WE were now down in Westminster. We had turned back to follow her, having encountered her coming towards us; and Westminster Abbey was the point at which she passed from the lights and noise of the leading streets. She proceeded so quickly, when she got free of the two currents of passengers setting towards and from the bridge, that, between this and the advance she had of us when she struck off, we were in the narrow water-side street by Milbank before we came up with her. At that moment she crossed the road, as if to avoid the footsteps that she heard so close behind; and, without looking back, passed on even more rapidly.
A glimpse of the river through a dull gateway, where some waggons were housed for the night, seemed to arrest my feet. I touched my companion without speaking, and we both forbore to cross after her, and both followed on that opposite side of the way; keeping as quietly as we could in the shadow of the houses, but keeping very near her.
There was, and is when I write, at the end of that lowlying street, a dilapidated little wooden building, probably an obsolete old ferry-house. Its position is just at that point where the street ceases, and the road begins to lie between a row of houses and the river. As soon as she came here, and saw the water, she stopped as if she had come to her destination; and presently went slowly 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 be in some way associated with the lost girl. But that one dark glimpse of the river, through the gateway, had instinctively prepared 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 were neither wharves nor houses on the melancholy waste of road near the great blank prison. A sluggish ditch deposited its mud at the prison walls. Coarse grass and rank weeds straggled over all the marshy 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 steamboilers, wheels, cranks, pipes, furnaces, paddles, anchors, diving-bells, windmill-sails, and I know not what strange objects, accumulated by some speculator, and grovelling in the dust, underneath whichhaving sunk into the soil of their own weight in wet weatherthey had the appearance of vainly trying to hide themselves. The clash and glare of sundry fiery Works upon the river-side, arose by night to disturb everything except the heavy and unbroken smoke that poured out of their chimneys. Slimy gaps and causeways, winding among old wooden piles, with a sickly substance clinging to the latter, like green hair, and the rags of last years handbills offering rewards for drowned men fluttering above high-water-mark, led down through the ooze and slush to the ebb-tide. There was a story that one of the pits dug for the dead in the time of the Great Plague was hereabout; and a blighting influence seemed to have proceeded from it over the whole place. Or else it looked as if it had gradually decomposed into that nightmare condition, out of the overflowings of the polluted stream.
As if she were a part of the refuse it had cast out, and left to corruption and decay, the girl we had followed strayed down to the rivers brink, and stood in the midst of this night-picture, lonely and still, looking at the water.
There were some boats and barges astrand in the mud, and these enabled us to come within a few yards of her without being seen. I then signed to Mr. Peggotty to remain where he was, and emerged from their shade to speak to her. I did not approach her solitary figure without trembling; for this gloomy end to her determined walk, and the way in which she stood, almost within the cavernous shadow of the iron bridge, looking at the lights crookedly reflected in the strong tide, inspired a dread within me.
I think she was talking to herself. I am sure, although absorbed in gazing at the water, that her shawl was off her shoulders, and that she was muffling her hands in it, in an unsettled and bewildered way, more like the action of a sleep-walker than a waking person. I know, and never can forget, that there was that in her wild manner which gave me no assurance but that she would sink before my eyes, until I had her arm within my grasp.
She uttered a terrified scream, and struggled with me with such strength that I doubt if I could have held her alone. But a stronger hand than mine was laid upon her; and when she raised her frightened eyes and saw whose it was, she made but one more effort and dropped down between us. We carried her away from the water to where there were some dry stones, and there laid her down, crying and moaning. In a little while she sat among the stones, holding her wretched head with both her hands.
I know its like me! she exclaimed. I know that I belong to it. I know that its the natural company of such as I am! It comes from country places, where there was once no harm in itand it creeps through the dismal streets, defiled and miserableand it goes away, like my life, to a great sea, that is always troubledand I feel that I must go with it!
The thought passed through my mind that in the face of my companion, as he looked upon her without speech or motion, I might have read his nieces history, if I had known nothing of it. I never saw, in any painting or reality, horror and compassion so impressively blended. He shook as if he would have fallen; and his handI touched it with my own, for his appearance alarmed mewas deadly cold.
A new burst of crying came upon her now, in which she once more hid her face among the stones, and lay before us, a prostrate image of humiliation and ruin. Knowing that this state must pass, before we could speak to her with any hope, I ventured to restrain him when he would have raised her, and we stood by in silence until she became more tranquil.
Martha, said I then, leaning down, and helping her to riseshe seemed to want to rise as if with the intention of going away, but she was weak, and leaned against a boat. Do you know who this is, who is with me?
She shook her head. She looked neither at him nor at me, but stood in a humble attitude, holding her bonnet and shawl in one hand, without appearing conscious of them, and pressing the other, clenched, against her forehead.
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 dont feel too hard to me to do it, that I never was in any way the cause of his misfortune.
