It surprised Davida that the blackmail that had brought about her marriage only relatively infrequently arose as a topic of conversation during the course of it. Whole days went by without any allusion to the fateful evening that had occasioned their current life together passing between her and her husband. Their marriage itself had removed the threat: her money being his by virtue of their union, his interests were now hers. He’d nothing to hold over her now, and no reason to let any hammer he might have held drop.
He’d phrased it not as a threat per se (‘Your step-father, Miss Copperfield—oh, what an excellent man he is! But a little careless at times, don’t you think? An' I’m afraid that of late, Mister Wickfield has been most terribly imprudent.’), but rather as an offer, and as a reasonable sort of proposition. “An’ I can rescue the whole business, and you, don’t you see? Not without exerting myself a good deal, but I can do it! But I ought to get something out of it, oughtn’t I? Though I’m an umble person, I can’t let myself be put upon too much—really I can’t! I should expect some token of material consideration in return for my trouble, and as it ‘appens, there is something I want.”
Davida had known the disaster was of his own engineering in the first place. She couldn’t say precisely how he’d done it and accuse him in a court of law. She had scant proof, and less room to manoeuvre even if she had been able to lay hand on his full and perfect accounts. But she knew he’d done it just the same. His information and his offer represented little more than cooed threats and sick triumph on his part, and she’d been forced to respond with measured capitulation and tactical retreat. If it had just been herself at risk of ruin she’d have gone for a governess and thrown herself upon the world and its uncertain chances—but there had been her family to think of.
Really, Davida might never have cried the hot-blooded, furious tears that had run down her cheeks as she’d said she would do it, yes, as he knew she must—she’d do anything honourable, rather than see her step-father ruined, and her mother and step-sister with him. Save for her lingering coldness to the man and the occasional pointed, private reminders she saw fit to give him that her opinion of him remained pretty constant, Davida supposed she might never have called her now-husband a cur and a wretch and a red-headed animal, a vile little rat who’d managed to get into the grain store—no cleverer than that, however high he thought himself at present. She might never have loftily informed him that profit derived from others’ suffering was as disgusting in his case as it was in that of any miser, and in this action he had changed in her eyes. (He had always been difficult to read, to know. She had never firmly decided whether she was very fond of him or the reverse. But now she did know him at last, and she knew him to be loathsome.) And yes, she had told him, she would marry him, provided he knew her feelings and nevertheless wished to defile the sacrament of marriage with motives such as his, in the face of just convictions such as hers.
He’d said he found he did, thank you. And that was one of only two things that had been said or done that night that still affected Davida’s daily life. The other had come next, when he’d then bitten his lip, released it, and added, “an’ as your ‘usband—oh don’t cry when I so much as say the word! You’ll ‘ave to get used to it, you know! After all, you don’t want them as call themselves your friends thinking you do this of anything but your own free choice. For you are choosing it, ain’t you? You think being my bride better than a life without what protection I am in a position to offer.”
He’d been sharp in his pleasantness. She’d wondered if he was angry at being slighted thus, at a blow to the pride so evidently present under his so-called humility, and hoped he was. She was resolved never to be a blessing to him if she could possibly help it.
“I’ll cry if I like, when I am on my own,” Davida had retorted, “at whatever impetus moves me to it. You hardly count as company.”
“Why, certainly I won’t when we’re man and wife. One flesh,” he’d taunted her, “as the law would have it. Then I suppose you can cry for me any time you like. There'll be no constraints between us!”
“Damn the law,” Davida had said in an impassioned voice, “and damn you, sir.” She hated the way his eyes narrowed, then widened and gleamed with interest when she spoke an unladylike, uncivil oath, almost as much as she detested the fact that the institutions of man were no recourse in the face of this obvious wrongdoing. “I am one being, entire of myself. I’ve self-respect enough to know it. One scrap of god’s creation: no more and no less. I know what I am, and you ought by now to know what you would enslave. Another human creature, who has never purposed you any harm. You do not greatly add to my sum, in your ‘umility.”
Her mockery of his accent was brutal, but he simply smiled tighter. “Don’t I, though? Am I not equally a part of that ‘eavenly patrimony, ‘umble as I am?”
“I rather suspect God played but little role in your origination,” she said curtly. “And don’t fret, sir. It is only that the wound is fresh, and my command over myself accordingly yet slender. In public I shall hereafter master myself accordingly, as best I can. It is in my own interests to do so.” It would only pain her family to understand what she had done for them. It would hurt them, and it would help nothing. “You began to speak? Well? What else did you require of me?”
He breathed, in and out, his narrow chest rising and falling, and spoke only after what seemed to her a long, tense interval. Either he drew it out to vex her or he took his time getting his words in order. “Only my—rights, as your ‘usband. I’ve certain conjugal expectations, in accordance with church doctrine and the like.”
Church doctrine? To think he’d try bringing religiosity into it, and cite external supporting arguments as though this were a matter under arbitration! “For of course I might annul the thing, if the act weren’t completed at least once,” Davida said after a moment.
“You might,” he agreed, scraping his hand down his chin with slow deliberation. “You’re as sharp as ever on that point, though it’s not such a thing most ladies, in their delicacy, apprehend. Mind you, I ain’t criticising.”
It was late enough in the day that he had a trace of stubble there to scrape. Davida was accustomed to associate such rapid growth with an over-abundance of masculine virility. That seemed ridiculous where this particular man was concerned, and yet here he was, threatening her virtue as effectively as any highwayman.
“But I was thinking more than just the once. After all,” he cleared his throat, as though he were nervous, “I’m a man—”
“Of sorts,” she put in.
“And you’re a woman,” he continued, seemingly blithely, “and such a woman,” he pursued, very distinctly, “and we won’t have any spouses but one another, you know! Surely it’d be a criminal waste not to avail ourselves of what comforts the sanctity of marriage permits?”
“Surely given your so recently expressed predilection for blackmail you’d prefer the criminal option, if anything of the kind was going,” Davida commented dryly. “For my part, I had rather live chaste than enjoy rapture with someone I despise. And I hardly think rapture’s on the menu, considering the dining partners are so ill-arranged. They say the finest wines sour in such assemblies as this.”
“You’re no Diana,” he shot back. “An’ I’m afraid the arrangement don’t come by the course. It’s more of a prix fixe affair. Either I’m your husband, who you’re civil about in public and render this degree of duty to in private, who you give children to if you can, as is the traditional understanding of the appointment in question, or I ain’t. And if I ain’t—”
Ruin, and guilt, forever and ever, for having failed to act to prevent it. Shame that would endanger her step-father’s very life. Her step-father was weaker than she was. Davida knew it, though she seldom let herself know it consciously, and in her eyes it did not cancel out the numerous other qualities he possessed. Yet the fact remained: Mister Wickfield was not strong enough to face the prospect of total catastrophe.
She was. She could face it, and alone. A part of Davida—a strange, wry sliver of her—even welcomed the terror of the storm, and the corresponding opportunity to sacrifice herself to benefit her family. To be a heroine, in the small, degraded fashion the modern world afforded her. Who ever said Scherazade had liked her murdering sultan? Esther probably hadn’t found the drunken boor who’d commanded her predecessor to dance for him and dispatched the poor old queen home when she’d said she’d rather not an absolute charmer once she’d gotten him to her banquets, either. Womanly heroism was not killing giants with slingshots or slaying dragons. It was cleaning up all the blood after. Davida might feel wretched and self-pitying, and she might well cry out of passion. But at her core, she was afraid of nothing: certainly not a little man and his thin, mean, mercenary motives. She was stronger than he was, and in a contest between them she felt like Shadrach, tossed into the flames yet preserved, unburnt. While all of this was bound to hurt, as long as she knew herself to have behaved well and justly, she knew herself to be safe.
“More sinecure than appointment, in your case. So. You want that too, do you?” Davida had asked. “At the same rate, knowing my feelings and convictions.” She stared hard at him, giving him time to check himself. He didn’t waver, met her glance for glance. “Well,” she sighed, “have it on those terms, then. I wonder if there are depths you wouldn’t sink to?”
“I’ve yet to touch the bottom with my toes,” he’d said, standing. “An’ I’d have gone a good deal lower still to secure this happy arrangement. Good night, Mistress Copperfield.” He’d paused a moment. “Davida, I ought to say.”
Davida had flinched, registering it. He’d never called her that familiar name before: as though he were her brother—or, indeed, her lover. In a way he was only being sensible. When she told her family of her engagement they would of course call her co-conspirator in to corroborate her story. He’d address her by her Christian name then, as though it were a thing agreed between them. She’d have to seem accustomed to it, or at least not averse to his doing so. Still his saying it now felt odd, and like a liberty, and like an additional piece of petty cruelty on his part.
She didn’t answer him, and after a moment during which he looked at her as though he might come shake her hand to seal the bargain or touch her in some other proprietary fashion, he left.
In fact, her utterance of “Uriah, you startled me!” when he had entered her father’s library, together with the ‘I, Davida Betsey Trotwood Copperfield, take thee, Uriah Heep, to my wedded husband’ mandated by the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer and duly spoken to solemnise their marriage, marked the last times she would use his once-familiar Christian name or any variant of it for five years.
After all the protests from her family (over-ridden: Davida had spoken of sensible courses and pragmatism and the current good position and ever-rising prospects of her intended for so long as to be sick of the sound of her own voice) and a titanic, barely-resolved argument with her aunt, which had been full of quite correct accusations that Davida was hiding something, that ‘that horrible man’ had something over her, and such tears as Davida hadn’t wept since childhood and the very Murdstone times, the peace of Davida’s new bedroom in a smart little house not far from her parents’ home seemed absolute. In the wake of the wedding she relished the stillness, the absence of event. She lay down and stared at the canopy of her bed curtains and tried to believe that this was her home, now. That a creature such as her husband existed and owned the property, having pooled her dowry and his own savings to make the acquisition: that she inhabited it at his pleasure. When she heard the door creak open and the sound of his step, quieter even than that of her maid, she closed her eyes and thought ‘oh, I hate him’. If a fireplace poker had been in reach she could have cheerfully run him through with it.
The urge passed, and with it the sentiment, to the extent it ever left her. She opened her eyes again and regarded her husband steadily. He unfastened his cufflinks and placed them on the desk, making some remarks on the wedding breakfast that morning (a day had never in her life proved so excruciatingly long as this one). Davida thought about telling him that she didn’t care to speak as though they were friends, and that he was nervous, and babbling (which he was, though it surprised her to note it). But she knew she was too involved to pull it off successfully. He’d see her own weak position—he, who never missed a trick of that nature—and mock her, and she couldn’t bear it now.
He had been nastily accurate in pointing out that she was no Diana. She was not incurious about the act before them, and neither was she unmoved by the prospect. Far from it. Quite apart from how she felt about Uriah’s actions, to her shame the notion of doing this, and of doing it with him, greatly excited her. It was far from maidenly to have been enthralled and horrified and positively distracted by the thought of it for days. To have watched him, as she had always watched him, with a lingering, fascinated gaze, and now almost a possessive one, as he went about his business—knowing that soon she’d know what all the whispers were about. And soon someone else would know what only she knew now. She, who had skated her hands over her body in the dark cave made by her tight-drawn bed curtains, learning herself through the changes of adolescence and sometimes just for the private joy of it.
