Charles Dickens - Facts, Plot Summaries and Information

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We were now down in Westminster. We had turned back to follow her,having encountered her coming towards us; and Westminster Abbey wasthe point at which she passed from the lights and noise of theleading streets. She proceeded so quickly, when she got free ofthe two currents of passengers setting towards and from the bridge,that, between this and the advance she had of us when she struckoff, we were in the narrow water-side street by Millbank before wecame up with her. At that moment she crossed the road, as if toavoid the footsteps that she heard so close behind; and, withoutlooking back, passed on even more rapidly.

A glimpse of the river through a dull gateway, where some waggonswere housed for the night, seemed to arrest my feet. I touched mycompanion without speaking, and we both forbore to cross after her,and both followed on that opposite side of the way; keeping asquietly as we could in the shadow of the houses, but keeping verynear her.

There was, and is when I write, at the end of that low-lyingstreet, a dilapidated little wooden building, probably an obsoleteold ferry-house. Its position is just at that point where thestreet ceases, and the road begins to lie between a row of housesand the river. As soon as she came here, and saw the water, shestopped as if she had come to her destination; and presently wentslowly along by the brink of the river, looking intently at it.

All the way here, I had supposed that she was going to some house;indeed, I had vaguely entertained the hope that the house might bein some way associated with the lost girl. But that one darkglimpse of the river, through the gateway, had instinctivelyprepared me for her going no farther.

The neighbourhood was a dreary one at that time; as oppressive,sad, and solitary by night, as any about London. There wereneither wharves nor houses on the melancholy waste of road near thegreat blank Prison. A sluggish ditch deposited its mud at theprison walls. Coarse grass and rank weeds straggled over all themarshy land in the vicinity. In one part, carcases of houses,inauspiciously begun and never finished, rotted away. In another,the ground was cumbered with rusty iron monsters of steam-boilers,wheels, cranks, pipes, furnaces, paddles, anchors, diving-bells,windmill-sails, and I know not what strange objects, accumulated bysome speculator, and grovelling in the dust, underneath which -having sunk into the soil of their own weight in wet weather - theyhad the appearance of vainly trying to hide themselves. The clashand glare of sundry fiery Works upon the river-side, arose by nightto disturb everything except the heavy and unbroken smoke thatpoured out of their chimneys. Slimy gaps and causeways, windingamong old wooden piles, with a sickly substance clinging to thelatter, like green hair, and the rags of last year's handbillsoffering rewards for drowned men fluttering above high-water mark,led down through the ooze and slush to the ebb-tide. There was astory that one of the pits dug for the dead in the time of theGreat Plague was hereabout; and a blighting influence seemed tohave proceeded from it over the whole place. Or else it looked asif it had gradually decomposed into that nightmare condition, outof the overflowings of the polluted stream.

As if she were a part of the refuse it had cast out, and left tocorruption and decay, the girl we had followed strayed down to theriver's brink, and stood in the midst of this night-picture, lonelyand still, looking at the water.

There were some boats and barges astrand in the mud, and theseenabled us to come within a few yards of her without being seen.I then signed to Mr. Peggotty to remain where he was, and emergedfrom their shade to speak to her. I did not approach her solitaryfigure without trembling; for this gloomy end to her determinedwalk, and the way in which she stood, almost within the cavernousshadow of the iron bridge, looking at the lights crookedlyreflected in the strong tide, inspired a dread within me.

I think she was talking to herself. I am sure, although absorbedin gazing at the water, that her shawl was off her shoulders, andthat she was muffling her hands in it, in an unsettled andbewildered way, more like the action of a sleep-walker than awaking person. I know, and never can forget, that there was thatin her wild manner which gave me no assurance but that she wouldsink before my eyes, until I had her arm within my grasp.

At the same moment I said 'Martha!'

She uttered a terrified scream, and struggled with me with suchstrength that I doubt if I could have held her alone. But astronger hand than mine was laid upon her; and when she raised herfrightened eyes and saw whose it was, she made but one more effortand dropped down between us. We carried her away from the water towhere there were some dry stones, and there laid her down, cryingand moaning. In a little while she sat among the stones, holdingher wretched head with both her hands.

