In Dickens's London/Chapter 7



The story of Little Em'ly, Peggotty, and Ham is one of the Magdalen stories that the world will never tire of hearing.

Dickens was never more moving than when he wrote of Little Em'ly 's trust, patience, and repentance; of Peggotty's loyal devotion; of Ham's almost reverential tenderness for his erring sweetheart, and of Martha's struggle to keep her pledge. Few of his readers have ever been able to keep back the tears over these special pages of "David Copperfield." I myself have long since given it up as a hopeless task. And when one finishes the book it would be just as well to open that other and find the words of the Master, "Neither do I condemn thee, go and sin no more," for these two gospels have done as much to expose the hypocrisy, cruelty, and stupidity of the "Holier than Thous" as anything written since the early days of the Christian era.

In following the golden threads woven into the warp and woof of this tragedy one or more of their ends can be found hidden in the two churches whose titles head this chapter. And as the buildings are still in existence, and almost as Mr. Dickens used them in his never-to-be-forgotten masterpiece, it is eminently fitting that they should find their place in these chronicles.

The few changes apparent do not affect in any way our interest in the story nor do they rob the text of its truth. A slant has been given to the street on which the old church stands, and St. Martin's Lane has been widened and straightened until it can dip the more gracefully into Trafalgar Square and so on to the Strand; but the sombre, dignified pillars of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, their shoulders supporting the cornice and roof, the whole a mass of mellow soot soft as velvet, and the low marble steps leading to the portico are precisely as they were on that eventful night when David Copperfield, taking his way home by St. Martin's Lane, came across Martha and then Peggotty.

"It had been a bitter day," he says, "and a cutting north east wind had blown for some time. The wind had gone down with the light, and so the snow had come on. It was a heavy, settled fall, I recollect, in great flakes; and it lay thick. The noise of wheels and tread of people were as hushed as if the streets had been strewn that depth with feathers.

"My shortest way home,—and I naturally took the shortest way on such a night—was through St. Martin's Lane. Now, the church which gives its name to the lane, stood in a less free situation at that time; there being no open space before it, and the lane winding down to the Strand.

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ST. MARTIN'S-IN-THE-FIELDS—It was on these steps that David Copperfield found Peggotty in his search for Emily

As I passed the steps of the portico, I encountered, at the corner a woman's face. It looked in mine, passed across the narrow lane, and disappeared. I knew it. I had seen it somewhere. But I could not remember where. I had some association with it, that struck upon my heart directly; but I was thinking of anything else when it came upon me, and was confused.

"On the steps of the church, there was the stooping figure of a man, who had put down some burden on the smooth snow, to adjust it; my seeing the face, and my seeing him, were simultaneous. I don't think I had stopped in my surprise; but, in any case, as I went on, he rose, turned, and came down towards me. I stood face to face with Mr. Peggotty!

"Then I remembered the woman. It was Martha, to whom Emily had given the money that night in the kitchen. Martha Endell—side by side with whom, he would not have seen his dear niece, Ham had told me, for all the treasures wrecked in the sea.

"We shook hands heartily. At first, neither of us could speak a word.

"'Mas'r Davy!' he said, gripping me tight, 'it do my 'art good to see you, Sir. Well met, well met!'"…

Weeks elapse since this meeting between Peggotty and Mas'r David, and another takes place at which David suggests that Martha, still a woman of the streets, may help in the finding of Emily.

"'Do you know that she (Martha) is in London?' (Copperfield asked).

"'I have seen her in the streets,' he (Peggotty) answered with a shiver.

"'But you don't know,' said I, 'that Emily was charitable to her, with Ham's help, long before she fled from home. Nor, that, when we met one night, and spoke together in the room yonder, over the way, she listened at the door.'

"'Mas'r Davy?' he replied in astonishment. 'That night when it snew so hard?'

"'That night. I have never seen her since. I went back, after parting from you, to speak to her, but she was gone. I was unwilling to mention her to you then, and I am now; but she is the person of whom I speak, and with whom I think we should communicate. Do you understand?'

"'Too well, Sir,' he replied. We had sunk our voices, almost to a whisper, and continued to speak in that tone. '"You say you have seen her. Do you think that you could find her? I could only hope to do so by chance.'

"'I think, Mas'r David, I know wheer to look.'

"'It is dark. Being together, shall we go out now, and try to find her to-night?'

"He assented, and prepared to accompany me.…

"We had come, through Temple Bar, into the City. Conversing no more now, and walking at my side, he yielded himself up to the one aim of his devoted life, and went on, with that hushed concentration of his faculties which would have made his figure solitary in a multitude. We were not far from Blackfriars Bridge, when he turned his head and pointed to a solitary female figure flitting along the opposite side of the street. I knew it, readily, to be the figure that we sought.

"We crossed the road, and were pressing on towards her, when it occurred to me that she might be more disposed to feel a woman's interest in the lost girl, if we spoke to her in a quieter place, aloof from the crowd, and where we should be less observed. I advised my companion, therefore, that we should not address her yet, but follow her;… At length she turned into a dull, dark street, where the noise and crowd are lost; and I said, 'We may speak to her now;' and, mending our pace, we went after her.

