“Of all the words in the English language, few have more varied careers than nice…”
good economist.com article on the triumph of English. “The real reason for the latterday triumph of English is the triumph of the English-speaking United States as a world power.”
EILEEN PUSHES THE puff sleeve higher on her skinny arm but it slips down almost to her elbow again; the elastic cannot hold it.
EILEEN PUSHES THE puff sleeve higher on her skinny arm but it slips down almost to her elbow again; the elastic cannot hold it.
Aunt Billie buys all the dresses too big so she’ll get more wear out of them. If Eileen pushes up both sleeves so that the cloth blouses properly, she can hold them there by keeping her arms pressed firmly against her sides. But as soon as she relaxes, the sleeves ease down again and hang limply, almost to her elbows. And the skirt, of course, is too long.
“Goodnight, Sister”…….”Goodnight, Sister.”
The girls are filing out of the classroom and Eileen is near the end of the line. The nun, pale and rather sinister in her black robes, stands at the door with one of her white hands holding the other loosely at her waist. Eileen counts to herself: four more, three more, two more.
Now it is her turn. “Goodnight, Sister.”
And she hurries into the cool hallway that smells of pencils, threading her way between groups of little girls. She is taller than anyone in the fourth grade and has no friends. Some of the girls are afraid of her, and she accepts this with pride although she would rather be liked. But now she thinks only of getting outside and meeting her brother. The sun is blinding in the concrete school yard and she squints and makes a visor with both hands. Roger’s group of boys is bunched by the corner of the building, and she picks him out. He is laughing and when he sees her he looks embarrassed. She starts toward the road, walking slowly so he can catch up. Above the chattering and shouting she hears him say, “See you guys,” and then she hears his shoes scuffling up behind her.
“Leen, will you take it easy? Why d’ya always have to be in such a big rush?”
“We’ll miss the trolley.”
“Oh, miss the trolley. That ain’t the only trolley.”
“Don’t say ‘ain’t.'”
“Because you know better, that’s why.”
“Aw, shut up.”
She probes the pockets of her dress, feels the warm, hard fifty-cent piece she found in the playground that morning. “Roger?”
“Look what I found at recess.”
“Hey! Where’d ya find it?”
She senses the quick envy in his voice and decides to make the most of it. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
“Come on. Where’d ya find it?”
But she raises her eyebrows coyly and smiles a secret smile. They are waiting at the trolley stop now, and Roger lapses into sullenness. After a moment he says, “Know what Whitey an’ Clark an’ them were saying?”
There is a tightening in her chest. It will be something about her.
“They said you had so many freckles you couldn’t hardly see the skin between ’em, and you might just as well be a darkie.”
“Think I care?” Then, after a pause, “I could tell you about some things I heard.” But she sees the flicker of worry in his face vanish as he becomes confident she is making it up. And she can’t think of anything mean enough so she doesn’t carry it through except to say, “But I won’t, because it’s not polite.”
“You didn’t hear anything. I know you.”
From the streetcar they watch yellow weeds streak by on the side of the road, look idly beyond them at the trim white houses and flat greenness of the Florida suburb. She decides to tell him about the half-dollar now. “Roger?”
“I found it by the wire fence. Over there on the other side of the swings, you know?” The excitement of finding it returns and she can tell he is interested even though he says, “What do I care?”
When they walk up the driveway he kicks up small clouds of dust with his feet. “What’re ya gonna buy with it?”
“I haven’t decided. Maybe I won’t buy anything, and just save it instead.” She has almost forgotten to tell him the most important part. “Roger, don’t tell Aunt Billie, all right? Promise?”
She isn’t sure, exactly. It is mostly because she wants something of her own, something Aunt Billie can’t touch. “Just because, that’s why.”
“Okay.” And she looks at him, wondering if he understands.
Aunt Billie, in here room upstairs, is writing her weekly letter to their mother. She is a neat woman with a small, pretty mouth.
The school is doing wonders for your offspring, Monica. They were a pair of wild Indians all summer, you know, and this discipline is such a relief. Roger seems to be doing splendidly at his studies and it’s fine for him to be with other boys. Eileen, of course, is still a problem. One Sister tells me they simply cannot get her to take an interest, and heaven knows I can’t handle the child. But she has quieted down a good deal. We haven’t had a real tantrum for several months now.
Through the screened window she sees them starting up the driveway. She adds: “But they’re really swell kids. I’ve grown quite enslaved by them.” Then she puts the blue monogrammed page back in the stationery box. “Roger!” she calls through the window. “You’ll ruin your new shoes doing that.” She gets up and goes downstairs to let them in. “Now hurry and change your clothes if you want to, and wash carefully. Food’s on the table.”
Eileen feels better when she has put on khaki shorts and a pullover jersey. There is a good smell of sea and sand in the old clothes. She transfers the half-dollar from the dress to the pocket of the shorts.
On the enameled kitchen table there are two big glasses of milk and a plate of cream cheese and jelly sandwiches. Roger has already started. He is talking with his mouth full and has a milk moustache. Aunt Billie leans against the spotless white refrigerator, arms folded, smoking a cigarette. “Well, we’ll see,” she says to Roger.
He has been asking about the turtles again. There is a place down the road where you can buy a small live turtle with your name painted on its shell. They are forbidden at school and so have become a fad in Roger’s class. The game is to see if you can keep one all day without getting caught.
Eileen bites into a sandwich and reaches for her milk. She decides she would like a turtle too, but not just for school purposes. She could play with it for hours and take care of it, let it crawl wetly across her arm. And it would have “Eileen” written gracefully on its back, with perhaps a rose or a coconut palm. It would be alive and hers. They cost sixty cents. Why, she could buy one tomorrow if she felt like it, and Aunt Billie couldn’t do anything. Only it might be more fun to keep the money for something else. Or just for itself, as a secret.
“You mustn’t slump so, Eileen.”
“Well, Roger mustn’t either. But it’s more important for you to learn those things, dear. In a few years you’ll be very grateful if you’ve learned to keep your back straight. A good posture is one of the most valuable things a lovely young girl can have.”
This is an old theme of Aunt Billie’s. Eileen thinks it inconsistent with other things she has heard, or rather overheard, Aunt Billie say. (“Of course, Eileen will never be a really pretty girl.”)
No, Eileen decides, she’ll keep the fifty cents just the way it is. She chews the sandwich methodically for a long time without swallowing, staring at the refrigerator. So many you can’t see between them. Might as well be a darkie. She wonders if they really did say that. It doesn’t matter. He said it, anyway.
Roger is anxious to go on talking about the turtles. “They only cost sixty cents, Aunt Billie. And they last forever, almost.”
“I said we’ll see, Roger, but we won’t discuss it any further now. Eileen would probably want one too, and two times sixty cents is a dollar twenty.”
Eileen is afraid Roger is going to mention the half-dollar; his face shows he has thought of a new approach.
“Well, yeah, Aunt Billie, but Leen has fifty–”
She has cut him off with a sharp glare that says, “You promised!”
“–cents already,” he finishes lamely, and then he blushes and looks away. Eileen feels her mouth growing tight with anger as she looks at him.
Aunt Billie says, “All right, dear,” hardly paying attention, but there is a long silence after this, and when Eileen glances up she is startled by the look of concern–no, curiosity–that has come into Aunt Billie’s eyes.
“Why, Eileen, dear. Whatever is the matter? Roger, what did you say that upset her so? Something about fifty cents?” Kindly but shrewd.
“Nothing,” Roger mumbles, making it worse.
The eyes are turned on Eileen again. “Dear, what is this about fifty cents? Do you have fifty cents?” Inquisitive, now, sensing something unpleasant.
The lie is automatic. “No.” But it is also obvious.
“Eileen, dear. It doesn’t matter to me whether you have fifty cents or not. It does matter whether or not you’re telling the truth.” And now it is an authoritative, confident voice.
“I am telling the truth, Aunt Billie. I don’t have fifty cents. Roger just said that.” And Roger looks shocked. Oh, he’d understand if he had to wear those dresses, if he had to–
Waves of dread and fear come over her. She begins to wonder if she should show the fifty cents after all.
Slowly she puts down her sandwich and rises from the table.
“Now either show me this fifty cents or tell me where it is. I’ve heard quite enough of this storytelling.”
Dumbly, then, she produces the warm coin. Aunt Billie looks at it with wide, worried eyes. “But why were you so–” Eileen can see the accusation forming in Aunt Billie. “Where did you get that money, Eileen?”
And in slow terror, now, she realizes that saying “I found it” will sound like another lie.
“I–I found it.”
“Tell me the truth.”
“I did. I found it.”
Roger is white-faced across the table. He is nervously fingering a sandwich, watching. “That’s right, Aunt Billie, she found it,” he says.
“Were you with he when she found it?”
And then the worst thing happens. Roger says “no, but–” and Eileen says “yes,” at the same instant. Then they look at each other quickly, both shaking their heads.
Aunt Billie is looking steadily at Eileen. “I’ve heard quite enough of this. Go change your clothes, Eileen. We’re going back to school.”
She is unable to speak or move.
“Now. Go change your clothes. And wipe the milk off your face first.”
With the back of her hand Eileen removes the milk moustache. Then she turns and walks out of the kitchen. She hears Roger say, “But she–” And Aunt Billie, sternly: “Never mind, Roger. This is between Eileen and me. It doesn’t concern you at all.”
Eileen puts on the flapping cotton dress and changes her sneakers for shoes. There is a drab nausea in her chest, like the first stage of car sickness. With the half-dollar in her pocket she goes to the front door. Aunt Billie is waiting for her; she has put on a hat and powdered her face. They are silent as they walk down the drive, and not until they are waiting for the trolley is Eileen able to say, “Aunt Billie, it’s true. I did find it. At recess in the school yard.”
“Dear, if you found it why on earth would you have been so afraid to tell me? Now don’t make it worse. I’m sure one lie is bad enough.”
On the streetcar a constriction of her throat is added to the nausea. Milk rides heavily in her stomach and the tastes of cream cheese and jelly cloy her mouth. None of what is happening seems real. Beside her, Aunt Billie’s profile is raised defiantly. The school yard is clean and deserted in the afternoon light. The nun who lets them in leads them slowly down the long, pencil-smelling corridor to Sister Katherine’s office, and then they are inside and it is too late, and there is nothing to do but stand there.
Sister Katherine’s face is warm and smiling at first. “Why, good afternoon, Mrs. Taylor.” But when she looks at them closely her face begins to get like Aunt Billie’s.
“I believe my niece has something to tell you, Sister. Go ahead, Eileen.”
But if she tried to speak she would burst into tears, and there is nothing to say. Everything is purple and brown and black in the room. There are wide, washed boards in the floor, and a wrinkled black shoe peeks from the hem of Sister Katherine’s robe.
“What is it, child?”
Sister Katherine’s face is the color of a dead pig Eileen saw once on a farm.
“Perhaps you’d better explain, Mrs. Taylor.”
“I think Eileen is quite capable of telling you herself. Go on, dear.”
“I–” The floorboards blur and shift before her.
Aunt Billie sighs tiredly. “Well, Sister, it’s simply this. It seems Eileen has stolen fifty cents; I presume it was from one of the other children, and I’ve brought her here to return it to you.”
There is nothing to do but hand her the half-dollar. Eileen’s throat is on fire and she thinks, It’s a dream and I’ll wake up.
And now Sister Katherine’s face is opening and closing and there is a quiet voice: “You know this is a very wrong thing you’ve done, Eileen. I don’t believe I have to tell you that when we do a very wrong thing we must expect to suffer for it…”
The pig has been dead for three days in the rain. In a sudden panic Eileen wants to scream, “I didn’t steal it! I found it! I found it!” Instead she stands there, waiting for it to be over.
And later Sister Katherine and Aunt Billie are shaking hands. “I can’t tell you how badly I feel about this, Sister.”
And soon they are in the gray school yard again, then at the trolley stop. On the streetcar, silent, she watches the lavender blur of passing weeds. (I hate her, I hate her, I hate her, I hate her.)
Roger is standing by the house, hands in pockets, when they come up the driveway. His eyes are round and his lips look small and pale. Aunt Billie goes inside and Eileen stands there with Roger for a minute. But there is nothing to say. You can’t throw yourself into a boy’s arms and cry, and she doesn’t want to anyway. She doesn’t want anybody’s arms. She doesn’t want– All she wants is to–
She walks erectly around the side of the house. There is a place out in back, a kind of toolshed, where she can be alone.
Upstairs, Aunt Billie has opened the stationery box again and started a new paragraph.
