David Copperfield – Day 120 of 331

Miss Mowcher untied her bonnet, at this passage of her discourse, threw back the strings, and sat down, panting, on a footstool in front of the fire—making a kind of arbour of the dining table, which spread its mahogany shelter above her head.

“Oh my stars and what’s-their-names!” she went on, clapping a hand on each of her little knees, and glancing shrewdly at me, “I’m of too full a habit, that’s the fact, Steerforth. After a flight of stairs, it gives me as much trouble to draw every breath I want, as if it was a bucket of water. If you saw me looking out of an upper window, you’d think I was a fine woman, wouldn’t you?”

“I should think that, wherever I saw you,” replied Steerforth.

“Go along, you dog, do!” cried the little creature, making a whisk at him with the handkerchief with which she was wiping her face, “and don’t be impudent! But I give you my word and honour I was at Lady Mithers’s last week—there’s a woman! How she wears!—and Mithers himself came into the room where I was waiting for her— there’s a man! How he wears! and his wig too, for he’s had it these ten years—and he went on at that rate in the complimentary line, that I began to think I should be obliged to ring the bell. Ha! ha! ha! He’s a pleasant wretch, but he wants principle.”

“What were you doing for Lady Mithers?” asked Steerforth.

“That’s tellings, my blessed infant,” she retorted, tapping her nose again, screwing up her face, and twinkling her eyes like an imp of supernatural intelligence. “Never you mind! You’d like to know whether I stop her hair from falling off, or dye it, or touch up her complexion, or improve her eyebrows, wouldn’t you? And so you shall, my darling—when I tell you! Do you know what my great grandfather’s name was?”

“No,” said Steerforth.

“It was Walker, my sweet pet,” replied Miss Mowcher, “and he came of a long line of Walkers, that I inherit all the Hookey estates from.”

I never beheld anything approaching to Miss Mowcher’s wink except Miss Mowcher’s self-possession. She had a wonderful way too, when listening to what was said to her, or when waiting for an answer to what she had said herself, of pausing with her head cunningly on one side, and one eye turned up like a magpie’s. Altogether I was lost in amazement, and sat staring at her, quite oblivious, I am afraid, of the laws of politeness.

She had by this time drawn the chair to her side, and was busily engaged in producing from the bag (plunging in her short arm to the shoulder, at every dive) a number of small bottles, sponges, combs, brushes, bits of flannel, little pairs of curling-irons, and other instruments, which she tumbled in a heap upon the chair. From this employment she suddenly desisted, and said to Steerforth, much to my confusion:

“Who’s your friend?”

“Mr. Copperfield,” said Steerforth; “he wants to know you.”

“Well, then, he shall! I thought he looked as if he did!” returned Miss Mowcher, waddling up to me, bag in hand, and laughing on me as she came. “Face like a peach!” standing on tiptoe to pinch my cheek as I sat. “Quite tempting! I’m very fond of peaches. Happy to make your acquaintance, Mr. Copperfield, I’m sure.”

I said that I congratulated myself on having the honour to make hers, and that the happiness was mutual.

“Oh, my goodness, how polite we are!” exclaimed Miss Mowcher, making a preposterous attempt to cover her large face with her morsel of a hand. “What a world of gammon and spinnage it is, though, ain’t it!”

This was addressed confidentially to both of us, as the morsel of a hand came away from the face, and buried itself, arm and all, in the bag again.

“What do you mean, Miss Mowcher?” said Steerforth.

“Ha! ha! ha! What a refreshing set of humbugs we are, to be sure, ain’t we, my sweet child?” replied that morsel of a woman, feeling in the bag with her head on one side and her eye in the air. “Look here!” taking something out. “Scraps of the Russian Prince’s nails. Prince Alphabet turned topsy-turvy, I call him, for his name’s got all the letters in it, higgledy-piggledy.”

“The Russian Prince is a client of yours, is he?” said Steerforth.

“I believe you, my pet,” replied Miss Mowcher. “I keep his nails in order for him. Twice a week! Fingers and toes.”

“He pays well, I hope?” said Steerforth.

“Pays, as he speaks, my dear child—through the nose,” replied Miss Mowcher. “None of your close shavers the Prince ain’t. You’d say so, if you saw his moustachios. Red by nature, black by art.”

“By your art, of course,” said Steerforth.

Miss Mowcher winked assent. “Forced to send for me. Couldn’t help it. The climate affected his dye; it did very well in Russia, but it was no go here. You never saw such a rusty Prince in all your born days as he was. Like old iron!”

“Is that why you called him a humbug, just now?” inquired Steerforth.

“Oh, you’re a broth of a boy, ain’t you?” returned Miss Mowcher, shaking her head violently. “I said, what a set of humbugs we were in general, and I showed you the scraps of the Prince’s nails to prove it. The Prince’s nails do more for me in private families of the genteel sort, than all my talents put together. I always carry ’em about. They’re the best introduction. If Miss Mowcher cuts the Prince’s nails, she must be all right. I give ’em away to the young ladies. They put ’em in albums, I believe. Ha! ha! ha! Upon my life, ‘the whole social system’ (as the men call it when they make speeches in Parliament) is a system of Prince’s nails!” said this least of women, trying to fold her short arms, and nodding her large head.

Steerforth laughed heartily, and I laughed too. Miss Mowcher continuing all the time to shake her head (which was very much on one side), and to look into the air with one eye, and to wink with the other.

“Well, well!” she said, smiting her small knees, and rising, “this is not business. Come, Steerforth, let’s explore the polar regions, and have it over.”

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