I HAVE A MEMORABLE BIRTHDAY
I PASS over all that happened at school, until the anniversary of
my birthday came round in March. Except that Steerforth was more
to be admired than ever, I remember nothing. He was going away at
the end of the half-year, if not sooner, and was more spirited and
independent than before in my eyes, and therefore more engaging
than before; but beyond this I remember nothing. The great
remembrance by which that time is marked in my mind, seems to have
swallowed up all lesser recollections, and to exist alone.
It is even difficult for me to believe that there was a gap of full
two months between my return to Salem House and the arrival of that
birthday. I can only understand that the fact was so, because I
know it must have been so; otherwise I should feel convinced that
there was no interval, and that the one occasion trod upon the
How well I recollect the kind of day it was! I smell the fog that
hung about the place; I see the hoar frost, ghostly, through it; I
feel my rimy hair fall clammy on my cheek; I look along the dim
perspective of the schoolroom, with a sputtering candle here and
there to light up the foggy morning, and the breath of the boys
wreathing and smoking in the raw cold as they blow upon their
fingers, and tap their feet upon the floor. It was after
breakfast, and we had been summoned in from the playground, when
Mr. Sharp entered and said:
'David Copperfield is to go into the parlour.'
I expected a hamper from Peggotty, and brightened at the order.
Some of the boys about me put in their claim not to be forgotten in
the distribution of the good things, as I got out of my seat with
'Don't hurry, David,' said Mr. Sharp. 'There's time enough, my
boy, don't hurry.'
I might have been surprised by the feeling tone in which he spoke,
if I had given it a thought; but I gave it none until afterwards.
I hurried away to the parlour; and there I found Mr. Creakle,
sitting at his breakfast with the cane and a newspaper before him,
and Mrs. Creakle with an opened letter in her hand. But no hamper.
'David Copperfield,' said Mrs. Creakle, leading me to a sofa, and
sitting down beside me. 'I want to speak to you very particularly.
I have something to tell you, my child.'
Mr. Creakle, at whom of course I looked, shook his head without
looking at me, and stopped up a sigh with a very large piece of
'You are too young to know how the world changes every day,' said
Mrs. Creakle, 'and how the people in it pass away. But we all have
to learn it, David; some of us when we are young, some of us when
we are old, some of us at all times of our lives.'
I looked at her earnestly.
'When you came away from home at the end of the vacation,' said
Mrs. Creakle, after a pause, 'were they all well?' After another
pause, 'Was your mama well?'
I trembled without distinctly knowing why, and still looked at her
earnestly, making no attempt to answer.
'Because,' said she, 'I grieve to tell you that I hear this morning
your mama is very ill.'
A mist rose between Mrs. Creakle and me, and her figure seemed to
move in it for an instant. Then I felt the burning tears run down
my face, and it was steady again.
'She is very dangerously ill,' she added.
I knew all now.
'She is dead.'
There was no need to tell me so. I had already broken out into a
desolate cry, and felt an orphan in the wide world.
She was very kind to me. She kept me there all day, and left me
alone sometimes; and I cried, and wore myself to sleep, and awoke
and cried again. When I could cry no more, I began to think; and
then the oppression on my breast was heaviest, and my grief a dull
pain that there was no ease for.
And yet my thoughts were idle; not intent on the calamity that
weighed upon my heart, but idly loitering near it. I thought of
our house shut up and hushed. I thought of the little baby, who,
Mrs. Creakle said, had been pining away for some time, and who,
they believed, would die too. I thought of my father's grave in
the churchyard, by our house, and of my mother lying there beneath
the tree I knew so well. I stood upon a chair when I was left
alone, and looked into the glass to see how red my eyes were, and
how sorrowful my face. I considered, after some hours were gone,
if my tears were really hard to flow now, as they seemed to be,
what, in connexion with my loss, it would affect me most to think
of when I drew near home - for I was going home to the funeral. I
am sensible of having felt that a dignity attached to me among the
rest of the boys, and that I was important in my affliction.
If ever child were stricken with sincere grief, I was. But I
remember that this importance was a kind of satisfaction to me,
when I walked in the playground that afternoon while the boys were
in school. When I saw them glancing at me out of the windows, as
they went up to their classes, I felt distinguished, and looked
more melancholy, and walked slower. When school was over, and they
came out and spoke to me, I felt it rather good in myself not to be
proud to any of them, and to take exactly the same notice of them
all, as before.