A most distressing thing just happened, Monica…
Eileen stands in the shed and stares at a plank shelf that holds two half-gallon cans of paint.
Sherwin-Williams: White Lead.
Sherwin-Williams: Forest Green.
And when the sobs finally begin they are long, scalding ones, the kind that come again and again.
from The Collected Stories of Richard Yates.
This reprinting most definitely violates several copyright and republication rules and/or regulations and therefore should be savored while it lasts.
>Gaffe Fest< I treated his four days away as nothing when he came back.
I treated his four days away as nothing when he came back. The last thing I was going to start off with in our relationship was a thrust that would stir up any phobias about personal restrictions, notifications, freedom of movement. I couldn’t help feeling that in his retreat there had been an intent to test me, to see if I was truly up for such an abruptly and highly mobile character as himself. Also I suppose I was thinking that if we did ever move in together and were going to avoid the inevitable claustral feelings that being confined within socializing on one koppie would entail, then he would-and maybe even I would-need to have recourse to overnights away from the hotbed of interactions Tsau obviously was. He told me that he usually stayed away at most three days on these personal retreats, but this one had been prolonged by being combined with a little fieldwork on an ostrich-ranching project he had in mind.
We had advanced to the point of his coming to dinner at Mma Isang’s. For the first couple of times Mma Isang was included, but thereafter although for appearance’s sake we would convene in her place, she would take her food and go off into my rondavel to eat. She insisted. She was part of the sector of women whose sentiment was that he and I should get together. I had a straightforward interpretation of this sentiment at the time: I assumed these were people who wanted Denoon to stay as long as possible in Tsau and who saw that ultimately his intimate status-if this was the truth about his status, which I was resisting accepting-his celibacy, not to put too fine a point on it, would drive him to leave town. After all, it was now generally known that he was on the point of being genuinely divorced. So change was in the air. Intellectually I could see why celibacy for Denoon was a plausible choice. Any liaison with a woman of Tsau would have meant compromising his role as above the battle, would have meant choosing a person from one tribe over all the others, would have complicated both his status and the status of the woman he chose. Also, Tswana women want children and they want them now. To all of which had to be added the question of his professional image as someone who tries to set up and then depart from self-sufficient politico-economic entities not tied to the coffers of the West and certainly not tied to the charisma of one man and a white man at that. Nor in the case of Tsau, where the point was female equality and dignity if it was anything, would it be very palatable to take a wife of convenience, a town wife so to speak, and then either leave her behind insultingly or take her with him when he left, thereby demonstrating to all her sisters that the real bingo in life was to escape to the metropolitan West in the arms of an icon. I could see that from some standpoints I would be perfect for him, if it could be assumed that I genuinely liked Tsau, as I seemed to, and was in no hurry to decamp, and that I was who I seemed to be.
There was one embarrassing dinner. I inferred that Nelson was feeling carnal by the way he was trying to keep abreast of Mma Isang’s movements and when she might be returning. Patently he was trying to find out, without asking directly, if Mma and I had worked out a specific time when she might be expected back. I was unhelpful. I was teasing, partly because during our moonlight walk he had been so unforward, partly because of his four-day absence. So there was a mild revenge comedy in progress.
No question, teasing is regressive. I rarely do it, but when I do I justify it with the conceit that there’s some allowable quota per woman I’ve never come close to.
Denoon was dressed up, for him. He was wearing his ludicrous billowing drawstring pants, a clean blue tunic, and he had shaved just before coming over and so looked rather gleaming.
The entrÃ«e was a baked carrots and groats dish I’d thought up. This was an all-solar production, which he was bound to love if only for that.
In my travels around Tsau I had heard that Nelson had drifted into the primary school and noticed that in a child’s drawing of a horse tacked up in a display there was a cloud where the animal’s penis should have been. The original outline of the penis was still dimly discernible under the erasure cloud. So Nelson had then established that puritanically a teacher had told the artist that the picture wouldn’t be put up unless the horse was altered. And Nelson had taken the matter up heatedly with the schooling committee.
Is this really the issue level you want to be identified with? I asked him.
He said Are you saying I was ultra vires? which was the moment-we later agreed-we discovered we both had studied Latin. Later this was a bond. We both loved Latin.
I said Hardly, since I have no idea what your limits are institutionally, or rather juridically, around here. You seem to be ex officio on most of the committees I know anything about, or at least you turn up whenever you want and nobody asks what you’re doing there. Also since this place is your idea, you presumably derive some rather indefinable kinds of powers from that. I do have the impression you’re becoming slightly more emeritus, but that’s just my impression. It’s cloudy to me, is all.
Pointedly, I thought, he declined the opportunity to enlighten me in this area. He went on eating appreciatively, even murmuring that he wanted my recipe. So I just repeated my opinion that it was beneath him to be agitated over whether a teacher tries to keep a child from drawing a horse with a large penis. I in face was aware that the penis in question had been of caricature dimensions in the original drawing, and also that the artist was King James, no less.
He said Isn’t censorship an issue we should be concerned with?
It is if you’re the Botswana Civil Liberties Union. Are you? Or are you more like an inspector general? This led to more silence.
I got frightened. This was close to nagging and he was uncomfortable. I klang-associated for something light to say and came up with Do you know how the Batswana describe a henpecked man? He didn’t. I said They say he’s a man who eats his overcoat. People laugh when they say this and I even laugh myself, but they can’t explain why this is funny and neither can I.
I had stumbled on to something that interested him a lot-Tswana humor. Did I know any other Tswana jokes?
I was relieved that I did. I knew one other joke, exactly one. I do, I said. And then I realized what the joke was, too late.
It isn’t a joke, I said, it’s a riddle. It’s not a joke, actually, at all.
He wanted to hear it. I couldn’t believe what I had done. I even tried to instantly make up a joke or riddle to replace the one I was going to have to produce otherwise. My faculties were frozen. He was waiting.
Well, the riddle is Do you know why the penis always lands up in trouble? You don’t know, and the answer is that it’s because the penis has only one eye.
He laughed, and nondutifully. But I was mortified. So far everything I was saying hinged on the penis in one way or another. I am such a fool. But I was gratified at his lovely laugh.
Brilliantly then I conceived that what I should do to defuse my apparent fixation on this item was show how little the subject meant to me, despite what he might think, by going even more for the jocular. I was trying to show insouciance.
So I said Along these lines, this might amuse you: when I was in high school and in a timeframe when the first names of my three best girlfriends all ended in the letter i, we used to ask one another if a particular boy we had been, say, necking with, had been sincere. Sincere standing for having an erection, naturally.
He thought it was funny, genuinely. This is new, he said. This is news.
How alone are we? he asked. But just then Mma Isang showed up. I maneuvered to let her know she should stay. I felt like a fool and a coquette, but this is where I wanted the evening to come to rest.
Causing active ongoing pleasure in your mate is something people tend to restrict to the sexual realm or getting attractive food on the table on time, but keeping permanent intimate comedy going is more important than any other one thing. Naturally it was living with Denoon that gave me this notion in its developed form as opposed to the bare inkling I got during the evening in question. I’m not talking about having a sense of humor you apply to the ups and downs of living together. I’m talking about being comedically proactive. Ultimately I was better at this than Denoon was. I don’t know why being funny for someone was such a new idea for me. It had never occurred to me in connection with any other male I had been serious about. Denoon had early on made it clear I was free to include him and his foibles as ingredients and props in my routine if I felt like it, by not objecting when I did. So he was different. Or was it just that I was dealing for the first time in my life with an actual mature male, a concept which up until then I had considered an essentially literary construct and a way of not asking the question of whether or not in fact the real world reduced to a layer cake of differing grades of hysteria, with the hysteria of the ruling sex being simply more suppressed and expressing itself in ritualized forms like preparedness or memorizing lifetime batting averages that no one associates with hysteria. I was surprised at how pleased I felt to get such deep, easy, thorough laughter out of him.
Nelson was extremely nice when we discussed my penis gaffe fest much later. The way he comforted me was interesting and involved a conceit we used in later connections. He wanted me to know that the penis sequence had been sub-rosaly titillating, particularly so because it had been clearly so accidental. You never tease, he said. He said There is a school of thought, a heresy from the madhouse of heresies in the ninth century, that says God is good and is in control of every individual thing that happens, every event, but that unfortunately the devil is in control of timing. Hence, gaffes. Hence the actually existing world. Between us we could facetiously make use of this conceit, and laugh. Of course a conceit is different from something solid like the Stoic Maxim, Of all things in existence some things are in our power and some not, which is with me forever, also something I got from Denoon and made him defend as different from the pop variant of it in use in Alcoholics Anonymous groups.
>CHAPTER LII: I ASSIST AT AN EXPLOSION<
CHAPTER LII: I ASSIST AT AN EXPLOSION When the time Mr. Micawber had appointed so mysteriously, was within four-and-twenty hours of being come, my aunt and I consulted how we should proceed; for my aunt was very unwilling to leave Dora. Ah! how easily I carried Dora up and down stairs, now!
We were disposed, notwithstanding Mr. Micawber’s stipulation for my aunt’s attendance, to arrange that she should stay at home, and be represented by Mr. Dick and me. In short, we had resolved to take this course, when Dora again unsettled us by declaring that she never would forgive herself, and never would forgive her bad boy, if my aunt remained behind, on any pretence.
‘I won’t speak to you,’ said Dora, shaking her curls at my aunt. ‘I’ll be disagreeable! I’ll make Jip bark at you all day. I shall be sure that you really are a cross old thing, if you don’t go!’
‘Tut, Blossom!’ laughed my aunt. ‘You know you can’t do without me!’
‘Yes, I can,’ said Dora. ‘You are no use to me at all. You never run up and down stairs for me, all day long. You never sit and tell me stories about Doady, when his shoes were worn out, and he was covered with dust – oh, what a poor little mite of a fellow! You never do anything at all to please me, do you, dear?’ Dora made haste to kiss my aunt, and say, ‘Yes, you do! I’m only joking!’- lest my aunt should think she really meant it.
‘But, aunt,’ said Dora, coaxingly, ‘now listen. You must go. I shall tease you, ’till you let me have my own way about it. I shall lead my naughty boy such a life, if he don’t make you go. I shall make myself so disagreeable – and so will Jip! You’ll wish you had gone, like a good thing, for ever and ever so long, if you don’t go. Besides,’ said Dora, putting back her hair, and looking wonderingly at my aunt and me, ‘why shouldn’t you both go? I am not very ill indeed. Am I?’
‘Why, what a question!’ cried my aunt.
‘What a fancy!’ said I.
‘Yes! I know I am a silly little thing!’ said Dora, slowly looking from one of us to the other, and then putting up her pretty lips to kiss us as she lay upon her couch. ‘Well, then, you must both go, or I shall not believe you; and then I shall cry!’
I saw, in my aunt’s face, that she began to give way now, and Dora brightened again, as she saw it too.
‘You’ll come back with so much to tell me, that it’ll take at least a week to make me understand!’ said Dora. ‘Because I know I shan’t understand, for a length of time, if there’s any business in it. And there’s sure to be some business in it! If there’s anything to add up, besides, I don’t know when I shall make it out; and my bad boy will look so miserable all the time. There! Now you’ll go, won’t you? You’ll only be gone one night, and Jip will take care of me while you are gone. Doady will carry me upstairs before you go, and I won’t come down again till you come back; and you shall take Agnes a dreadfully scolding letter from me, because she has never been to see us!’
We agreed, without any more consultation, that we would both go, and that Dora was a little Impostor, who feigned to be rather unwell, because she liked to be petted. She was greatly pleased, and very merry; and we four, that is to say, my aunt, Mr. Dick, Traddles, and I, went down to Canterbury by the Dover mail that night.
At the hotel where Mr. Micawber had requested us to await him, which we got into, with some trouble, in the middle of the night, I found a letter, importing that he would appear in the morning punctually at half past nine. After which, we went shivering, at that uncomfortable hour, to our respective beds, through various close passages; which smelt as if they had been steeped, for ages, in a solution of soup and stables.
Early in the morning, I sauntered through the dear old tranquil streets, and again mingled with the shadows of the venerable gateways and churches. The rooks were sailing about the cathedral towers; and the towers themselves, overlooking many a long unaltered mile of the rich country and its pleasant streams, were cutting the bright morning air, as if there were no such thing as change on earth. Yet the bells, when they sounded, told me sorrowfully of change in everything; told me of their own age, and my pretty Dora’s youth; and of the many, never old, who had lived and loved and died, while the reverberations of the bells had hummed through the rusty armour of the Black Prince hanging up within, and, motes upon the deep of Time, had lost themselves in air, as circles do in water.