And it would be him who knew. There was no prospect more likely to draw a lump up in her throat and to cause a confused warm ache to swell in her stomach. Soon she would learn what a man was, more than a male animal at rut in the yard or a thing in clothes in the market, tipping his hat. She’d learn him: his strange, ever-mobile, knife-thin body. She was frightened and all anticipation and if she spoke to chastise him her voice would surely shake and he’d know everything, see everything, and sneer at her eagerness, ‘when she’d held out so strong against this, an’ made such a point of her slighted virtue!’ Damn him for making this innocent desire to become a wife so humiliating to her, with such prospects of greater shame if he but knew of it.
He rubbed his hands together to warm them as he walked towards her, seated in the bed and dressed in her nightgown. She swallowed at the implied preparation for touching her. He watched her do it and made a slight sound, a sort of ‘oh’, and kissed her, suddenly and savagely. His hands scrabbled at the ribbons and lace of her nightgown. It was of course an item of her bridal trousseau. To think of having practiced sewing and made all that, just to please him in the end! She’d almost wanted to sell the lot, or give it to the less fortunate, if any such there were. In a twinkling he had the neckline down around her shoulders, seeming dazed by the task in hand and abstracted—if he only looked for but a moment, he’d see he couldn’t get it off that way.
“That isn’t how you do it,” Davida gasped, and he stopped. She pulled back and collected herself.
“Oh,” he said, studying her garment and evidently realising it’d have to come up rather than go down. He barked a brief, nearly hysterical laugh, smoothed a hand through his short hair and shook his head. His hand trembled when he stretched it out to lay it on her bosom, which was covered by thin cloth. He held it there for an instant, then stroked across her chest. Davida breathed sharply, and his eyes narrowed with concentration and possibly with what passed with him for satisfaction. His nostrils flared. ‘Why, he’s disgusting,’ she thought, even as the ache in her stomach ratcheted up to a tighter pain, and she felt almost sick with bewildering want.
“Could you undo your hair?” he asked. She thought about saying no, as that was hardly required for his business (at least so far as she understood it), but then it wasn’t comfortable to sleep with it bound anyway. So Davida pulled the pins and made a neat pile of them, using the mundane action to steady herself, while he petted over the fabric of her nightgown and squeezed her arms and her thighs through it, as though testing the shape of her with his great hands. She leaned back and pulled off her gown, then sat before him, shivering slightly in the cool air (he’d wanted it done quickly, so they hadn’t waited for spring, and she hadn’t cared to ask for the May wedding she would otherwise have preferred) and under his regard.
His throat bobbed, and he murmured ‘can I’, almost to himself. And he did, without waiting for permission. He pressed his lips to her collarbone and her neck.
“Ain’t you excited? I know I—” he stopped speaking abruptly, and Davida, who’d bristled at the suggestion (because oh, she was), held herself stiff and still. He seemed almost to nuzzle at her neck, and his hands clenched hard around her shoulders. “Won’t you lie down?” he asked, giving her a cajoling little push, and she did it.
“Now,” he said, licking his lips, “I have to get you ready. I have to do it, you know, or it’ll hurt.” He said this as though he were quoting a book, or some experienced person he’d discreetly asked—perhaps (god forbid) his mother. He began to pet Davida with long strokes, taking in the full length of her body. There wasn’t much of that, if her height were compared to his. She closed her eyes and breathed, and when her breathing hitched slightly (he’d been ignoring her breasts, but now he came to them), he asked “is that right?”
With her eyes closed it was all just sensation. It was so novel and queer to receive touch from a strange hand, without self-knowing expectation. “Yes,” she whispered.
He kissed her again, with a more sweet thoroughness this time. She kept her eyes closed, and like this it was—she spread her legs a little wider apart and his fingers found her, even as he breathed in her ear, “you’ll need a little assistance, before you can take it, so I’ll just ease my way in, shall I?”
No one in the course of history, surely, had said the innocent words ‘take it’ with quite as evident a queer, smothered delight.
She nodded, biting her lip, and he pushed his fingers down slowly. It hurt a little, and when she made an expression or slight gasp of distress he shushed her like she was a child, with soft, sympathetic sounds.
“Poor girl,” he gasped, sounding all undone. “Oh my poor Davida, who’s such a good girl, and has never known such an affront as this in all her life. What a beastly thing, that she should have to have a husband in her, eh? But I think you’ll like it, by and by. Oh yes, I expect you will.”
He’d been hard against her thigh all this while, and now his member positively throbbed, as if in anticipation. She’d felt the hot weight of it like a brand, curious and horrified and heated herself by the promise of it. His shaky “‘m just going to kiss you” had resulted in his wriggling down her body and pressing his mouth ardently into a part of her she didn’t know any proper name for. It felt nicer than she’d ever made this feel alone. He kissed her and kissed her and she felt wound-tight, almost wanted to cry. She lost track of who was doing this to her and what exactly what happening, and she panted at the feel of it, forgetting herself and clutching her breasts like she would have if she were alone, consoling herself. He must have glanced up and seen her at it because he made a thick noise (which she did her best to ignore: it was bestial and coarse and made her want him terribly). When she hastily yanked her hands away he insistently guided them back, murmuring ‘no, no, no, if you please, do it just like that’. She flushed, feeling the slickness on some of his fingers as they tugged at her hands and knowing herself to have been its author.
“You’re ready,” he’d said, sounding more hopeful than she’d ever heard him. “I think you must be. Though—” he faltered, “mind you, I ain’t sure, having never hitherto exactly—”
It was far more difficult to ignore him when he was speaking—his voice was fairly distinctive. Davida didn’t want his disclosures, his confidences. She had no wish to know that he was giving her his own virginity, though she hadn’t really imagined he seduced housemaids or frivolously wasted his limited resources on what limited trade there was in their fairly small cathedral city in his equally limited spare time. She didn’t want to know that he was spending his innocence on this ill-advised, financially motivated, coerced union.
“If you’re going to do this, you might as well get on with it, mightn’t you?”
“Eager?” he retorted.
“Oh yes,” she responded flatly, “yes, this has been the expectation and hope of my life since I came here, ever since I first beheld your promising visage.”
“Shut up, Davida,” he said with quiet viciousness. She was so shocked her eyes flew open, and she discovered that, somewhere or other, he’d found the nerve to look surprised that Davida wasn’t too dazed by these events and her own weak susceptibility to be anything but sweet to him. The flickering candlelight made such assessments difficult and her conclusions thus uncertain, but she could have worn his lip trembled for an instant.
“There you are,” he muttered, sounding sullen. “Were you trying to ignore me, then?” She didn’t respond, surprised and a bit embarrassed that he’d understood her motives (though she knew she shouldn’t be a jot ashamed, by rights).
“I know you,” he sneered, unfastening his trousers. “I know you pretty well, by now.”
He nudged her legs open, pulling her hips up so her bottom pretty well rested on his thighs. Davida looked away, and he pushed a hand through her spilled-out hair, seemingly both to feel it and to draw her gaze back to him. When she turned full and steady eyes on him, she saw that for his part her new-made husband was regarding her almost solemnly. He looked strange and grave, and his deep-set mercurial eyes flickered like the candle. Like a sad skeleton in a suit, she thought at random. A disappointed ghoul.
“Shouldn’t you undress?” said she, raising a hand to touch his wedding jacket.
He shook his head. “Irrelevant, at present.” He darted a look down at her womanhood and back up at her face again. She understood, and nodded slightly. If they were to do it, it might as well be now. And she could make wanting it look like merely consenting to it, this way.
The sounds he made as he pressed in—obscene, or like something breaking. Wet and fragile. Anyone would think he was the one being taken. Davida felt a jolt, but it was but a little thing, and she thought—I suppose that must be it. Just that! Why, it’s nothing, is it? All the plays and all the poems have lied.
And yet it was monumental. It felt—if you loved someone, this must truly be something. Even as it was, doing this felt personal and invasive and raw: exposed, like being in a storm and far from shelter. How did anyone do this for money? (Well, weren’t they doing it for money, even now?)
“Oh Davida,” he panted, deep in her at last, bracing himself on his hands above her and looking down at her, his expression twisted into something almost frightening. There was so much in him, and Davida, who had spoken the truth when she’d told her now-husband that she felt herself full and entire, in that moment nonetheless feared being overwhelmed and consumed by him, by this. Her mouth dropped open with the pressure of penetration, and she met his eyes. He groaned extravagantly.
“Oh, you’ve such eyes, such 'eavenly, beautiful eyes. Doesn’t everyone tell you that? They must. Everyone must say it. A different colour every time I look at ‘em, and deep and quick as a river in flood. I don’t know anyone who has eyes even a bit like yours.”
She wanted to tell him, in a fashion modelled after his own manner of false pleasantness, that she was eminently flattered, so very glad he found her comely enough to do all this to. Really, she was! But she'd felt her cheeks heat in response to the compliment, and she thought her voice would probably be unsteady if she tried it.
He had worked her up to a considerable slickness and readiness, and he slid in easily. And then out again, And in once more. She was so full, and each slide brought her a flutter of feeling: a little warmer, a little brighter as they went. Encouraged by her peaceful reception of the compliment, her husband grew a little bolder: ‘oh princess’ as he fucked her, dragged out of him like an anchor coming up from the seabed. His compliments seemed to Davida to be of a piece with his typical mocking fawning, and she heard him utter them now with pitiful, ineffectual shame and anger. The pet-names came out guttural and lascivious, as if he felt himself powerful in saying such things and greatly enjoyed doing so as while he was bringing her low and taking her virginity.
“Shall I tell you something?” he asked, a hesitant grin creeping over his mouth. He paused to drop kisses on her face and then to rise back up, breathing hard. “Something that I have never—” he shook his head, “that is to say, that not a soul would know but you and I?”
He looked like to gloat (that awful smile slinking across his face), and she stopped him moving with a hand on his shoulder. She assured herself of her voice with a pause, during which he seemed to hang in anticipation, then spoke.
“There isn’t anything you could tell me,” she informed him, “that I would want to know. You’ve nothing I want. You never will. You never could.”
She waited to see if he’d strike her. You could get a divorce for that sort of thing, and then it would all be over. But he was too intelligent for it, and the seething black shipwreck of a look passed from her husband’s features as quickly and totally as it had fallen on them. He buried his careful, blank face in her curls and fucked until he shuddered and clutched and stopped moving, and she thought afterwards his face was damp from exertion. This must be hard to do.
“Did you like it?” she asked dryly when he was standing, doing up his flies with a shaky hand.
He bent to kiss her cheek, making a theatrical mockery of the affair. What ought to have been a light peck dissolved into a sloppy broad kiss.
“I loved it,” he whispered harshly into her ear. “I think we’ll do it all the time.”
After he’d gone Davida brought herself to peaking, shame-faced at his having made her crave that completion. She knew she could never have slept without it.
