David Copperfield – Day 158 of 331

“What is he doing?”

I repeated the words, more to myself than her, being so amazed.

“What is he doing?” she said, with an eagerness that seemed enough to consume her like a fire. “In what is that man assisting him, who never looks at me without an inscrutable falsehood in his eyes? If you are honourable and faithful, I don’t ask you to betray your friend. I ask you only to tell me, is it anger, is it hatred, is it pride, is it restlessness, is it some wild fancy, is it love, what is it, that is leading him?”

“Miss Dartle,” I returned, “how shall I tell you, so that you will believe me, that I know of nothing in Steerforth different from what there was when I first came here? I can think of nothing. I firmly believe there is nothing. I hardly understand even what you mean.”

As she still stood looking fixedly at me, a twitching or throbbing, from which I could not dissociate the idea of pain, came into that cruel mark; and lifted up the corner of her lip as if with scorn, or with a pity that despised its object. She put her hand upon it hurriedly—a hand so thin and delicate, that when I had seen her hold it up before the fire to shade her face, I had compared it in my thoughts to fine porcelain—and saying, in a quick, fierce, passionate way, “I swear you to secrecy about this!” said not a word more.

Mrs. Steerforth was particularly happy in her son’s society, and Steerforth was, on this occasion, particularly attentive and respectful to her. It was very interesting to me to see them together, not only on account of their mutual affection, but because of the strong personal resemblance between them, and the manner in which what was haughty or impetuous in him was softened by age and sex, in her, to a gracious dignity. I thought, more than once, that it was well no serious cause of division had ever come between them; or two such natures—I ought rather to express it, two such shades of the same nature—might have been harder to reconcile than the two extremest opposites in creation. The idea did not originate in my own discernment, I am bound to confess, but in a speech of Rosa Dartle’s.

She said at dinner:

“Oh, but do tell me, though, somebody, because I have been thinking about it all day, and I want to know.”

“You want to know what, Rosa?” returned Mrs. Steerforth. “Pray, pray, Rosa, do not be mysterious.”

“Mysterious!” she cried. “Oh! really? Do you consider me so?”

“Do I constantly entreat you,” said Mrs. Steerforth, “to speak plainly, in your own natural manner?”

“Oh! then this is not my natural manner?” she rejoined. “Now you must really bear with me, because I ask for information. We never know ourselves.”

“It has become a second nature,” said Mrs. Steerforth, without any displeasure; “but I remember,—and so must you, I think,—when your manner was different, Rosa; when it was not so guarded, and was more trustful.”

“I am sure you are right,” she returned; “and so it is that bad habits grow upon one! Really? Less guarded and more trustful? How can I, imperceptibly, have changed, I wonder! Well, that’s very odd! I must study to regain my former self.”

“I wish you would,” said Mrs. Steerforth, with a smile.

“Oh! I really will, you know!” she answered. “I will learn frankness from—let me see—from James.”

“You cannot learn frankness, Rosa,” said Mrs. Steerforth quickly — for there was always some effect of sarcasm in what Rosa Dartle said, though it was said, as this was, in the most unconscious manner in the world—“in a better school.”

“That I am sure of,” she answered, with uncommon fervour. “If I am sure of anything, of course, you know, I am sure of that.”

Mrs. Steerforth appeared to me to regret having been a little nettled; for she presently said, in a kind tone:

“Well, my dear Rosa, we have not heard what it is that you want to be satisfied about?”

“That I want to be satisfied about?” she replied, with provoking coldness. “Oh! It was only whether people, who are like each other in their moral constitution—is that the phrase?”

“It’s as good a phrase as another,” said Steerforth.

“Thank you:—whether people, who are like each other in their moral constitution, are in greater danger than people not so circumstanced, supposing any serious cause of variance to arise between them, of being divided angrily and deeply?”

“I should say yes,” said Steerforth.

“Should you?” she retorted. “Dear me! Supposing then, for instance—any unlikely thing will do for a supposition—that you and your mother were to have a serious quarrel.”

“My dear Rosa,” interposed Mrs. Steerforth, laughing good-naturedly, “suggest some other supposition! James and I know our duty to each other better, I pray Heaven!”

“Oh!” said Miss Dartle, nodding her head thoughtfully. “To be sure. That would prevent it? Why, of course it would. Exactly. Now, I am glad I have been so foolish as to put the case, for it is so very good to know that your duty to each other would prevent it! Thank you very much.”

One other little circumstance connected with Miss Dartle I must not omit; for I had reason to remember it thereafter, when all the irremediable past was rendered plain. During the whole of this day, but especially from this period of it, Steerforth exerted himself with his utmost skill, and that was with his utmost ease, to charm this singular creature into a pleasant and pleased companion. That he should succeed, was no matter of surprise to me. That she should struggle against the fascinating influence of his delightful art—delightful nature I thought it then—did not surprise me either; for I knew that she was sometimes jaundiced and perverse. I saw her features and her manner slowly change; I saw her look at him with growing admiration; I saw her try, more and more faintly, but always angrily, as if she condemned a weakness in herself, to resist the captivating power that he possessed; and finally, I saw her sharp glance soften, and her smile become quite gentle, and I ceased to be afraid of her as I had really been all day, and we all sat about the fire, talking and laughing together, with as little reserve as if we had been children.

Whether it was because we had sat there so long, or because Steerforth was resolved not to lose the advantage he had gained, I do not know; but we did not remain in the dining-room more than five minutes after her departure. “She is playing her harp,” said Steerforth, softly, at the drawing-room door, “and nobody but my mother has heard her do that, I believe, these three years.” He said it with a curious smile, which was gone directly; and we went into the room and found her alone.

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