CHAPTER 32. THE BEGINNING OF A LONG JOURNEY
What is natural in me, is natural in many other men, I infer, and so I am not afraid to write that I never had loved Steerforth better than when the ties that bound me to him were broken. In the keen distress of the discovery of his unworthiness, I thought more of all that was brilliant in him, I softened more towards all that was good in him, I did more justice to the qualities that might have made him a man of a noble nature and a great name, than ever I had done in the height of my devotion to him. Deeply as I felt my own unconscious part in his pollution of an honest home, I believed that if I had been brought face to face with him, I could not have uttered one reproach. I should have loved him so well still — though he fascinated me no longer — I should have held in so much tenderness the memory of my affection for him, that I think I should have been as weak as a spirit-wounded child, in all but the entertainment of a thought that we could ever be re-united. That thought I never had. I felt, as he had felt, that all was at an end between us. What his remembrances of me were, I have never known — they were light enough, perhaps, and easily dismissed — but mine of him were as the remembrances of a cherished friend, who was dead.
Yes, Steerforth, long removed from the scenes of this poor history! My sorrow may bear involuntary witness against you at the judgement Throne; but my angry thoughts or my reproaches never will, I know!
The news of what had happened soon spread through the town; insomuch that as I passed along the streets next morning, I overheard the people speaking of it at their doors. Many were hard upon her, some few were hard upon him, but towards her second father and her lover there was but one sentiment. Among all kinds of people a respect for them in their distress prevailed, which was full of gentleness and delicacy. The seafaring men kept apart, when those two were seen early, walking with slow steps on the beach; and stood in knots, talking compassionately among themselves.
It was on the beach, close down by the sea, that I found them. It would have been easy to perceive that they had not slept all last night, even if Peggotty had failed to tell me of their still sitting just as I left them, when it was broad day. They looked worn; and I thought Mr. Peggotty's head was bowed in one night more than in all the years I had known him. But they were both as grave and steady as the sea itself, then lying beneath a dark sky, waveless — yet with a heavy roll upon it, as if it breathed in its rest — and touched, on the horizon, with a strip of silvery light from the unseen sun.
'We have had a mort of talk, sir,' said Mr. Peggotty to me, when we had all three walked a little while in silence, 'of what we ought and doen't ought to do. But we see our course now.'
I happened to glance at Ham, then looking out to sea upon the distant light, and a frightful thought came into my mind — not that his face was angry, for it was not; I recall nothing but an expression of stern determination in it — that if ever he encountered Steerforth, he would kill him.
'My dooty here, sir,' said Mr. Peggotty, 'is done. I'm a going to seek my — ' he stopped, and went on in a firmer voice: 'I'm a going to seek her. That's my dooty evermore.'
He shook his head when I asked him where he would seek her, and inquired if I were going to London tomorrow? I told him I had not gone today, fearing to lose the chance of being of any service to him; but that I was ready to go when he would.
'I'll go along with you, sir,' he rejoined, 'if you're agreeable, tomorrow.'
We walked again, for a while, in silence.
'Ham,'he presently resumed,'he'll hold to his present work, and go and live along with my sister. The old boat yonder — '
'Will you desert the old boat, Mr. Peggotty?' I gently interposed.
'My station, Mas'r Davy,' he returned, 'ain't there no longer; and if ever a boat foundered, since there was darkness on the face of the deep, that one's gone down. But no, sir, no; I doen't mean as it should be deserted. Fur from that.'
We walked again for a while, as before, until he explained:
'My wishes is, sir, as it shall look, day and night, winter and summer, as it has always looked, since she fust know'd it. If ever she should come a wandering back, I wouldn't have the old place seem to cast her off, you understand, but seem to tempt her to draw nigher to 't, and to peep in, maybe, like a ghost, out of the wind and rain, through the old winder, at the old seat by the fire. Then, maybe, Mas'r Davy, seein' none but Missis Gummidge there, she might take heart to creep in, trembling; and might come to be laid down in her old bed, and rest her weary head where it was once so gay.'
I could not speak to him in reply, though I tried.
'Every night,' said Mr. Peggotty, 'as reg'lar as the night comes, the candle must be stood in its old pane of glass, that if ever she should see it, it may seem to say "Come back, my child, come back!" If ever there's a knock, Ham (partic'ler a soft knock), arter dark, at your aunt's door, doen't you go nigh it. Let it be her — not you — that sees my fallen child!'