"We were now down in Westminster. We had turned back to follow her, having encountered her coming towards us; and Westminster Abbey was the point at which she passed from the lights and noise of the leading streets. She proceeded so quickly, when she got free of the two currents of passengers setting towards and from the bridge, that, between this and the advance she had of us when she struck off, we were in the narrow water-side street by Millbank before we came up with her. At that moment she crossed the road, as if to avoid the footsteps that she heard so close behind;…

"I then signed to Mr. Peggotty to remain where he was, and emerged … to speak to her. I think she was talking to herself. I am sure, although absorbed in gazing at the water, that her shawl was off her shoulders, and that she was muffling her hands in it, in an unsettled and bewildered way, more like the action of a sleep-walker than a waking person.… I know, and never can forget, that there was that in her wild manner which gave me no assurance but that she would sink before my eyes, until I had her arm within my grasp.

"At the same moment I said 'Martha!'

"She uttered a terrified scream, and struggled with me with such strength that I doubt if I could have held her alone. But a stronger hand than mine was laid upon her; and when she raised her frightened eyes and saw whose it was, she made but one more effort and dropped down between us. We carried her away from the water to where there were some dry stones, and there laid her down, crying and moaning. In a little while she sat among the stones, holding her wretched head with both her hands.

"'Oh, the river!' she cried passionately. 'Oh, the river!'"

All this took place within sight of my sketch beyond Westminster, "and Parliament House is Millbank where is Church Street" (now Dean Stanley Street) "running from the river to St. John's Church, Westminster; that atrociously ill-mannered church of Queen Anne's days, built, it is said, on the line of a footstool overturned in one of that lady's fits of petulant wrath," writes Miltoun.

And then there follows the long search for Emily, Martha promising to help, and last that marvellous scene on the top floor of the house where Emily had found temporary refuge for the night and where, to quote Peggotty, she "stood upon the brink more than I can say or think on," and where Martha "trew to her promise, saved her," answered by that cry of joy from Copperfield when he heard the story of Martha's rescue of Emily drop from Peggotty's lips.

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ST. JOHN'S CHURCH, WESTMINSTER—Down this street—then Church Street (now Dean Stanley Street)—ran Martha followed by Peggotty and Copperfield

"'Mas'r Davy!' he said, gripping my hand in that strong hand of his. 'It was you as first made mention of her to me. I thank'ee, Sir! She was arnest. She had know'd of her bitter knowledge wheer to watch and what to do. … Them belonging to the house would have stopped her, but they might as soon have stopped the sea. "Stand away from me," she says, "I am a ghost that calls her from beside her open grave!" She told Em'ly she had seen me, and know'd I loved her, and forgive her. She wrapped her, hasty, in her clothes. … she attended to my Em'ly, lying wearied out, and wandering betwixt whiles, till late next day. Then she went in search of me; then in search of you, Mas'r Davy. …

"'All night long,' continued Mr. Peggotty, 'we have been together, Em'ly and me. 'Tis little (considering the time) as she has said, in wureds, through them brokenhearted tears; 'tis less as I have seen of her dear face, as grow'd into a woman's at my hearth. But, all night long, her arms has been about my neck; and her head has laid heer; and we knows full well, as we can put our trust in one another, ever more.'" …

The whole story was in my mind as I worked perched in my cab, the holiday throngs surging about its wheels. And with it there came a strange sense of exhilaration; and later on when I read the afternoon papers a stranger shock. It happened to be Alexandra day, and London was in gala attire. From far-away Kensington to the Tower Bridge; on every corner in almost every important doorway; at the entrances of countless theatres, shops, and cafes; along the streets; in the parks, art galleries, and restaurants stood women dressed in their best, from the humblest shop-girl in her straw hat and white muslin frock to the duchess in laces and silk.

They were selling flowers to whoever would buy in aid of the sick in London's many hospitals. Pressing close, some with a penny, some with a five-pound note, surged the outpourings of the great city; men and women from the slums lying between the Strand and the river; costermongers, push-cart men, peddlers, clerks, teamsters, hucksters; men from the banks, from insurance offices; presidents of trust companies, tourists, strangers;—every class and condition of man and woman;—and from my perch I could study them all—all reverent; all conscious of the dignity, mercy, and tenderness of the women standing before them doing a menial service for a noble cause; all deeply appreciative of the sacrifice, the men of the street jerking at their cap brims, the men of the clubs lifting their hats—a wonderful, illuminating, and always-to-be-remembered object-lesson.

And then came the shock and with it the other lesson. At that same hour of the afternoon—within half a dozen blocks of where I sat—a band of assorted women carrying the banner of their cause, in an attempt to harangue a crowd, were set upon by the mob and barely rescued by the police, their clothes almost torn from their backs.

The two incidents afford food for thought; they also point a moral. But—and here I restrain myself—they cannot very well adorn a tale. Neither Emily's nor this one of my own, which must concern itself wholly with the genius of a great writer.