It was you, if I dont deceive myself, she said, in a broken voice, that came into the kitchen, the night she took such pity on me; was so gentle to me; didnt shrink away from me like all the rest, and gave me such kind help! Was it you, Sir?
I should have been in the river long ago, she said, glancing at it with a terrible expression, if any wrong to her had been upon my mind. I never could have kept out of it a single winters night, if I had not been free of any share in that!
Oh, I might have been much the better for her, if I had had a better heart! exclaimed the girl, with most forlorn regret; for she was always good to me! She never spoke a word to me but what was pleasant and right. Is it likely I would try to make her what I am myself, knowing what I am myself so well! When I lost everything that makes life dear, the worst of all my thoughts was that I was parted for ever from her!
And when I heard what had happened before that snowy night, from some belonging to our town, cried Martha, the bitterest thought in all my mind was, that the people would remember she once kept company with me, and would say I had corrupted her! When, Heaven knows, I would have died to have brought back her good name! Long unused to any self-control, the piercing agony of her remorse and grief was terrible.
To have died, would not have been muchwhat can I say?I would have lived! she cried. I would have lived to be old, in the wretched streetsand to wander about, avoided, in the darkand to see the day break on the ghastly line of houses, and remember how the same sun used to shine into my room, and wake me onceI would have done even that to save her!
Sinking on the stones, she took some in each hand, and clenched them up, as if she would have ground them. She writhed into some new posture constantly; stiffening her arms, twisting them before her face, as though to shut out from her eyes the little light there was, and drooping her head, as if it were heavy with insupportable 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 living disgrace to everyone I come near! Suddenly she turned to my companion. Stamp upon me, kill me! When she was your pride, you would have thought I had done her harm if I had brushed against her in the street. You cant believewhy should you?a syllable that comes out of my lips. It would be a burning shame upon you, even now, if she and I exchanged a word. I dont complain. I dont say she and I are alike. I know there is a long, long way between us. I only say, with all my guilt and wretchedness upon my head, that I am grateful to her from my soul, and love her. Oh dont think that all the power I had of loving anything is quite worn out! Throw me away, as all the world does. Kill me for being what I am, and having ever known her; but dont think that of me!
Martha, said Mr. Peggotty. God forbid as I should judge you. Forbid as I, of all men, should do that, my girl! You doent know half the change thats come, in course of time, upon me, when you think it likely. Well! he paused a moment, then went on. You doent understand how tis that this here gentleman and me has wished to speak to you. You doent understand what tis we has afore us. Listen now!
If you heerd, said Mr. Peggotty, owt of what passed between Masr Davy and me, th night when it snew so hard, you know as I have beenwheer notfur to seek my dear niece. My dear niece, he repeated steadily. Fur shes more dear to me now, Martha, than ever she was dear afore.
I have heerd her tell, said Mr. Peggotty, as you was early left fatherless and motherless, with no friend fur to take, in a rough seafaring way, their place. Maybe you can guess that if youd had such a friend, youd have got into a way of being fond of him in course of time, and that my niece was kiender daughter-like to me.
Whereby, said he, I know, both as she would go to the wurelds furdest end with me, if she could once see me again; and that she would fly to the wurelds furdest end to keep off seeing me. For though she aint no call to doubt my love, and doentand doent, he repeated, with a quiet assurance of the truth of what he said, theres shame steps in, and keeps betwixt us.
According to our reckoning, he proceeded, Masr Davys here, and mine, she is like, one day, to make her own poor solitary course to London. We believeMasr Davy, me, and all of usthat you are as innocent of everything that has befel her, as the unborn child. Youve spoke of her being pleasant, kind, and gentle to you. Bless her, I knew she was! I knew she always was, to all. Youre thankful to her, and you love her. Help us all you can to find her, and may Heaven reward you!
She lifted up her eyes, and solemnly declared that she would devote herself to this task, fervently and faithfully. That she would never 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 something devoid of evil, in its passing away from her, leave her more forlorn and more despairing, if that were possible, than she had been upon the rivers brink that night; and then might all help, human and Divine, renounce her evermore!
We judged it expedient, now, to tell her all we knew; which I recounted at length. She listened with great attention, and with a face that often changed, but had the same purpose in all its varying expressions. Her eyes occasionally filled with tears, but those she repressed. It seemed as if her spirit were quite altered, and she could not be too quiet.
She asked, when all was told, where we were to be communicated with, if occasion should arise. Under a dull lamp in the road, I wrote our two addresses on a leaf of his pocket-book, which I tore out and gave to her, and which she put in her poor bosom. I asked her where she lived herself. She said, after a pause, in no place long. It were better not to know.