I was to go home next night; not by the mail, but by the heavy
night-coach, which was called the Farmer, and was principally used
by country-people travelling short intermediate distances upon the
road. We had no story-telling that evening, and Traddles insisted
on lending me his pillow. I don't know what good he thought it
would do me, for I had one of my own: but it was all he had to
lend, poor fellow, except a sheet of letter-paper full of
skeletons; and that he gave me at parting, as a soother of my
sorrows and a contribution to my peace of mind.
I left Salem House upon the morrow afternoon. I little thought
then that I left it, never to return. We travelled very slowly all
night, and did not get into Yarmouth before nine or ten o'clock in
the morning. I looked out for Mr. Barkis, but he was not there;
and instead of him a fat, short-winded, merry-looking, little old
man in black, with rusty little bunches of ribbons at the knees of
his breeches, black stockings, and a broad-brimmed hat, came
puffing up to the coach window, and said:
'Will you come with me, young sir, if you please,' he said, opening
the door, 'and I shall have the pleasure of taking you home.'
I put my hand in his, wondering who he was, and we walked away to
a shop in a narrow street, on which was written OMER, DRAPER,
TAILOR, HABERDASHER, FUNERAL FURNISHER, &c. It was a close and
stifling little shop; full of all sorts of clothing, made and
unmade, including one window full of beaver-hats and bonnets. We
went into a little back-parlour behind the shop, where we found
three young women at work on a quantity of black materials, which
were heaped upon the table, and little bits and cuttings of which
were littered all over the floor. There was a good fire in the
room, and a breathless smell of warm black crape - I did not know
what the smell was then, but I know now.
The three young women, who appeared to be very industrious and
comfortable, raised their heads to look at me, and then went on
with their work. Stitch, stitch, stitch. At the same time there
came from a workshop across a little yard outside the window, a
regular sound of hammering that kept a kind of tune: RAT - tat-tat,
RAT - tat-tat, RAT - tat-tat, without any variation.
'Well,' said my conductor to one of the three young women. 'How do
you get on, Minnie?'
'We shall be ready by the trying-on time,' she replied gaily,
without looking up. 'Don't you be afraid, father.'
Mr. Omer took off his broad-brimmed hat, and sat down and panted.
He was so fat that he was obliged to pant some time before he could
'Father!' said Minnie, playfully. 'What a porpoise you do grow!'
'Well, I don't know how it is, my dear,' he replied, considering
about it. 'I am rather so.'
'You are such a comfortable man, you see,' said Minnie. 'You take
things so easy.'
'No use taking 'em otherwise, my dear,' said Mr. Omer.
'No, indeed,' returned his daughter. 'We are all pretty gay here,
thank Heaven! Ain't we, father?'
'I hope so, my dear,' said Mr. Omer. 'As I have got my breath now,
I think I'll measure this young scholar. Would you walk into the
shop, Master Copperfield?'
I preceded Mr. Omer, in compliance with his request; and after
showing me a roll of cloth which he said was extra super, and too
good mourning for anything short of parents, he took my various
dimensions, and put them down in a book. While he was recording
them he called my attention to his stock in trade, and to certain
fashions which he said had 'just come up', and to certain other
fashions which he said had 'just gone out'.
'And by that sort of thing we very often lose a little mint of
money,' said Mr. Omer. 'But fashions are like human beings. They
come in, nobody knows when, why, or how; and they go out, nobody
knows when, why, or how. Everything is like life, in my opinion,
if you look at it in that point of view.'
I was too sorrowful to discuss the question, which would possibly
have been beyond me under any circumstances; and Mr. Omer took me
back into the parlour, breathing with some difficulty on the way.
He then called down a little break-neck range of steps behind a
door: 'Bring up that tea and bread-and-butter!' which, after some
time, during which I sat looking about me and thinking, and
listening to the stitching in the room and the tune that was being
hammered across the yard, appeared on a tray, and turned out to be
'I have been acquainted with you,' said Mr. Omer, after watching me
for some minutes, during which I had not made much impression on
the breakfast, for the black things destroyed my appetite, 'I have
been acquainted with you a long time, my young friend.'
'Have you, sir?'
'All your life,' said Mr. Omer. 'I may say before it. I knew your
father before you. He was five foot nine and a half, and he lays
in five-and-twen-ty foot of ground.'
'RAT - tat-tat, RAT - tat-tat, RAT - tat-tat,' across the yard.
'He lays in five and twen-ty foot of ground, if he lays in a
fraction,' said Mr. Omer, pleasantly. 'It was either his request
or her direction, I forget which.'
