After a momentary struggle with myself, I turned my eyes upon him, and said, 'You have heard my question. Consider it addressed to yourself, if you choose. What answer do you make?'
'Sir,' he rejoined, with an occasional separation and reunion of those delicate tips, 'my answer must be qualified; because, to betray Mr. james's confidence to his mother, and to betray it to you, are two different actions. It is not probable, I consider, that Mr. James would encourage the receipt of letters likely to increase low spirits and unpleasantness; but further than that, sir, I should wish to avoid going.'
'Is that all?' inquired Miss Dartle of me.
I indicated that I had nothing more to say. 'Except,' I added, as I saw him moving off, 'that I understand this fellow's part in the wicked story, and that, as I shall make it known to the honest man who has been her father from her childhood, I would recommend him to avoid going too much into public.'
He had stopped the moment I began, and had listened with his usual repose of manner.
'Thank you, sir. But you'll excuse me if I say, sir, that there are neither slaves nor slave-drivers in this country, and that people are not allowed to take the law into their own hands. If they do, it is more to their own peril, I believe, than to other people's. Consequently speaking, I am not at all afraid of going wherever I may wish, sir.'
With that, he made a polite bow; and, with another to Miss Dartle, went away through the arch in the wall of holly by which he had come. Miss Dartle and I regarded each other for a little while in silence; her manner being exactly what it was, when she had produced the man.
'He says besides,' she observed, with a slow curling of her lip, 'that his master, as he hears, is coasting Spain; and this done, is away to gratify his seafaring tastes till he is weary. But this is of no interest to you. Between these two proud persons, mother and son, there is a wider breach than before, and little hope of its healing, for they are one at heart, and time makes each more obstinate and imperious. Neither is this of any interest to you; but it introduces what I wish to say. This devil whom you make an angel of. I mean this low girl whom he picked out of the tide-mud,' with her black eyes full upon me, and her passionate finger up, 'may be alive, — for I believe some common things are hard to die. If she is, you will desire to have a pearl of such price found and taken care of. We desire that, too; that he may not by any chance be made her prey again. So far, we are united in one interest; and that is why I, who would do her any mischief that so coarse a wretch is capable of feeling, have sent for you to hear what you have heard.'
I saw, by the change in her face, that someone was advancing behind me. It was Mrs. Steerforth, who gave me her hand more coldly than of yore, and with an augmentation of her former stateliness of manner, but still, I perceived — and I was touched by it — with an ineffaceable remembrance of my old love for her son. She was greatly altered. Her fine figure was far less upright, her handsome face was deeply marked, and her hair was almost white. But when she sat down on the seat, she was a handsome lady still; and well I knew the bright eye with its lofty look, that had been a light in my very dreams at school.
'Is Mr. Copperfield informed of everything, Rosa?'
'And has he heard Littimer himself?'
'Yes; I have told him why you wished it.' 'You are a good girl. I have had some slight correspondence with your former friend, sir,' addressing me, 'but it has not restored his sense of duty or natural obligation. Therefore I have no other object in this, than what Rosa has mentioned. If, by the course which may relieve the mind of the decent man you brought here (for whom I am sorry — I can say no more), my son may be saved from again falling into the snares of a designing enemy, well!'
She drew herself up, and sat looking straight before her, far away.
'Madam,' I said respectfully, 'I understand. I assure you I am in no danger of putting any strained construction on your motives. But I must say, even to you, having known this injured family from childhood, that if you suppose the girl, so deeply wronged, has not been cruelly deluded, and would not rather die a hundred deaths than take a cup of water from your son's hand now, you cherish a terrible mistake.'
'Well, Rosa, well!' said Mrs. Steerforth, as the other was about to interpose, 'it is no matter. Let it be. You are married, sir, I am told?'
I answered that I had been some time married.
'And are doing well? I hear little in the quiet life I lead, but I understand you are beginning to be famous.'
'I have been very fortunate,' I said, 'and find my name connected with some praise.'
'You have no mother?' — in a softened voice.
'It is a pity,' she returned. 'She would have been proud of you. Good night!'