Mr. Peggotty suggesting to me, in a whisper, what had already occurred to myself, I took out my purse; but I could not prevail upon her to accept any money, nor could I exact any promise from her that she would do so at another time. I represented to her that Mr. Peggotty could not be called, for one in his condition, poor; and that the idea of her engaging in this search, while depending on her own resources, shocked us both. She continued steadfast. In this particular, his influence upon her was equally powerless with mine. She gratefully thanked him, but remained inexorable.
I could not do what I have promised, for money, she replied. I could not take it, if I was starving. To give me money would be to take away your trust, to take away the object that you have given me, to take away the only certain thing that saves me from the river.
It has been put in your hearts, perhaps, to save a wretched creature for repentance. I am afraid to think so; it seems too bold. If any good should come of me, I might begin to hope; for nothing but harm has ever come of my deeds yet. I am to be trusted, for the first time in a long while, with my miserable life, on account of what you have given me to try for. I know no more, and I can say no more.
Again she repressed the tears that had begun to flow; and, putting out her trembling hand, and touching Mr. Peggotty, as if there were some healing virtue in him, went away along the desolate road. She had been ill, probably for a long time. I observed, upon that closer 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 same direction, until we came back into the lighted and populous streets. I had such implicit confidence in her declaration, that I then put it to Mr. Peggotty, whether it would not seem, in the onset, like distrusting her, to follow her any further. He being of the same mind, and equally reliant on her, we suffered her to take her own road, and took ours, which was towards Highgate. He accompanied me a good part of the way; and when we parted, with a prayer for the success of this fresh effort, there was a new and thoughtful 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 Saint Pauls, the sound of which I thought had been borne towards me among the multitude of striking clocks, when I was rather surprised to see that the door of my aunts cottage was open, and that a faint light in the entry was shining out across the road.
Thinking that my aunt might have relapsed into one of her old alarms, and might be watching the progress of some imaginary conflagration in the distance, I went to speak to her. It was with very 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 of drinking. I stopped short, among the thick foliage outside, for the moon was up now, though obscured; and I recognised the man whom I had once supposed to be a delusion of Mr. Dicks, and had once encountered with my aunt in the streets of the City.
He was eating as well as drinking, and seemed to eat with a hungry appetite. He seemed curious regarding the cottage too, as if it were the first time he had seen it. After stooping to put the bottle on the ground, he looked up at the windows, and looked about; though with a covert and impatient air, as if he was anxious to be gone.
You bad man, returned my aunt, with great emotion; how can you use me so? But why do I ask? It is because you know how weak I am! What have I to do, to free myself for ever of your visits, but to abandon you to your deserts?
It is all I can give you, said my aunt. You know I have had losses, 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 for another moment, and seeing what you have become?
You stripped me of the greater part of all I ever had, said my aunt. You closed my heart against the whole world, years and years. You treated me falsely, ungratefully, and cruelly. Go, and repent of it. Dont add new injuries to the long, long list of injuries you have done me!
In spite of himself, he appeared abashed by my aunts indignant tears, and came slouching out of the garden. Taking two or three quick steps, as if I had just come up, I met him at the gate, and went in as he came out. We eyed one another narrowly in passing, and with no favour.
We sat down in her little parlour. My aunt retired behind the round green fan of former days, which was screwed on the back of a chair, and occasionally wiped her eyes, for about a quarter of an hour. Then she came out, and took a seat beside me.
Betsey Trotwood dont look a likely subject for the tender passion, said my aunt, composedly, but the time was, Trot, when she believed in that man most entirely. When she loved him, Trot, right well. When there was no proof of attachment and affection that she would not have given him. He repaid her by breaking her fortune, and nearly breaking her heart. So she put all that sort of sentiment, once and for ever, in a grave, and filled it up, and flattened it down.
I left him, my aunt proceeded, laying her hand as usual on the back of mine, generously. I may say at this distance of time, Trot, that I left him generously. He had been so cruel to me, that I might have effected a separation on easy terms for myself; but I did not. He soon made ducks and drakes of what I gave him, sank lower and lower, married another woman, I believe, became an adventurer, a gambler, and a cheat. What he is now, you see. But he was a fine-looking man when I married him, said my aunt, with an echo of her old pride and admiration in her tone; and I believed himI was a fool!to be the soul of honour!
He is nothing to me now, Trot,less than nothing. But, sooner than have him punished for his offences (as he would be if he prowled about in this country), I give him more money than I can afford, at intervals when he reappears, to go away. I was a fool when I married him; and I am so far an incurable fool on that subject, that, for the sake of what I once believed him to be, I wouldnt have even this shadow of my idle fancy hardly dealt with. For I was in earnest, Trot, if ever a woman was.
There, my dear! she said. Now, you know the beginning, middle, and end, and all about it. We wont mention the subject to one another any more; neither, of course, will you mention it to anybody else. This is my grumpy, frumpy story, and well keep it to ourselves, Trot!