I looked at the old house from the corner of the street, but did not go nearer to it, lest, being observed, I might unwittingly do any harm to the design I had come to aid. The early sun was striking edgewise on its gables and lattice-windows, touching them with gold; and some beams of its old peace seemed to touch my heart.
I strolled into the country for an hour or so, and then returned by the main street, which in the interval had shaken off its last night’s sleep. Among those who were stirring in the shops, I saw my ancient enemy the butcher, now advanced to top-boots and a baby, and in business for himself. He was nursing the baby, and appeared to be a benignant member of society.
We all became very anxious and impatient, when we sat down to breakfast. As it approached nearer and nearer to half past nine o’clock, our restless expectation of Mr. Micawber increased. At last we made no more pretence of attending to the meal, which, except with Mr. Dick, had been a mere form from the first; but my aunt walked up and down the room, Traddles sat upon the sofa affecting to read the paper with his eyes on the ceiling; and I looked out of the window to give early notice of Mr. Micawber’s coming. Nor had I long to watch, for, at the first chime of the half hour, he appeared in the street.
‘Here he is,’ said I, ‘and not in his legal attire!’
My aunt tied the strings of her bonnet (she had come down to breakfast in it), and put on her shawl, as if she were ready for anything that was resolute and uncompromising. Traddles buttoned his coat with a determined air. Mr. Dick, disturbed by these formidable appearances, but feeling it necessary to imitate them, pulled his hat, with both hands, as firmly over his ears as he possibly could; and instantly took it off again, to welcome Mr. Micawber.
‘Gentlemen, and madam,’ said Mr. Micawber, ‘good morning! My dear sir,’ to Mr. Dick, who shook hands with him violently, ‘you are extremely good.’
‘Have you breakfasted?’ said Mr. Dick. ‘Have a chop!’
‘Not for the world, my good sir!’ cried Mr. Micawber, stopping him on his way to the bell; ‘appetite and myself, Mr. Dixon, have long been strangers.’
Mr. Dixon was so well pleased with his new name, and appeared to think it so obliging in Mr. Micawber to confer it upon him, that he shook hands with him again, and laughed rather childishly.
‘Dick,’ said my aunt, ‘attention!’
Mr. Dick recovered himself, with a blush.
‘Now, sir,’ said my aunt to Mr. Micawber, as she put on her gloves, ‘we are ready for Mount Vesuvius, or anything else, as soon as YOU please.’
‘Madam,’ returned Mr. Micawber, ‘I trust you will shortly witness an eruption. Mr. Traddles, I have your permission, I believe, to mention here that we have been in communication together?’
‘It is undoubtedly the fact, Copperfield,’ said Traddles, to whom I looked in surprise. ‘Mr. Micawber has consulted me in reference to what he has in contemplation; and I have advised him to the best of my judgement.’
‘Unless I deceive myself, Mr. Traddles,’ pursued Mr. Micawber, ‘what I contemplate is a disclosure of an important nature.’
‘Highly so,’ said Traddles.
‘Perhaps, under such circumstances, madam and gentlemen,’ said Mr. Micawber, ‘you will do me the favour to submit yourselves, for the moment, to the direction of one who, however unworthy to be regarded in any other light but as a Waif and Stray upon the shore of human nature, is still your fellow-man, though crushed out of his original form by individual errors, and the accumulative force of a combination of circumstances?’
‘We have perfect confidence in you, Mr. Micawber,’ said I, ‘and will do what you please.’
‘Mr. Copperfield,’ returned Mr. Micawber, ‘your confidence is not, at the existing juncture, ill-bestowed. I would beg to be allowed a start of five minutes by the clock; and then to receive the present company, inquiring for Miss Wickfield, at the office of Wickfield and Heep, whose Stipendiary I am.’
My aunt and I looked at Traddles, who nodded his approval.
‘I have no more,’ observed Mr. Micawber, ‘to say at present.’
With which, to my infinite surprise, he included us all in a comprehensive bow, and disappeared; his manner being extremely distant, and his face extremely pale.
Traddles only smiled, and shook his head (with his hair standing upright on the top of it), when I looked to him for an explanation; so I took out my watch, and, as a last resource, counted off the five minutes. My aunt, with her own watch in her hand, did the like. When the time was expired, Traddles gave her his arm; and we all went out together to the old house, without saying one word on the way.
We found Mr. Micawber at his desk, in the turret office on the ground floor, either writing, or pretending to write, hard. The large office-ruler was stuck into his waistcoat, and was not so well concealed but that a foot or more of that instrument protruded from his bosom, like a new kind of shirt-frill.
As it appeared to me that I was expected to speak, I said aloud:
‘How do you do, Mr. Micawber?’
‘Mr. Copperfield,’ said Mr. Micawber, gravely, ‘I hope I see you well?’
‘Is Miss Wickfield at home?’ said I.
‘Mr. Wickfield is unwell in bed, sir, of a rheumatic fever,’ he returned; ‘but Miss Wickfield, I have no doubt, will be happy to see old friends. Will you walk in, sir?’
He preceded us to the dining-room – the first room I had entered in that house – and flinging open the door of Mr. Wickfield’s former office, said, in a sonorous voice:
‘Miss Trotwood, Mr. David Copperfield, Mr. Thomas Traddles, and Mr. Dixon!’
I had not seen Uriah Heep since the time of the blow. Our visit astonished him, evidently; not the less, I dare say, because it astonished ourselves. He did not gather his eyebrows together, for he had none worth mentioning; but he frowned to that degree that he almost closed his small eyes, while the hurried raising of his grisly hand to his chin betrayed some trepidation or surprise. This was only when we were in the act of entering his room, and when I caught a glance at him over my aunt’s shoulder. A moment afterwards, he was as fawning and as humble as ever.
‘Well, I am sure,’ he said. ‘This is indeed an unexpected pleasure! To have, as I may say, all friends round St. Paul’s at once, is a treat unlooked for! Mr. Copperfield, I hope I see you well, and – if I may umbly express myself so – friendly towards them as is ever your friends, whether or not. Mrs. Copperfield, sir, I hope she’s getting on. We have been made quite uneasy by the poor accounts we have had of her state, lately, I do assure you.’
I felt ashamed to let him take my hand, but I did not know yet what else to do.
‘Things are changed in this office, Miss Trotwood, since I was an umble clerk, and held your pony; ain’t they?’ said Uriah, with his sickliest smile. ‘But I am not changed, Miss Trotwood.’
‘Well, sir,’ returned my aunt, ‘to tell you the truth, I think you are pretty constant to the promise of your youth; if that’s any satisfaction to you.’
‘Thank you, Miss Trotwood,’ said Uriah, writhing in his ungainly manner, ‘for your good opinion! Micawber, tell ’em to let Miss Agnes know – and mother. Mother will be quite in a state, when she sees the present company!’ said Uriah, setting chairs.
‘You are not busy, Mr. Heep?’ said Traddles, whose eye the cunning red eye accidentally caught, as it at once scrutinized and evaded us.
‘No, Mr. Traddles,’ replied Uriah, resuming his official seat, and squeezing his bony hands, laid palm to palm between his bony knees.
‘Not so much so as I could wish. But lawyers, sharks, and leeches, are not easily satisfied, you know! Not but what myself and Micawber have our hands pretty full, in general, on account of Mr. Wickfield’s being hardly fit for any occupation, sir. But it’s a pleasure as well as a duty, I am sure, to work for him. You’ve not been intimate with Mr. Wickfield, I think, Mr. Traddles? I believe I’ve only had the honour of seeing you once myself?’
‘No, I have not been intimate with Mr. Wickfield,’ returned Traddles; ‘or I might perhaps have waited on you long ago, Mr. Heep.’
There was something in the tone of this reply, which made Uriah look at the speaker again, with a very sinister and suspicious expression. But, seeing only Traddles, with his good-natured face, simple manner, and hair on end, he dismissed it as he replied, with a jerk of his whole body, but especially his throat:
‘I am sorry for that, Mr. Traddles. You would have admired him as much as we all do. His little failings would only have endeared him to you the more. But if you would like to hear my fellow-partner eloquently spoken of, I should refer you to Copperfield. The family is a subject he’s very strong upon, if you never heard him.’
I was prevented from disclaiming the compliment (if I should have done so, in any case), by the entrance of Agnes, now ushered in by Mr. Micawber. She was not quite so self-possessed as usual, I thought; and had evidently undergone anxiety and fatigue. But her earnest cordiality, and her quiet beauty, shone with the gentler lustre for it.
I saw Uriah watch her while she greeted us; and he reminded me of an ugly and rebellious genie watching a good spirit. In the meanwhile, some slight sign passed between Mr. Micawber and Traddles; and Traddles, unobserved except by me, went out.
‘Don’t wait, Micawber,’ said Uriah.
Mr. Micawber, with his hand upon the ruler in his breast, stood erect before the door, most unmistakably contemplating one of his fellow-men, and that man his employer.
‘What are you waiting for?’ said Uriah. ‘Micawber! did you hear me tell you not to wait?’
‘Yes!’ replied the immovable Mr. Micawber.
‘Then why DO you wait?’ said Uriah.
‘Because I – in short, choose,’ replied Mr. Micawber, with a burst.
Uriah’s cheeks lost colour, and an unwholesome paleness, still faintly tinged by his pervading red, overspread them. He looked at Mr. Micawber attentively, with his whole face breathing short and quick in every feature.
‘You are a dissipated fellow, as all the world knows,’ he said, with an effort at a smile, ‘and I am afraid you’ll oblige me to get rid of you. Go along! I’ll talk to you presently.’
‘If there is a scoundrel on this earth,’ said Mr. Micawber, suddenly breaking out again with the utmost vehemence, ‘with whom I have already talked too much, that scoundrel’s name is – HEEP!’
Uriah fell back, as if he had been struck or stung. Looking slowly round upon us with the darkest and wickedest expression that his face could wear, he said, in a lower voice:
‘Oho! This is a conspiracy! You have met here by appointment! You are playing Booty with my clerk, are you, Copperfield? Now, take care. You’ll make nothing of this. We understand each other, you and me. There’s no love between us. You were always a puppy with a proud stomach, from your first coming here; and you envy me my rise, do you? None of your plots against me; I’ll counterplot you! Micawber, you be off. I’ll talk to you presently.’
‘Mr. Micawber,’ said I, ‘there is a sudden change in this fellow. in more respects than the extraordinary one of his speaking the truth in one particular, which assures me that he is brought to bay. Deal with him as he deserves!’
‘You are a precious set of people, ain’t you?’ said Uriah, in the same low voice, and breaking out into a clammy heat, which he wiped from his forehead, with his long lean hand, ‘to buy over my clerk, who is the very scum of society, – as you yourself were, Copperfield, you know it, before anyone had charity on you, – to defame me with his lies? Miss Trotwood, you had better stop this; or I’ll stop your husband shorter than will be pleasant to you. I won’t know your story professionally, for nothing, old lady! Miss Wickfield, if you have any love for your father, you had better not join that gang. I’ll ruin him, if you do. Now, come! I have got some of you under the harrow. Think twice, before it goes over you. Think twice, you, Micawber, if you don’t want to be crushed. I recommend you to take yourself off, and be talked to presently, you fool! while there’s time to retreat. Where’s mother?’ he said, suddenly appearing to notice, with alarm, the absence of Traddles, and pulling down the bell-rope. ‘Fine doings in a person’s own house!’
‘Mrs. Heep is here, sir,’ said Traddles, returning with that worthy mother of a worthy son. ‘I have taken the liberty of making myself known to her.’
‘Who are you to make yourself known?’ retorted Uriah. ‘And what do you want here?’
‘I am the agent and friend of Mr. Wickfield, sir,’ said Traddles, in a composed and business-like way. ‘And I have a power of attorney from him in my pocket, to act for him in all matters.’
‘The old ass has drunk himself into a state of dotage,’ said Uriah, turning uglier than before, ‘and it has been got from him by fraud!’
‘Something has been got from him by fraud, I know,’ returned Traddles quietly; ‘and so do you, Mr. Heep. We will refer that question, if you please, to Mr. Micawber.’
‘Ury -!’ Mrs. Heep began, with an anxious gesture.
‘YOU hold your tongue, mother,’ he returned; ‘least said, soonest mended.’
‘But, my Ury -‘
‘Will you hold your tongue, mother, and leave it to me?’