'Oh, the river!' she cried passionately. 'Oh, the river!'

'Hush, hush!' said I. 'Calm yourself.'

But she still repeated the same words, continually exclaiming, 'Oh,the river!' over and over again.

'I know it's like me!' she exclaimed. 'I know that I belong to it.I know that it's the natural company of such as I am! It comes fromcountry places, where there was once no harm in it - and it creepsthrough the dismal streets, defiled and miserable - and it goesaway, like my life, to a great sea, that is always troubled - andI feel that I must go with it!'
I have never known what despair was, except in the tone of thosewords.

'I can't keep away from it. I can't forget it. It haunts me dayand night. It's the only thing in all the world that I am fit for,or that's fit for me. Oh, the dreadful river!'

The thought passed through my mind that in the face of mycompanion, as he looked upon her without speech or motion, I mighthave read his niece's history, if I had known nothing of it. Inever saw, in any painting or reality, horror and compassion soimpressively blended. He shook as if he would have fallen; and hishand - I touched it with my own, for his appearance alarmed me -was deadly cold.

'She is in a state of frenzy,' I whispered to him. 'She will speakdifferently in a little time.'

I don't know what he would have said in answer. He made somemotion with his mouth, and seemed to think he had spoken; but hehad only pointed to her with his outstretched hand.

A new burst of crying came upon her now, in which she once more hidher face among the stones, and lay before us, a prostrate image ofhumiliation and ruin. Knowing that this state must pass, before wecould speak to her with any hope, I ventured to restrain him whenhe would have raised her, and we stood by in silence until shebecame more tranquil.

'Martha,' said I then, leaning down, and helping her to rise - sheseemed to want to rise as if with the intention of going away, butshe was weak, and leaned against a boat. 'Do you know who this is,who is with me?'

She said faintly, 'Yes.'

'Do you know that we have followed you a long way tonight?'

She shook her head. She looked neither at him nor at me, but stoodin a humble attitude, holding her bonnet and shawl in one hand,without appearing conscious of them, and pressing the other,clenched, against her forehead.

'Are you composed enough,' said I, 'to speak on the subject whichso interested you - I hope Heaven may remember it! - that snowynight?'

Her sobs broke out afresh, and she murmured some inarticulatethanks to me for not having driven her away from the door.

'I want to say nothing for myself,' she said, after a few moments.'I am bad, I am lost. I have no hope at all. But tell him, sir,'she had shrunk away from him, 'if you don't feel too hard to me todo it, that I never was in any way the cause of his misfortune.''It has never been attributed to you,' I returned, earnestlyresponding to her earnestness.

'It was you, if I don't deceive myself,' she said, in a brokenvoice, 'that came into the kitchen, the night she took such pity onme; was so gentle to me; didn't shrink away from me like all therest, and gave me such kind help! Was it you, sir?'

'It was,' said I.

'I should have been in the river long ago,' she said, glancing atit with a terrible expression, 'if any wrong to her had been uponmy mind. I never could have kept out of it a single winter'snight, if I had not been free of any share in that!'

'The cause of her flight is too well understood,' I said. 'You areinnocent of any part in it, we thoroughly believe, - we know.'

'Oh, I might have been much the better for her, if I had had abetter heart!' exclaimed the girl, with most forlorn regret; 'forshe was always good to me! She never spoke a word to me but whatwas pleasant and right. Is it likely I would try to make her whatI am myself, knowing what I am myself, so well? When I losteverything that makes life dear, the worst of all my thoughts wasthat I was parted for ever from her!'

Mr. Peggotty, standing with one hand on the gunwale of the boat,and his eyes cast down, put his disengaged hand before his face.

'And when I heard what had happened before that snowy night, fromsome belonging to our town,' cried Martha, 'the bitterest thoughtin all my mind was, that the people would remember she once keptcompany with me, and would say I had corrupted her! When, Heavenknows, I would have died to have brought back her good name!'

Long unused to any self-control, the piercing agony of her remorseand grief was terrible.