The following evening, when he’d made overtures (seemingly refreshed, eager and undaunted: she’d married a jack-in-the-box, a pantomime clown who took a hundred tumbles and was never harmed—she wondered if there was any feeling in him, really), she’d protested that she was still sore. She was. It had come on her after the fact. There had only been drops of blood, and it had felt so luxuriantly fine at the time. But through the day the ache had grown on her, like guilt, and now she twitched in her seat and blushed at the feeling. He’d accepted that despite obviously still being eager (had even seemed to enjoy her condition—a quiet ‘are you really?', she’d known he liked hurting her). She’d been surprised he had such forbearance in him. Though she supposed that was him all over: patient and plotting as a snake in the grass, a proper Iago, loosed upon the world.
Still, he needn’t have been kind. He might have made her ask for mercy or argue the point. She had expected demands, a tiring negotiation, an argument against an opponent capable, even when she was at her best, of twisting her like you would carded wool to make yarn. Instead he’d asked her properly, and when she’d demurred, that had been that. This unlooked-for charity moved her to say, “but I can help you, as you helped me last night. You did make it clear you expected to have conjugal relations,” a trace of sarcasm in the quote, but a light one, “and after all, you were willing to do it for me. Though,” she looked away from him, “you would have to show me the way.”
He seemed almost to believe it was a trick, but gave instruction, and held her smaller body against his shoulder as her hand moved. It was so easily done. He was surprisingly warm and velvet-soft in her palm, and he shuddered and writhed in her hold. ‘Gently, now,’ he breathed into her ear, ‘careful of your nails’, and ‘harder, oh, harder, that’s it, that’s right, oh sweet lord, to think you, mm, kiss me, Copperfield, kiss—” at the end.
“I can kiss you again,” he breathed after he’d spent himself in her hand. “I won’t use my fingers at all,” he held them up as if for her inspection, “I’ll be delicate as a diplomat, if you’ll only let me—”
A dozen soft imprecations and she did allow him, wanting it awfully after having helped him and afraid it showed in her hot cheek and over-bright eyes. She squirmed almost as badly when she peaked as her husband did when conveying, via dumbshow, his abject humility to someone he disliked. He regarded her after, as she neatened herself.
“You never did that last night,” he said suddenly, as though he’d been trying not to say it and had failed, in the end.
“No,” she said simply, sweeping her hairpins from his bedside table and into her hand.
“You didn’t say anything to the effect that you weren’t finished,” he muttered, sounding mulish and accusing.
She made a dismissive sound. As if she’d tell him anything. Besides, what was ‘their wedding night’, considered as an occasion, to him?
“It was irrelevant, at present,” she repeated back to him before leaving.
But he took it to heart, somehow, and he never let it happen again: there was hell to pay if she so much as tried to fake a climax to avoid giving him the credit of the accomplishment. He always knew. He always wanted to be told what she did privately, what she wanted, what she was thinking, and she found she wasn’t proof against this prying, squeezing action. By and by, out of pride, or as vengeance, or as a punishment, he made himself obnoxiously good at bringing her to the very pitch of ecstasy. Oh, he could turn her on a sixpence. He could make it take all night or no time at all. He practically had the volume and pressure under his command: the Brunel of her body, fresh wonders worked daily. If he could get her to ask for it—get her to say she needed it—he relished that most of all. He put so much of himself into this, and thus called it out of her. Before long Davida decided to accept the fact that she enjoyed their marital relations without guiltily believing this to be any kind of comment on her character. He exercised a talent on her, that was all. It wouldn’t be her fault if a lunging wolf got her to scream, either.
“We’ve something in common, eh?” he’d said a few weeks in, twisting one of her curls around his finger and possibly trying to goad her. They were unclothed and the sweat on her body was still cooling, making her chill in the night air. He’d had her hard and taken her in a playful mood, and had seemed to relish it.
“You, and I, and nearly every other living creature,” Davida had said, leaning back against her headboard, willing away the license and sympathy his pleasure called up in her. “Quite a select fellowship.”
“But you and I,” he murmured, coiling one hand around the bedpost, as if he were some sort of clinging vine, or an over-familiar orange-scalped orangutan, and another (now free, deprived of her hair to play with) around her hand “are particularly well-suited, my own. I know women talk, and you must infer from it that we are better able to please each other than most couples. I’m certain we are, and besides,” he gave her a sidelong look, “we get on better every day, don’t we? You get to like me pretty well, by and by.”
“I would much rather you didn’t call me that,” Davida said, disengaging her hand.
He paused. “And what am I to call you instead, Davida?”
“Not that either, if you please. I’m not certain it’s necessary for us to speak a great deal, on these occasions.” She loved the hot whisper of his voice in her ear, the filth and the ridiculous endearments he seemed to enjoy spouting during the act. But it all embarrassed her, and her liking it brought her not-wholly-banished guilt about permitting and indeed enjoying any of this to the fore.
“You still flatter,” she pointed out, “when you’ve gotten what you wanted, and I know what you are, and you needn’t dissemble any further. It’s pointless, now.” She began to reassume her clothing, briskly dressing as she spoke. “Simply a part of your routine, or something like feeling pain in a phantom limb—only frankly revolting in its hypocrisy. I never want to hear another word on ‘my eyes’.” She scoffed at that. “If you respected me at all, you’d be in no position to be so forward about any feature of mine in the first place. It’s a force of habit, I suspect,” she twitched her last buttons into place in the mirror and avoided registering his expression in it, “but do try and control yourself.”
After that, he only did it in company. ‘My darling bride’, ‘oh, I am of course my wife's devoted slave!’. Etcetera, etcetera. She could see the point of putting up a good front and was invested in it herself, albeit with less energy and acting flair than he employed. But he was, she felt sure, also ramping up his public displays to mock her, and she took the slight accordingly.
Her husband seemed a little taken aback by her total lack of involvement with the housekeeping.
“At your father’s,” he said when she refused to so much as look at the menu the housekeeper had presented her with, passing it back and declaring it fine without a glance, and asking not to be troubled with the question in future, “you did all the marketing. You’d bring me the receipts for the accounts, an’ I recall you enjoyed getting about the place and speaking to all your acquaintance.”
He’d used to keep the receipts in a blue box, which he had removed from his desk drawer with ceremony when they’d tallied up the sums. He’d counted them out with Davida while drawing from her what gossip she’d picked up about town. She’d done harmless impressions of the neighbours, trading and buying, she’d met in the market, and he’d laughed, while, apparently, remorselessly plotting to ruin her to get at her father’s business.
Why her and not her step-sister Agnes? Davida would rather this had happened to her than to her sister, to be sure, but even so. She supposed it was down to her having a touch more money, all told. She'd another couple of sources of inheritance: her father’s dying blessing, his annuity, had unbeknownst to him been a curse. The whole thing was a bad fairy tale, and solely a matter of a hundred and five pounds a year that were hers, now her mother had remarried. There too there was Aunt Betsey’s proposed inheritance to consider, though Davida suspected Betsey had probably thought of withdrawing it entirely in response to her marriage, and knew Betsey had ultimately altered the terms of the bequest in such a way that Davida alone had any access to the thing. Her husband would of course have thought of all that.
And perhaps he’d had a slightly stronger inclination to shove her face into a down pillow and his cock into her cunt than he did the respective parts of her placid, gentle sister. Any woman would have done for his purposes, Davida knew, but Agnes wouldn’t have wept when consenting to marry him, which he’d no doubt enjoyed. Agnes wouldn’t have screamed when he fucked her so hard she thought the solid old bed, otherwise as sturdy as Penelope’s, was in real danger of breaking. Agnes probably wouldn’t have lowered herself to beg for it when he worked her up and then held off, or moved slow as a glacier. She had about her a blessed, lovely calm where Davida was susceptible and changeable, moved by her passions and other people.
“I hardly eat these days,” she said flatly, when his insistent ‘ma’am?’ had alerted her that he expected some response to his utterance. “And if you’ve a preference, I don’t know it. You can express it better than I can, in any case. As for the market, what does it matter if the girl goes to the wrong butcher and pays too much for a cutlet? It must all even out in the end. Really I probably did as much harm as good, taking such a hand in it at papa’s.” Besides, she didn’t really care if her husband had veal for supper or went to the devil.
Peggotty, who’d loyally come with Davida when she’d married and took every opportunity to glare at her over-polite new young master, but who ran his household with brisk, perfect efficiency, was also taken aback by this sudden change in her mistress. Davida had always been a busy girl, involved in everything. Her lack of interest in her old pursuits was especially noticeable because Davida customarily abounded with energy, doing the work of any three competent women very well indeed. Peggotty had hinted at her own concern in the parlour she and her mistress shared in the evenings, and Davida had been as near to dismissive and remote as she ever could be with her dear old Peggotty.
“What do you imagine you’ll do?” her husband asked. His voice was far too sweet, which let her know how very annoyed he was. He shook his head, slowly, giving her a shrewd evaluating look and slowly drumming his fingers on the breakfast table. “You’re restless even now, ain’t you? You’ll never be lazy, not even if you try at it, and you couldn’t bear to do that long either. So if you won’t take any hand in our affairs, how will you occupy yourself?”
“Independently,” she answered. “Must we eat together?”
“Servants,” he answered her, reminding Davida that people would carry tales if the newlyweds essentially lived apart. “Do you really want your family realising what you’ve done? Eh? Oh, it would distress your mother so. An’ her health has never been what I’d call robust.” He sighed in a tragic mode, and she thought his long, over-stretched white throat, which bobbed distractingly as he spoke and even as he simply breathed, would be an absolute pleasure to clench one’s hand around in the course of a hasty but determined effort to strangle him dead.
Instead of pursuing this plan of action, Davida went on a great many walks. Canterbury was neither vast nor peopled enough to occupy her long, but she could comfortably make it to the Downs, or to the sea. She watched the boats and returned with salt-scented hair and wind-roughed cheeks, silently daring her husband to try and make conversation on the subject of her absence. Once Davida made it as far as Dover, and greatly surprised her aunt by showing up for dinner unannounced. She slept there, returning in a carriage the next day, and greatly annoyed her husband, who had ‘‘ad no idea in the world wot ‘ad become of ‘er!’
“You know, I think you dropped every aitch that sentence offered you,” she had observed casually, and he had looked liable to slap her. But the comments her actions provoked among her acquaintance and her aunt’s shrewd glances caused Davida to moderate her behaviour on her own account.
Davida limited herself to more modest solitary rambles, and made it her custom to retire to her parlour after breakfast. There, the sketches she’d written for the local gazette for the past few years became more elaborate creations. She sent them to a London ladies’ magazine for syndication, and simultaneously submitted some fiction to a London paper under a masculine pen-name. The first few of the later sort of story went uncommissioned: printed, but unremunerated. Interest quickly picked up, however, and Davida took the book contracts (two, simultaneously arranged: she thought she could manage it) to her step-father for his assistance. He asked her why she wasn’t consulting her husband, who was the real expert on contract law, and pointed out that it was her husband’s signature she’d need now if she should seek to open an account or the like, not his own (Davida had strong opinions on the manifold unfairnesses of marital property law, but to enter into them here would be to turn a story into a tract, and while other villainies remain at large these at least are thankfully now much curtailed in England).