Though I had long known that his servility was false, and all his pretences knavish and hollow, I had had no adequate conception of the extent of his hypocrisy, until I now saw him with his mask off. The suddenness with which he dropped it, when he perceived that it was useless to him; the malice, insolence, and hatred, he revealed; the leer with which he exulted, even at this moment, in the evil he had done – all this time being desperate too, and at his wits’ end for the means of getting the better of us – though perfectly consistent with the experience I had of him, at first took even me by surprise, who had known him so long, and disliked him so heartily.
I say nothing of the look he conferred on me, as he stood eyeing us, one after another; for I had always understood that he hated me, and I remembered the marks of my hand upon his cheek. But when his eyes passed on to Agnes, and I saw the rage with which he felt his power over her slipping away, and the exhibition, in their disappointment, of the odious passions that had led him to aspire to one whose virtues he could never appreciate or care for, I was shocked by the mere thought of her having lived, an hour, within sight of such a man.
After some rubbing of the lower part of his face, and some looking at us with those bad eyes, over his grisly fingers, he made one more address to me, half whining, and half abusive.
‘You think it justifiable, do you, Copperfield, you who pride yourself so much on your honour and all the rest of it, to sneak about my place, eaves-dropping with my clerk? If it had been ME, I shouldn’t have wondered; for I don’t make myself out a gentleman (though I never was in the streets either, as you were, according to Micawber), but being you! – And you’re not afraid of doing this, either? You don’t think at all of what I shall do, in return; or of getting yourself into trouble for conspiracy and so forth? Very well. We shall see! Mr. What’s-your-name, you were going to refer some question to Micawber. There’s your referee. Why don’t you make him speak? He has learnt his lesson, I see.’
Seeing that what he said had no effect on me or any of us, he sat on the edge of his table with his hands in his pockets, and one of his splay feet twisted round the other leg, waiting doggedly for what might follow.
Mr. Micawber, whose impetuosity I had restrained thus far with the greatest difficulty, and who had repeatedly interposed with the first syllable Of SCOUN-drel! without getting to the second, now burst forward, drew the ruler from his breast (apparently as a defensive weapon), and produced from his pocket a foolscap document, folded in the form of a large letter. Opening this packet, with his old flourish, and glancing at the contents, as if he cherished an artistic admiration of their style of composition, he began to read as follows:
‘”Dear Miss Trotwood and gentlemen -“‘
‘Bless and save the man!’ exclaimed my aunt in a low voice. ‘He’d write letters by the ream, if it was a capital offence!’
Mr. Micawber, without hearing her, went on.
‘”In appearing before you to denounce probably the most consummate Villain that has ever existed,”‘ Mr. Micawber, without looking off the letter, pointed the ruler, like a ghostly truncheon, at Uriah Heep, ‘”I ask no consideration for myself. The victim, from my cradle, of pecuniary liabilities to which I have been unable to respond, I have ever been the sport and toy of debasing circumstances. Ignominy, Want, Despair, and Madness, have, collectively or separately, been the attendants of my career.”‘
The relish with which Mr. Micawber described himself as a prey to these dismal calamities, was only to be equalled by the emphasis with which he read his letter; and the kind of homage he rendered to it with a roll of his head, when he thought he had hit a sentence very hard indeed.
‘”In an accumulation of Ignominy, Want, Despair, and Madness, I entered the office – or, as our lively neighbour the Gaul would term it, the Bureau – of the Firm, nominally conducted under the appellation of Wickfield and – HEEP, but in reality, wielded by – HEEP alone. HEEP, and only HEEP, is the mainspring of that machine. HEEP, and only HEEP, is the Forger and the Cheat.”‘
Uriah, more blue than white at these words, made a dart at the letter, as if to tear it in pieces. Mr. Micawber, with a perfect miracle of dexterity or luck, caught his advancing knuckles with the ruler, and disabled his right hand. It dropped at the wrist, as if it were broken. The blow sounded as if it had fallen on wood.
‘The Devil take you!’ said Uriah, writhing in a new way with pain. ‘I’ll be even with you.’
‘Approach me again, you – you – you HEEP of infamy,’ gasped Mr. Micawber, ‘and if your head is human, I’ll break it. Come on, come on! ‘
I think I never saw anything more ridiculous – I was sensible of it, even at the time – than Mr. Micawber making broad-sword guards with the ruler, and crying, ‘Come on!’ while Traddles and I pushed him back into a corner, from which, as often as we got him into it, he persisted in emerging again.
His enemy, muttering to himself, after wringing his wounded hand for sometime, slowly drew off his neck-kerchief and bound it up; then held it in his other hand, and sat upon his table with his sullen face looking down.
Mr. Micawber, when he was sufficiently cool, proceeded with his letter.
‘”The stipendiary emoluments in consideration of which I entered into the service of – HEEP,”‘ always pausing before that word and uttering it with astonishing vigour, ‘”were not defined, beyond the pittance of twenty-two shillings and six per week. The rest was left contingent on the value of my professional exertions; in other and more expressive words, on the baseness of my nature, the cupidity of my motives, the poverty of my family, the general moral (or rather immoral) resemblance between myself and – HEEP. Need I say, that it soon became necessary for me to solicit from – HEEP – pecuniary advances towards the support of Mrs. Micawber, and our blighted but rising family? Need I say that this necessity had been foreseen by – HEEP? That those advances were secured by I.O.U.’s and other similar acknowledgements, known to the legal institutions of this country? And that I thus became immeshed in the web he had spun for my reception?”‘
Mr. Micawber’s enjoyment of his epistolary powers, in describing this unfortunate state of things, really seemed to outweigh any pain or anxiety that the reality could have caused him. He read on:
‘”Then it was that – HEEP – began to favour me with just so much of his confidence, as was necessary to the discharge of his infernal business. Then it was that I began, if I may so Shakespearianly express myself, to dwindle, peak, and pine. I found that my services were constantly called into requisition for the falsification of business, and the mystification of an individual whom I will designate as Mr. W. That Mr. W. was imposed upon, kept in ignorance, and deluded, in every possible way; yet, that all this while, the ruffian – HEEP – was professing unbounded gratitude to, and unbounded friendship for, that much-abused gentleman. This was bad enough; but, as the philosophic Dane observes, with that universal applicability which distinguishes the illustrious ornament of the Elizabethan Era, worse remains behind!”‘
Mr. Micawber was so very much struck by this happy rounding off with a quotation, that he indulged himself, and us, with a second reading of the sentence, under pretence of having lost his place.
‘”It is not my intention,”‘ he continued reading on, ‘”to enter on a detailed list, within the compass of the present epistle (though it is ready elsewhere), of the various malpractices of a minor nature, affecting the individual whom I have denominated Mr. W., to which I have been a tacitly consenting party. My object, when the contest within myself between stipend and no stipend, baker and no baker, existence and non-existence, ceased, was to take advantage of my opportunities to discover and expose the major malpractices committed, to that gentleman’s grievous wrong and injury, by – HEEP. Stimulated by the silent monitor within, and by a no less touching and appealing monitor without – to whom I will briefly refer as Miss W. – I entered on a not unlaborious task of clandestine investigation, protracted – now, to the best of my knowledge, information, and belief, over a period exceeding twelve calendar months.”‘
He read this passage as if it were from an Act of Parliament; and appeared majestically refreshed by the sound of the words.
‘”My charges against – HEEP,”‘ he read on, glancing at him, and drawing the ruler into a convenient position under his left arm, in case of need, ‘”are as follows.”‘
We all held our breath, I think. I am sure Uriah held his.
‘”First,”‘ said Mr. Micawber, ‘”When Mr. W.’s faculties and memory for business became, through causes into which it is not necessary or expedient for me to enter, weakened and confused, – HEEP – designedly perplexed and complicated the whole of the officialtransactions. When Mr. W. was least fit to enter on business, -HEEP was always at hand to force him to enter on it. He obtained Mr. W.’s signature under such circumstances to documents of importance, representing them to be other documents of no importance. He induced Mr. W. to empower him to draw out, thus, one particular sum of trust-money, amounting to twelve six fourteen, two and nine, and employed it to meet pretended business charges and deficiencies which were either already provided for, or had never really existed. He gave this proceeding, throughout, the appearance of having originated in Mr. W.’s own dishonest intention, and of having been accomplished by Mr. W.’s own dishonest act; and has used it, ever since, to torture and constrain him.”‘
‘You shall prove this, you Copperfield!’ said Uriah, with a threatening shake of the head. ‘All in good time!’
‘Ask – HEEP – Mr. Traddles, who lived in his house after him,’ said Mr. Micawber, breaking off from the letter; ‘will you?’
‘The fool himself- and lives there now,’ said Uriah, disdainfully.
‘Ask – HEEP – if he ever kept a pocket-book in that house,’ said Mr. Micawber; ‘will you?’
I saw Uriah’s lank hand stop, involuntarily, in the scraping of his chin.
‘Or ask him,’ said Mr. Micawber,’if he ever burnt one there. If he says yes, and asks you where the ashes are, refer him to Wilkins Micawber, and he will hear of something not at all to his advantage!’
The triumphant flourish with which Mr. Micawber delivered himself of these words, had a powerful effect in alarming the mother; who cried out, in much agitation:
‘Ury, Ury! Be umble, and make terms, my dear!’
‘Mother!’ he retorted, ‘will you keep quiet? You’re in a fright, and don’t know what you say or mean. Umble!’ he repeated, looking at me, with a snarl; ‘I’ve umbled some of ’em for a pretty long time back, umble as I was!’
Mr. Micawber, genteelly adjusting his chin in his cravat, presently proceeded with his composition.
‘”Second. HEEP has, on several occasions, to the best of my knowledge, information, and belief -“‘
‘But that won’t do,’ muttered Uriah, relieved. ‘Mother, you keep quiet.’
‘We will endeavour to provide something that WILL do, and do for you finally, sir, very shortly,’ replied Mr. Micawber.
‘”Second. HEEP has, on several occasions, to the best of my knowledge, information, and belief, systematically forged, to various entries, books, and documents, the signature of Mr. W.; and has distinctly done so in one instance, capable of proof by me. To wit, in manner following, that is to say:”‘
Again, Mr. Micawber had a relish in this formal piling up of words, which, however ludicrously displayed in his case, was, I must say, not at all peculiar to him. I have observed it, in the course of my life, in numbers of men. It seems to me to be a general rule. In the taking of legal oaths, for instance, deponents seem to enjoy themselves mightily when they come to several good words in succession, for the expression of one idea; as, that they utterly detest, abominate, and abjure, or so forth; and the old anathemas were made relishing on the same principle. We talk about the tyranny of words, but we like to tyrannize over them too; we are fond of having a large superfluous establishment of words to wait upon us on great occasions; we think it looks important, and sounds well. As we are not particular about the meaning of our liveries on state occasions, if they be but fine and numerous enough, so, the meaning or necessity of our words is a secondary consideration, if there be but a great parade of them. And as individuals get into trouble by making too great a show of liveries, or as slaves when they are too numerous rise against their masters, so I think I could mention a nation that has got into many great difficulties, and will get into many greater, from maintaining too large a retinue of words.
Mr. Micawber read on, almost smacking his lips:
‘”To wit, in manner following, that is to say. Mr. W. being infirm, and it being within the bounds of probability that his decease might lead to some discoveries, and to the downfall of – HEEP’S – power over the W. family, – as I, Wilkins Micawber, the undersigned, assume – unless the filial affection of his daughter could be secretly influenced from allowing any investigation of the partnership affairs to be ever made, the said – HEEP – deemed it expedient to have a bond ready by him, as from Mr. W., for the before-mentioned sum of twelve six fourteen, two and nine, with interest, stated therein to have been advanced by – HEEP – to Mr. W. to save Mr. W. from dishonour; though really the sum was never advanced by him, and has long been replaced. The signatures to this instrument purporting to be executed by Mr. W. and attested by Wilkins Micawber, are forgeries by – HEEP. I have, in my possession, in his hand and pocket-book, several similar imitations of Mr. W.’s signature, here and there defaced by fire, but legible to anyone. I never attested any such document. And I have the document itself, in my possession.”‘
Uriah Heep, with a start, took out of his pocket a bunch of keys, and opened a certain drawer; then, suddenly bethought himself of what he was about, and turned again towards us, without looking in it.
‘”And I have the document,”‘ Mr. Micawber read again, looking about as if it were the text of a sermon, ‘”in my possession, – that is to say, I had, early this morning, when this was written, but have since relinquished it to Mr. Traddles.”‘
‘It is quite true,’ assented Traddles.
‘Ury, Ury!’ cried the mother, ‘be umble and make terms. I know my son will be umble, gentlemen, if you’ll give him time to think. Mr. Copperfield, I’m sure you know that he was always very umble, sir!’