'To have died, would not have been much - what can I say? - Iwould have lived!' she cried. 'I would have lived to be old, inthe wretched streets - and to wander about, avoided, in the dark -and to see the day break on the ghastly line of houses, andremember how the same sun used to shine into my room, and wake meonce - I would have done even that, to save her!'

Sinking on the stones, she took some in each hand, and clenchedthem up, as if she would have ground them. She writhed into somenew posture constantly: stiffening her arms, twisting them beforeher face, as though to shut out from her eyes the little lightthere was, and drooping her head, as if it were heavy withinsupportable recollections.

'What shall I ever do!' she said, fighting thus with her despair.'How can I go on as I am, a solitary curse to myself, a livingdisgrace to everyone I come near!' Suddenly she turned to mycompanion. 'Stamp upon me, kill me! When she was your pride, youwould have thought I had done her harm if I had brushed against herin the street. You can't believe - why should you? - a syllablethat comes out of my lips. It would be a burning shame upon you,even now, if she and I exchanged a word. I don't complain. Idon't say she and I are alike - I know there is a long, long waybetween us. I only say, with all my guilt and wretchedness upon myhead, that I am grateful to her from my soul, and love her. Oh,don't think that all the power I had of loving anything is quiteworn out! Throw me away, as all the world does. Kill me for beingwhat I am, and having ever known her; but don't think that of me!'

He looked upon her, while she made this supplication, in a wilddistracted manner; and, when she was silent, gently raised her.

'Martha,' said Mr. Peggotty, 'God forbid as I should judge you.Forbid as I, of all men, should do that, my girl! You doen't knowhalf the change that's come, in course of time, upon me, when youthink it likely. Well!' he paused a moment, then went on. 'Youdoen't understand how 'tis that this here gentleman and me haswished to speak to you. You doen't understand what 'tis we hasafore us. Listen now!'

His influence upon her was complete. She stood, shrinkingly,before him, as if she were afraid to meet his eyes; but herpassionate sorrow was quite hushed and mute.

'If you heerd,' said Mr. Peggotty, 'owt of what passed betweenMas'r Davy and me, th' night when it snew so hard, you know as Ihave been - wheer not - fur to seek my dear niece. My dear niece,'he repeated steadily. 'Fur she's more dear to me now, Martha, thanshe was dear afore.'

She put her hands before her face; but otherwise remained quiet.

'I have heerd her tell,' said Mr. Peggotty, 'as you was early leftfatherless and motherless, with no friend fur to take, in a roughseafaring-way, their place. Maybe you can guess that if you'd hadsuch a friend, you'd have got into a way of being fond of him incourse of time, and that my niece was kiender daughter-like to me.'

As she was silently trembling, he put her shawl carefully abouther, taking it up from the ground for that purpose.

'Whereby,' said he, 'I know, both as she would go to the wureld'sfurdest end with me, if she could once see me again; and that shewould fly to the wureld's furdest end to keep off seeing me. Forthough she ain't no call to doubt my love, and doen't - anddoen't,' he repeated, with a quiet assurance of the truth of whathe said, 'there's shame steps in, and keeps betwixt us.'

I read, in every word of his plain impressive way of deliveringhimself, new evidence of his having thought of this one topic, inevery feature it presented.

'According to our reckoning,' he proceeded, 'Mas'r Davy's here, andmine, she is like, one day, to make her own poor solitary course toLondon. We believe - Mas'r Davy, me, and all of us - that you areas innocent of everything that has befell her, as the unborn child.You've spoke of her being pleasant, kind, and gentle to you. Blessher, I knew she was! I knew she always was, to all. You'rethankful to her, and you love her. Help us all you can to findher, and may Heaven reward you!'

She looked at him hastily, and for the first time, as if she weredoubtful of what he had said.

'Will you trust me?' she asked, in a low voice of astonishment.

'Full and free!' said Mr. Peggotty.

'To speak to her, if I should ever find her; shelter her, if I haveany shelter to divide with her; and then, without her knowledge,come to you, and bring you to her?' she asked hurriedly.

We both replied together, 'Yes!'

