David Copperfield – Day 157 of 331

Chapter 29: I Visit Steerforth at His Home, Again

I mentioned to Mr. Spenlow in the morning, that I wanted leave of absence for a short time; and as I was not in the receipt of any salary, and consequently was not obnoxious to the implacable Jorkins, there was no difficulty about it. I took that opportunity, with my voice sticking in my throat, and my sight failing as I uttered the words, to express my hope that Miss Spenlow was quite well; to which Mr. Spenlow replied, with no more emotion than if he had been speaking of an ordinary human being, that he was much obliged to me, and she was very well.

We articled clerks, as germs of the patrician order of proctors, were treated with so much consideration, that I was almost my own master at all times. As I did not care, however, to get to Highgate before one or two o’clock in the day, and as we had another little excommunication case in court that morning, which was called The office of the judge promoted by Tipkins against Bullock for his soul’s correction, I passed an hour or two in attendance on it with Mr. Spenlow very agreeably. It arose out of a scuffle between two churchwardens, one of whom was alleged to have pushed the other against a pump; the handle of which pump projecting into a school-house, which school-house was under a gable of the church-roof, made the push an ecclesiastical offence. It was an amusing case; and sent me up to Highgate, on the box of the stage-coach, thinking about the Commons, and what Mr. Spenlow had said about touching the Commons and bringing down the country.

Mrs. Steerforth was pleased to see me, and so was Rosa Dartle. I was agreeably surprised to find that Littimer was not there, and that we were attended by a modest little parlour-maid, with blue ribbons in her cap, whose eye it was much more pleasant, and much less disconcerting, to catch by accident, than the eye of that respectable man. But what I particularly observed, before I had been half-an-hour in the house, was the close and attentive watch Miss Dartle kept upon me; and the lurking manner in which she seemed to compare my face with Steerforth’s, and Steerforth’s with mine, and to lie in wait for something to come out between the two. So surely as I looked towards her, did I see that eager visage, with its gaunt black eyes and searching brow, intent on mine; or passing suddenly from mine to Steerforth’s; or comprehending both of us at once. In this lynx-like scrutiny she was so far from faltering when she saw I observed it, that at such a time she only fixed her piercing look upon me with a more intent expression still. Blameless as I was, and knew that I was, in reference to any wrong she could possibly suspect me of, I shrunk before her strange eyes, quite unable to endure their hungry lustre.

All day, she seemed to pervade the whole house. If I talked to Steerforth in his room, I heard her dress rustle in the little gallery outside. When he and I engaged in some of our old exercises on the lawn behind the house, I saw her face pass from window to window, like a wandering light, until it fixed itself in one, and watched us. When we all four went out walking in the afternoon, she closed her thin hand on my arm like a spring, to keep me back, while Steerforth and his mother went on out of hearing: and then spoke to me.

“You have been a long time,” she said, “without coming here. Is your profession really so engaging and interesting as to absorb your whole attention? I ask because I always want to be informed, when I am ignorant. Is it really, though?”

I replied that I liked it well enough, but that I certainly could not claim so much for it.

“Oh! I am glad to know that, because I always like to be put right when I am wrong,” said Rosa Dartle. “You mean it is a little dry, perhaps?”

“Well,” I replied; “perhaps it was a little dry.”

“Oh! and that’s a reason why you want relief and change — excitement and all that?” said she. “Ah! very true! But isn’t it a little—Eh?—for him; I don’t mean you?”

A quick glance of her eye towards the spot where Steerforth was walking, with his mother leaning on his arm, showed me whom she meant; but beyond that, I was quite lost. And I looked so, I have no doubt.

“Don’t it—I don’t say that it does, mind I want to know—don’t it rather engross him? Don’t it make him, perhaps, a little more remiss than usual in his visits to his blindly-doting—eh?” With another quick glance at them, and such a glance at me as seemed to look into my innermost thoughts.

“Miss Dartle,” I returned, “pray do not think—”

“I don’t!” she said. “Oh dear me, don’t suppose that I think anything! I am not suspicious. I only ask a question. I don’t state any opinion. I want to found an opinion on what you tell me. Then, it’s not so? Well! I am very glad to know it.”

“It certainly is not the fact,” said I, perplexed, “that I am accountable for Steerforth’s having been away from home longer than usual—if he has been: which I really don’t know at this moment, unless I understand it from you. I have not seen him this long while, until last night.”

“No?”

“Indeed, Miss Dartle, no!”

As she looked full at me, I saw her face grow sharper and paler, and the marks of the old wound lengthen out until it cut through the disfigured lip, and deep into the nether lip, and slanted down the face. There was something positively awful to me in this, and in the brightness of her eyes, as she said, looking fixedly at me:

“What is he doing?”

I repeated the words, more to myself than her, being so amazed.

“What is he doing?” she said, with an eagerness that seemed enough to consume her like a fire. “In what is that man assisting him, who never looks at me without an inscrutable falsehood in his eyes? If you are honourable and faithful, I don’t ask you to betray your friend. I ask you only to tell me, is it anger, is it hatred, is it pride, is it restlessness, is it some wild fancy, is it love, what is it, that is leading him?”

Comments

  1. ScottS-M Identicon Icon

    ScottS-M wrote:

    I wonder if we’re supposed to have figured out what Steerforth is up to yet. I haven’t but maybe I wasn’t reading closely enough. I guess it must relate to the “boat” thing.

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