It was singular to see how the mother still held to the old trick, when the son had abandoned it as useless.
‘Mother,’ he said, with an impatient bite at the handkerchief in which his hand was wrapped, ‘you had better take and fire a loaded gun at me.’
‘But I love you, Ury,’ cried Mrs. Heep. And I have no doubt she did; or that he loved her, however strange it may appear; though, to be sure, they were a congenial couple. ‘And I can’t bear to hear you provoking the gentlemen, and endangering of yourself more. I told the gentleman at first, when he told me upstairs it was come to light, that I would answer for your being umble, and making amends. Oh, see how umble I am, gentlemen, and don’t mind him!’
‘Why, there’s Copperfield, mother,’ he angrily retorted, pointing his lean finger at me, against whom all his animosity was levelled, as the prime mover in the discovery; and I did not undeceive him; ‘there’s Copperfield, would have given you a hundred pound to say less than you’ve blurted out!’
‘I can’t help it, Ury,’ cried his mother. ‘I can’t see you running into danger, through carrying your head so high. Better be umble, as you always was.’
He remained for a little, biting the handkerchief, and then said to me with a scowl:
‘What more have you got to bring forward? If anything, go on with it. What do you look at me for?’
Mr. Micawber promptly resumed his letter, glad to revert to a performance with which he was so highly satisfied.
‘”Third. And last. I am now in a condition to show, by – HEEP’S – false books, and – HEEP’S – real memoranda, beginning with the partially destroyed pocket-book (which I was unable to comprehend, at the time of its accidental discovery by Mrs. Micawber, on our taking possession of our present abode, in the locker or bin devoted to the reception of the ashes calcined on our domestic hearth), that the weaknesses, the faults, the very virtues, the parental affections, and the sense of honour, of the unhappy Mr. W. have been for years acted on by, and warped to the base purposes of – HEEP. That Mr. W. has been for years deluded and plundered, in every conceivable manner, to the pecuniary aggrandisement of the avaricious, false, and grasping – HEEP. That the engrossing object of- HEEP – was, next to gain, to subdue Mr. and Miss W. (of his ulterior views in reference to the latter I say nothing) entirely to himself. That his last act, completed but a few months since, was to induce Mr. W. to execute a relinquishment of his share in the partnership, and even a bill of sale on the very furniture of his house, in consideration of a certain annuity, to be well and truly paid by – HEEP – on the four common quarter-days in each and every year. That these meshes; beginning with alarming and falsified accounts of the estate of which Mr. W. is the receiver, at a period when Mr. W. had launched into imprudent and ill-judged speculations, and may not have had the money, for which he was morally and legally responsible, in hand; going on with pretended borrowings of money at enormous interest, really coming from – HEEP – and by – HEEP – fraudulently obtained or withheld from Mr. W. himself, on pretence of such speculations or otherwise; perpetuated by a miscellaneous catalogue of unscrupulous chicaneries – gradually thickened, until the unhappy Mr. W. could see no world beyond. Bankrupt, as he believed, alike in circumstances, in all other hope, and in honour, his sole reliance was upon the monster in the garb of man,”‘ – Mr. Micawber made a good deal of this, as a new turn of expression, – ‘”who, by making himself necessary to him, had achieved his destruction. All this I undertake to show. Probably much more!”‘
I whispered a few words to Agnes, who was weeping, half joyfully, half sorrowfully, at my side; and there was a movement among us, as if Mr. Micawber had finished. He said, with exceeding gravity, ‘Pardon me,’ and proceeded, with a mixture of the lowest spirits and the most intense enjoyment, to the peroration of his letter.
‘”I have now concluded. It merely remains for me to substantiate these accusations; and then, with my ill-starred family, to disappear from the landscape on which we appear to be an encumbrance. That is soon done. It may be reasonably inferred that our baby will first expire of inanition, as being the frailest member of our circle; and that our twins will follow next in order. So be it! For myself, my Canterbury Pilgrimage has done much; imprisonment on civil process, and want, will soon do more. I trust that the labour and hazard of an investigation – of which the smallest results have been slowly pieced together, in the pressure of arduous avocations, under grinding penurious apprehensions, at rise of morn, at dewy eve, in the shadows of night, under the watchful eye of one whom it were superfluous to call Demon – combined with the struggle of parental Poverty to turn it, when completed, to the right account, may be as the sprinkling of a few drops of sweet water on my funeral pyre. I ask no more. Let it be, in justice, merely said of me, as of a gallant and eminent naval Hero, with whom I have no pretensions to cope, that what I have done, I did, in despite of mercenary and selfish objects,
For England, home, and Beauty.
‘”Remaining always, &c. &c., WILKINS MICAWBER.”‘
Much affected, but still intensely enjoying himself, Mr. Micawber folded up his letter, and handed it with a bow to my aunt, as something she might like to keep.
There was, as I had noticed on my first visit long ago, an iron safe in the room. The key was in it. A hasty suspicion seemed to strike Uriah; and, with a glance at Mr. Micawber, he went to it, and threw the doors clanking open. It was empty.
‘Where are the books?’ he cried, with a frightful face. ‘Some thief has stolen the books!’
Mr. Micawber tapped himself with the ruler. ‘I did, when I got the key from you as usual – but a little earlier – and opened it this morning.’
‘Don’t be uneasy,’ said Traddles. ‘They have come into my possession. I will take care of them, under the authority I mentioned.’
‘You receive stolen goods, do you?’ cried Uriah.
‘Under such circumstances,’ answered Traddles, ‘yes.’
What was my astonishment when I beheld my aunt, who had been profoundly quiet and attentive, make a dart at Uriah Heep, and seize him by the collar with both hands!
‘You know what I want?’ said my aunt.
‘A strait-waistcoat,’ said he.
‘No. My property!’ returned my aunt. ‘Agnes, my dear, as long as I believed it had been really made away with by your father, I wouldn’t – and, my dear, I didn’t, even to Trot, as he knows – breathe a syllable of its having been placed here for investment. But, now I know this fellow’s answerable for it, and I’ll have it! Trot, come and take it away from him!’
Whether my aunt supposed, for the moment, that he kept her property in his neck-kerchief, I am sure I don’t know; but she certainly pulled at it as if she thought so. I hastened to put myself between them, and to assure her that we would all take care that he should make the utmost restitution of everything he had wrongly got. This, and a few moments’ reflection, pacified her; but she was not at all disconcerted by what she had done (though I cannot say as much for her bonnet) and resumed her seat composedly.
During the last few minutes, Mrs. Heep had been clamouring to her son to be ‘umble’; and had been going down on her knees to all of us in succession, and making the wildest promises. Her son sat her down in his chair; and, standing sulkily by her, holding her arm with his hand, but not rudely, said to me, with a ferocious look:
‘What do you want done?’
‘I will tell you what must be done,’ said Traddles.
‘Has that Copperfield no tongue?’ muttered Uriah, ‘I would do a good deal for you if you could tell me, without lying, that somebody had cut it out.’
‘My Uriah means to be umble!’ cried his mother. ‘Don’t mind what he says, good gentlemen!’
‘What must be done,’ said Traddles, ‘is this. First, the deed of relinquishment, that we have heard of, must be given over to me now – here.’
‘Suppose I haven’t got it,’ he interrupted.
‘But you have,’ said Traddles; ‘therefore, you know, we won’t suppose so.’ And I cannot help avowing that this was the first occasion on which I really did justice to the clear head, and the plain, patient, practical good sense, of my old schoolfellow.
‘Then,’ said Traddles, ‘you must prepare to disgorge all that your rapacity has become possessed of, and to make restoration to the last farthing. All the partnership books and papers must remain in our possession; all your books and papers; all money accounts and securities, of both kinds. In short, everything here.’
‘Must it? I don’t know that,’ said Uriah. ‘I must have time to think about that.’
‘Certainly,’ replied Traddles; ‘but, in the meanwhile, and until everything is done to our satisfaction, we shall maintain possession of these things; and beg you – in short, compel you – to keep to your own room, and hold no communication with anyone.’
‘I won’t do it!’ said Uriah, with an oath.
‘Maidstone jail is a safer place of detention,’ observed Traddles; ‘and though the law may be longer in righting us, and may not be able to right us so completely as you can, there is no doubt of its punishing YOU. Dear me, you know that quite as well as I! Copperfield, will you go round to the Guildhall, and bring a couple of officers?’
Here, Mrs. Heep broke out again, crying on her knees to Agnes to interfere in their behalf, exclaiming that he was very humble, and it was all true, and if he didn’t do what we wanted, she would, and much more to the same purpose; being half frantic with fears for her darling. To inquire what he might have done, if he had had any boldness, would be like inquiring what a mongrel cur might do, if it had the spirit of a tiger. He was a coward, from head to foot; and showed his dastardly nature through his sullenness and mortification, as much as at any time of his mean life.
‘Stop!’ he growled to me; and wiped his hot face with his hand. ‘Mother, hold your noise. Well! Let ’em have that deed. Go and fetch it!’
‘Do you help her, Mr. Dick,’ said Traddles, ‘if you please.’
Proud of his commission, and understanding it, Mr. Dick accompanied her as a shepherd’s dog might accompany a sheep. But, Mrs. Heep gave him little trouble; for she not only returned with the deed, but with the box in which it was, where we found a banker’s book and some other papers that were afterwards serviceable.
‘Good!’ said Traddles, when this was brought. ‘Now, Mr. Heep, you can retire to think: particularly observing, if you please, that I declare to you, on the part of all present, that there is only one thing to be done; that it is what I have explained; and that it must be done without delay.’
Uriah, without lifting his eyes from the ground, shuffled across the room with his hand to his chin, and pausing at the door, said:
‘Copperfield, I have always hated you. You’ve always been an upstart, and you’ve always been against me.’
‘As I think I told you once before,’ said I, ‘it is you who have been, in your greed and cunning, against all the world. It may be profitable to you to reflect, in future, that there never were greed and cunning in the world yet, that did not do too much, and overreach themselves. It is as certain as death.’
‘Or as certain as they used to teach at school (the same school where I picked up so much umbleness), from nine o’clock to eleven, that labour was a curse; and from eleven o’clock to one, that it was a blessing and a cheerfulness, and a dignity, and I don’t know what all, eh?’ said he with a sneer. ‘You preach, about as consistent as they did. Won’t umbleness go down? I shouldn’t have got round my gentleman fellow-partner without it, I think. -Micawber, you old bully, I’ll pay YOU!’
Mr. Micawber, supremely defiant of him and his extended finger, and making a great deal of his chest until he had slunk out at the door, then addressed himself to me, and proffered me the satisfaction of ‘witnessing the re-establishment of mutual confidence between himself and Mrs. Micawber’. After which, he invited the company generally to the contemplation of that affecting spectacle.
‘The veil that has long been interposed between Mrs. Micawber and myself, is now withdrawn,’ said Mr. Micawber; ‘and my children and the Author of their Being can once more come in contact on equal terms.’
As we were all very grateful to him, and all desirous to show that we were, as well as the hurry and disorder of our spirits would permit, I dare say we should all have gone, but that it was necessary for Agnes to return to her father, as yet unable to bear more than the dawn of hope; and for someone else to hold Uriah in safe keeping. So, Traddles remained for the latter purpose, to be presently relieved by Mr. Dick; and Mr. Dick, my aunt, and I, went home with Mr. Micawber. As I parted hurriedly from the dear girl to whom I owed so much, and thought from what she had been saved, perhaps, that morning – her better resolution notwithstanding – I felt devoutly thankful for the miseries of my younger days which had brought me to the knowledge of Mr. Micawber.
His house was not far off; and as the street door opened into the sitting-room, and he bolted in with a precipitation quite his own, we found ourselves at once in the bosom of the family. Mr. Micawber exclaiming, ‘Emma! my life!’ rushed into Mrs. Micawber’s arms. Mrs. Micawber shrieked, and folded Mr. Micawber in her embrace. Miss Micawber, nursing the unconscious stranger of Mrs. Micawber’s last letter to me, was sensibly affected. The stranger leaped. The twins testified their joy by several inconvenient but innocent demonstrations. Master Micawber, whose disposition appeared to have been soured by early disappointment, and whose aspect had become morose, yielded to his better feelings, and blubbered.
‘Emma!’ said Mr. Micawber. ‘The cloud is past from my mind. Mutual confidence, so long preserved between us once, is restored, to know no further interruption. Now, welcome poverty!’ cried Mr. Micawber, shedding tears. ‘Welcome misery, welcome houselessness, welcome hunger, rags, tempest, and beggary! Mutual confidence will sustain us to the end!’