Davida understood that she would be obliged to link her masculine pseudonym with her true name before the novels were released regardless of the state of her financial arrangements for reasons of publicity, in order that she might commingle her two currently discrete audiences. People would speak to her husband about her authorship then anyway, so he ought to know about it beforehand, as couples in the ordinary sense understood something of one another’s work and activities. (Though he really was good at responding to the exigencies of the moment, and difficult to thus surprise: she’d give him that.)
Thus Davida reluctantly walked from her step-father’s office to her husband’s and knocked at his door at mid-day. He was surprised to see her, and she was conscious of the fact that she was standing in a once-familiar room: one which she had never occupied since she and the man before her had become engaged. She briskly explained the situation to her husband, placing the contracts on the corner of his desk. When she’d finished he delicately took the papers up and flicked through them, scanning the language of the rider as though this was all the familiar content of a well-worn childhood lullaby to him.
“I knew you were doing something,” he muttered, “an’ of course there was a great deal of post marked for London. I’d an idea what you might be about. But I ‘and’t any idea it was so far advanced as this.”
Davida braced herself for a serious argument about her activities, or at least some cool remarks thereupon. But no such thing came. What she got instead was a request that she lock the door, and a wealth of level questions, greatly to the point, about her business arrangements. When he’d come to the end of her knowledge on that score (limited: she could see him making a list on a bit of paper before him of further inquiries to direct elsewhere—he’d long had a peculiar skill of being able to write while he watched her), he’d initiated the sort of proceedings Davida had never before thought to engage in outside of one or the other of their bedrooms.
“Indulge me, if you would,” he’d said, and given that he’d just done the same for her, she couldn’t bring herself to refuse. Besides, it felt particularly nice, somehow. He didn’t speak much anymore when he had her thus, giving vent to little beyond curt requests and broken off oaths. But that afternoon, he feathered oddly delicate kisses up her neck. He stroked her more than was usual with him, lingering over her face and hands. Somehow he seemed especially content in his possession of her today, almost as if he were proud of her.
“Won’t you call me Uriah?” he asked, close. She knew that, now—she knew how to read him, here, and while he’d learned how to please her for his own purposes she’d learned what he liked and could employ it when she chose. She found she liked to do it, and she’d told him not to make much of it: not to see forgiveness in it when she had no forgiveness in her to grant him, for something she knew him not to be sorry for. She shook her head. His breath caught, and he repeated “won’t you?” in a tone that made her almost sorry for him. It was such a little thing to want to hear, and such a simple, perfectly understandable thing to find erotic.
But that wasn’t his name to her anymore. ‘Uriah’ had been a young man she’d grown up with. The creature she’d married had forfeited both his claim to their long association and to the finer aspects of manhood. To stop his pleading (‘just once’, the disastrous shape of a ‘please’ trembling on his lips yet-unvoiced) and her own feeling Davida sank her teeth into his neck and her nails into his exposed arse, and whimpered strategically into his skin. A litany of unprintable oaths and it was done. He thanked her with a minimum of his old accustomed effusions. He brought her to her own conclusion, and for once didn’t seem to relish his little victory.
He acted as though he were being drained, at times, by all this—like less than himself, or as though there were less of him to go around. More real, more ordinary and decent, and less her jack-in-the-box husband. He moved with muted gestures: he was a little stiller now than he had used to be, and less theatrical. Speaking of the stage, she had attended a touring play the other week—with him, of course, because she could hardly go out to the theatre alone. To her surprise he’d been enthused about Cymbeline, and she’d made a comment that she supposed he must have a certain fellow-feeling for Cloten, with his violent ambition, who cared roughly as much about Imogen’s consent to wed as he himself had cared about hers. He hadn’t said a word to her for a full day after that, and since she never initiated their conversations if she could help it, this had meant silence had reigned in their household. She’d thought ‘lord, finally, for he’s always talked too much’ (though she knew them to be pot and kettle, there), and also that it was strange and even unpleasant, to be thus alone. She needed people: she knew it to be a weakness of hers. When he’d broken, or perhaps simply forgotten he was cross (though he was so resentful she doubted he ever forgot anything of the kind), she’d felt deeply relieved. She wasn’t sure she liked him real, or ordinary, or decent. But then she oughtn’t to like him in any fashion, so really, it didn’t much matter.
Given that this was the third such indulgence they’d partaken of that week alone, she wasn’t surprised to find herself anticipating soon after: perhaps two months advanced in that course, according to the physician. Which, her husband said, almost as if he were relieved to have it thus accounted for, explained her poor appetite of late. They were in company, so she couldn’t inform him that largely she thought that was tosh, and knew her lassitude to be chiefly due to her marital unhappiness.
Her husband seemed to positively delight in her interesting condition. It certainly increased his ardour, and he made a point of informing Davida that it was perfectly safe to indulge so soon before and so soon after ‘the blessed event’: he’d ‘extensively consulted prevailing medical opinion’, apparently. Provided, of course, that she felt so inclined. He was especially solicitous on that point, in light of her current delicacy. As she swelled and felt less like herself, physically distorted, she was surprised he felt so inclined. But when they were alone he could hardly keep his hands from straying to her rounded stomach and fuller than usual breasts. Even in public he came dangerously close to opening acknowledging her state: a thing not done, especially by a man. Though all but his harshest critics forgave him it, for he was, to their understanding, an obviously-doting young husband in the first year of his marriage, and his fresh, lovely wife was about to give him their first child. A little excitability was not simply forgivable, it was even endearing.
He almost embarrassed Davida with the overflow of his research and his impertinent interest (energetic and clinical as any limb-loping surgeon: nothing put him off) in aspects of her physicality he’d never before had access to. Her mood—always changeable—could not alter during this period without meeting with an outsize degree of his sympathy and interest. Everything from the name of the child if it should be this or that to the arrangements for its nursery apparently warranted extensive conversation between them, and he intruded on sitting room she kept with Peggotty to do it.
Even Peggotty smiled at his mile-a minute chatter, and frankly said to her mistress when he’d finally departed, “you know, I think you’re determined not to like ‘im! Really I do. There ain’t a thing wrong with making the steady choice, my love, for all your family did take on. But then most of ‘em weren’t there when you were a girl, when your mother was left alone. Most of ‘em don’t remember her having had to work as a governess as you and I do, and none of 'em know what it was for her to fall into the clutches of that Murdstone woman. They don’t rightly know what can befall a young lady alone, or they don’t want to think any of it could happen to ‘em, or to you! So most of ‘em can’t see as I see why you’d need to feel safe, my lamb. But sometimes I feel that having done it, having been sensible as you were, that perhaps you hold that there can’t be much affection between you, owing to the nature of the match. But he looks like to be a good father at least, and after all he’s only a little thing, even as you are! Why at twenty-four he’s a boy! Perhaps, my love, if you only took an interest in ‘im—”
Here she stopped abruptly, seeing that Davida’s stormy expression of contradiction had burst and that tears pricked at her eyes. Peggotty took her in her hard, red arms and cried too, saying she knew how a baby coming made one susceptible to tears, cursing all men as vagabonds and scoundrels and she knew not what, and saying her poor dear needn’t ever think of that nasty Mister ‘eep if she didn’t like it.
Mrs Heep, who already looked on her striking and well-bred daughter in law as a sort of living boon from god, conferred upon her son for his good behaviour and perfect humility, was moved to such rapturous heights by news of the coming child as made Davida exquisitely uncomfortable. For none of the praise and favour involved was truly due her as a wife or helpmeet, and she knew it.
At the time of their marriage her husband had installed his mother in a significantly better home than she had formerly occupied—across town. He went to visit her twice a week, regular as clockwork and largely alone (another mark, Davida knew, of her unwillingness to be to him the sort of wife that merited praise). Davida’s delicate condition, however, had brought out a great visiting impulse in the woman, and she could not easily be put off.
“Having been once in like state yourself,” Davida began one day, on yet another of the lady’s dropping-ins, “you understand how easily tired one is.” She was hinting that perhaps this conference might be drawing to the end of its natural life, and was a little surprised when Mrs Heep (a name she never thought of in connection to herself, not even when her husband coldly addressed her as such, most often in return for one of her lightly sarcastic ‘sir’s) winced slightly. It was a quick, flickering contraction, so rapidly smoothed away in order that Mrs Heep might present an obliging front to the world that Davida for a moment wondered whether she’d actually seen her mother in law’s composure falter in the first place. The expression was familiar to Davida, who sometimes saw the self-same gesture in the woman’s son.
“Not once, dear,” Mrs Heep said briskly enough. “No, three times. One was lost in infancy, so I’m not surprised my Ury’s not thought it right to mention it, seeing as it might frighten you—but of course you know such things do happen, and your house has healthier air than our old one did, being less umble, and not so near the cemetery. But did he never mention his young brother? He would have been of an age with you. We gave him over to glory a little before his father, who followed on after him in the same contagion, and Ury was greatly affected by the loss.”
Mortified to have occasioned pain through tactlessness (when she’d been crassly trying to rid herself of the poor woman, as well) and not to have known what she obviously ought to have (but then he’d never told her, never even hinted), Davida gently said that she supposed the pain too fresh with him still to bear much speaking of.
Mrs Heep gave a little cry (again, so like her son at times) and clutched her hand. “Oh! It’s so true! How you know him, Miss Copperfield! Forgive me, I mean to say Davida. That is so like my Uriah, for he has such feeling in him. Such torrents as truly surprise me, and as aren’t always consistent with his humble position,” she confided. “Why, the way he longed for you! He never mentioned that either, never said a word except in your general praise. But you could see my Ury brooding on it, night and day. Our Ury, I should say.”
She gave Davida a conspiratorial look, which Davida turned away from with concealed repulsion. Davida thought ‘brooding’ must look a great deal like ‘scheming’, from the outside, and that Uriah certainly did ‘greatly feel’ for her money. It did prosper under his husbandry, even if she didn’t. She watched him enjoy his breakfast with their good table service, stroke the solid and substantial posts of her bed with his fingers, and adjust his heavy gold wedding ring on his thin hand, and thought that his hateful pleasure in having the trappings of moderate wealth was as evident as could be: as deep and true as any earthly loyalty.
In the street, leading her by the arm (she appreciated the support at this late stage of her 'being in the family way', when really she ought to be confined, but for her own stubborn desire to avoid it), he glowed with a sort of malicious pleasure whenever they encountered anyone of their acquaintance. No one was ever more astounded or delighted to encounter old friends than “Uriah Heep! Perhaps you don’t remember me? I was in an umbler station when last we met, but ‘appily I have so risen as to—oh! Pardon me, please allow me to present my wife—”
Anyone who’d ever paid the slightest bit of court to Davida he’d outright cross the street to say good morning to, and the same with anyone he felt had ever ‘lorded it over him’. He showed off a wife who was visibly heavy with child, and, according to his effusions, “more beautiful than ever, ain’t she? Don’t she just glow!” Whatever he said ("Shines fit to illuminate a concert hall, does my wife!"), she could hear the not-at-all-subtle ‘look what I’ve got, and you haven’t’ in it.
She’d once managed to cut through that smug pride by telling him he was being ridiculously childish. She flatly stated that he imagined these people cared about his success or even the lack thereof a great deal more than they did. Further, said she, her marriage was certainly an object of equal or greater indifference to the world at large.