She lifted up her eyes, and solemnly declared that she would devoteherself to this task, fervently and faithfully. That she wouldnever waver in it, never be diverted from it, never relinquish it,while there was any chance of hope. If she were not true to it,might the object she now had in life, which bound her to somethingdevoid of evil, in its passing away from her, leave her moreforlorn and more despairing, if that were possible, than she hadbeen upon the river's brink that night; and then might all help,human and Divine, renounce her evermore!

She did not raise her voice above her breath, or address us, butsaid this to the night sky; then stood profoundly quiet, looking atthe gloomy water.

We judged it expedient, now, to tell her all we knew; which Irecounted at length. She listened with great attention, and witha face that often changed, but had the same purpose in all itsvarying expressions. Her eyes occasionally filled with tears, butthose she repressed. It seemed as if her spirit were quitealtered, and she could not be too quiet.

She asked, when all was told, where we were to be communicatedwith, if occasion should arise. Under a dull lamp in the road, Iwrote our two addresses on a leaf of my pocket-book, which I toreout and gave to her, and which she put in her poor bosom. I askedher where she lived herself. She said, after a pause, in no placelong. It were better not to know.

Mr. Peggotty suggesting to me, in a whisper, what had alreadyoccurred to myself, I took out my purse; but I could not prevailupon her to accept any money, nor could I exact any promise fromher that she would do so at another time. I represented to herthat Mr. Peggotty could not be called, for one in his condition,poor; and that the idea of her engaging in this search, whiledepending on her own resources, shocked us both. She continuedsteadfast. In this particular, his influence upon her was equallypowerless with mine. She gratefully thanked him but remainedinexorable.

'There may be work to be got,' she said. 'I'll try.'

'At least take some assistance,' I returned, 'until you havetried.'

'I could not do what I have promised, for money,' she replied. 'Icould not take it, if I was starving. To give me money would be totake away your trust, to take away the object that you have givenme, to take away the only certain thing that saves me from theriver.'

'In the name of the great judge,' said I, 'before whom you and allof us must stand at His dread time, dismiss that terrible idea! Wecan all do some good, if we will.'

She trembled, and her lip shook, and her face was paler, as sheanswered:

'It has been put into your hearts, perhaps, to save a wretchedcreature for repentance. I am afraid to think so; it seems toobold. If any good should come of me, I might begin to hope; fornothing but harm has ever come of my deeds yet. I am to betrusted, for the first time in a long while, with my miserablelife, on account of what you have given me to try for. I know nomore, and I can say no more.'

Again she repressed the tears that had begun to flow; and, puttingout her trembling hand, and touching Mr. Peggotty, as if there wassome healing virtue in him, went away along the desolate road. Shehad been ill, probably for a long time. I observed, upon thatcloser opportunity of observation, that she was worn and haggard,and that her sunken eyes expressed privation and endurance.

We followed her at a short distance, our way lying in the samedirection, until we came back into the lighted and populousstreets. I had such implicit confidence in her declaration, thatI then put it to Mr. Peggotty, whether it would not seem, in theonset, like distrusting her, to follow her any farther. He beingof the same mind, and equally reliant on her, we suffered her totake her own road, and took ours, which was towards Highgate. Heaccompanied me a good part of the way; and when we parted, with aprayer for the success of this fresh effort, there was a new andthoughtful compassion in him that I was at no loss to interpret.

It was midnight when I arrived at home. I had reached my own gate,and was standing listening for the deep bell of St. Paul's, thesound of which I thought had been borne towards me among themultitude of striking clocks, when I was rather surprised to seethat the door of my aunt's cottage was open, and that a faint lightin the entry was shining out across the road.

Thinking that my aunt might have relapsed into one of her oldalarms, and might be watching the progress of some imaginaryconflagration in the distance, I went to speak to her. It was withvery great surprise that I saw a man standing in her little garden.

He had a glass and bottle in his hand, and was in the act ofdrinking. I stopped short, among the thick foliage outside, forthe moon was up now, though obscured; and I recognized the man whomI had once supposed to be a delusion of Mr. Dick's, and had onceencountered with my aunt in the streets of the city.

He was eating as well as drinking, and seemed to eat with a hungryappetite. He seemed curious regarding the cottage, too, as if itwere the first time he had seen it. After stooping to put thebottle on the ground, he looked up at the windows, and lookedabout; though with a covert and impatient air, as if he was anxiousto be gone.

