, while the Murdstones waited until she should be at leisure to receive them. She marched past them into the house, a little ruffled by the combat, and took no notice of them until they were announced by Janet.
“Shall I go away, aunt?” I asked trembling.
“No, sir,” said she. “Certainly not!” With which she pushed me into a corner, and fenced me in with a chair, as if it were a prison, and there I stayed. There were several sharp passages at arms between my aunt and the Murdstones, when my past, and my mother’s life came up for discussion. Finally Mr. Murdstone said:
“I am here to take David back, Miss Trotwood; to dispose of him as I think proper, and to deal with him as I think right. I am not here to make any promise to anybody. You may possibly have some idea, Miss Trotwood, of abetting him in his running away, and in his complaints to you. Now, I must caution you, that if you abet him once, you abet him for good and all. I cannot trifle, or be trifled with. I am here, for the first and last time, to take him away. Is he ready to go? If you tell me he is not, it is indifferent to me on what pretence,—my doors are shut against him henceforth, and yours, I take it for granted are open to him.”
My aunt had listened with the closest attention, her hands folded on her knee, and looking grimly at the speaker. When he had finished, she turned to Miss Murdstone, and said:
“Well, ma’am, have you got anything to remark?”
As she had not, my aunt turned to me.
“And what does the boy say?” she said. “Are you ready to go, David?”
I answered no, and entreated her not to let me go. I begged and prayed my aunt to befriend and protect me, for my father’s sake.
My aunt consulted for a moment with Mr. Dick, and then she pulled me towards her, and said to Mr. Murdstone:
“You can go when you like; I’ll take my chance with the boy. If he’s all you say he is, at least I can do as much for him then, as you have done. But I don’t believe a word of it.”
There were some additional words on both sides, and then the Murdstones stood ready to leave.
“Good day, sir,” said my aunt “and good-bye! Good day to you too, ma’am,”—turning suddenly upon his sister. “Let me see you ride a donkey over my green again, and as sure as you have a head upon your shoulders, I’ll knock your bonnet off, and tread upon it!”
The manner and matter of this speech were so fiery, that Miss Murdstone without a word in answer, discreetly put her arm through her brother’s, and walked hastily out of the cottage, my aunt remaining at the window, prepared in case of the donkey’s re-appearance, to carry her threat into execution. No attempt at defiance being made, however, her face gradually relaxed, and became so pleasant, that I was emboldened to kiss and thank her; which I did with great heartiness. She then told me that she wished my name to be changed to Trotwood Copperfield, and this notion so pleased her, that some ready-made clothes purchased for me that very day, were marked “Trotwood Copperfield,” in indelible ink before I put them on, and it was settled that all my clothes thereafter should be marked in the same way.
Thus I began my new life in a new name, and with everything new about me. For many days I felt that it was all a dream, and then the truth came over me in waves of joy that it was no dream, but blessed, blessed reality!
Aunt Betsey soon sent me to Doctor Strong’s excellent school at Canterbury. It was decorously ordered on a sound system, with an appeal in everything to the honour and good faith of the boys. We all felt that we had a part in the management of the place, and learnt with a good will, desiring to do it credit. We had noble games out of hours, and plenty of liberty, and the whole plan of the school was as superior to that of Salem House as can be imagined. I soon became warmly attached to the place, the teachers, and the boys, and in a little while the Murdstone and Grinsby life became so strange that I hardly believed in it. Of course I wrote to Peggotty, relating my experiences, and how my aunt had taken me under her care, and returning the half guinea I had borrowed, and Peggotty answered promptly, but although she expressed herself as glad in my gladness, I could see that she did not take quite kindly to my Aunt as yet.
The days glide swiftly on. I am higher in the school,—I am growing great in Latin verse, think dancing school a tiresome affair, and neglect the laces of my boots. Doctor Strong refers to me publicly as a promising young scholar, at which my aunt remits me a guinea by the next post.
The shade of a young butcher crosses my path. He is the terror of Doctor Strong’s young gentlemen, whom he publicly disparages. He names individuals (myself included) whom he could undertake to settle with one hand, and the other tied behind him. He waylays the smaller boys to punch their unprotected heads, and calls challenges after me in the streets. For these reasons, I resolve to fight the butcher.
We meet by appointment with a select audience. Soon, I don’t know where the wall is, or where I am, or where anybody is, but after a bloody tangle and tussle in the trodden grass, feeling very queer about the head, I awake, and augur justly that the victory is not mine. I am taken home in a sad plight, to have beef-steaks put to my eyes, and am rubbed with vinegar and brandy, and find a great white puffy place on my upper lip, and for several days I remain in the house with a green shade over my eyes, and yet feeling that I did right to fight the butcher.
I change more and more, and now I am the head boy. I wear a gold watch and chain, a ring upon my little finger, and a long-tailed coat. I am seventeen, and am smitten with a violent passion for the eldest Miss Larkins, who is about thirty. She amuses herself with me as with a new toy, wears my ring for a season, and then announces her engagement to a Mr. Chestle. I am terribly dejected for a week or two, then I rally, become a boy once more, fight the butcher again, gloriously defeat him, and feel better,—and soon my school days draw to a close.
My aunt and I had many grave deliberations on the calling to which I should devote myself, but could come to no conclusion, as I had no particular liking that I could discover, for any profession. So my aunt proposed that while I was thinking the matter over, I take a little trip, a breathing spell, as it were.
“What I want you to be, Trot,” said my aunt,—”I don’t mean physically, but morally; you are very well physically—is, a firm fellow, a fine, firm fellow, with a will of your own, with determination. With character, Trot, with strength of character that is not to be influenced, except on good reason, by anybody, or by anything. That’s what I want you to be.”