“I care enough for ‘em all,” he snapped at her, “and you’ve always been wilfully blind to people’s opinions of you. Isn’t that what your own dear aunt calls you, madam? Blind? Well, you have been in some respects, ever since I knew you.”
“Jealous?” she asked, knowing that his keen awareness of others’ opinions was both perhaps the greatest weapon he employed in his long effort to spite the world and his tormenting, perpetual weakness.
“Not anymore,” he replied, discreetly brushing her stomach with his fingers, as though they weren’t standing in the very street. She slapped his hand away, blushing furiously, and he laughed, seeming genuinely amused by his red-faced, perturbed little wife’s having thus chastised him for what must look for all the world like too public a display of amorous affection.
Davida’s mood took a sharp, depressed turn immediately before the child’s birth. They were in her sitting room after another of her husband’s over-long conversations about what he called ‘the coming widener of our family circle’. It had gone on so long that Peggotty had retired for the night. Davida might almost have thought that outlasting the woman was his purpose, except that left alone in her company he seemed to have nothing particularly private to say to his wife.
“Are you feeling unwell?” he asked after a while. “More than is expected, I mean to say. You seem rather low, is all, and I’ve wondered if it’s healthy for the little one, or indicative of some bodily distress.”
Davida stared into the fire, and as though he weren’t there at all, said what she was thinking aloud. “What if I die?” she asked no one. She knew it was morbid, and that she’d sometimes had the morbid turn her fancy could take called unfeminine. She didn’t care about that kind of thing.
“You ain’t likely to,” her husband pointed out, trying for a frank, coaxing, comforting tone. “You’re only twenty, after all, and you’re healthy, in a general way. Though you’re but little, you’ve pretty—well. The doctor told me it was advantageous for a woman to have hips such as you ‘ave, and that you were like to get on just fine. We’ve funds enough for all the necessaries and comforts, so you ought to be safe as ‘ouses.”
“I could anyway,” Davida said, her voice low. “Despite all that lies in my favour.” As if money was any protection against death, really. Nothing was, in the end. Strange, that her husband seemed to trust it so. “Women do it all the time, for no more reason than bad luck.”
“Well they live all the time, too,” he said sharply, “an’ so will you.” He crossed to her and gave her shoulder a strange, compulsive squeeze, like he’d no intention of relinquishing his grip on her yet. He’d already suggested that he considered this ‘the first of several additions to our ‘appy ‘ome, I trust!’ at dinner with her family.
Davida found childbearing as difficult and unpleasant as anyone did, in the main. But her husband (to his own great, complacent smugness after the fact, which he’d displayed in crowing abundance when at last allowed anywhere near her and the child) had been perfectly correct. She was absolutely built for this, small-framed as she was, and was possessed of more than enough energy, stamina and stubbornness to see it through aright.
Davida held the tiny babe in her arms and regarded it with wonder. Her husband might as well not have been in the room, for all the attention she gave him. Still, she thought wryly, brushing curling, damp strands of brick-red hair away from the child’s brow, she’d never be able to forget the little boy’s father.
Pain, exhaustion, irritation with her husband's didn't-I-tell-you-so? triumph and being alone with the man who’d made her suffer all this made Davida incautious. Davida wasn’t even trying to be cruel precicely when she said, “I’ve wondered at times how even your mother could love you—how she could have looked at what you were and not insisted on heading to the nearest well, I mean. But now I suppose I know.”
To think of hurting this little boy, who she gave her heart to now without decision or compunction. Perfect hands, though they had obviously been her husband’s first: each still-small, wonderfully articulate digit wrapping around her own finger. Davida had a heart that was ready to love, undisciplined and vast and quick. Holding herself off from her husband for the best part of a year had been difficult, in its way. Her intelligence sought an understanding of him against her volition, and her sympathy reached for some communion between them. Her good sense had ached to make the marriage serviceable and right, as far as that could be accomplished, for her own sake if nothing else.
Now, though, Davida had another object, and was at less risk of falling prey to what might either be termed her own weaknesses or her own strengths. She could love their son, who had done neither her nor anyone wrong, wholly and purely. Already her interest in the household quickened because the child would need to eat, to live here. He was real to her now, as he’d only been in part when he’d been within her, a shifting in her body and another heartbeat in the night (how tentatively her husband had laid his long, thin hand on her stomach to feel his son moving, as though too much pressure might hurt the infant inside her—how desperately he’d asked if he might, just this once, sleep with her after he’d had her, to be closer to the child).
Now her husband flinched at her words, finely but perceptibly. She thought again how like his little mother he was at times, and how shameful it was that she derived satisfaction from getting at him however she could.
“I’ve been thinking,” her husband began, and wasn’t he always, “along these lines. Now, before the children I hold that you and I ought to seem in perfect accord. What good would it do to trouble them before they’re old enough even to understand such matters? Don’t they deserve to grow up normal and ‘appy? And children talk, you see—what they knew, the world would in another instant.”
Davida had thought about it, privately, and agreed that this child and any that were to follow him ought never to suspect (for example) that their mama had been blackmailed into marrying their papa, and that she still detested him according to his merits.
“We have some time before he can possibly be aware of any such thing,” Davida pointed out, but her husband made a sharp, theatrical cry of disagreement that made her wince and shook his head decidedly.
“Oh no, children are far, far cleverer than that! They catch onto the slightest hint something’s amiss. Now, were you a forgetful, unperceptive child? I don’t recall you were, and I never was either, speaking for myself. We’d do better to practice now—one slip up and the thing can’t ever really be repaired. And what one offspring knows the others will, quick as a wink. It’s a bit like when they catch nits.”
Davida sighed wearily. It seemed such a lot of work, but as far as she could see there wasn’t a good deal of help for it. “Then you suggest we begin now, and keep it up as before company?”
“Oh, better even than that,” her husband said with an emphatic rub of his hands. “The children being so much more important than the generality of people, and requiring a better class of deception to fool ‘em, too. For a child cares a hundred times more what his parents are about and how pleasantly they’re getting on than any servant, and you know it ain’t healthy for a child to think its parents cold to one another! It don’t grow up right: its sentiments are not as developed, as refined, as kindly as they might be. We might take from this innocent his chance to fall in love himself a’right someday!” Her husband shook his head, regretful. “I remember my father ne’er spoke a word of unkindness to my poor mother, ‘ere he passed. What a thing it would be, for our boy to lose out on such a chance as that! And our son being a little gentleman—” he reached out to touch the child’s head, and stoked it as he spoke, “he might marry anyone he wished to, when the time came. Our boy’s as good as any man, ain’t he?” He chucked the child under the chin as a point of emphasis. “You and I together have seen to that.”
She wondered if there was anyone her husband had wished to marry, who he’d not been able to: whether he’d traded her money for affection, supposing he might have obtained it. She thought to ask, but forbore. His secrets were his own, and she would respect them. It felt soothing to do so. There was a lowness in enjoying his pain, in taunting him, that she found ran against her nature: as such even a success in that vein was tiring and disgusting to her. She could not make the thing feel righteous within herself.
“You’re proposing a return to your old fawning, in essence,” she grumbled. “We’re back to lies again. What harm will that do children, I wonder?”
“Both have their uses. Why, an ounce of deception here could do our boy a pound of good in season, especially as compared with the alternative. Besides, ain’t you quite the actress? You used to do a deal of it.”
She was a little surprised he remembered that to comment on it. Possibly he’d mocked her all through she and Annie Strong’s benefit theatricals. But then he had a good memory, really, as fixed on people and incidents as her own. It might simply be a comment on the facts, offered in an indifferent spirit.
“Not half so accomplished as you,” Davida said with a sigh. “For I did it on occasion, and you are accustomed to wearing a mask instead of a face. Indeed you do it so proficiently that some people actually think you obliging. I suspect a great deal of practice lies before us, if we’re to do such a thing as this credibly. Shall I start us off, or would you rather—”
“My darling,” he interrupted her, suddenly fervent, stroking her sweat-matted hair, “oh my dearest, how are you feeling? Not too hot in here? Shall I open the window, would that be healthy, do you think?” He bounded up with all his old energy and flair, and Davida felt strangely thrilled to see him turn the shade out with that peculiar flourishing motion of his wrist, as though he were conjuring a rabbit out of his hat rather than letting in fresh air. “They tell me you were brave throughout the ordeal,” he said, rejoining her and clasping her hand, rubbing her knuckles against his cheek and bringing them to his mouth for a kiss, “and I must say I wasn’t at all surprised. Though I do wish they’d have let me attend. Apparently it ain’t proper.”
He sneered that last, and Davida was surprised to see him admit genuine feeling—his contempt for the mechanisms of middle class propriety he both wielded expertly and despised—through this medium. Creeping earnestness infused and strengthened his performance when it ought to have pierced it. His blending of the artificial and the actual unnerved her.
“You wouldn’t have liked it,” she told him.
“Neither did you, by all accounts!” he put in. “My liking it really ain’t material, when I should like to have been there.”
“You are talented,” she murmured, grudgingly admiring.
He kissed her forehead, placing his great thumb softly on their son’s nose and pressing it down, lightly as could be. The boy smiled at him and gurgled, and her husband grinned back. Davida was shocked to note that her husband’s hard, teeth-baring grimace and the baby’s infant smile bore more than a passing resemblance to one another. The miniature smile was softer than its parent expression, but the shape of the mouths in question was too similar to owe its origins to anything but heredity, and the light in their eyes was identical.
“Oh, thank you kindly,” her husband purred—still staring, delighted, at their child. He glanced up at Davida with a conspiratorial expression. “My love.”
Davida threw herself into caring for little Arthur with the assistance of her step-sister Agnes, and of course with the supervision of her mother, her husband’s mother, Peggotty, and every interested lady of advanced years in the neighbourhood (numerous). Davida played with the child, and her husband would join her with surprising commitment and bounce. He’d given her a bit of time to nurse, but after a few months Davida had craved the sort of intercourse that could result in children (much to her husband’s satisfaction). Quick as a wink (again, to his apparent delight) she’d fallen pregnant yet again. They’d had to employ a wet nurse, and to endure the fond gossip of friends and relations. Peggotty in particular claimed, on the basis of observing the couple together with the child and this further proof of mutual affection, to have known it would all work out right in the end.
Davida continued to write, and that too grew and prospered. One day her husband, coming in with some papers, laughed in his short, sharp way and said “sweetheart,” (for their child was on her lap, listening for the heartbeat of its incipient sibling), “do you know you’ve started to make more money than I do?”
He was her business manager, and very competent in the role. She wanted war made upon her publisher and he made it, cutting her out of instalments owed adroitly. She wanted another business relationship severed and he urged caution, curbed her sense of injustice and told her a better moment would yet come for the action she proposed. She wanted a book printed at such and such a cost and he wanted it done for half that, and he mocked up what they could expect to make if it sold this well, or that well, and told her what was likely so clearly that she grudgingly admitted he was right and forswore gold edging (with ill-grace).
Now Davida frowned at him, bouncing Arthur on her knee while jotting something down with her free hand. She knew what she made, and that she was doing well, and that the practice allotted her husband a respectable salary, but because she still took but little interest in the general housekeeping she’d no idea at all what precisely her husband brought in.
“Can I really be?” she asked skeptically.
