SOME OLD SCENES, AND SOME NEW PEOPLE
Steerforth and I stayed for more than a fortnight in that part of the country. We were very much together, I need not say; but occasionally we were asunder for some hours at a time. He was a good sailor, and I was but an indifferent one; and when he went out boating with Mr. Peggotty, which was a favourite amusement of his, I generally remained ashore. My occupation of Peggotty’s spare-room put a constraint upon me, from which he was free: for, knowing how assiduously she attended on Mr. Barkis all day, I did not like to remain out late at night; whereas Steerforth, lying at the Inn, had nothing to consult but his own humour. Thus it came about, that I heard of his making little treats for the fishermen at Mr. Peggotty’s house of call, “The Willing Mind,” after I was in bed, and of his being afloat, wrapped in fishermen’s clothes, whole moonlight nights, and coming back when the morning tide was at flood. By this time, however, I knew that his restless nature and bold spirits delighted to find a vent in rough toil and hard weather, as in any other means of excitement that presented itself freshly to him; so none of his proceedings surprised me.
Another cause of our being sometimes apart, was, that I had naturally an interest in going over to Blunderstone, and revisiting the old familiar scenes of my childhood; while Steerforth, after being there once, had naturally no great interest in going there again. Hence, on three or four days that I can at once recall, we went our several ways after an early breakfast, and met again at a late dinner. I had no idea how he employed his time in the interval, beyond a general knowledge that he was very popular in the place, and had twenty means of actively diverting himself where another man might not have found one.
For my own part, my occupation in my solitary pilgrimages was to recall every yard of the old road as I went along it, and to haunt the old spots, of which I never tired. I haunted them, as my memory had often done, and lingered among them as my younger thoughts had lingered when I was far away. The grave beneath the tree, where both my parents lay—on which I had looked out, when it was my father’s only, with such curious feelings of compassion, and by which I had stood, so desolate, when it was opened to receive my pretty mother and her baby—the grave which Peggotty’s own faithful care had ever since kept neat, and made a garden of, I walked near, by the hour. It lay a little off the churchyard path, in a quiet corner, not so far removed but I could read the names upon the stone as I walked to and fro, startled by the sound of the church-bell when it struck the hour, for it was like a departed voice to me. My reflections at these times were always associated with the figure I was to make in life, and the distinguished things I was to do. My echoing footsteps went to no other tune, but were as constant to that as if I had come home to build my castles in the air at a living mother’s side.
There were great changes in my old home. The ragged nests, so long deserted by the rooks, were gone; and the trees were lopped and topped out of their remembered shapes. The garden had run wild, and half the windows of the house were shut up. It was occupied, but only by a poor lunatic gentleman, and the people who took care of him. He was always sitting at my little window, looking out into the churchyard; and I wondered whether his rambling thoughts ever went upon any of the fancies that used to occupy mine, on the rosy mornings when I peeped out of that same little window in my night-clothes, and saw the sheep quietly feeding in the light of the rising sun.
Our old neighbours, Mr. and Mrs. Grayper, were gone to South America, and the rain had made its way through the roof of their empty house, and stained the outer walls. Mr. Chillip was married again to a tall, raw-boned, high-nosed wife; and they had a weazen little baby, with a heavy head that it couldn’t hold up, and two weak staring eyes, with which it seemed to be always wondering why it had ever been born.
It was with a singular jumble of sadness and pleasure that I used to linger about my native place, until the reddening winter sun admonished me that it was time to start on my returning walk. But, when the place was left behind, and especially when Steerforth and I were happily seated over our dinner by a blazing fire, it was delicious to think of having been there. So it was, though in a softened degree, when I went to my neat room at night; and, turning over the leaves of the crocodile-book (which was always there, upon a little table), remembered with a grateful heart how blest I was in having such a friend as Steerforth, such a friend as Peggotty, and such a substitute for what I had lost as my excellent and generous aunt.
My nearest way to Yarmouth, in coming back from these long walks, was by a ferry. It landed me on the flat between the town and the sea, which I could make straight across, and so save myself a considerable circuit by the high road. Mr. Peggotty’s house being on that waste-place, and not a hundred yards out of my track, I always looked in as I went by. Steerforth was pretty sure to be there expecting me, and we went on together through the frosty air and gathering fog towards the twinkling lights of the town.