With these expressions, Mr. Micawber placed Mrs. Micawber in a chair, and embraced the family all round; welcoming a variety of bleak prospects, which appeared, to the best of my judgement, to be anything but welcome to them; and calling upon them to come out into Canterbury and sing a chorus, as nothing else was left for their support.
But Mrs. Micawber having, in the strength of her emotions, fainted away, the first thing to be done, even before the chorus could be considered complete, was to recover her. This my aunt and Mr. Micawber did; and then my aunt was introduced, and Mrs. Micawber recognized me.
‘Excuse me, dear Mr. Copperfield,’ said the poor lady, giving me her hand, ‘but I am not strong; and the removal of the late misunderstanding between Mr. Micawber and myself was at first too much for me.’
‘Is this all your family, ma’am?’ said my aunt.
‘There are no more at present,’ returned Mrs. Micawber.
‘Good gracious, I didn’t mean that, ma’am,’ said my aunt. ‘I mean, are all these yours?’
‘Madam,’ replied Mr. Micawber, ‘it is a true bill.’
‘And that eldest young gentleman, now,’ said my aunt, musing, ‘what has he been brought up to?’
‘It was my hope when I came here,’ said Mr. Micawber, ‘to have got Wilkins into the Church: or perhaps I shall express my meaning more strictly, if I say the Choir. But there was no vacancy for a tenor in the venerable Pile for which this city is so justly eminent; and he has – in short, he has contracted a habit of singing in public-houses, rather than in sacred edifices.’
‘But he means well,’ said Mrs. Micawber, tenderly.
‘I dare say, my love,’ rejoined Mr. Micawber, ‘that he means particularly well; but I have not yet found that he carries out his meaning, in any given direction whatsoever.’
Master Micawber’s moroseness of aspect returned upon him again, and he demanded, with some temper, what he was to do? Whether he had been born a carpenter, or a coach-painter, any more than he had been born a bird? Whether he could go into the next street, and open a chemist’s shop? Whether he could rush to the next assizes, and proclaim himself a lawyer? Whether he could come out by force at the opera, and succeed by violence? Whether he could do anything, without being brought up to something?
My aunt mused a little while, and then said:
‘Mr. Micawber, I wonder you have never turned your thoughts to emigration.’
‘Madam,’ returned Mr. Micawber, ‘it was the dream of my youth, and the fallacious aspiration of my riper years.’ I am thoroughly persuaded, by the by, that he had never thought of it in his life.
‘Aye?’ said my aunt, with a glance at me. ‘Why, what a thing it would be for yourselves and your family, Mr. and Mrs. Micawber, if you were to emigrate now.’
‘Capital, madam, capital,’ urged Mr. Micawber, gloomily.
‘That is the principal, I may say the only difficulty, my dear Mr. Copperfield,’ assented his wife.
‘Capital?’ cried my aunt. ‘But you are doing us a great service – have done us a great service, I may say, for surely much will come out of the fire – and what could we do for you, that would be half so good as to find the capital?’
‘I could not receive it as a gift,’ said Mr. Micawber, full of fire and animation, ‘but if a sufficient sum could be advanced, say at five per cent interest, per annum, upon my personal liability – say my notes of hand, at twelve, eighteen, and twenty-four months, respectively, to allow time for something to turn up -‘ ‘Could be? Can be and shall be, on your own terms,’ returned my aunt, ‘if you say the word. Think of this now, both of you. Here are some people David knows, going out to Australia shortly. If you decide to go, why shouldn’t you go in the same ship? You may help each other. Think of this now, Mr. and Mrs. Micawber. Take your time, and weigh it well.’
‘There is but one question, my dear ma’am, I could wish to ask,’ said Mrs. Micawber. ‘The climate, I believe, is healthy?’
‘Finest in the world!’ said my aunt.
‘Just so,’ returned Mrs. Micawber. ‘Then my question arises. Now, are the circumstances of the country such, that a man of Mr. Micawber’s abilities would have a fair chance of rising in the social scale? I will not say, at present, might he aspire to be Governor, or anything of that sort; but would there be a reasonable opening for his talents to develop themselves – that would be amply sufficient – and find their own expansion?’
‘No better opening anywhere,’ said my aunt, ‘for a man who conducts himself well, and is industrious.’
‘For a man who conducts himself well,’ repeated Mrs. Micawber, with her clearest business manner, ‘and is industrious. Precisely. It is evident to me that Australia is the legitimate sphere of action for Mr. Micawber!’
‘I entertain the conviction, my dear madam,’ said Mr. Micawber, ‘that it is, under existing circumstances, the land, the only land, for myself and family; and that something of an extraordinary nature will turn up on that shore. It is no distance – comparatively speaking; and though consideration is due to the kindness of your proposal, I assure you that is a mere matter of form.’
Shall I ever forget how, in a moment, he was the most sanguine of men, looking on to fortune; or how Mrs. Micawber presently discoursed about the habits of the kangaroo! Shall I ever recall that street of Canterbury on a market-day, without recalling him, as he walked back with us; expressing, in the hardy roving manner he assumed, the unsettled habits of a temporary sojourner in the land; and looking at the bullocks, as they came by, with the eye of an Australian farmer!
>CHAPTER XXXV< Her refreshed attention to this gentleman had not those limits of which Catherine desired, for herself, to be conscious; it lasted long enough to enable her to wait another week before speaking of him again.
Her refreshed attention to this gentleman had not those limits of which Catherine desired, for herself, to be conscious; it lasted long enough to enable her to wait another week before speaking of him again. It was under the same circumstances that she once more attacked the subject. She had been sitting with her niece in the evening; only on this occasion, as the night was not so warm, the lamp had been lighted, and Catherine had placed herself near it with a morsel of fancy-work. Mrs. Penniman went and sat alone for half an hour on the balcony; then she came in, moving vaguely about the room. At last she sunk into a seat near Catherine, with clasped hands, and a little look of excitement.
“Shall you be angry if I speak to you again about him?” she asked.
Catherine looked up at her quietly. “Who is he?”
“He whom you once loved.”
“I shall not be angry, but I shall not like it.”
“He sent you a message,” said Mrs. Penniman. “I promised to deliver it, and I must keep my promise.”
In all these years Catherine had had time to forget how little she had to thank her aunt for in the season of her misery; she had long ago forgiven Mrs. Penniman for taking too much upon herself. But for a moment this attitude of interposition and disinterestedness, this carrying of messages and redeeming of promises, brought back the sense that her companion was a dangerous woman. She had said she would not be angry; but for an instant she felt sore. “I don’t care what you do with your promise!” she answered.
Mrs. Penniman, however, with her high conception of the sanctity of pledges, carried her point. “I have gone too far to retreat,” she said, though precisely what this meant she was not at pains to explain. “Mr. Townsend wishes most particularly to see you, Catherine; he believes that if you knew how much, and why, he wishes it, you would consent to do so.”
“There can be no reason,” said Catherine; “no good reason.”
“His happiness depends upon it. Is not that a good reason?” asked Mrs. Penniman, impressively.
“Not for me. My happiness does not.”
“I think you will be happier after you have seen him. He is going away again-going to resume his wanderings. It is a very lonely, restless, joyless life. Before he goes he wishes to speak to you; it is a fixed idea with him-he is always thinking of it. He has something very important to say to you. He believes that you never understood him-that you never judged him rightly, and the belief has always weighed upon him terribly. He wishes to justify himself; he believes that in a very few words he could do so. He wishes to meet you as a friend.”
Catherine listened to this wonderful speech without pausing in her work; she had now had several days to accustom herself to think of Morris Townsend again as an actuality. When it was over she said simply, “Please say to Mr. Townsend that I wish he would leave me alone.”
She had hardly spoken when a sharp, firm ring at the door vibrated through the summer night. Catherine looked up at the clock; it marked a quarter past nine-a very late hour for visitors, especially in the empty condition of the town. Mrs. Penniman at the same moment gave a little start, and then Catherine’s eyes turned quickly to her aunt. They met Mrs. Penniman’s, and sounded them for a moment sharply. Mrs. Penniman was blushing; her look was a conscious one; it seemed to confess something. Catherine guessed its meaning, and rose quickly from the chair.
“Aunt Penniman,” she said, in a tone that scared her companion, “have you taken the libertyÆ?”
“My dearest Catherine,” stammered Mrs. Penniman, “just wait till you see him!’
Catherine had frightened her aunt, but she was also frightened herself; she was on the point of rushing to give orders to the servant, who was passing to the door, to admit no one; but the fear of meeting her visitor checked her.
“Mr. Morris Townsend.”
This was what she heard, vaguely but recognizably, articulated by the domestic, while she hesitated. She had her back turned to the door of the parlor, and for some moments she kept it turned, feeling that he had come in. He had not spoken, however, and at last she faced about. Then she saw a gentleman standing in the middle of the room, from which her aunt had discreetly retired.
She would never have known him. He was forty-five years old, and his figure was not that of the straight, slim young man she remembered. But it was a very fine presence, and a fair and lustrous beard, spreading itself upon a well-presented chest, contributed to its effect. After a moment Catherine recognized the upper half of the face, which, though her visitor’s clustering locks had grown thin, was still remarkably handsome. He stood in a deeply deferential attitude, with his eyes on her face. “I have ventured-I have ventured;” he said, and then he paused, looking about him, as if he expected her to ask him to sit down. It was the old voice; but it had not the old charm. Catherine, for a minute, was conscious of a distinct determination not to invite him to take a seat. Why had he come? It was wrong for him to come. Morris was embarrassed, but Catherine gave him no help. It was not that she was glad of his embarrassment; on the contrary, it excited all her own liabilities of this kind, and gave her great pain. But how could she welcome him when she felt so vividly that he ought not to have come? “I wanted so much-I was determined,” Morris went on. But he stopped again; it was not easy. Catherine still said nothing, and he may well have recalled with apprehension her ancient faculty of silence. She continued to look at him, however, and as she did so she made the strangest observation. It seemed to be he, and yet not he; it was the man who had been everything, and yet this person was nothing. How long ago it was-how old she had grown-how much she had lived! She had lived on something that was connected with him, and she had consumed it in doing so. This person did not look unhappy. He was fair and well-preserved, perfectly dressed, mature and complete. As Catherine looked at him, the story of his life defined itself in his eyes; he had made himself comfortable, and he had never been caught. But even while her perception opened itself to this, she had no desire to catch him; his presence was painful to her, and she only wished he would go.
“Will you not sit down?” he asked.
“I think we had better not,” said Catherine.
“I offend you by coming?” He was very grave; he spoke in a tone of the richest respect.
“I don’t think you ought to have come.”
“Did not Mrs. Penniman tell you-did she not give you my message?”
“She told me something, but I did not understand.”
“I wish you would let me tell you-let me speak for myself.”
“I don’t think it is necessary,” said Catherine.
“Not for you, perhaps, but for me. It would be a great satisfaction-and I have not many.” He seemed to be coming nearer; Catherine turned away. “Can we not be friends again?” he asked.
“We are not enemies,” said Catherine. “I have none but friendly feelings to you.”
“Ah, I wonder whether you know the happiness it gives me to hear you say that!” Catherine uttered no intimation that she measured the influence of her words; and he presently went on, “You have not changed-the years have passed happily for you.”
“They have passed very quietly,” said Catherine.
“They have left no marks; you are admirably young.” This time he succeeded in coming nearer-he was close to her; she saw his glossy perfumed beard, and his eyes above it looking strange and hard. It was very different from his old-from his young-face. If she had first seen him this way she would not have liked him. It seemed to her that he was smiling, or trying to smile. “Catherine,” he said, lowering his voice, “I have never ceased to think of you.”
“Please don’t say these things,” she answered.
“Do you hate me?”
“Oh no,” said Catherine.
Something in her tone discouraged him, but in a moment he recovered himself. “Have you still some kindness for me, then?”
“I don’t know why you have come here to ask me such things!” Catherine exclaimed.
“Because for many years it has been the desire of my life that we should be friends again.”
“That is impossible.”
“Why so? Not if you will allow it.”
“I will not allow it,” said Catherine.
He looked at her again in silence. “I see; my presence troubles you and pains you. I will go away; but you must give me leave to come again.”
“Please don’t come again,” she said.
She made a great effort; she wished to say something that would make it impossible he should ever again cross her threshold. “It is wrong of you. There is no propriety in it-no reason for it.”
“Ah, dearest lady, you do me injustice!” cried Morris Townsend. “We have only waited, and now we are free.”