'Do you know how my little brother is, sir?' I inquired.
Mr. Omer shook his head.
'RAT - tat-tat, RAT - tat-tat, RAT - tat-tat.'
'He is in his mother's arms,' said he.
'Oh, poor little fellow! Is he dead?'
'Don't mind it more than you can help,' said Mr. Omer. 'Yes. The
My wounds broke out afresh at this intelligence. I left the
scarcely-tasted breakfast, and went and rested my head on another
table, in a corner of the little room, which Minnie hastily
cleared, lest I should spot the mourning that was lying there with
my tears. She was a pretty, good-natured girl, and put my hair
away from my eyes with a soft, kind touch; but she was very
cheerful at having nearly finished her work and being in good time,
and was so different from me!
Presently the tune left off, and a good-looking young fellow came
across the yard into the room. He had a hammer in his hand, and
his mouth was full of little nails, which he was obliged to take
out before he could speak.
'Well, Joram!' said Mr. Omer. 'How do you get on?'
'All right,' said Joram. 'Done, sir.'
Minnie coloured a little, and the other two girls smiled at one
'What! you were at it by candle-light last night, when I was at the
club, then? Were you?' said Mr. Omer, shutting up one eye.
'Yes,' said Joram. 'As you said we could make a little trip of it,
and go over together, if it was done, Minnie and me - and you.'
'Oh! I thought you were going to leave me out altogether,' said
Mr. Omer, laughing till he coughed.
'- As you was so good as to say that,' resumed the young man, 'why
I turned to with a will, you see. Will you give me your opinion of
'I will,' said Mr. Omer, rising. 'My dear'; and he stopped and
turned to me: 'would you like to see your -'
'No, father,' Minnie interposed.
'I thought it might be agreeable, my dear,' said Mr. Omer. 'But
perhaps you're right.'
I can't say how I knew it was my dear, dear mother's coffin that
they went to look at. I had never heard one making; I had never
seen one that I know of.- but it came into my mind what the noise
was, while it was going on; and when the young man entered, I am
sure I knew what he had been doing.
The work being now finished, the two girls, whose names I had not
heard, brushed the shreds and threads from their dresses, and went
into the shop to put that to rights, and wait for customers.
Minnie stayed behind to fold up what they had made, and pack it in
two baskets. This she did upon her knees, humming a lively little
tune the while. Joram, who I had no doubt was her lover, came in
and stole a kiss from her while she was busy (he didn't appear to
mind me, at all), and said her father was gone for the chaise, and
he must make haste and get himself ready. Then he went out again;
and then she put her thimble and scissors in her pocket, and stuck
a needle threaded with black thread neatly in the bosom of her
gown, and put on her outer clothing smartly, at a little glass
behind the door, in which I saw the reflection of her pleased face.
All this I observed, sitting at the table in the corner with my
head leaning on my hand, and my thoughts running on very different
things. The chaise soon came round to the front of the shop, and
the baskets being put in first, I was put in next, and those three
followed. I remember it as a kind of half chaise-cart, half
pianoforte-van, painted of a sombre colour, and drawn by a black
horse with a long tail. There was plenty of room for us all.
I do not think I have ever experienced so strange a feeling in my
life (I am wiser now, perhaps) as that of being with them,
remembering how they had been employed, and seeing them enjoy the
ride. I was not angry with them; I was more afraid of them, as if
I were cast away among creatures with whom I had no community of
nature. They were very cheerful. The old man sat in front to
drive, and the two young people sat behind him, and whenever he
spoke to them leaned forward, the one on one side of his chubby
face and the other on the other, and made a great deal of him.
They would have talked to me too, but I held back, and moped in my
corner; scared by their love-making and hilarity, though it was far
from boisterous, and almost wondering that no judgement came upon
them for their hardness of heart.
So, when they stopped to bait the horse, and ate and drank and
enjoyed themselves, I could touch nothing that they touched, but
kept my fast unbroken. So, when we reached home, I dropped out of
the chaise behind, as quickly as possible, that I might not be in
their company before those solemn windows, looking blindly on me
like closed eyes once bright. And oh, how little need I had had to
think what would move me to tears when I came back - seeing the
window of my mother's room, and next it that which, in the better
time, was mine!
I was in Peggotty's arms before I got to the door, and she took me
into the house. Her grief burst out when she first saw me; but she
controlled it soon, and spoke in whispers, and walked softly, as if
the dead could be disturbed. She had not been in bed, I found, for
a long time. She sat up at night still, and watched. As long as
her poor dear pretty was above the ground, she said, she would
never desert her.