One dark evening, when I was later than usual—for I had, that day, been making my parting visit to Blunderstone, as we were now about to return home—I found him alone in Mr. Peggotty’s house, sitting thoughtfully before the fire. He was so intent upon his own reflections that he was quite unconscious of my approach. This, indeed, he might easily have been if he had been less absorbed, for footsteps fell noiselessly on the sandy ground outside; but even my entrance failed to rouse him. I was standing close to him, looking at him; and still, with a heavy brow, he was lost in his meditations.
He gave such a start when I put my hand upon his shoulder, that he made me start too.
“You come upon me,” he said, almost angrily, “like a reproachful ghost!”
“I was obliged to announce myself, somehow,” I replied. “Have I called you down from the stars?”
“No,” he answered. “No.”
“Up from anywhere, then?” said I, taking my seat near him.
“I was looking at the pictures in the fire,” he returned.
“But you are spoiling them for me,” said I, as he stirred it quickly with a piece of burning wood, striking out of it a train of red-hot sparks that went careering up the little chimney, and roaring out into the air.
“You would not have seen them,” he returned. “I detest this mongrel time, neither day nor night. How late you are! Where have you been?”
“I have been taking leave of my usual walk,” said I.
“And I have been sitting here,” said Steerforth, glancing round the room, “thinking that all the people we found so glad on the night of our coming down, might—to judge from the present wasted air of the place—be dispersed, or dead, or come to I don’t know what harm. David, I wish to God I had had a judicious father these last twenty years!”
“My dear Steerforth, what is the matter?”
“I wish with all my soul I had been better guided!” he exclaimed. “I wish with all my soul I could guide myself better!”
There was a passionate dejection in his manner that quite amazed me. He was more unlike himself than I could have supposed possible.
“It would be better to be this poor Peggotty, or his lout of a nephew,” he said, getting up and leaning moodily against the chimney-piece, with his face towards the fire, “than to be myself, twenty times richer and twenty times wiser, and be the torment to myself that I have been, in this Devil’s bark of a boat, within the last half-hour!”
I was so confounded by the alteration in him, that at first I could only observe him in silence, as he stood leaning his head upon his hand, and looking gloomily down at the fire. At length I begged him, with all the earnestness I felt, to tell me what had occurred to cross him so unusually, and to let me sympathize with him, if I could not hope to advise him. Before I had well concluded, he began to laugh—fretfully at first, but soon with returning gaiety.
“Tut, it’s nothing, Daisy! nothing!” he replied. “I told you at the inn in London, I am heavy company for myself, sometimes. I have been a nightmare to myself, just now—must have had one, I think. At odd dull times, nursery tales come up into the memory, unrecognized for what they are. I believe I have been confounding myself with the bad boy who ‘didn’t care,’ and became food for lions—a grander kind of going to the dogs, I suppose. What old women call the horrors, have been creeping over me from head to foot. I have been afraid of myself.”
“You are afraid of nothing else, I think,” said I.
“Perhaps not, and yet may have enough to be afraid of too,” he answered. “Well! So it goes by! I am not about to be hipped again, David; but I tell you, my good fellow, once more, that it would have been well for me (and for more than me) if I had had a steadfast and judicious father!”
His face was always full of expression, but I never saw it express such a dark kind of earnestness as when he said these words, with his glance bent on the fire.
“So much for that!” he said, making as if he tossed something light into the air, with his hand.
“‘Why, being gone, I am a man again,’
like Macbeth. And now for dinner! If I have not (Macbeth-like) broken up the feast with most admired disorder, Daisy.”
“But where are they all, I wonder!” said I.
“God knows,” said Steerforth. “After strolling to the ferry looking for you, I strolled in here and found the place deserted. That set me thinking, and you found me thinking.”
The advent of Mrs. Gummidge with a basket, explained how the house had happened to be empty. She had hurried out to buy something that was needed, against Mr. Peggotty’s return with the tide; and had left the door open in the meanwhile, lest Ham and little Em’ly, with whom it was an early night, should come home while she was gone. Steerforth, after very much improving Mrs. Gummidge’s spirits by a cheerful salutation and a jocose embrace, took my arm, and hurried me away.
He had improved his own spirits, no less than Mrs. Gummidge’s, for they were again at their usual flow, and he was full of vivacious conversation as we went along.
“And so,” he said, gaily, “we abandon this buccaneer life tomorrow, do we?”
“So we agreed,” I returned. “And our places by the coach are taken, you know.”