“You treated me badly,” said Catherine.
“Not if you think of it rightly. You had your quiet life with your father-which was just what I could not make up my mind to rob you of.”
“Yes; I had that.”
Morris felt it to be a considerable damage to his cause that he could not add that she had had something more besides; for it is needless to say that he had learned the contents of Doctor Sloper’s will. He was, nevertheless, not at a loss. “There are worse fates than that!” he exclaimed, with expression; and he might have been supposed to refer to his own unprotected situation. Then he added, with a deeper tenderness, “Catherine, have you never forgiven me?”
“I forgave you years ago, but it is useless for us to attempt to be friends.”
“Not if we forget the past. We have still a future, thank God!”
“I can’t forget-I don’t forget,” said Catherine. “You treated me too badly. I felt it very much; I felt it for years.” And then she went on, with her wish to show him that he must not come to her this way, “I can’t begin again-I can’t take it up. Everything is dead and buried. It was too serious; it made a great change in my life. I never expected to see you here.”
“Ah, you are angry!” cried Morris, who wished immensely that he could extort some flash of passion from her calmness. In that case he might hope.
“No, I am not angry. Anger does not last that way for years. But there are other things. Impressions last, when they have been strong. But I can’t talk.”
Morris stood stroking his beard, with a clouded eye. “Why have you never married?” he asked, abruptly. “You have had opportunities.”
“I didn’t wish to marry.”
“Yes, you are rich, you are free; you had nothing to gain.”
“I had nothing to gain,” said Catherine.
Morris looked vaguely round him, and gave a deep sigh. “Well, I was in hopes that we might still have been friends.”
“I meant to tell you, by my aunt, in answer to your message-if you had waited for an answer-that it was unnecessary for you to come in that hope.”
“Good-bye, then,” said Morris. “Excuse my indiscretion.”
He bowed, and she turned away-standing there, averted, with her eyes on the ground, for some moments after she had heard him close the door of the room.
In the hall he found Mrs. Penniman, fluttered and eager; she appeared to have been hovering there under the irreconcilable promptings of her curiosity and her dignity.
“That was a precious plan of yours!” said Morris, clapping on his hat.
“Is she so hard?” asked Mrs. Penniman.
“She doesn’t care a button for me-with her confounded little dry manner.”
“Was it very dry?” pursued Mrs. Penniman, with solicitude.
Morris took no notice of her question; he stood musing an instant, with his hat on. “But why the deuce, then, would she never marry?”
“Yes-why indeed?” sighed Mrs. Penniman. And then, as if from a sense of the inadequacy of this explanation, “But you will not despair-you will come back?”
“Come back? Damnation!” And Morris Townsend strode out of the house, leaving Mrs. Penniman staring.
Catherine, meanwhile, in the parlor, picking up her morsel of fancy-work, had seated herself with it again-for life, as it were.
WHEN SPRING comes, the cityÃs inhabitants, by the hundreds of thousands, go out on Sundays with leather cases over their shoulders. And they photograph one another.
(trans. from Italian by William Weaver) WHEN SPRING comes, the cityÃs inhabitants, by the hundreds of thousands, go out on Sundays with leather cases over their shoulders. And they photograph one another. They come back as happy as hunters with bulging game bags; they spend days waiting, with sweet anxiety, to see the developed pictures (anxiety to which some add the subtle pleasure of alchemistic manipulations in the darkroom, forbidding any intrusion by members of the family, relishing the acid smell that is harsh to the nostrils). It is only when they have the photos before their eyes that they seem to take tangible possession of the day they spent, only then that the mountain stream, the movement of the child with his pail, the glint of the sun on the wifeÃs legs take on the irrevocability of what has been and can no longer be doubted. Everything else can drown in the unreliable shadow of memory.
Seeing a good deal of his friends and colleagues, Antonino Paraggi, a nonphotographer, sensed a growing isolation. Every week he discovered that the conversations of those who praise the sensitivity of a filter or discourse on the number of DINs were swelled by the voice of yet another to whom he had confided until yesterday, convinced that they were shared, his sarcastic remarks about an activity that to him seemed so unexciting, so lacking in surprises.
Professionally, Antonino Paraggi occupied an executive position in the distribution department of a production firm, but his real passion was commenting to his friends on current events large and small, unraveling the thread of general causes from the tangle of details; in short, by mental attitude he was a philosopher, and he devoted all his thoroughness to grasping the significance of even the events most remote from his own experience. Now he felt that something in the essence of photographic man was eluding him, the secret appeal that made new adepts continue to join the ranks of the amateurs of the lens, some boasting of the progress of their technical and artistic skill, others, on the contrary, giving all the credit to the efficiency of the camera they had purchased, which was capable (according to them) of producing masterpieces even when operated by inept hands (as they declared their own to be, because wherever pride aimed at magnifying the virtues of mechanical devices, subjective talent accepted a proportionate humiliation). Antonino Paraggi understood that neither the one nor the other motive of satisfaction was decisive: the secret lay elsewhere.
It must be said that his examination of photography to discover the causes of a private dissatisfactionas of someone who feels excluded from somethingwas to a certain extent a trick Antonino played on himself, to avoid having to consider another, more evident, process that was separating him from his friends. What was happening was this: his acquaintances, of his age, were all getting married, one after another, and starting families, while Antonino remained a bachelor.
Yet between the two phenomena there was undoubtedly a connection, inasmuch as the passion for the lens often develops in a natural, virtually physiological way as a secondary effect of fatherhood. One of the first instincts of parents, after they have brought a child into the world, is to photograph it. Given the speed of growth, it becomes necessary to photograph the child often, because nothing is more fleeting and unmemorable than a six-month-old infant, soon deleted and replaced by one of eight months, and then one of a year; and all the perfection that, to the eyes of parents, a child of three may have reached cannot prevent its being destroyed by that of the four-year-old. The photograph album remains the only place where all these fleeting perfections are saved and juxtaposed, each aspiring to an incomparable absoluteness of its own. In the passion of new parents for framing their offspring in the sights to reduce them to the immobility of black-and-white or a full color slide, the nonphotographer and non-procreator Antonino saw chiefly a phase in the race toward madness lurking in that black instrument. But his reflections on the iconography-family-madness nexus were summary and reticent: otherwise he would have realized that the person actually running the greatest risk was himself, the bachelor.
In the circle of AntoninoÃs friends, it was customary to spend the weekend out of town, in a group, following a tradition that for many of them dated back to their student days and that had been extended to include their girl friends, then their wives and their children, as well as wet nurses and governesses, and in some cases in-laws and new acquaintances of both sexes. But since the continuity of their habits, their getting together, had never lapsed, Antonino could pretend that nothing had changed with the passage of the years and that they were still the band of young men and women of the old days, rather than a conglomerate of families in which he remained the only surviving bachelor.
More and more often, on these excursions to the sea or the mountains, when it came time for the family group or the multi-family picture, an outsider was asked to lend a hand, a passer-by perhaps, willing to press the button of the camera already focused and aimed in the desired direction. In these cases, Antonino couldnÃt refuse his services: he would take the camera from the hands of a father or a mother, who would then rush to assume his or her place in the second row, sticking his head forward between two other heads, or crouching among the little ones; and Antonino, concentrating all his strength in the finger destined for this use, would press. The first times, an awkward stiffening of his arm would make the lens veer to capture the masts of ships or the spires of steeples, or to decapitate grandparents, uncles, and aunts. He was accused of doing this on purpose, reproached for making a joke in poor taste. It wasnÃt true: his intention was to lend the use of his finger as docile instrument of the collective wish, but also to exploit his temporary position of privilege to admonish both photographers and their subjects as to the significance of their actions. As soon as the pad of his finger reached the desired condition of detachment from the rest of his person and personality, he was free to communicate his theories in well-reasoned discourse, framing at the same time well-composed little groups. (A few accidental successes had sufficed to give him nonchalance and assurance with viewfinders and light meters.)
“ÆBecause once youÃve begun,” he would preach, “there is no reason why you should stop. The line between the reality that is photographed because it seems beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow. If you take a picture of Pierluca because heÃs building a sand castle, there is no reason not to take his picture while heÃs crying because the castle has collapsed, and then while the nurse consoles him by helping him find a sea shell in the sand. The minute you start saying something, Ã¯Ah, how beautiful! We must photograph it!Ã you are already close to the view of the person who thinks that everything that is not photographed is lost, as if it had never existed, and that therefore, in order really to live, you must photograph as much as you can, and to photograph as much as you can you must either live in the most photographable way possible, or else consider photographable every moment of your life. The first course leads to stupidity; the second to madness.”
“YouÃre the one whoÃs mad and stupid,” his friends would say to him, “and a pain in the ass, into the bargain.”
“For the person who wants to capture everything that passes before his eyes,” Antonino would explain, even if nobody was listening to him any more, “the only coherent way to act is to snap at least one picture a minute, from the instant he opens his eyes in the morning to when he goes to sleep. This is the only way that the rolls of exposed film will represent a faithful diary of our days, with nothing left out. If I were to start taking pictures, IÃd see this thing through, even if it meant losing my mind. But the rest of you still insist on making a choice. What sort of choice? A choice in the idyllic sense, apologetic, consolatory, at peace with nature, the fatherland, the family. Your choice isnÃt only photographic; it is a choice of life, which leads you to exclude dramatic conflicts, the knots of contradiction, the great tensions of will, passion, aversion. So you think you are saving yourselves from madness, but you are falling into mediocrity, into hebetude.”
A girl named Bice, someoneÃs ex-sister-in-law, and another named Lydia, someone elseÃs ex-secretary, asked him please to take a snapshot of them while they were playing ball among the waves. He consented, but since in the meanwhile he had worked out a theory in opposition to snapshots, he dutifully expressed it to the two friends:
“What drives you two girls to cut from the mobile continuum of your day these temporal slices, the thickness of a second? Tossing the ball back and forth, you are living in the present, but the moment the scansion of the frames is insinuated between your acts it is no longer the pleasure of the game that motivated you but, rather, that of seeing yourselves again in the future, of rediscovering yourselves in twenty yearsÃ time, on a piece of yellowed cardboard (yellowed emotionally, even if modern printing procedures will preserve it unchanged). The taste for the spontaneous, natural, lifelike snapshot kills spontaneity, drives away the present. Photographed reality immediately takes on a nostalgic character, of joy fled on the wings of time, a commemorative quality, even if the picture was taken the day before yesterday. And the life that you live in order to photograph it is already, at the outset, a commemoration of itself. To believe that the snapshot is more true than the posed portrait is a prejudiceÆ”
So saying, Antonino darted around the two girls in the water, to focus on the movements of their game and cut out of the picture the dazzling glints of the sun on the water. In a scuffle for the ball, Bice, flinging herself on the other girl, who was submerged, was snapped with her behind in close-up, flying over the waves. Antonino, so as not to lose this angle, had flung himself back in the water while holding up the camera, nearly drowning.
“They all came out well, and this oneÃs stupendous,” they commented a few days later, snatching the proofs from each other. They had arranged to meet at the photography shop. “YouÃre good; you must take some more of us.”
Antonino had reached the conclusion that it was necessary to return to posed subjects, in attitudes denoting their social position and their character, as in the nineteenth century. His antiphotographic polemic could be fought only from within the black box, setting one kind of photography against another.
“IÃd like to have one of those old box cameras,” he said to his girl friends, “the kind you put on a tripod. Do you think itÃs still possible to find one?”
“Hmm, maybe at some junk shopÆ”
“LetÃs go see.”
The girls found it amusing to hunt for this curious object; together they ransacked flea markets, interrogated old street photographers, followed them to their lairs. In those cemeteries of objects no longer serviceable lay wooden columns, screens, backdrops with faded landscapes; everything that suggested an old photographerÃs studio, Antonino bought. In the end he managed to get hold of a box camera, with a bulb to squeeze. It seemed in perfect working order. Antonino also bought an assortment of plates. With the girls helping him, he set up the studio in a room of his apartment, all fitted out with old-fashioned equipment, except for two modern spotlights.
Now he was content. “This is where to start,” he explained to the girls. “In the way our grandparents assumed a pose, in the convention that decided how groups were to be arranged, there was a social meaning, a custom, a taste, a culture. An official photograph, or one of a marriage or a family or a school group, conveyed how serious and important each role or institution was, but also how far they were all false or forced, authoritarian, hierarchical. This is the point: to make explicit the relationship with the world that each of us bears within himself, and which today we tend to hide, to make unconscious, believing that in this way it disappears, whereasÆ”
“Who do you want to have pose for you?”