Mr. Murdstone took no heed of me when I went into the parlour where
he was, but sat by the fireside, weeping silently, and pondering in
his elbow-chair. Miss Murdstone, who was busy at her writing-desk,
which was covered with letters and papers, gave me her cold
finger-nails, and asked me, in an iron whisper, if I had been
measured for my mourning.
I said: 'Yes.'
'And your shirts,' said Miss Murdstone; 'have you brought 'em
'Yes, ma'am. I have brought home all my clothes.'
This was all the consolation that her firmness administered to me.
I do not doubt that she had a choice pleasure in exhibiting what
she called her self-command, and her firmness, and her strength of
mind, and her common sense, and the whole diabolical catalogue of
her unamiable qualities, on such an occasion. She was particularly
proud of her turn for business; and she showed it now in reducing
everything to pen and ink, and being moved by nothing. All the
rest of that day, and from morning to night afterwards, she sat at
that desk, scratching composedly with a hard pen, speaking in the
same imperturbable whisper to everybody; never relaxing a muscle of
her face, or softening a tone of her voice, or appearing with an
atom of her dress astray.
Her brother took a book sometimes, but never read it that I saw.
He would open it and look at it as if he were reading, but would
remain for a whole hour without turning the leaf, and then put it
down and walk to and fro in the room. I used to sit with folded
hands watching him, and counting his footsteps, hour after hour.
He very seldom spoke to her, and never to me. He seemed to be the
only restless thing, except the clocks, in the whole motionless
In these days before the funeral, I saw but little of Peggotty,
except that, in passing up or down stairs, I always found her close
to the room where my mother and her baby lay, and except that she
came to me every night, and sat by my bed's head while I went to
sleep. A day or two before the burial - I think it was a day or
two before, but I am conscious of confusion in my mind about that
heavy time, with nothing to mark its progress - she took me into
the room. I only recollect that underneath some white covering on
the bed, with a beautiful cleanliness and freshness all around it,
there seemed to me to lie embodied the solemn stillness that was in
the house; and that when she would have turned the cover gently
back, I cried: 'Oh no! oh no!' and held her hand.
If the funeral had been yesterday, I could not recollect it better.
The very air of the best parlour, when I went in at the door, the
bright condition of the fire, the shining of the wine in the
decanters, the patterns of the glasses and plates, the faint sweet
smell of cake, the odour of Miss Murdstone's dress, and our black
clothes. Mr. Chillip is in the room, and comes to speak to me.
'And how is Master David?' he says, kindly.
I cannot tell him very well. I give him my hand, which he holds in
'Dear me!' says Mr. Chillip, meekly smiling, with something shining
in his eye. 'Our little friends grow up around us. They grow out
of our knowledge, ma'am?' This is to Miss Murdstone, who makes no
'There is a great improvement here, ma'am?' says Mr. Chillip.
Miss Murdstone merely answers with a frown and a formal bend: Mr.
Chillip, discomfited, goes into a corner, keeping me with him, and
opens his mouth no more.
I remark this, because I remark everything that happens, not
because I care about myself, or have done since I came home. And
now the bell begins to sound, and Mr. Omer and another come to make
us ready. As Peggotty was wont to tell me, long ago, the followers
of my father to the same grave were made ready in the same room.
There are Mr. Murdstone, our neighbour Mr. Grayper, Mr. Chillip,
and I. When we go out to the door, the Bearers and their load are
in the garden; and they move before us down the path, and past the
elms, and through the gate, and into the churchyard, where I have
so often heard the birds sing on a summer morning.
We stand around the grave. The day seems different to me from
every other day, and the light not of the same colour - of a sadder
colour. Now there is a solemn hush, which we have brought from
home with what is resting in the mould; and while we stand
bareheaded, I hear the voice of the clergyman, sounding remote in
the open air, and yet distinct and plain, saying: 'I am the
Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord!' Then I hear sobs; and,
standing apart among the lookers-on, I see that good and faithful
servant, whom of all the people upon earth I love the best, and
unto whom my childish heart is certain that the Lord will one day
say: 'Well done.'
There are many faces that I know, among the little crowd; faces
that I knew in church, when mine was always wondering there; faces
that first saw my mother, when she came to the village in her
youthful bloom. I do not mind them - I mind nothing but my grief
- and yet I see and know them all; and even in the background, far
away, see Minnie looking on, and her eye glancing on her
sweetheart, who is near me.