I intimated that I hoped I should be what she described, and she added that it was best for me to go on my trip alone, to learn to rely upon myself.
So I was fitted out with a handsome purse of money, and tenderly dismissed upon my expedition, promising to write three times a week, and to be back in a month’s time.
I went first to say farewell to Doctor Strong, and then took my seat on the box of the London coach. It was interesting to be sitting up there, behind four horses; well educated, well dressed, with plenty of money, and to look out for the places where I had slept on my weary journey. I stretched my neck eagerly, looking for old landmarks, and when we passed Salem House I fairly tingled with emotion. At Charing Cross I stopped at the Golden Cross, and as soon as I had taken a room, ordered my dinner, trying to appear as old and dignified as possible. In the evening I went to the Covent Garden Theatre, and saw Julius Caesar and a pantomime. It was new to me, and the mingled reality and mystery of the whole show, lights, music, company, and glittering scenery, were so dazzling that when I went out at midnight into the rain, I felt as if I had been for a time an inmate of another world, and was so excited that instead of going to my room in the hotel I ordered some porter and oysters, and sat revolving the glorious visions in my mind until past one o’clock. Presently, I began to watch a young man near me whose face was very familiar. Finally, I rose, and with a fast-beating heart said,
“Steerforth, won’t you speak to me?”
He quickly glanced up, but there was no recognition in his face.
“My God,” he suddenly exclaimed, “It’s little Copperfield!”
Then ensued a violent shaking of hands, and a volley of questions on both sides. He was studying at Oxford, but was on his way to visit his mother, who lived just out of London. He was as handsome, and fascinating, and gay, as ever, in fact quite bewilderingly so to me; and all those things which I enjoyed, he pronounced dreadful bores, quite like a man of the world. However, we got on famously, and when he invited me to go with him to his home at Highgate, I accepted with pleasure, and spent a delightful week there in the genteel, old-fashioned, quiet home. At the end of the week, Steerforth decided to go with me to Yarmouth, so we travelled on together to the inn there, and took rooms.
As early as possible the next day, I visited Peggotty. She did not recognise me after our seven years’ separation, but when at last it dawned on her who I was, she cried, “My darling boy!” and we both burst into tears, and were locked in one another’s arms as though I were a child again.
That evening Steerforth and I went to see Mr. Peggotty and my other friends in the boat, and we were so warmly received that it was nearly midnight when we took our leave. We stayed in Yarmouth for more than a fortnight, and I made many pilgrimages to the dear haunts of my childhood, particularly to that place where my mother and father lay, and mingled with my sad thoughts were brighter ones, about my future—and of how in it I was to become a man of whom they might have been proud.
At the end of the fortnight came a letter from Aunt Betsey, saying that she had taken lodgings for a week in London, and that if I would join her, we could discuss her latest plan for me, which was that I become a proctor in Doctors’ Commons.
I mentioned the plan to Steerforth, and he advised me to take kindly to it, and by the time that I reached London I had made up my mind to do so. My aunt was greatly pleased when I told her this, whereupon I proceeded to add that my only objection to the plan lay in the great expense it would be to article me,—a thousand pounds at least. I spoke of her past liberality to me, and asked her whether I had not better choose some work which required less expensive preliminaries.
For a time my aunt was deep in thought. Then she replied:
“Trot, my child, if I have any object in life, it is to provide for your being a good, sensible, and happy man. I am bent upon it. It’s in vain, Trot, to recall the past, unless it has some influence upon the present. Perhaps I might have been better friends with your father and mother. When you came to me, a little runaway boy, perhaps I thought so. From that time until now, Trot, you have ever been a credit to me, and a pride and pleasure. I have no other claim upon my means,—and you are my adopted child. Only be a loving child to me in my old age, and bear with my whims and fancies, and you will do more for an old woman whose prime of life was not so happy as it might have been, than ever that old woman did for you.”
It was the first time I had heard my aunt refer to her past history. Her quiet way of doing it would have exalted her in my respect and affection, if anything could.
“All is agreed and understood between us now, Trot,” she said, “and we need talk of this no more. Give me a kiss, and we’ll go to the Commons in the morning.”
And accordingly at noon the next day we made our way to Doctors’ Commons, interviewed Mr. Spenlow, of the firm of Spenlow and Jorkins, and I was accepted on a month’s probation as an articled clerk. Mr. Spenlow then conducted me through the Court, that I might see what sort of a place it was. Then my aunt and I set off in search of lodgings for me, and before night I was the proud and happy owner of the key to a little set of chambers in the Adelphi, conveniently situated near the Court, and to my taste in all ways. Seeing how enraptured I was with them, my aunt took them for a month, with the privilege of a year, made arrangements with the landlady about meals and linen, and I was to take possession in two days; during which time I saw Aunt Betsey safely started on her homeward journey towards Dover, dreading to leave me, but exulting in the coming discomfiture of the vagrant donkeys.
It was a wonderfully fine thing to have that lofty castle to myself, and when I had taken possession and shut my outer door, I felt like Robinson Crusoe, when he had got within his fortification, and pulled his ladder up after him. I felt rich, powerful, old, and important, and when I walked out about town, with the keys of my house in my pocket, and able to ask any fellow to come home with me, without giving anybody any inconvenience, I became a quite different personage than ever heretofore.
Whatever there was of happiness or of sorrow, of success or of failure, in my later life, does not belong on these pages. The identity of the child, and of the boy, David Copperfield is now forever merged in the personality of—Trotwood Copperfield, Esquire, householder and Man.
David Copperfield – Ten Boys from Dickens By Kate Dickinson