David Copperfield – Day 34 of 331

“Young Copperfield,” said Steerforth, coming forward up the room, “stop a bit. I tell you what, Mr. Mell, once for all. When you take the liberty of calling me mean or base, or anything of that sort, you are an impudent beggar. You are always a beggar, you know; but when you do that, you are an impudent beggar.”

I am not clear whether he was going to strike Mr. Mell, or Mr. Mell was going to strike him, or there was any such intention on either side. I saw a rigidity come upon the whole school as if they had been turned into stone, and found Mr. Creakle in the midst of us, with Tungay at his side, and Mrs. and Miss Creakle looking in at the door as if they were frightened. Mr. Mell, with his elbows on his desk and his face in his hands, sat, for some moments, quite still.

“Mr. Mell,” said Mr. Creakle, shaking him by the arm; and his whisper was so audible now, that Tungay felt it unnecessary to repeat his words; “you have not forgotten yourself, I hope?”

“No, sir, no,” returned the Master, showing his face, and shaking his head, and rubbing his hands in great agitation. “No, sir. No. I have remembered myself, I—no, Mr. Creakle, I have not forgotten myself, I—I have remembered myself, sir. I—I—could wish you had remembered me a little sooner, Mr. Creakle. It—it—would have been more kind, sir, more just, sir. It would have saved me something, sir.”

Mr. Creakle, looking hard at Mr. Mell, put his hand on Tungay’s shoulder, and got his feet upon the form close by, and sat upon the desk. After still looking hard at Mr. Mell from his throne, as he shook his head, and rubbed his hands, and remained in the same state of agitation, Mr. Creakle turned to Steerforth, and said:

“Now, sir, as he don’t condescend to tell me, what is this?”

Steerforth evaded the question for a little while; looking in scorn and anger on his opponent, and remaining silent. I could not help thinking even in that interval, I remember, what a noble fellow he was in appearance, and how homely and plain Mr. Mell looked opposed to him.

“What did he mean by talking about favourites, then?” said Steerforth at length.

“Favourites?” repeated Mr. Creakle, with the veins in his forehead swelling quickly. “Who talked about favourites?”

“He did,” said Steerforth.

“And pray, what did you mean by that, sir?” demanded Mr. Creakle, turning angrily on his assistant.

“I meant, Mr. Creakle,” he returned in a low voice, “as I said; that no pupil had a right to avail himself of his position of favouritism to degrade me.”

“To degrade you?” said Mr. Creakle. “My stars! But give me leave to ask you, Mr. What’s-your-name”; and here Mr. Creakle folded his arms, cane and all, upon his chest, and made such a knot of his brows that his little eyes were hardly visible below them; “whether, when you talk about favourites, you showed proper respect to me? To me, sir,” said Mr. Creakle, darting his head at him suddenly, and drawing it back again, “the principal of this establishment, and your employer.”

“It was not judicious, sir, I am willing to admit,” said Mr. Mell. “I should not have done so, if I had been cool.”

Here Steerforth struck in.

“Then he said I was mean, and then he said I was base, and then I called him a beggar. If I had been cool, perhaps I shouldn’t have called him a beggar. But I did, and I am ready to take the consequences of it.”

Without considering, perhaps, whether there were any consequences to be taken, I felt quite in a glow at this gallant speech. It made an impression on the boys too, for there was a low stir among them, though no one spoke a word.

“I am surprised, Steerforth—although your candour does you honour,” said Mr. Creakle, “does you honour, certainly—I am surprised, Steerforth, I must say, that you should attach such an epithet to any person employed and paid in Salem House, sir.”

Steerforth gave a short laugh.

“That’s not an answer, sir,” said Mr. Creakle, “to my remark. I expect more than that from you, Steerforth.”

If Mr. Mell looked homely, in my eyes, before the handsome boy, it would be quite impossible to say how homely Mr. Creakle looked. “Let him deny it,” said Steerforth.

“Deny that he is a beggar, Steerforth?” cried Mr. Creakle. “Why, where does he go a-begging?”

“If he is not a beggar himself, his near relation’s one,” said Steerforth. “It’s all the same.”

He glanced at me, and Mr. Mell’s hand gently patted me upon the shoulder. I looked up with a flush upon my face and remorse in my heart, but Mr. Mell’s eyes were fixed on Steerforth. He continued to pat me kindly on the shoulder, but he looked at him.

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