“Ay! there’s no help for it, I suppose,” said Steerforth. “I have almost forgotten that there is anything to do in the world but to go out tossing on the sea here. I wish there was not.”
“As long as the novelty should last,” said I, laughing.
“Like enough,” he returned; “though there’s a sarcastic meaning in that observation for an amiable piece of innocence like my young friend. Well! I dare say I am a capricious fellow, David. I know I am; but while the iron is hot, I can strike it vigorously too. I could pass a reasonably good examination already, as a pilot in these waters, I think.”
“Mr. Peggotty says you are a wonder,” I returned.
“A nautical phenomenon, eh?” laughed Steerforth.
“Indeed he does, and you know how truly; I know how ardent you are in any pursuit you follow, and how easily you can master it. And that amazes me most in you, Steerforth—that you should be contented with such fitful uses of your powers.”
“Contented?” he answered, merrily. “I am never contented, except with your freshness, my gentle Daisy. As to fitfulness, I have never learnt the art of binding myself to any of the wheels on which the Ixions of these days are turning round and round. I missed it somehow in a bad apprenticeship, and now don’t care about it.—You know I have bought a boat down here?”
“What an extraordinary fellow you are, Steerforth!” I exclaimed, stopping—for this was the first I had heard of it. “When you may never care to come near the place again!”
“I don’t know that,” he returned. “I have taken a fancy to the place. At all events,” walking me briskly on, “I have bought a boat that was for sale—a clipper, Mr. Peggotty says; and so she is—and Mr. Peggotty will be master of her in my absence.”
“Now I understand you, Steerforth!” said I, exultingly. “You pretend to have bought it for yourself, but you have really done so to confer a benefit on him. I might have known as much at first, knowing you. My dear kind Steerforth, how can I tell you what I think of your generosity?”
“Tush!” he answered, turning red. “The less said, the better.”
“Didn’t I know?” cried I, “didn’t I say that there was not a joy, or sorrow, or any emotion of such honest hearts that was indifferent to you?”
“Aye, aye,” he answered, “you told me all that. There let it rest. We have said enough!”
Afraid of offending him by pursuing the subject when he made so light of it, I only pursued it in my thoughts as we went on at even a quicker pace than before.
“She must be newly rigged,” said Steerforth, “and I shall leave Littimer behind to see it done, that I may know she is quite complete. Did I tell you Littimer had come down?”
“Oh, yes! came down this morning, with a letter from my mother.”
As our looks met, I observed that he was pale even to his lips, though he looked very steadily at me. I feared that some difference between him and his mother might have led to his being in the frame of mind in which I had found him at the solitary fireside. I hinted so.
“Oh no!” he said, shaking his head, and giving a slight laugh. “Nothing of the sort! Yes. He is come down, that man of mine.”
“The same as ever?” said I.
“The same as ever,” said Steerforth. “Distant and quiet as the North Pole. He shall see to the boat being fresh named. She’s the ‘Stormy Petrel’ now. What does Mr. Peggotty care for Stormy Petrels! I’ll have her christened again.”
“By what name?” I asked.
“The Little Em’ly.”
As he had continued to look steadily at me, I took it as a reminder that he objected to being extolled for his consideration. I could not help showing in my face how much it pleased me, but I said little, and he resumed his usual smile, and seemed relieved.
“But see here,” he said, looking before us, “where the original little Em’ly comes! And that fellow with her, eh? Upon my soul, he’s a true knight. He never leaves her!”
Ham was a boat-builder in these days, having improved a natural ingenuity in that handicraft, until he had become a skilled workman. He was in his working-dress, and looked rugged enough, but manly withal, and a very fit protector for the blooming little creature at his side. Indeed, there was a frankness in his face, an honesty, and an undisguised show of his pride in her, and his love for her, which were, to me, the best of good looks. I thought, as they came towards us, that they were well matched even in that particular.
She withdrew her hand timidly from his arm as we stopped to speak to them, and blushed as she gave it to Steerforth and to me. When they passed on, after we had exchanged a few words, she did not like to replace that hand, but, still appearing timid and constrained, walked by herself. I thought all this very pretty and engaging, and Steerforth seemed to think so too, as we looked after them fading away in the light of a young moon.
Suddenly there passed us—evidently following them—a young woman whose approach we had not observed, but whose face I saw as she went by, and thought I had a faint remembrance of. She was lightly dressed; looked ...