“Well, ‘ave a look!” he said cheerfully, taking Arthur up into his arms and handing Davida his account book in exchange.
“Isn’t your mummy brilliant?” he asked Arthur, spinning with the boy. Arthur, like both of his parents, loved to be in action and in motion. He’d crawled everywhere possible, and still resented that his new, teetering walk didn’t transport him hither and yon as swiftly as his parents could move. As such his father’s action was very welcome to him and he applauded it accordingly, shouting ‘daddy, daddy!’ as tribute.
“We were speakin’ of your mother,” her husband reminded the boy, mock-sternly. “She looks like to be perhaps the best-selling author in England in a few years’ time, as well as the best! Now ain’t that something? Eh, Arthur my boy?”
Davida tucked the account book back into her husband’s jacket, took Arthur from him and delicately kissed her husband’s cheek. She still felt her actions were a little awkward, but at the same time it was easy enough to pretend. Her husband made it easy, with the way he leaned into her in answer to the brush of her lips and pressed his own lips to hers: a kiss less carnal than any they shared in privacy, but more tender than those specimens. Davida thought about telling him that displays of physical affection of that sort were considered rather low-class and in somewhat poor taste, but it felt cruel to do it, and especially so in front of Arthur. She didn’t think her husband knew he was ‘going wrong’, and telling a man that he kissed his wife too much, that he hugged his male child too often and too publicly to satisfy the wagging tongues of unkind, ridiculous people, was not in her.
Years passed, and the children (three and then four of them, all of them handsome and all of them brazenly red-headed: a fact her husband seemed to take satisfaction in) grew old enough almost to need schooling. Agnes, yet unmarried, still assisted her sister in that regard. Davida felt nervous herself as, on a convenient day, her step-father’s old friend, Doctor Strong, kindly and slowly examined young Arthur and Betsey.
“You’ve done exceptionally well by them, my dear girl,” Doctor Strong said after her eldest children had been dismissed into the care of the maid, clasping her hand in an avuncular grip. “Quite, quite well indeed! They show your very own promise—though of course they ought to, given that they are yours and well cared for, and that your husband is about as gifted as you are, in his own way.”
The casual admission startled Davida, who knew her husband to be capable, but who never quite put his intelligence into words. He was a better attorney than her step-father and he was perfect in the management of her business (which of course benefited him as well: a married woman’s profits were legally seldom simply her own). He was a fine dissembler: a veritable prince of lies. Beyond that, she had little sense of her husband’s abilities.
“You think them well prepared for grammar, then? I thought that after they were finished there we might keep them close, in Canterbury, and send Arthur out for the day to your own old establishment and Betsey to mine.”
“Mm? Oh yes, yes! My dear, they are as well prepared for that first step into the world of learning beyond the nursery as it is possible for children to be. You know,” he frowned at her, “I must ask you to forgive me, Davida. For at first I did shake my head over your marriage—a bright girl like you, and such a little sister to my Annie! To be wedded to that young man! I admit, I did wonder what had occasioned it. But you usually do know best, and you must have seen in young Mister Heep then what all may see in him now: such a devoted and considerate father and husband as one too rarely meets.”
Davida blushed deeply at deceiving the kind old doctor, and murmured her thanks. He took her shame for coyness, patted her on the knee and asked if she’d be so kind as to help him rise, his rheumatism being pronounced today. Now, what had she been reading of late?
It wasn’t all lies. Davida wasn’t miserable now, by any means. She was as energetically devoted to the children as she was to her work, and so was her husband, for his part. Her husband was as dutiful a father as he was a son, and in that capacity he had always impressed her. Between them they played and taught and scolded and exhausted their happy brood roundly. She’d no cause to complain of his public treatment of her, either. Amongst adults he acknowledged her as a genius, whose important work ought to be appreciated and whose time and labor must be respected. In front of the children he positively doted on her: ‘my queen’ was quite mild, for him.
Sometimes it was bewildering. Davida forgot which was the lie: the coldness between them when they were alone and not engaged in conjugal action or the front they put up before the little ones, where they played the parts of loving mama and adoring, fiercely loyal papa (who quoted her own books back to her, always had a sly joke and fondly caressed her more readily even than he did the children). Davida knew she enjoyed how her husband treated her before and beyond the family circle, and that she enjoyed the very action, or at least the show, of being loved. She felt deeply ambivalent about the pleasure this deception gave her.
A year or so ago a very handsome man, the brother of her current publisher, had made love to her in London. He’d subtly made it known that should she choose to extract herself from her present situation he would gladly take her in, either for a brief liaison or on a more permanent basis. Her husband hadn’t been in London at the time, having been occupied on the firm’s pressing business, or Davida knew her swain would never have gotten close enough to her to make such a sentiment obvious. Her husband was as sharp-eyed as any bird of prey, and as jealous when it came to what he considered his as Arthur had been over her when Betsey had first come along.
This handsome man had been infatuated with her—she wouldn’t have said he was in love with her, exactly, but she thought he would have been, with a little encouragement. But she knew, even if she left her husband and relied upon funds he’d no permanent access to, such as her father’s annuity (she wouldn’t be destitute in that respect, and still expected an untouchable inheritance from her aunt), that her husband would make a great deal of difficulty about the children, and she couldn’t resolve to leave them. She’d even turned down the prospect of a singular encounter. It would have felt disloyal, though she knew that was ridiculous. It might have embarrassed her family or upset the children, if word of it had gotten out. That wasn’t worth doing for anything: especially not without a great love to justify the action. It would have been a blow to her sense of herself as a moral, broadly Christian woman. She was flattered by his regard, and curious, but somewhat sad to realize that she didn’t even greatly desire the fine prospect before her. She would have taken him up, and would have trifled with another human being, almost exclusively to hurt her husband: to wound his pride, perhaps even to embarrass him with a brunette in the bassinette for once. Such motivations were inexcusable, and she was a little shamed that they had appealed to her more than any others in the case.
They ate dinner with their children, most nights. That too wasn’t quite typical for a middle-class family, but Davida refused to say one word to that effect or to let anyone else comment on it. Owing to this practice, one night when she was twenty-five and her husband twenty-nine, when they had been married four years with four children to show for it, she had to wait until the children finished their pudding to have a serious word with her husband. With slightly strained grace (she noticed her husband noticing it, and frowning slightly at her—not annoyed, perhaps concerned), Davida saw the children through the last course (pears—daddy’s favorite) and into the arms of the maid.
Arthur frowned and asked if his parents weren’t coming up to tell them a story. Typically they did it as a pair, all comic voices and assumed terrifying aspects: mother became any number of fairies and heroes, daddy a thousand sly tricksters or hoarding dragons. Sometimes they’d swap and mummy was the sorcerer, father the falsetto damsel. Some nights they decided to tell an old story, and other nights they made up a new one on the spot, sometimes out of the children’s suggestions.
Davida said she’d wanted to give Arthur a chance to share with the others the story he’d recently learned to read. He was a very prodigy of a boy, who could read a little French, Greek and Latin as well as English, and who liked nothing better than everyone knowing he could. Davida had only learned that her husband had lied to her as a boy when he’d claimed to have trouble with Latin legal expressions when she’d caught him correcting Arthur’s Latin grammar on instinct, accidentally revealing his long and perfectly familiar association with the language. (Still, Arthur occasionally dropped an aitch in English, and Davida and her husband had once had a terrible, barbed, loaded, sarcastic conversation over whether they ought to correct him on this point.)
“I can do the story?” Arthur repeated after her, wringing his hands together and scarcely seeming to believe his luck. “The others will have to listen to me, mummy?”
“Oh yes,” Davida said solemnly, her heart aching at that shy little smile on his face. He looked, though it was queer to think it, almost like his father had on their wedding night, gloating down at her. Strange, that an expression so malevolent in her husband was so boyish and tender in their son.
“Try not to lord it over ‘em too much,” his father muttered, amused.
“I’ll do you proud, mummy,” he said very seriously, seeming not to hear his papa. He loved his father, but taking a cue as to right behavior from the man he thought his father to be, Arthur idolized his captivating, lovely mother, and would have done anything to please her or to prove himself in her eyes.
She kissed Arthur tenderly on the head. “I know it, my darling.”
She and Uriah retreated to the sitting room, locking the door behind them, and only began to speak when the sounds of footsteps ascending to the nursery grew quiet. Even then they used hushed tones that couldn’t be made out from the other side of the door. (They’d tested it once, her husband gamely putting his ear to the keyhole at child height in the hallway while she’d railed a monologue).
“I wanted to inform you,” she said quite flatly, “that we’re to have another guest.”
Her husband blinked at her, then smiled his slow, crocodile smile. “Why—”
“And that this must stop,” she said coldly. “Obviously there’s no point in abstaining at present, given that the damage is already done. But this must be the last such guest for the foreseeable future. I no sooner have a child then you are restless and eager to repeat the accomplishment. I know I bear some blame in this, but you are positively incorrigible. When you married me for my money I didn't expect to be quite so drained of my very life!”
He laughed at her, still seeming pleased by the news. “Hardly so drained as all that, when you still get out a book a year at least! Now, how far along are you, do you think?”
“Listen to me,” she hissed so as not to shout, ignoring the question. “I’m wasting away, I’m certain of it! I’m constantly in this state, and god damn you, don’t look pleased by my so much as discussing it! I swear, you’ve an erotic fixation on expectancy.” He laughed again, and she fumed at not being taken seriously.
“Are you aware of the strain having five children in such rapid succession has put on my health? There's more than one reason wits call the swelling poisoning. Women suffer greatly from such excesses as this, sir. I think you do know it, so I am forced to ask whether you are actually attempting to kill me. Do you truly hate me that much?”
She was upset and being rather unfair, and knew it. But she was over-charged with wild feeling, both convinced of the justice of her grievances and eager to meet her husband on any and every battleground.
Her husband regarded her with a queer, cold expression, having been taken aback by her sudden accusation.
“Oh Davida,” he sighed mock-piously, “I do wish you’d never indicate such a dislike of our children as this, for their sakes! Why, anyone would think you resented them! Your own flesh and blood! And when they love you so—” He shook his head with a cringe-inducing parody of sorrow.
She felt like striking him, and through her teeth said, “how dare you suggest that? Do you really think I don’t love them? That I don’t do my duty by them?” She shook her own head furiously. “What precisely are you trying to prove with all of this, sir? Surely you’ve shown everyone you’re better than they gave you credit for, and done it to even your satisfaction by now.” She laughed with unaccustomed harshness. “Perhaps such acts as increase our sum are really all you can think of to do with me, or by way of recreation in general—”
“Well you seem to like it well enough at the time,” he accused, his voice rising a little, “and it ain’t as though you’d do anything else with me!” He swallowed, bringing his voice under control (for the door wasn’t proof against a certain volume of speech), and addressed her fiercely. “You only like me on two occasions: before our children, and when I'm giving you another. And now you want one back!” He crossed his arms over his chest, seeming to hug himself in a kind of wretched self-comfort, or for protection. “It's not as though you'll gratify me or let me see to you any other way,” he scoffed. “I know there's a frosty line about ‘the purpose of marriage’ a’waitin’ in the wings.”