“You two come tomorrow, and IÃll begin by taking some pictures of you in the way I mean.”
“Say, whatÃs in the back of your mind?” Lydia asked, suddenly suspicious. Only now, as the studio was all set up, did she see that everything about it had a sinister, threatening air. “If you think weÃre going to come and be your models, youÃre dreaming!”
Bice giggled with her, but the next day she came back to AntoninoÃs apartment, alone.
She was wearing a white linen dress with colored embroidery on the edges of the sleeves and pockets. Her hair was parted and gathered over her temples. She laughed, a bit slyly, bending her head to one side. As he let her in, Antonino studied her mannera bit coy, a bit ironicto discover what were the traits that defined her true character.
He made her sit in a big armchair, and stuck his head under the black cloth that came with his camera. It was one of those boxes whose rear wall was of glass, where the image is reflected as if already on the plate, ghostly, a bit milky, deprived of every link with space and time. To Antonino it was as if he had never seen Bice before. She had a docility in her somewhat heavy way of lowering her eyelids, of stretching her neck forward, that promised something hidden, as her smile seemed to hide behind the very act of smiling.
“There. Like that. No, head a bit farther; raise your eyes. No, lower them.” Antonino was pursuing, within that box, something of Bice that all at once seemed most precious to him, absolute.
“Now youÃre casting a shadow; move into the light. No, it was better before.”
There were many possible photographs of Bice and many Bices impossible to photograph, but what he was seeking was the unique photograph that would contain both the former and the latter.
“I canÃt get you,” his voice emerged, stifled and complaining from beneath the black hood, “I canÃt get you any more; I canÃt manage to get you.”
He freed himself from the cloth and straightened up again. He was going about it all wrong. That expression, that accent, that secret he seemed on the very point of capturing in her face, was something that drew him into the quicksands of moods, humors, psychology: he, too, was one of those who pursue life as it flees, a hunter of the unattainable, like the takers of snapshots.
He had to follow the opposite path: aim at a portrait completely on the surface, evident, unequivocal, that did not elude conventional appearance, the stereotype, the mask. The mask, being first of all a social, historical product, contains more truth than any image claiming to be “true”; it bears a quantity of meanings that will gradually be revealed. WasnÃt this precisely AntoninoÃs intention in setting up this fair booth of a studio?
He observed Bice. He should start with the exterior elements of her appearance. In BiceÃs way of dressing and fixing herself uphe thoughtyou could recognize the somewhat nostalgic, somewhat ironic intention, widespread in the mode of those years, to hark back to the fashions of thirty years earlier. The photograph should underline this intention: why hadnÃt he thought of that?
Antonino went to find a tennis racket; Bice should stand up in a three-quarter turn, the racket under her arm, her face in the pose of a sentimental postcard. To Antonino, from under the black drape, BiceÃs imagein its slimness and suitability to the pose, and in the unsuitable and almost incongruous aspects that the pose accentuatedseemed very interesting. He made her change position several times, studying the geometry of legs and arms in relation to the racket and to some element in the background. (In the ideal postcard in his mind there would have been the net of the tennis court, but you couldnÃt demand too much, and Antonino made do with a Ping-Pong table.)
But he still didnÃt feel on safe ground: wasnÃt he perhaps trying to photograph memoriesor, rather, vague echoes of recollection surfacing in the memory? WasnÃt his refusal to live the present as a future memory, as the Sunday photographers did, leading him to attempt an equally unreal operation, namely to give a body to recollection, to substitute it for the present before his very eyes?
“Move! DonÃt stand there like a stick! Raise the racket, damn it! Pretend youÃre playing tennis!” All of a sudden he was furious. He had realized that only by exaggerating the poses could he achieve an objective alienness; only by feigning a movement arrested halfway could he give the impression of the unmoving, the nonliving.
Bice obediently followed his orders even when they became vague and contradictory, with a passivity that was also a way of declaring herself out of the game, and yet somehow insinuating, in this game that was not hers, the unpredictable moves of a mysterious match of her own. What Antonino now was expecting of Bice, telling her to put her legs and arms this way and that way, was not so much the simple performance of a plan as her response to the violence he was doing her with his demands, an unforeseeable aggressive reply to this violence that he was being driven more and more to wreak on her.
It was like a dream, Antonino thought, contemplating, from the darkness in which he was buried, that improbable tennis player filtered into the glass rectangle: like a dream when a presence coming from the depth of memory advances, is recognized, and then suddenly is transformed into something unexpected, something that even before the transformation is already frightening because thereÃs no telling what it might be transformed into.
Did he want to photograph dreams? This suspicion struck him dumb, hidden in that ostrich refuge of his with the bulb in his hand, like an idiot; and meanwhile Bice, left to herself, continued a kind of grotesque dance, freezing in exaggerated tennis poses, backhand, drive, raising the racket high or lowering it to the ground as if the gaze coming from that glass eye were the ball she continued to slam back.
“Stop, whatÃs this nonsense? This isnÃt what I had in mind.” Antonino covered the camera with the cloth and began pacing up and down the room.
It was all the fault of that dress, with its tennis, prewar connotationsÆ It had to be admitted that if she wore a street dress the kind of photograph he described couldnÃt be taken. A certain solemnity was needed, a certain pomp, like the official photos of queens. Only in evening dress would Bice become a photographic subject, with the dÃ«colletÃ« that marks a distinct line between the white of the skin and the darkness of the fabric, accentuated by the glitter of jewels, a boundary between an essence of woman, almost atemporal and almost impersonal in her nakedness, and the other abstraction, social this time, the dress, symbol of an equally impersonal role, like the drapery of an allegorical statue.
He approached Bice, began to unbutton the dress at the neck and over the bosom, and slip it down over her shoulders. He had thought of certain nineteenth-century photographs of women in which from the white of the cardboard emerge the face, the neck, the line of the bared shoulders, while all the rest disappears into the whiteness.
This was the portrait outside of time and space that he now wanted; he wasnÃt quite sure how it was achieved, but he was determined to succeed. He set the spotlight on Bice, moved the camera closer, fiddled around under the cloth adjusting the aperture of the lens. He looked into it. Bice was naked.
She had made the dress slip down to her feet; she wasnÃt wearing anything underneath it; she had taken a step forwardno, a step backward, which was as if her whole body were advancing in the picture; she stood erect, tall before the camera, calm, looking straight ahead, as if she were alone.
Antonino felt the sight of her enter his eyes and occupy the whole visual field, removing it from the flux of casual and fragmentary images, concentrating time and space in a finite form. And as if this visual surprise and the impression of the plate were two reflexes connected among themselves, he immediately pressed the bulb, loaded the camera again, snapped, put in another plate, snapped, and went on changing plates and snapping, mumbling, stifled by the cloth, “There, thatÃs right now, yes, again, IÃm getting you fine now, another.”
He had run out of plates. He emerged from the cloth. He was pleased. Bice was before him, naked, as if waiting.
“Now you can dress,” he said, euphoric, but already in a hurry. “LetÃs go out.”
She looked at him, bewildered.
“IÃve got you now,” he said.
Bice burst into tears.
Antonino realized that he had fallen in love with her that same day. They started living together, and he bought the most modern cameras, telescopic lens, the most advanced equipment; he installed a darkroom. He even had a set-up for photographing her when she was asleep at night. Bice would wake at the flash, annoyed; Antonino went on taking snapshots of her disentangling herself from sleep, of her becoming furious with him, of her trying in vain to find sleep again by plunging her face into the pillow, of her making up with him, of her recognizing as acts of love these photographic rapes.
In AntoninoÃs darkroom, strung with films and proofs, Bice peered from every frame, as thousands of bees peer out from the honeycomb of a hive, but always the same bee: Bice in every attitude, at every angle, in every guise, Bice posed or caught unaware, an identity fragmented into a powder of images.
“But whatÃs this obsession with Bice? CanÃt you photograph anything else?” was the question he heard constantly from his friends, and also from her.
“It isnÃt just a matter of Bice,” he answered. “ItÃs a question of method. Whatever person you decide to photograph, or whatever thing, you must go on photographing it always, exclusively, at every hour of the day and night. Photography has a meaning only if it exhausts all possible images.”
But he didnÃt say what meant most to him: to catch Bice in the street when she didnÃt know he was watching her, to keep her in the range of hidden lenses, to photograph her not only without letting himself be seen but without seeing her, to surprise her as she was in the absence of his gaze, of any gaze. Not that he wanted to discover any particular thing; he wasnÃt a jealous man in the usual sense of the word. It was an invisible Bice that he wanted to possess, a Bice absolutely alone, a Bice whose presence presupposed the absence of him and everyone else.
Whether or not it could be defined as jealousy, it was, in any case, a passion difficult to put up with. And soon Bice left him.
Antonino sank into deep depression. He began to keep a diarya photographic diary, of course. With the camera slung around his neck, shut up in the house, slumped in an armchair, he compulsively snapped pictures as he stared into the void. He was photographing the absence of Bice.
He collected the photographs in an album: you could see ashtrays brimming with cigarette butts, an unmade bed, a damp stain on the wall. He got the idea of composing a catalogue of everything in the world that resists photography, that is systematically omitted from the visual field not only by camera but also by human beings. On every subject he spent days, using up whole rolls at intervals of hours, so as to follow the changes of light and shadow. One day he became obsessed with a completely empty corner of the room, containing a radiator pipe and nothing else: he was tempted to go on photographing that spot and only that till the end of his days.
The apartment was completely neglected; old newspapers, letters lay crumpled on the floor, and he photographed them. The photographs in the papers were photographed as well, and an indirect bond was established between his lens and that of distant news photographers. To produce those black spots the lenses of other cameras had been aimed at police assaults, charred automobiles, running athletes, ministers, defendants.
Antonino now felt a special pleasure in portraying domestic objects framed by a mosaic of telephotos, violent patches of ink on white sheets. From his immobility he was surprised to find he envied the life of the news photographer, who moves following the movements of crowds, bloodshed, tears, feasts, crime, the conventions of fashion, the falsity of official ceremonies; the news photographer, who documents the extremes of society, the richest and the poorest, the exceptional moments that are nevertheless produced at every moment and in every place.
Does this mean that only the exceptional condition has a meaning? Antonino asked himself. Is the news photographer the true antagonist of the Sunday photographer? Are their worlds mutually exclusive? Or does the one give meaning to the other?
Reflecting like this, he began to tear up the photographs with Bice or without Bice that had accumulated during the months of his passion, ripping to pieces the strips of proofs hung on the walls, snipping up the celluloid of the negatives, jabbing the slides, and piling the remains of this methodical destruction on newspapers spread out on the floor.
Perhaps true, total photography, he thought, is a pile of fragments of private images, against the creased background of massacres and coronations.
He folded the corners of the newspapers into a huge bundle to be thrown into the trash, but first he wanted to photograph it. He arranged the edges so that you could clearly see two halves of photographs from different newspapers that in the bundle happened, by chance, to fit together. In fact he reopened the package a little so that a bit of shiny pasteboard would stick out, the fragment of a torn enlargement. He turned on a spotlight; he wanted it to be possible to recognize in his photograph the half-crumpled and torn images, and at the same time to feel their unreality as casual, inky shadows, and also at the same time their concreteness as objects charged with meaning, the strength with which they clung to the attention that tried to drive them away.
To get all this into one photograph he had to acquire an extraordinary technical skill, but only then would Antonino quit taking pictures. Having exhausted every possibility, at the moment when he was coming full circle Antonino realized that photographing photographs was the only course that he had leftor, rather, the true course he had obscurely been seeking all this time.
a short excerpt from Chapter II (Newman in the Louvre)
At this moment, however, his attention was attracted by a gentleman who had come from another part of the room and whose manner was that of a stranger to the gallery, though he was equipped neither with guide-book nor with opera-glass. He carried a white sun-umbrella lined with blue silk, and he strolled in front of the great picture, vaguely looking at it but much too near to see anything but the grain of the canvas. Opposite Christopher Newman he paused and turned, and then our friend, who had been observing him, had a chance to verify a suspicion roused by an imperfect view of his face. The result of the larger scrutiny was that he presently sprang to his feet, strode across the room and, with an outstretched hand, arrested this blank spectator. The gaping gentleman gaped afresh, smooth and pink, with the air of a successfully potted plant, and though his countenance, ornamented with a beautiful flaxen beard carefully divided in the middle and brushed outward at the sides, was not remarkable for intensity of expression, it was exclusive only in the degree of the open door of an hotel– it would have been closed to the undesirable. It was for Newman in fact as if at first he had been but invited to “register.”