David Copperfield – Day 254 of 331

“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 from country places, where there was once no harm in it—and it creeps through the dismal streets, defiled and miserable—and it goes away, like my life, to a great sea, that is always troubled—and I feel that I must go with it!” I have never known what despair was, except in the tone of those words.

“I can’t keep away from it. I can’t forget it. It haunts me day and 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 my companion, as he looked upon her without speech or motion, I might have read his niece’s 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 hand—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 speak differently in a little time.”

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

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 rise—she 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 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 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.

“Are you composed enough,” said I, “to speak on the subject which so interested you—I hope Heaven may remember it!—that snowy night?”

Her sobs broke out afresh, and she murmured some inarticulate thanks 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 to do it, that I never was in any way the cause of his misfortune.”

“It has never been attributed to you,” I returned, earnestly responding to her earnestness.

“It was you, if I don’t 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; didn’t shrink away from me like all the rest, 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 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 winter’s night, if I had not been free of any share in that!”

“The cause of her flight is too well understood,” I said. “You are innocent of any part in it, we thoroughly believe,—we know.”

“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!”

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, 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 much—what can I say? —I would have lived!” she cried. “I would have lived to be old, in the wretched streets—and to wander about, avoided, in the dark — and 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 once—I 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.

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