Davida raised an eyebrow at him, letting him think that she would comfortably foreswear all relations with him when additional children were no longer required, when really she was far from sure she could live under any such prohibition. “Well you shouldn't have threatened my family with ruin if you wanted to be liked. Not that I imagine my opinion greatly troubles you.”
He smiled nastily: a quivering, vicious little thing, like a cornered rabid fox. “Don't you? But I’m your family now, ain’t I? Me an’ the children. ‘Darling, precious little Arthur’ and all the rest of ‘em. Well, my methods served me pretty well. I got what I wanted. And I'd do I again, a thousand times, and worse.”
Sometimes, in the course of daily life, it was possible to forget that her husband was a truly wicked man. The same person who served as a tireless nag for a hundred horsey-rides would have cheerfully defrauded the bank of England, she knew. After all, he had stared a young lady he’d know for seven years, who he’d practically grown up with, directly in the eye and threatened her with ruin, just to revenge himself on the financial order she had unwittingly formed an insignificant part of. The thing about living with an outright villain was that being accustomed to him made you forget what he could do in extremity. Sometimes he was politely petty when someone had put too much milk in his tea, and sometimes he sulked when the children or the pets slighted him in favor of some novelty or out of some whim of their own. He found the antics of their puppy as hilarious as their always-smiling, merrily cackling youngest daughter did. Yet for all that, he remained capable of thoughts and actions Davida could scarcely credit, let alone understand. She would never have hurt anyone the way he had hurt her: not for any prospect of advancement.
“Are you really even happy with what you’ve done?” She asked, unable to understand real any lasting, satisfying pleasure in another’s disadvantage. Her own flashes of vengeful rage had been passionate and fleeting, and her longer stand against her husband was entirely personal, about her own dignity and self-definition rather than him. It was a thing of cold reserve, action withheld rather than action taken against him.
“I’m pretty tolerable ma’am, thank you,” he said, his smile hardening awfully. “And really, ain’t you?”
She started. “I? Happy?” She almost said his first name then, and she thought he knew it. Thought he leaned forward to catch it, like a dog after a scent. She shook her head instead. “You ended all my prospects for a companionable and joyful marriage with your own hand. I’ll likely never know that, now. How can you ask that of me? Why do you? You must know you ruined my life.”
“Ruined it?” He seethed. “I ruined it, did you say? Why, I’m financially secure, and so are you, Mistress Copperfield. You’re an author of no little renown. Business thrives, we have four perfect children we both adore, I know you do. And from your ‘appy information we are like to get another. Our parents are amply provided for, too. You’re here, I’ll grant you. We see each other every day, and no one else has you, and no one can take you away. But you look about as ‘appy as you might be for all that, the better part of the time. That’s a good life, my dear, and if I’m not as pleased as I might be if a few little circumstances were altered, well, I can know the limits of possibility and still be well-contented within ‘em can't I? I’ve never had half so much as I have now. How dare you spit upon it, like it’s nothing at all?”
“Don’t you wish you could know the sort of love a husband and wife are supposed to entertain for one another?” Davida asked, anguished. “Do you never think about it? Do you never long for it?”
He flushed, which always looked awful on him, mottling his pale skin and creating, together with his red hair, a hideous confusion of color.
“Oh nothing’s good enough for my Queen Davida unless it's a triumphal procession,” he jeered. “Nothing’s ever fine as it is, it must always be made ideal to suit her! Everything you deign to take an interest in, from the condition of prisons to the people around you, ought rightly to be improved. Well I ain’t never seen one of them royal progresses. You'll have to tell me what they're like.”
As angry as he obviously was, he still managed to leave the room quietly. At times there was such rage in him. She never felt personally threatened but she knew his temper was titanic, and that if he but got hold of a butter knife in such a mood as this he could whittle a great tree down with its blunt edge and his own sheer belligerent energy.
This was the hardest of her pregnancies in several respects. Her husband seemed unwilling to be alone with her after their argument. They had quiet intercourse (he seemed determined to get in and out of the room as quickly as possible on either side of the détente occasioned by their coupling, as if he weren’t her husband but some itinerant knave her husband might discover her with and savage). Otherwise when he wasn’t at work he was with the children. He seemed determined to get her into the sitting room with them all and to keep her there, whenever he could. Before the children he would restlessly caress her: a constant diet of warmth and gentle pressure that did make her feel a little better. She thought perhaps the maid, or dear old Peggotty, had told him how sick she was this time around, and he was anxious about the child’s health. Or perhaps she looked wan and moved more slowly than usual, and he could see the state of things for himself. It was so very difficult to keep food down of late.
The real trial, however, came at the birth. Davida knew for certain that it wasn’t going to progress as easily as the others had when, late in her term, she almost crashed to the ground, faint, and nearly knocked her head hard on the stone top of the sideboard. If her husband hadn’t been there to catch her she knew that might have gone quite badly. As it was Betsey screamed to see her mother in a faint and paler even than daddy, and ran to fetch help at his command. Davida was advised bed rest, which she detested. Her husband came in to her bedroom, looking ill at ease, and started to make a nervous joke about it. Feeling suddenly very sick indeed, Davida grabbed her husband’s long, cold hand and begged him with slurred, desperate speech to fetch back the doctor. He did so at great speed, and was promptly shunted from the room as the doctor determined that Davida was going into labor some weeks before time.
She only dimly heard a conversation between her husband and the doctor, an indeterminate number of hours later. Her husband was saying in a hushed voice that if there was a choice, it must be her.
“I don’t expect it will come to that,” a soft voice answered him, “but sir, you must understand that it does no good to offer me an indefinite amount of resources to put it right. There isn’t any sum of money that can stave off the possibility of an unfavorable outcome.”
Her husband made a hysterical sound that Davida supposed ought to have been a laugh. “Of course there is,” he hissed. “Don’t I know what money can do, and what the lack of it does? Ain’t that everything?”
The doctor, a small man with a worn face and a very sweet Welsh voice that seemed always on the edge of song, sighed. “Only to an extent, sir. Your faith is, if I may say so, misplaced. You do better to put it in your wife, Mr Heep: in her fortitude and determination, which will, I think, win her this contest. But ultimately the thing is in god’s hands, and he keeps no accounts but his own. Now, I think you’re greatly agitating yourselves over a little distemper. This is simply her first difficult labor, and she ought to—” something, “but by all means you must—” something else.
Ought what? Davida lost the thread of it, slinking back into sleep feeling petulant and cross about being given any instruction at all when she felt so rotten.
The birth of her fifth child was a red, pain-filled nightmare she felt herself only hazily present for and, after the fact, exhausted by. She woke up to discover a small, clean face near hers and realized someone had brought her the baby to sleep beside. For a moment panic gripped her, but then she saw the little chest rise and fall, and breathed herself once more. Davida pressed her face forward until her nose met the infant’s tiny, open mouth. She always forgot how very small a newborn was. Its minute pink lips moved, as if it thought it could nurse on what had been offered to it. Discovering it could get no milk that way, the infant opened eyes like Davida’s own, giving her a confused, reprehensive look. She had either nursed the child earlier and couldn’t now remember having done it or someone else had done it as she slept. Her breasts certainly felt heavy, but she didn’t know how much time had passed since the birth.
She adjusted herself (painfully, as it turned out), and offered the baby what it actually wanted. As the infant nursed, she thought to ascertain its sex. A quick glance revealed that she held another son in her arms. To think such an afterthought as the result of this cursory investigation would make such a difference in the child’s life. If she herself had not been born a woman, she doubted she could have been thus embroiled in such a financial complication as her marriage. She and her husband could have been friends, perhaps, or he might have had no particular interest in her and left her well alone.
The door softly creaked open, and finding her awake her husband brought in Arthur, who judging by his mottled face (he went red like his papa did) had been crying. Her husband muttered that Arthur had been beside himself with worry after Betsey had told him about the fall.
“You see?” he knelt to murmur into his son’s hair, which was the self-same colour as his own. “Nothing’s the matter, my boy. There’s nothing to worry about! Your mother’s just tired, that’s all, like poor little Betsey was after all the excitement. Look how tiny your new brother is, eh? Ain’t he sweet?” He let go of Arthur’s hand, which had been clutched hard in his own, and let Arthur meet his new sibling. Davida noticed her husband was pale and shaking. However bad she must look, she thought he might look even worse. While Arthur was thus occupied his father kissed Davida’s face, again and again, her cheeks and her forehead. Still dazed by pain, she wondered if there was really any distinction between the villain who cared nothing for her and the loving husband and father who adored her. Was this all done for Arthur’s benefit? Was her husband kissing her now so their son would see it, and know that one ought to display barely-restrained fear and blessed, overwhelming relief when one’s wife came anywhere near death and escaped the introduction? Or was Arthur the shield her husband needed to do this? Did Arthur enable him to breathe, too low for the boy to make out (her husband seemed distracted, careless), that he’d been so worried, sweet Lord, he’d been so—
She was still thinking on it a few weeks later. She’d been allowed to see anyone at all only in short bursts, and the normally indomitable Davida had been assured that she courted serious and lasting injury if she ignored her physician’s advice. So, for once, she’d taken it. She felt incredibly weak, reduced to a kind of enforced stillness and mildness for the time being. She also felt in need of serious thought, such as she had seldom given anything that concerned her personally.
When Davida had finally been declared fit enough to bear normal company her husband suppressed the children’s shows of enthusiasm ruthlessly, insisting that they didn’t want to tire mama (when they obviously did). That night she came to his rooms after they’d put the children to bed. He seemed almost afraid to touch her, even in the ways they employed when they were abstaining from fruitful intercourse.
“You’re handling me like china this evening,” Davida observed from the seat she’d taken up on his bed.
“Well you almost broke, didn’t you,” he snorted, shrugging into his dressing gown (a worn old thing she couldn’t mock him into replacing—she’d only defeated the mulberry greatcoat, its spiritual predecessor, after a hard-fought two years’ battle).
Davida rolled her eyes. “The doctor’s told you that you took it too hard. It was a bad turn, yes. I know that better than anyone. But I—”
“Well we’re not doing that again,” he interrupted her. “Not for a long while, anyway. You were right, if a little sharp about it, an’ I ought to have listened.”
She regarded him thoughtfully and stretched out a hand, patting the bed beside her. Almost warily, he sat.
“You know, you really are a good father to the children,” she said mildly, taking his hand in hers. He blinked in surprise at the compliment, staring down at their joined hands as if bewildered by the spectacle. “Better, I think, than any man I know. And I have known many good men, who did the office credit. Sometimes I’ve accused you of wanting children as prizes, or proofs of your ascension. Probably that was unjust of me. Whatever else you felt about the matter, did you perhaps just want children, for their own sake?”
“Yes, in part,” he said. “‘course I did.” He looked away from her, out the window. “An’ I—thought you wanted ‘em. You seemed to.”
“Yes,” she stressed, rolling her eyes, “just not five in five years, Ury!”
The nickname jolted him like a kick from a carthorse, and he whipped his head around to look at her, his expression almost frightened.