The light in the passage was obscured for a moment, and my auntcame out. She was agitated, and told some money into his hand. Iheard it chink.

'What's the use of this?' he demanded.

'I can spare no more,' returned my aunt.

'Then I can't go,' said he. 'Here! You may take it back!'

'You bad man,' returned my aunt, with great emotion; 'how can youuse me so? But why do I ask? It is because you know how weak Iam! What have I to do, to free myself for ever of your visits, butto abandon you to your deserts?'

'And why don't you abandon me to my deserts?' said he.

'You ask me why!' returned my aunt. 'What a heart you must have!'

He stood moodily rattling the money, and shaking his head, until atlength he said:

'Is this all you mean to give me, then?'

'It is all I CAN give you,' said my aunt. 'You know I have hadlosses, and am poorer than I used to be. I have told you so.Having got it, why do you give me the pain of looking at you foranother moment, and seeing what you have become?'

'I have become shabby enough, if you mean that,' he said. 'I leadthe life of an owl.'

'You stripped me of the greater part of all I ever had,' said myaunt. 'You closed my heart against the whole world, years andyears. You treated me falsely, ungratefully, and cruelly. Go, andrepent of it. Don't add new injuries to the long, long list ofinjuries you have done me!'

'Aye!' he returned. 'It's all very fine - Well! I must do the bestI can, for the present, I suppose.'

In spite of himself, he appeared abashed by my aunt's indignanttears, and came slouching out of the garden. Taking two or threequick steps, as if I had just come up, I met him at the gate, andwent in as he came out. We eyed one another narrowly in passing,and with no favour.

'Aunt,' said I, hurriedly. 'This man alarming you again! Let mespeak to him. Who is he?'

'Child,' returned my aunt, taking my arm, 'come in, and don't speakto me for ten minutes.'

We sat down in her little parlour. My aunt retired behind theround green fan of former days, which was screwed on the back of achair, and occasionally wiped her eyes, for about a quarter of anhour. Then she came out, and took a seat beside me.

'Trot,' said my aunt, calmly, 'it's my husband.'

'Your husband, aunt? I thought he had been dead!'

'Dead to me,' returned my aunt, 'but living.'

I sat in silent amazement.

'Betsey Trotwood don't look a likely subject for the tenderpassion,' said my aunt, composedly, 'but the time was, Trot, whenshe believed in that man most entirely. When she loved him, Trot,right well. When there was no proof of attachment and affectionthat she would not have given him. He repaid her by breaking herfortune, and nearly breaking her heart. So she put all that sortof sentiment, once and for ever, in a grave, and filled it up, andflattened it down.'

'My dear, good aunt!'

'I left him,' my aunt proceeded, laying her hand as usual on theback of mine, 'generously. I may say at this distance of time,Trot, that I left him generously. He had been so cruel to me, thatI might have effected a separation on easy terms for myself; but Idid not. He soon made ducks and drakes of what I gave him, sanklower and lower, married another woman, I believe, became anadventurer, a gambler, and a cheat. What he is now, you see. Buthe was a fine-looking man when I married him,' said my aunt, withan echo of her old pride and admiration in her tone; 'and Ibelieved him - I was a fool! - to be the soul of honour!'

She gave my hand a squeeze, and shook her head.

'He is nothing to me now, Trot- less than nothing. But, soonerthan have him punished for his offences (as he would be if heprowled about in this country), I give him more money than I canafford, at intervals when he reappears, to go away. I was a foolwhen I married him; and I am so far an incurable fool on thatsubject, that, for the sake of what I once believed him to be, Iwouldn't have even this shadow of my idle fancy hardly dealt with.For I was in earnest, Trot, if ever a woman was.'

MY aunt dismissed the matter with a heavy sigh, and smoothed herdress.

'There, my dear!' she said. 'Now you know the beginning, middle,and end, and all about it. We won't mention the subject to oneanother any more; neither, of course, will you mention it toanybody else. This is my grumpy, frumpy story, and we'll keep itto ourselves, Trot!'

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