It is over, and the earth is filled in, and we turn to come away.
Before us stands our house, so pretty and unchanged, so linked in
my mind with the young idea of what is gone, that all my sorrow has
been nothing to the sorrow it calls forth. But they take me on;
and Mr. Chillip talks to me; and when we get home, puts some water
to my lips; and when I ask his leave to go up to my room, dismisses
me with the gentleness of a woman.
All this, I say, is yesterday's event. Events of later date have
floated from me to the shore where all forgotten things will
reappear, but this stands like a high rock in the ocean.
I knew that Peggotty would come to me in my room. The Sabbath
stillness of the time (the day was so like Sunday! I have
forgotten that) was suited to us both. She sat down by my side
upon my little bed; and holding my hand, and sometimes putting it
to her lips, and sometimes smoothing it with hers, as she might
have comforted my little brother, told me, in her way, all that she
had to tell concerning what had happened.
'She was never well,' said Peggotty, 'for a long time. She was
uncertain in her mind, and not happy. When her baby was born, I
thought at first she would get better, but she was more delicate,
and sunk a little every day. She used to like to sit alone before
her baby came, and then she cried; but afterwards she used to sing
to it - so soft, that I once thought, when I heard her, it was like
a voice up in the air, that was rising away.
'I think she got to be more timid, and more frightened-like, of
late; and that a hard word was like a blow to her. But she was
always the same to me. She never changed to her foolish Peggotty,
didn't my sweet girl.'
Here Peggotty stopped, and softly beat upon my hand a little while.
'The last time that I saw her like her own old self, was the night
when you came home, my dear. The day you went away, she said to
me, "I never shall see my pretty darling again. Something tells me
so, that tells the truth, I know."
'She tried to hold up after that; and many a time, when they told
her she was thoughtless and light-hearted, made believe to be so;
but it was all a bygone then. She never told her husband what she
had told me - she was afraid of saying it to anybody else - till
one night, a little more than a week before it happened, when she
said to him: "My dear, I think I am dying."
'"It's off my mind now, Peggotty," she told me, when I laid her in
her bed that night. "He will believe it more and more, poor
fellow, every day for a few days to come; and then it will be past.
I am very tired. If this is sleep, sit by me while I sleep: don't
leave me. God bless both my children! God protect and keep my
'I never left her afterwards,' said Peggotty. 'She often talked to
them two downstairs - for she loved them; she couldn't bear not to
love anyone who was about her - but when they went away from her
bed-side, she always turned to me, as if there was rest where
Peggotty was, and never fell asleep in any other way.
'On the last night, in the evening, she kissed me, and said: "If my
baby should die too, Peggotty, please let them lay him in my arms,
and bury us together." (It was done; for the poor lamb lived but
a day beyond her.) "Let my dearest boy go with us to our
resting-place," she said, "and tell him that his mother, when she
lay here, blessed him not once, but a thousand times."'
Another silence followed this, and another gentle beating on my
'It was pretty far in the night,' said Peggotty, 'when she asked me
for some drink; and when she had taken it, gave me such a patient
smile, the dear! - so beautiful!
'Daybreak had come, and the sun was rising, when she said to me,
how kind and considerate Mr. Copperfield had always been to her,
and how he had borne with her, and told her, when she doubted
herself, that a loving heart was better and stronger than wisdom,
and that he was a happy man in hers. "Peggotty, my dear," she said
then, "put me nearer to you," for she was very weak. "Lay your
good arm underneath my neck," she said, "and turn me to you, for
your face is going far off, and I want it to be near." I put it as
she asked; and oh Davy! the time had come when my first parting
words to you were true - when she was glad to lay her poor head on
her stupid cross old Peggotty's arm - and she died like a child
that had gone to sleep!'
Thus ended Peggotty's narration. From the moment of my knowing of
the death of my mother, the idea of her as she had been of late had
vanished from me. I remembered her, from that instant, only as the
young mother of my earliest impressions, who had been used to wind
her bright curls round and round her finger, and to dance with me
at twilight in the parlour. What Peggotty had told me now, was so
far from bringing me back to the later period, that it rooted the
earlier image in my mind. It may be curious, but it is true. In
her death she winged her way back to her calm untroubled youth, and
cancelled all the rest.
The mother who lay in the grave, was the mother of my infancy; the
little creature in her arms, was myself, as I had once been, hushed
for ever on her bosom.