Davida exhaled. “All right, Mister Heep, let me—put forth a theory. Perhaps you’ll let me tell you a story about us, and then you can tell me if I have it right. Is it just possible that this,” she waved her free hand at the bed, “that all our intimacies are, beyond their inherent charms, a means of being close for you? It might be that you were afraid I didn’t care for our home, or even worried that I’d leave you. So you bound me with obligations to people I care for, who depend upon me. After all, it had worked once before. I think perhaps you tried to make it so I hadn't time or opportunity to conduct any affair, even a purely emotional one. Possibly,” she warmed to the idea, expanding on it, “you wanted me to look claimed, and be seen that way, and to feel myself taken.”
He’d flushed and looked nervous as she spoke. “Why not ‘occupied with pleasant cares’?” he interrupted now, seeming immensely frustrated and wretched himself. “Why not happy, eh? I know you love them, and they make you happy. You’re even fonder of me for their sakes! I’ve even,” he said resentfully, “been jealous at times, you know. The easy, unstinting way you kiss Arthur. How happy you are with any little thing he does for you. What’s it take to get your favor? Have I got to be a child? It’s one thing I can’t give you: I wasn’t much of a child even when I was one, as you recall.”
Davida regarded him, feeling that he had in him a sort of passionate madness that drew her sympathy to him strongly. “You know what lies between us. You did something terrible to me, and you have never been sorry for it. You have never once so much as asked for my forgiveness.”
“No, I can’t do that one either,” he murmured. “I ain’t sorry, I can’t be. You were never going to say yes, according to the regular way of proceeding.”
“I hardly got a chance to so much as consider the question,” Davida snorted. “Was ever a woman in this humor wooed?”
“You know I honestly think you’re better’n him?” he said.
Davida flushed. “I’m fairly sure that’s blasphemy, and don’t change the subject.”
“I’ve been plenty irreligious as far as you’re concerned before now.” He took a deep breath and said, “and while I can’t ever quite lay claim to being sorry I did what I did, I am sorry I hurt you. That you feel I—” he closed his eyes. “I’m sorry you were that unhappy to marry me, and I’m sorry it never went away. Because you’re so adaptable, you know. You take things and people as they come, and I thought for sure you’d come to tolerate me if I just—”
He squeezed his eyes so tight-shut she thought he’d cry. Suddenly, awfully, she wondered if he had done, their first night together. If what he’d wanted to tell her was something like all this.
She took him in her arms, crawling up into his lap to do it, and he made a keen cry of surprise and need, holding her too tightly. “Uriah,” she whispered, feeling him shake and gasp when she said his name, so long denied him, “that first night, when you were inside me, what did you want to say to me?”
“You must know it now anyway,” he said bleakly, “so there ain’t any point not telling you, is there? It isn’t a secret any more, or anything like it. It’s just as you said, in mockery of my ‘art: you’ve been the expectation and hope of my life since I first beheld you. I have always overflowed towards you, and have never been able to help it one bit. I love you so, an’ it made the though of losing you unbearable. I’m hard pressed to think of anything I wouldn’t have done to keep you by me. Oh I wanted your money in the bargain, but it had to be your money, do you see? I used to want to hurt you, too, for being so above me, in my lowly condition: for ruining me with a glance and dismissing me without a thought. But you’ve burned it out of me. I’ve seen you low, and I’ve held you, and all the old hate is spent and only the ache’s stayed with me.” He shook his head. “‘My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.’ That ain’t proper contrition and I know it, for I have never been contrite about any of it, save for hurting you. If you died I wouldn’t want to live, Davida—scarcely even for the children. I wouldn’t care. There’s hardly a world without you.”
Davida thought that was extraordinarily selfish, and that thus, she could forgive it. It was petty and passionate and personal: in the end it seemed he had acted out of desperate love rather than calculation. Mercenary as he was, he was ruled as she was by feeling. It dictated his actions, even edging out his considerable reserves of prudence. His cruelty had been born of how much she’d hurt him—unknowing then, and guiltless in that respect. And yet her offences were real, they had happened. She had seldom even in their marriage considered that he might love her—thought him enough of a person for that. It had never once occurred to her in their youth. And how could it not have, when the truth was blinding? When the theatre had always been like life, and only realer for its being a show?
“I’d prefer privately loving and publicly quarreling if I had to choose just the one,” he muttered, “but I had a single opportunity of showing you any favour, so I took it! And in front of the children, you don’t cast any kind word back in my face.”
“You told everyone but me you were my slave,” she remembered.
“An’ so I am,” he said bitterly, “but I didn’t think you’d want to hear it.”
She thought she’d have been kinder if he’d spat it out that first night. That they might have resolved this faster. But it wouldn’t help to tell him that, and she might not have been, and thank god, they were yet young. They’d half-wasted five years, but it might have been fifty. Some people wasted lives, in full rather than in part.
“You’re as a good father as is living, as I said,” she told him steadily, “and my right hand in business. You are more wonderful as a lover than I have ever thought it decent or wise to tell you, and the very sound of your voice in my ear makes me twitch—which is why I asked you not to say a thing to me in extremis, I’m afraid. I like how you do your damsels, and find you wonderfully convincing. Your Latin is irritatingly good, and all the more so because you lied to me about it. I had to work at coldness to you because I felt quite betrayed. It was always work, Uriah, because I always knew I liked you as much as I disliked you. Early in our marriage I realized how easy it would be to fall into you. That was the worst insult of having been used thus, and so I tried very hard indeed not to know it. Not to know you at all. But that’s over now,” she soothed him when he made a desperate sound. “You can have me easily, Uriah,” she whispered. “It’s just a matter of helping me along.”
Uriah bore her down flat against the bed and called her everything he could think of, delirious with finally being able to do it. He finally fused the tender caresses and kisses of the parlor with the sensual intent of their bedroom, and Davida gasped and shamelessly pleaded for his old, rusted compliments and commentary. Got them in abundance, in dammed-up overflow, over-sweet and filthy and hers. She felt made love to for the first time, and thought what a thing it would be, in a few years’ time, to conceive a sixth and final child like this: wholly with Uriah, in such sweetness as they now built between them. He licked her to a needy, begged-for climax and gave her moaning, sticky kisses as she played with his cock, then guided it between her slick thighs so he could finish between the lips of her cunt, if not inside her. He didn’t leave briskly afterwards as he had done these last months, just kissed her and toyed with her and came again against her stomach, sucking at her still tender breasts as she gasped ‘stop it’s’, she didn’t at all mean, clutching him to her as she spoke.
She asked why it had been her and not Agnes and he’d laughed, clutching his sides, at the suggestion. No offense to her dear sister, but that one would have been all for money. Agnes was too peaceful to inspire frenzy, and Davida too amusing and sharp and ripe with sensibility to inspire anything else. Her passion called it forth in him. Everything he did revolved around her, and he’d never even considered a position that didn’t bend towards that aim, that didn’t seek to install her at the center of his plans and his life.
She asked him to sleep with her and said she disliked being alone when she wasn’t well, and he vehemently said he didn’t see why they kept distinct bedrooms anyway—it was a strange, misguided middle class affectation, like not hugging one’s children or kissing one’s wife overmuch.
“You knew about that?” Davida said, asked. “I tried so hard to keep anyone from saying it to you! I didn’t want you to feel inferior, when really you’d every right to do it, and there was nothing at all low in the practice. ‘Shame on them that think ill of it’.”
“I found that wonderfully affecting,” Uriah said. “For you were just to me, you know, even when you weren’t inclined to kindness. It’s a virtue as is not in me, but justice burns in you, and I’m always grateful to be warmed by your most human fire. You're about the only thing I've ever been honestly grateful for in my life.”
Davida found the praise a little too generous, but in the heady days of learning how to be loved by her husband, she thought she really ought to allow it.
The Spirit of the Law: Adventures, Experience and Observations from a Lifetime Spent in the Second-Oldest Profession
By Arthur Trotwood Copperfield-Heep, KC
Caught as I am between the writing of a professional memoir and a personal one, I yield to an overwhelming temptation to simplify matters by beginning at the beginning. That, however, yields in turn an immediate complication in the form of my mother, who was never in all her long life the sort of person who played a minor, unobtrusive role in any scene, and who thus demands attention here at the very start of what should rightly be my story. Even in invoking her I run the risk of comparison, when I don’t pretend to be the writer my she was or anything of the kind. Yet I cannot be otherwise than very aware that the profound and gratifying (and judicious, in my humble opinion) interest the public has ever shown in the work and person of Davida Copperfield means that many readers of this account will have pricked up their ears at this mention of the Inimitable herself. A few have probably bought the book expressly on that account, and I feel it right to confess that I am only mildly exasperated with them for doing so, though thankfully I am in no great need of the funds they have thus given over to me at present. I am saving a heavily-padded volume entitled ‘Remembrances of My Mother’ against such a day, I assure you.
I suspect my mother was never entirely sure as to whether she was the protagonist of her own life. Her ready interest in others, persons real and of her own invention, so pulled at her as to make the question of identifying such a focus impossible and indeed irrelevant. I know, however, beyond any doubt that she was the protagonist of my father’s life, and that he found her both an impossible question and deeply relevant to everything.
My mother taught me the power of words—not simply with her stories (though I am, I’m afraid, privy to a thousand more of these than even her most devoted literary followers, and shall never sell off the rich inheritance of her ready bed-time invention), but in a more direct vein. My first clear, distinct memory is of being somewhere in the neighbourhood of five years old. My mother, sitting on the sofa, called my father over to her using his Christian name. Something about her having done so struck me as unusual at the time, though now I know not what, and can find no element of the scene that does not tally with my later recollections of our ordinary domestic life. What I recall instead is the deep, almost ecstatic pleasure on my father’s face at her addressing him thus. They were but five years’ married then, which might excuse or explain a degree of honeymoonish infatuation (if any such excuse or explanation be necessary), but it never did wear away. For the whole of their lives, my mother had only to pronounce my father’s Christian name for a trace of a joy greater than I suspect some men ever know to cross his features, like an expedition headed to Jerusalem and glory.
One word, then, spoken in love, could make and unmake a man as intelligent and cynical as my father. My father, who was my mother’s partner and equal, I at times feel has been rather neglected in popular memory on account of his accomplishments being of a different nature than those of his wife. And, truth be told, probably owing to his less genteel origins—though he was known and is still remembered as the attorney’s attorney par excellence, and is yet spoken of with hushed and awful respect by those who were professionally acquainted with him and those students of the art who have had the dubious pleasure of reading over the Byzantine arguments of his more prominent cases. Yet without him Davida Copperfield would have been materially less able to share her work in a thousand ways. Worse, she should have been less than herself: widowed in a profound, metaphysical or alchemical sense. They were always of one substance, as different as others found them. Thus even as my mother daily tutored me regarding the great extent to which words could affect people’s hearts and lives and conditions, it was my father who showed me how I myself might use language to, as he might put it (with my mother’s approval of the sentiment, if not perhaps his diction) "at last untangle the hypocrisy of them that preach from nine o’clock to eleven that labour is a curse, and from eleven o’clock to one that it’s a blessing and a cheerfulness and a dignity, and so excuse their exploitation of the poor to the humble persons in question, to themselves and to society."
It is a great work, and I am only a little advanced in it as yet. But I and many compatriots within the law and outside it apply ourselves to the question from every angle, and between us, we get a little leverage. ‘And really, we ain’t done bad.’